5 Detroit Tigers to watch during Spring Training
DETROIT – Believe it or not, over four months have passed since Hernan Perez hit into a 5-4-3 double play to end the Detroit Tigers' 2014 season. A sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS slammed the door abruptly on an up and down season that saw the Tigers win the AL Central by just one game.
On Thursday, pitchers and catchers will start trickling into the Lakeland facilities as the Tigers prepare for another six-month, 162-game grind.
The allure of Spring Training stems from the mere thought of baseball. It's the first sign that the long, miserable winter will soon give way to spring as 30 teams trot onto the diamond with a clean slate. Spring offers the chance to erase a losing season, a nagging injury, or a prolonged slump.
What the spring doesn't offer, however, is a realistic look at what the long summer months will bring.
As professional athletes, each MLB player would love to burn through Spring Training with a 1.000 batting average or 0.00 ERA. But statistics simply don't carry much weight before Opening Day.
Take Clayton Kershaw as an example. During the spring of 2014, Kershaw was a train wreck, posting a 9.20 ERA and 1.70 WHIP. In just four spring starts, Kershaw lost the same number of games (three) as he did in 27 regular season outings (1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP). The 26-year-old followed his ugly spring with a campaign that not only earned him a Cy Young Award, but also NL MVP honors.
Kansas City's Mike Moustakas experienced a swing of similar magnitude, though the results couldn't have been more different from Kershaw's. Moustakas batted .429 with four home runs, seven doubles and 18 RBI in 24 spring games before batting a career-low .212 during the regular season.
You get the point: Spring stats can be deceiving. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't follow the Tigers during their month in Lakeland.
What you can gain from Spring Training is a basic understanding of a player's physical readiness for the upcoming season. Is his slider breaking more than it did last season? Can he catch up to a major league fastball?
Here are five Tigers players to keep an eye on over the next month as Spring Training gets underway.
Last season: Out with shin injuries
The impact of Jose Iglesias' absence from the 2014 Tigers was vastly underappreciated, likely because the 25-year-old played only 46 games in Detroit before shin splints knocked him out for the year.
Tiger shortstops ranked amongst the worst in the league in overall production last season, batting .223 with six home runs and 40 RBI. On defense, Detroit committed 21 errors at shortstop, tied for the third-highest total in the American League.
Iglesias, a .274 hitter and defensive wiz during his young career, could give Detroit perhaps its greatest upgrade over last year's roster. But his impact will rely largely on his ability to bounce back from the shin splints.
During the spring, Tigers fans will get their first look at Iglesias since the injury. Will he have the same confidence charging slow rollers and ranging up the middle as he did before the injury? Iglesias' value to the Tigers lies in his elite defensive ability. If the shins hold him back at shortstop, it'll be a major setback for a team banking on an improved defense in 2015.
Expect Iglesias to use the spring as a testing period to reacquaint himself and get comfortable with the position. If he's all over the field making plays during March, expect to see the same guy from 2013 at shortstop this season.
Last season: 5-4 record, 4.81 ERA, 35 saves, 7 blown saves, 1.53 WHIP
Speaking the words "Joe Nathan" in Detroit can trigger reactions akin to tossing a tank of gasoline on a raging campfire. Nathan got off on the wrong foot with Tigers fans by turning the $10 million he earned in 2014 into a 4.81 ERA and seven blown saves.
Lost in his struggles, which started with a blown save on Opening Day, was the dominant spring performance Nathan put together in his first month donning the Old English D. Seven of his eight outings were scoreless, including four 1-2-3 innings in which he threw a total of 20 strikes and no balls.
This season, Nathan's Spring stats will be less important than his ability to locate pitches. Throughout the 2014 season, Nathan struggled to keep the ball from leaking over the plate as hitters feasted on his offerings to the tune of a .265 average and .349 on-base percentage.
At 40 years old, Nathan may be entering his last season as an MLB closer. He knows that after a disastrous debut in Detroit, Brad Ausmus' leash will be much shorter in 2015. Nathan will be dialed in during the spring, so look closely at his location. If he can't regain pinpoint control over his pitches, he may struggle again this season.
Last season: Missed season after undergoing Tommy John surgery
Perhaps the most intriguing player to watch this spring will be the young fireballer Bruce Rondon, who missed 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Tigers fans know all-too well what can happen to an electric young reliever after an injury. Joel Zumaya, one of the most exciting players of Detroit's 2006 run to the World Series, quickly fizzled out after an array of offseason injuries sapped his stuff. Now, with Detroit's bullpen woes in full force, Ausmus is counting on Rondon bouncing back and taking over an important role in the later innings.
In simplest terms, velocity will tell Rondon's story in the Spring. A 100+ mph fastball got Rondon to the big leagues in 2013, and the Tigers want that fastball to bring him back.
As a rookie, Rondon rounded into form late in the season, posting a 1.50 ERA in August and a 0.00 ERA in a limited September. The key to his success was the development of his secondary pitches that complimented an elite fastball. When hitters have to respect 100 mph, an average changeup becomes a dominant changeup.
If his velocity drops severely because of the surgery, Rondon will have to rely more on location and outsmarting hitters. Those skills take time to master, and Rondon is only 24.
Last season: .315 average, 23 home runs, 76 RBI, 4.2 WAR
J.D. Martinez was the American League's most impactful breakout player last season, driving in 76 runs for the Tigers after being cut by the bottom-feeding Houston Astros in the offseason.
This year, fans will be lining the gates to see what Martinez does as a sequel to his outburst, which came during his fourth MLB season.
In general, baseball players have a tendency to regress toward the mean after a career year. When a player enjoys a breakout season, future results often fall between that ceiling and their average production from years past.
But Martinez could be a unique case in that when he came over to Detroit, he made adjustments to his swing and featured hard contact to all fields over 123 games.
During the spring, don't focus on numbers like batting average and home runs for Martinez. Instead, look for the consistent, hard contact he demonstrated in 2014, and see if he can spray the ball to the opposite field. If these good habits carry over into 2015, the Tigers will benefit from another strong season by Martinez.
Last season: 8-5, 3.43 ERA, 102 strikeouts, 1.10 WHIP
One year removed from taking home the AL ERA title, Anibal Sanchez made his fewest starts (21) since 2009 while battling through an injury-riddled 2014 campaign.
When Sanchez strained his chest muscle in early August, the Tigers scrambled to fill the gap he left in an otherwise dominant starting rotation. Now, with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello gone, Detroit is counting on Sanchez more than ever.
Sanchez features one of the nastiest fastballs in the league, when healthy, and has looked downright unhittable during most of his tenure in Detroit. Now, coming off an injury-shortened 2014, Sanchez will try to regain that form and lock down the No. 2 spot of a rotation filled with question marks (Justin Verlander's health, Shane Greene's second act, Alfredo Simon's weak second half).
This spring, focus on the life on Sanchez's pitches -- particularly the fastball. When Sanchez keeps his fastball down in the zone, he makes hitters look foolish, whiffing over top of the ball (see Sanchez vs. Braves on April 26, 2013). The Tigers need Sanchez to be a second ace behind David Price this season as he enters the middle season of his five-year, $80 million contract in Detroit.
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