AL Central Preview: Detroit Tigers Still the Team to Beat

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Spring training is here, and the Indians aren’t the only team beginning camp with playoff aspirations. When the season begins in April, 76 of the Tribe’s 162 games will be played against their AL Central rivals. So what exactly has the rest of the division been up to this winter, and how much of a threat are they to Cleveland’s playoff chances?

Today, we’ll look at the Detroit Tigers.

2014 Record: 90-72, AL Central winner
Biggest issue heading into the off-season: The loss of Max Scherzer, the decline of Justin Verlander and a bullpen that drastically underperformed.

The Tigers beat out the Kansas City Royals for the AL Central title, but injuries and bullpen flaws kept the club from advancing in the playoffs. As a result, Detroit got to watch from home as their rivals took on the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. Then, they lost ace Max Scherzer to free-agency, adding more questions to a rotation that was already causing fans to wonder if the Tigers have missed their window for contention.

Relief Woes
The Tigers still have Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria this season, but is that a blessing or a curse? Last year, the two former Texas Rangers had terrible years, making Detroit one of the least reliable bullpens in the league. In 2014, Nathan had a 3.94 FIP and an 11.2 percent walk rate, while Soria’s half-season with the Tigers ended with a 5.22 FIP. Manager Brad Ausmus is counting on a big turn-around from both players, but if they fail to perform again, it could be a crushing blow to the team.

In addition to Nathan and Soria, the Tigers have several other questionable arms in their bullpen. Al Alburquerque finished the year with a 2.51 ERA, but also a 3.78 FIP. In 2013, he had a nearly identical FIP, but a 4.59 ERA. It’s hard to consider him reliable. The loss of Bruce Rondon and his 100 mile-per-hour fastball was considered a huge detriment to the team, but the outcome of his return this season is far from certain after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season. Those while are counting on him to be a savior for the bullpen will likely be disappointed.

The Tigers did make some nice acquisitions for their relief corps, primarily Tom Gorzelanny, a left-hander who had a 2.99 FIP for the Milwaukee Braves last season. They also picked up Alex Wilson, who didn’t fare as well with the Red Sox last season, but could be an interesting addition. Joel Hanrahan is in camp with the team, but his contract is structured with several opt-out clauses if he doesn’t make the major league roster. Other names include Ian Krol, Kyle Lobstein, and Josh Zeid — none of whom are legitimate threats to their opponents.

Life Without Scherzer
Verlander isn’t the pitcher he once was, but can he be good enough to pick up the slack now that Scherzer is gone? The Tigers aren’t sure, but they’re going to let him try. The right-hander, who allowed the most earned runs of any pitcher last season, finished with a 3.74 FIP and a 1.398 WHIP. It will take a major breakthrough for the former ace to become the pitcher he once was.

Meanwhile, superstar David Price will anchor the team, and Anibal Sanchez will take the third slot. While the top three spots in the rotation are a dangerous combination, Detroit no longer has a lineup of pitchers that instills fear no matter what day it is. Former Yankee Shane Greene (3.73 FIP in 2014) will try to continue his moderate success, and Alfredo Simon will hope to recover from a 4.33 FIP season with the Cincinnati Reds. While both pitchers have the potential to be good, it’s not as intimidating as a rotation with Scherzer and Doug Fister would have been.

The Most Intimidating Lineup of All-Time
While it may be an exaggeration to say that no one has ever had a better lineup than this year’s Tigers, it’s not that far from the truth. Last year, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez instilled fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. This year, they’ll be joined by Yoenis Cespedes, who adds an even greater element of power to their lineup. That’s in addition to Ian Kinsler in front of Cabrera, and Alex Avila and Nick Castellanos in the bottom half of the order. Round it out with the speed of Jose Iglesias, Rajai Davis and the newly acquired Anthony Gose, and the Tigers’ lineup seems unstoppable.

There is some hope: Cabrera is returning from an injury, as is Iglesias, and Victor Martinez is in danger of missing some time after undergoing surgery on his knee. It’s possible that they may not be at full-strength the entire year, but even with one or two pieces missing, Detroit’s lineup is downright scary.

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Gose hit .226/.311/.293 in 94 games for the Blue Jays last season. He’s not very good at getting on base, but when he does, he can score easily due to his extreme speed. He had 15 stolen bases last year despite his low average, and his defense is incredible. At first glance, Gose seems dismissible, but he will help the Tigers in other ways. Cespedes is another story — he hit .260/.301/.450 with 22 home runs for Boston and the Oakland A’s. The Tigers markedly improved by signing the 29-year-old slugger this winter, and he should add plenty of lineup protection if Cabrera or Martinez miss extended time.

The Verdict: Dave Schoenfield’s rankings on ESPN have the Tigers listed as 14th, which is probably low. Despite losing Scherzer and despite the improvements around the division, Detroit remains the team to beat. Their powerful lineup and the top half of their rotation make them an incredible threat to the rest of the division’s chances.

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