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5 players who need to improve to get Detroit Tigers back to playoffs

Tigers look to return to playoffs for first time since 2014

Detroit Tigers closer Shane Greene (Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers closer Shane Greene (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers are scheduled to play their first spring training game Thursday against Florida Southern, which will kick off a long spring of hope and concerns.

After becoming a staple in the postseason with four straight AL Central Division titles from 2011-2014, two straight empty seasons have changed the goals in Detroit.

Now, the Tigers are simply hoping to return to the playoffs behind a solid mix of veteran and young pitchers and a lineup stocked with proven sluggers. But for a team that's biggest offseason move was to acquire Mikie Mahtook, any added wins will likely have to come from improvements by players already in the system.

Here are five players who need to improve to get the Tigers to the postseason.

Jordan Zimmermann

Last season: 18 starts, 57 earned runs in 105.1 innings, 66 strikeouts

After a great first month in a Tigers uniform, Jordan Zimmermann had an extremely disappointing 2017 season in Detroit. The veteran right-hander allowed just two earned runs in 33 innings in April before struggling to stay healthy the rest of the season.

Zimmermann allowed seven earned runs three times, and the Tigers didn't win a game he pitched in after the end of June.

The 30-year-old was brought to Detroit to be a co-ace with Justin Verlander, and he'll need to be just that for the Tigers to compete for the division title in 2017. Even if he settles into a role as a strong No. 3 pitcher in the rotation, the Tigers have enough talent in the starting rotation to stay relevant in the wild card race.

GRAPH: Zimmermann's 2016 totals by month (did not pitch in July)

Shane Greene

Last season: 50 games played, 39 earned runs in 60.1 innings, 59 strikeouts

Shane Greene made the full-time switch to the bullpen last season and showed signs of promise during the first half of the season. Greene was dominant in July, allowing just give hits and one run in 9.2 innings while striking out 10 hitters. It looked like Brad Ausmus finally had a lock down option in the late innings.

But then Greene fell apart, allowing multiple runs seven times over the last two months. He gave up 11 earned runs in 11.1 innings in August and 11 earned runs in 12 innings spanning September and October.

Greene will also have potential because of his dynamic stuff, but control and consistency will be the keys for the 28-year-old as he enters 2017 after a full offseason as a relief pitcher.

Justin Wilson

Last season: 66 games played, 27 earned runs in 58.2 innings, 65 strikeouts

Like Zimmermann and Greene, Wilson came out of the gates on fire for the Tigers, throwing 10 shutout innings in April and striking out 14 batters.

But he allowed two earned runs in an inning or less four times in May, giving him his first loss and two blown saves. Wilson started walking batters at a much higher rate in the final two months, and he watched his WHIP skyrocket above 1.30.

Wilson's strikeout numbers were strong, but the Tigers need him to dominate left-handed hitters in the coming season. He led the team with 25 holds in 2016, but he can't allow nearly a run every two innings if the Tigers want to have a chance.

James McCann

Last season: .221 batting average, 12 home runs, .358 slugging percentage

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By the end of 2016, James McCann was trending toward being a very good offensive catcher, but his numbers took a dive in his age 26 season.

McCann's on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS all dropped significantly in 2017 despite a career high in home runs. McCann had only nine doubles but finished the season with 12 homers and 48 RBI.

The Tigers love McCann behind the plate, because he's strong defensively and has an excellent throwing arm. He doesn't need to be an offensive star, but he can't be an automatic out against right-handed pitchers. In 224 at-bats against righties last season, McCann hit just .201 with three home runs and six doubles.

The bottom of the order was a weakness for the Tigers last season, so players like McCann have to take steps forward to give the lineup depth and protect middle-of-the-order guys like Justin Upton and Nick Castellanos.

Justin Upton

Last season: .246 batting average, 31 home runs, .465 slugging percentage

Justin Upton always seems to find a way to get close to his career totals by the end of each season, no matter how long and painful his slumps can be. His first year in Detroit was no different, as Upton tied a career high with 31 home runs and got close to his career average in slugging.

But the one area that really has to improve this season is Upton's ratio of walks and strikeouts. The 29-year-old left fielder finished 2016 with just 50 walks and 179 strikeouts for a career worst 0.28 walks-to-strikeouts ratio.

CHART: Justin Upton's career walk and strikeout rates

The Tigers would love to see Upton reach base at a much higher clip this season, especially with questions surrounding where he'll land in the order. He started in the No. 2 spot last season only to be dropped to No. 6 due to his prolonged struggles.

If he can mimic last season's power numbers with a slight correction in his walks and strikeouts, Upton will return to being the feared hitter he was in the National League.