In seeking to defend their American League Central crown, the Royals must fight off four teams to repeat. Unlike some divisions, there exists a realistic scenario for each team to win the AL Central and punch their ticket to the Divisional round.
Some of these teams are more likely than others to do so, though. Today, we take a look at the tumultuous Tigers, the Detroit baseballers who underwent drastic change on the field and in the front office after a disastrous 2015 season.
Tigers at a glance
Departing: Alex Avila, Neftali Feliz, Rajai Davis, Tom Gorzelanny, Al Albequerque, Alfredo Simon, Randy Wolf, Joe Nathan, Kyle Lobstein, Ian Krol, Joakim Soria
Arriving: Mark Lowe, Jarrod Saltalamachia, Mike Pelfrey, Mike Aviles, Jordan Zimmerman, Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin, Justin Wilson, Francisco Rodriguez
2015 Rotation ERA/AL Rank: 4.78/15th
2015 Bullpen ERA/AL Rank: 4.38/14th
2015 Runs/AL Rank: 689/10th
2015 Defense/AL Rank: 17/4th
2015 Record: 74-87
Fangraphs 2016 Projection: 82-80
PECOTA 2016 Projection: 76-86
In 2011, a crashing Minnesota Twins squad was at the end of their competitive run, and a rising Tigers squad grabbed their first-ever AL Central title. That began a span of four consecutive seasons where their stranglehold, dare I say Paplehold, on the division was airtight. These Tigers teams were unassailable, powered by ace pitching by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and the sheer offensive force of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Only once were they forced out in the divisional round in the playoffs.
These Detroit teams were assembled by General Manager Dave Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch. Ilitch was unafraid to spend money on premium players, and Dombrowski quickly became well-regarded, as he pivoted a 119-loss team in 2003 to an American League Championship in 2006. Dombrowski and Ilitch managed to develop a few star players, but the farm system never was a problem--until it suddenly was.
In 2015, their aging roster began to catch up to them. Martinez was hideously bad, Scherzer was pitching no-hitters on the East Coast for the Washington Nationals, Verlander was oft-injured and only mildly effective, and the bullpen was a special collection of horrors. It was as if Dombrowski attempted to emulate the Royals' bullpen, but somewhere along the line somebody forgot to carry a number and Dombrowki re-created the 2004 Royals bullpen instead of the 2014 Royals one by mistake. The ultimate result was a last-place finish.
This year, the Tigers, now manned by GM Al Alvila, are hoping to improve from their league-worst starting rotation and somehow-not-quite-league-worst bullpen. As is Ilich's general gameplan, the Tigers eschewed any subtlety or creativity and instead tossed a few (hundred) million at Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman. This does serve to shore up two of the Tigers' big weaknesses: Zimmerman will go a long ways in helping anchor what was the league-worst rotation last year, and Upton will supply offense to a team that only ranked 10th in the AL in runs last year despite possessing Miguel freaking Cabrera.
The achilles heel of Dombrowski's Detroit teams have been the bullpen, though, and for what it's worth Avila is trying to remedy it. He acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Milwaukee Brewers to be his closer, also acquiring hard-tossing lefty Justin Wilson from the Yankees and signing free agent Mark Lowe to shore up a pretty terrible history in the seventh inning.
Much of the Tigers' hopes for 2016 are predicated upon a trio of aging and/or oft-injured stars. Verlander, 33, only started 20 games last year. His velocity has declined precipitously from an average fastball of 95.6 MPH in 2009 to 93.2 MPH in 2015. Victor Martinez is 37 and tumbled from being an excellent DH to being injured and ineffective in 2015, when he hit 23% below league average and only managed 120 games played. Finally, though Miguel Cabrera's offense is as dangerous as ever, he is 33 years old and played in a career-low 119 games last year. Detroit is betting on bouncebacks in playing time and effectiveness.
There exists a scenario in which Detroit returns to 2011-2014 form. In this scenario, the bullpen is significantly better than it used to be, Zimmerman and Verlander pitch healthy, solid years to form the anchor for the rotation, and a revitalized Cabrera and V-Mart combine with Upton and J.D. Martinez to form a deadly lineup. This Detroit will compete for the AL Central.
There also exists a scenario in which Cabrera, Verlander, and Martinez continue to fray, playing fewer games and performing even worse than last year. The new bullpen arms exist as painful reminders of the 're-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic' metaphor, and J.D. Martinez turns back into a pumpkin.
The final outcome will probably be somewhere in between. Either way, we are seeing the end of the Tigers' dynasty. Whether or not it hangs on a few more years is the only real question left.