DETROIT – As the countdown to Opening Day continues, we're taking a look at the Tigers' chances to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Detroit emerged as a legitimate playoff contender last season after finishing last in the American League Central Division in 2015. Unfortunately for the Tigers, injuries to key players and prolonged offensive slumps sent them home in early October.
It seems as if the 2017 season could go either way. If everything falls into place, the Tigers could become a dangerous playoff team. If not, they could find themselves selling at the trade deadline.
Here are five reasons the Tigers could miss the postseason in 2017.
The Cleveland Indians
The primary reason the Tigers face an uphill battle to the playoffs has nothing to do with the Tigers themselves.
Fresh off an American League pennant, the Indians are looking to get back to the World Series after coming one hit away from a championship in 2016. But that's not even the most impressive part. The Indians' entire playoff run came without two of their best starting pitchers -- Carlos Carrasco was completely shut down, and Danny Salazar pitched just three postseason innings in relief -- and star outfielder Michael Brantley.
Cleveland will also enjoy a full season of Andrew Miller, who proved he's not only one of the best relief pitchers in the world but also one of the most versatile. Miller filled a multitude of roles for manager Terry Francona after being acquired via trade: closer, middle relief and, most importantly, high-leverage escape artist.
The Tribe wasn't satisfied, though, and went out and signed the most coveted bat in free agency. Edwin Encarnacion will be an upgrade over Mike Napoli at designated hitter after averaging 38.6 home runs and slugging well over .500 the last five seasons in Toronto. Encarnacion is basically a lock to eclipse 30 home runs and post an OPS around .900.
It's unlikely the Tigers will lose 14 of 18 meetings with the Indians again this season, but it's extremely likely the Tribe will be even better overall. If the division is out of reach, the Tigers will have to battle a crowded field -- nondivision winners from the group of Houston, Toronto, Baltimore, Boston, Texas and Seattle -- for a wildcard spot.
Injuries have the potential to derail any team's season, but it's particularly true for the Tigers. Over the past three seasons, Detroit has dealt with significant injuries to almost all of its top stars -- Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Justin Verlander, Nick Castellanos and others.
This season is already trending in that direction, as Martinez is likely out for most of April and Cabrera dealt with an issue during the World Baseball Classic. Cabrera, Victor Martinez and others have struggled in the past because they played through nagging injuries.
The Tigers can't survive many losses, because their bench lacks quality depth and there aren't many MLB-ready players in the minor leagues.
Castellanos' injury really burned the Tigers in 2016, as the best season of his career was cut short and replaced with Casey McGehee-level production. Who would step into a major injury replacement role this season? Dixon Machado?
When the Tigers take the field on Opening Day, their starting outfield will feature Justin Upton and a makeshift combination of Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook and JaCoby Jones.
That won't exactly strike fear into opposing teams.
Collins and Mahtook are entering their prime years, but they haven't proven to be even replacement-level players in a few hundred MLB at-bats. Expecting them to step in and contribute at an above-average level across an entire season is a risky gamble, especially if Jose Iglesias and James McCann continue to struggle offensively. The Tigers can't afford to have four consistent outs at the end of the batting order.
Martinez's return from injury will obviously give the offense a huge boost, but center field remains a concern.
Jones looks to have the inside track on the starting job, but the 24-year-old proved last season that he wasn't quite ready for The Show. Forget that he only had six hits in 28 at-bats -- the more concerning trend is his 12-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It didn't take AL pitchers long to expose the holes in his swing, as Jones struck out in nearly half his plate appearances.
This is a term Tigers fans don't want to hear in regard to Michael Fulmer, but it doesn't necessarily mean the budding ace won't be a solid pitcher this year.
Fulmer pitched at a near-Cy Young level last season, running away with the Rookie of the Year award and finishing as the Tigers' second most valuable pitcher.
But at the end of the year, Fulmer started to wear down, likely because of the 159 innings he logged in his first MLB season. In 28.1 September innings, Fulmer allowed 31 hits, eight walks and 15 earned runs. Those numbers aren't any reason to panic, but they proved Fulmer is human and susceptible to regression.
The sophomore slump is more than just catchy alliteration, it's a real thing. Young pitchers coming off their first season against the best players in the world can have a bit of a drop-off in year two. Sometimes the league figures them out. Sometimes it's physical or mental fatigue.
Fulmer will still be one of the Tigers' best pitchers this season because he has excellent raw ability. But the Tigers needed him to pitch at an elite level last season to even sniff the playoffs, so if his production dips, the rest of the staff has to pick up the slack.
Francisco Rodriguez struggles
It's well documented that Tigers closers have been a disaster this decade, and in comparison, Francisco Rodriguez was pretty reliable during his first season in Detroit.
Age is obviously a concern as Rodriguez enters his age-35 season and copes with the inevitable drop in velocity, but my concerns go a bit deeper.
His numbers last season were his worst in three years. A strikeout rate that consistently hovered around 10 per nine innings dropped to 8.02, and he walked more batters than he had in five years. His 1.13 WHIP and 90 percent save rate were good enough, but if his numbers take another dip in 2017, the Tigers could have another closer controversy on their hands.
Without Rodriguez in the ninth inning, the Tigers would have to reassign roles elsewhere in the bullpen. That's always a recipe for disaster. Joe Jimenez could give the roster a midseason boost, but the MLB options have almost no ninth-inning experience.