Can the Tribe Tame the Tigers in 2016?
Bob Toth | On 31, Mar 2016
If the Cleveland Indians have any sorts of playoff dreams in 2016, those hopes have a much better shot at becoming a reality if they can handle business in the American League Central Division.
They did not have success in the Central last season, a factor that undoubtedly loomed large as they finished on the outside of the divisional race and the playoffs altogether. They fell short of a winning record against all four regular opponents and their 7-11 mark against the Detroit Tigers was the second worst of the bunch. Those Motor City Kitties plated more runs off of Tribe pitching than any other division rival and did so while playing one fewer game against them due to a pair of rainouts in the middle of September.
For 2016, the Indians will see the Tigers the usual 19 games, including six matchups in Cleveland’s first 27 games this season. They will also have three games in Detroit at the end of June, three at home in July, and seven games in the last half of September, as divisional battles at the end of the year could factor in any of the Indians’ postseason chances.
Additions: UTL Mike Aviles (Indians), RP Mark Lowe (Blue Jays), OF Cameron Maybin (Braves), SP Mike Pelfrey (Twins), RP Francisco Rodriguez (Brewers), C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Diamondbacks), OF Justin Upton (Padres), C Bobby Wilson (Rangers), RP Justin Wilson (Yankees), SP Jordan Zimmermann (Nationals)
Last season: 74-87 (fifth place in AL Central)
Last season vs. CLE: 11-7 (outscored Indians, 94-85)
Missing from the subtractions are several major contributors to their club who were dealt midseason in 2015. Starting pitcher David Price was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays, reliever Joakim Soria was moved to Pittsburgh, and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes became a member of the NL Champion New York Mets.
The Tigers were busy in the offseason rebuilding a roster that surprisingly crashed to the Central cellar in 2015. Not only did the moves come via expensive purchases, but from additional moves on the trade market.
It was a team that had hung around in first place for the first month and a half of the year and was still within reach of the top spot in the division as summer rolled in. They had the month that the Indians needed in April, going 15-8. It was the last month that they would finish with a winning record. They were 13-16 in May, 11-13 in June, and 11-16 in July. After the sell-off, they dropped 17 of 27 games in August and lost another 17 of their final 31 in September and October. It all led to their worst season since 2005.
The AL Central was not so much the problem for the Tigers, who were 41-34 against their rivals and trailed only the Royals for wins within the division. But they went 9-11 in Interleague play, 12-20 against the AL East, and 12-22 against the AL West.
Things undoubtedly got more difficult for Detroit when first baseman Miguel Cabrera sprained his left calf in July. What playoff hopes the club had may have been effectively washed down the drain at that point. The two-time AL MVP did eventually return and logged enough at bats to qualify for and win the batting title with a .338 mark. Despite his extended absence, he was still second on the club in homers (18) and RBI (76).
The Tigers outfield has a new look this season, with free agent acquisition Upton expected to provide the power that was traded away in the Cespedes deal. Despite making his third career All-Star Game, he hit .251 in 150 games in his first and only season with the San Diego Padres. He gave their club 26 doubles, 26 homers, and 81 RBI while showing more involvement on the base paths (19 steals in 24 attempts) than in recent years, but his average and .336 on-base percentage were his lowest totals since his first two seasons in the Majors and he posted the fourth 150+ strikeout season of his nine-year career.
Upton will pair with Gose, who came over in the Price deal from Toronto, and J.D. Martinez, killer of Indians pitching, in the Detroit outfield. Martinez was an All-Star for the first time in 2015, hitting .282 with 33 doubles, 38 homers, and 102 RBI while striking out 178 times. He has more home runs against the Indians than any other opponent he has faced in his career, including five last season to pair with 17 RBI. Maybin will be a factor in the Tigers outfield once he returns from the non-displaced fracture in his left wrist, an injury that should keep him out of the lineup for most of April.
Former Indians favorite Victor Martinez will be the club’s designated hitter and, like J.D., has shown a willingness to destroy Cleveland pitching in his career. He owns a .336 lifetime average against the Indians, but is coming off of his worst effort against his old team, hitting .263 last season with just two doubles and nine RBI in 15 games. He had a bad year in general, hitting a career-low .245 with a .301 on-base percentage in 120 games.
Ian Kinsler, 33, gave another consistent contribution at second base and will return in the role for 2016. He hit .296 with 35 doubles, seven triples, eleven homers, and 73 RBI and led the team in hits (185) and runs scored (94). Young shortstop Jose Iglesias hit an even .300 in 2015 while appearing in 120 games for the Tigers. He will continue to pair with Kinsler up the middle in a strong offensive keystone tandem.
Twenty-four-year-old third baseman Nick Castellanos hit .255 in his second full season with the Tigers and his third over in the Majors. He set new career highs in most offensive categories last season (including his 152 strikeouts and 21 double play balls) and played in 154 games in total.
In total, when Detroit has all nine starters healthy and in the lineup, the Tigers will boast a $100+ million batting order.
The starting rotation features familiar faces Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, both of whom fell short of pitching full seasons for the club after injuries. Verlander was 5-8 with a 3.38 ERA in 20 starts with a strong 1.09 WHIP. Sanchez was 10-10 with a 4.99 ERA and 1.28 WHIP; the latter was right on par with his career average, while the ERA was his highest since 2008.
Zimmermann (13-10, 3.66 ERA, 1.21 WHIP in 33 starts in 2015) was the big money ticket scratched by Tigers ownership for the rotation to pair with their veteran returns. The club also added Pelfrey (6-11, 4.26 ERA, 1.48 WHIP) as a back-of-the-rotation arm after spending the last three seasons with the Minnesota Twins.
Right-hander Shane Greene (4-8, 6.88 ERA, 1.55 WHIP in 18 games/16 starts) and 22-year-old left-hander Daniel Norris (3-2, 3.75 ERA, 1.20 WHIP in 13 starts) could see time in the rotation as well. Norris was part of the package sent to Detroit for Price.
New general manager Al Avila took a wrecking ball to the problematic bullpen of the last several years and brought in some established pieces to help stabilize a consistent source of concern for the Tigers. He acquired K-Rod from the Brewers to serve as the new closer and brought in Lowe, who has resurrected his career after a brief stint in Cleveland, to set up. Left-hander Wilson came over from the Yankees after going 5-0 with a 3.10 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 74 games of action in the Bronx.
If the Tigers hope to contend, health will have to be on their side. Several members of the starting lineup have missed chunks of time over the last few years with injuries, as can be said for the top two returning starting pitchers on the staff. With the addition of Zimmermann and a bullpen that would appear on paper to be more reliable, the Tigers may be on par with or just slightly better than last season, but it is tough to know by how much and if it will be enough to matter in a tough AL Central.
Photo: Mike Mulholland/MLive.com