Previewing the AL Central: the Detroit Tigers

Name tags may have been a requirement in Lakeland as the Detroit Tigers hosted their spring training activities with a slew of young players and just a handful of returning veteran faces.

Life at Comerica Park may more likely resemble a Toledo Mud Hens game in 2018, as it will be Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Nicholas Castellanos, and the Triple-A Tigers this season as the club took a wrecking ball to its roster beginning last summer. Before the season ended, the Kitties dealt big time hardware winner Justin Verlander to Houston and moved a pair of outfielders, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez, in other trade deadline deals. As a result, they finished in last place with a 64-98 record.

Detroit and manager Ron Gardenhire will look to usher in the next era of Tigers baseball by capitalizing on their new skipper’s dugout experience. The longtime manager of the rival Minnesota Twins (2002-14) returns to the driver seat after a few years away, which included time in the Arizona Diamondbacks dugout as their bench coach last season. He led the Twins to six division championships early in his tenure and he has a reputation for developing players, as his former star in Minnesota, Joe Mauer, attributed Gardenhire with teaching him “how to play the game the right way”, “how to be a professional”, and “how to be a big leaguer”.

With the youth on the roster, Gardenhire may be just the man for the job.

Cabrera – Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Key additions: Gardenhire; Catchers Derek Norris, Jarrod Saltalamacchia; Pitchers Phillippe Aumont, Johnny Barbato, Louis Coleman, Mike Fiers, Francisco Liriano, Caleb Thielbar, Travis Wood; Infielders Pete Kozma, Ronny Rodriguez (former Tribe farmhand); Outfielders Leonys Martin, Victor Reyes (Rule 5 pick)

The Tigers were not in the market for adding much in the payroll department given the current state of the rebuild. Fiers and Liriano will keep seats warm in the starting rotation on one-year deals and with good starts to the year, one or both could be relocated by midseason. Fiers, who earned a ring in Houston last year despite some subpar numbers on the mound, is usually capable of taking the ball each time out, but he will be delayed out of the gate with a bulky back.

Martin may see some regular time in the outfield, as the speedier center fielder will be needed to cover the expansive outfield. Reyes, picked first overall in the Rule 5 draft from Arizona, will be stashed away for safe keeping on a roster that has the flexibility to do so. The 23-year-old has not played above the Double-A level during his professional career.

Neither Norris nor Saltalamacchia have beaten out James McCann and John Hicks behind the plate, leading to the pair likely heading off to Toledo to wait for a phone call.

Subtractions: Manager Brad Ausmus; Pitchers Jairo Labourt, Bruce Rondon, Anibal Sanchez; Second baseman Ian Kinsler; Utility man Andrew Romine

Kinsler is the obvious loss from the bunch, as the 35-year-old second baseman had been a big piece of the offense in his first three seasons in Detroit from 2014 to 2016 before a down year in 2017. He was set to make $11 million in the final year of his contract with the Tigers, but instead, he will suit up for the Los Angeles Angels as part of their winter shopping spree. He had been fairly consistent throughout his career, but slipped last season, slashing .236/.313/.412 in 139 games. Even with the declining production, he still hit 22 homers, the fourth-highest total of his 12-year career. He is a four-time AL All-Star and won the Gold Glove Award in 2016.

Castellanos – Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Who to watch: Castellanos may be the most intriguing name on the Tigers roster to watch. While he has had mixed results over his career, he transitioned from his former third base position to right field last year and showcased some extra base power and stepped up big in his run production. He hit .272 with a .320 OBP on the season and added 36 doubles, a league-leading ten triples, 26 homers, and a team-leading 101 RBI, easily exceeding his previous career-high of 73. Still only 26 years of age and already with five big league seasons under his belt, he will be counted on for big numbers in an otherwise light-hitting outfield that includes Mikie Mahtook, who performed nicely in 109 games in his first year in Detroit last season (.276/.330/.457 with 15 doubles, six triples, and 12 home runs).

Cabrera and Martinez return to first base and designated hitter, respectively, with hopes of putting 2017 behind them. Cabrera, 34, had the worst full season showing of his career a year ago. In his 15th season in the Majors, he played in 130 games, hitting .249 with a .329 OBP and a .399 slugging mark with 22 doubles, 16 homers, and 60 RBI on the year. Martinez is in the twilight of his 15-year career at the age of 39. After appearing to return to form a bit in 2016, his numbers dropped back off in 2017 while he dealt with heart issues throughout the season. He ended the year with a .255/.324/.372 slash with 16 doubles, ten homers, and 47 RBI in 107 games in his sixth year on the diamond for the Tigers. The two (and Tigers faithful) will be hoping that good health is back on the side of the long-time teammates.

Dixon Machado and Jose Iglesias will team up the middle as a formidable double play duo, but the pair will not strike much fear in opposing clubs at the plate. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario, acquired at the deadline from the Cubs last year, hit .330 in 27 games with seven doubles, a pair of homers, and 13 RBI, primarily during his September call-up from Toledo.

Jordan Zimmermann will get the Opening Day nod for the Tigers, despite a rough second season in Motown a year ago. He made 29 starts, but went 8-13 with a 6.08 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP, easily the worst numbers of his nine-year career. A former 19-game winner in 2013 with the Nationals, he has won a combined 17 in his 48 games with Detroit. Michael Fulmer will slot in behind Zimmermann. He has been good in a pair of seasons for the club, including a win in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2016. He made 25 starts last year, going 10-12 with a 3.83 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP while being named to the AL All-Star team. Health was the bigger question for him last year, as he missed two weeks at the beginning of August and then all of September with right elbow issues.

Left-handers Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris will also see time in the rotation. Former starter Shane Greene will once again be looked to as the team’s closer, when the opportunity presents itself.

Tigers’ 2018 Outlook: It may be a race to the cellar again for the Tigers, who will be young and inexperienced with a talent base that should dwarf that of the other teams in the division, even with so many clubs rebuilding. V-Mart and Cabrera are heading towards the back ends of their careers, and it would be unlikely that the two vets could carry a team far on their own, especially with recent downticks in their production and their own health problems of late.

The real wins that the Tigers will be watching for this season will be in establishing which players can become part of the core to build around for the future. Gardenhire has been known to get the best out of his players and he should be an asset to their clubhouse, even if the early returns are lacking. They will need some new contributors on both sides of the ball and soon, as after bro-guy Cabrera (who is locked up through at least 2023 at a cost of $184 million with vesting options in place for the following two seasons at $30 million a year) and Fulmer (who is under team control through 2022), the talent drops off of the roster quickly in the coming years. Martinez’s contract ends after this season, Castellanos is a free agent after the 2019 campaign, and Zimmermann hits the market after 2020.

With a middle-of-the-pack farm system, the Tigers will need to hit on some of their auditioning youth if they hope to turn things around quickly in the AL Central.

Photo: Duane Burleson/Getty Images

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