5 reasons the Detroit Tigers could make playoffs this season
Tigers missed postseason last 2 seasons
DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers had a long run atop the American League Central Division, finishing in first place and making the playoffs every year from 2011 to 2014.
But their streak came to an abrupt end in 2015, when they finished in last place. Now, 907 days have passed since Detroit's last playoff game, and the window of opportunity isn't getting any wider.
It feels like this season could go in either direction. Will everything fall into place and propel the Tigers into October once again? Or will they suffer a 2015-esque fall from grace and officially begin the rebuilding process in July?
For the optimists, here are five reasons the Tigers could make the postseason in 2017.
Young starting pitchers
It seems the No. 1 cause for preseason optimism in Detroit is a trio of young arms acquired at the 2015 trade deadline.
Michael Fulmer spoiled fans as a rookie, allowing just 136 hits and 54 earned runs over 159 innings. The hard-throwing righty was the team's second most valuable pitcher behind Justin Verlander, and the rest of the staff wasn't even close. His strikeout rate wasn't great, and he's clearly a regression candidate (Insert: sophomore slump), but Fulmer has the tools to be an excellent starter in Detroit.
Daniel Norris was more highly rated as a prospect, but his first extended stretch in Detroit didn't meet the same standard as Fulmer. Norris wasn't in the running for rookie of the year -- or certainly the Cy Young Award -- but he did put up solid numbers through 13 second-half starts. Norris struck out more than a batter per inning (71 in 69.1 innings) and held opponents to three runs or fewer in every single start.
By the end of the season, walks became an issue for Norris, who struggled to last more than six innings because of inflated pitch counts.
The final piece of the puzzle, Matt Boyd, was announced as a starter this week. Boyd earned his place with a strikeout-to-walk ratio above 2.5 and a WHIP under of 1.30 in 20 appearances last season. In July and August, the 26-year-old allowed just 41 hits and 14 earned runs in 49.1 innings, striking out nearly one batter an inning.
With youth comes inconsistency, so the Tigers are sure to go through their pitching lulls in 2017. But with youth also comes an upside, so these three pitchers should give the Tigers a chance to compete in every game.
A weaker AL Central
Like last season, the Tigers are more likely to be in the mix for one of the American League's two wildcard spots than the AL Central crown. The Cleveland Indians fell one hit short of a World Series title last season without an MVP-caliber outfielder in Michael Brantley and two of their best starting pitchers. Oh, and they added an elite power threat to the middle of their lineup in Edwin Encarnacion.
But this is an optimism piece, so we'll focus on why the Tigers can make a playoff push in this division -- and it comes at the expense of the rest of the AL Central.
The Royals and the White Sox hovered around .500 last season despite preseason hype that tabbed them both as fringe contenders. Still, the Tigers didn't take advantage of their mediocrity, finishing an even 19-19 against the two teams combined.
GRAPH: Tigers vs. AL Central opponents last three seasons
This year should be a different story. The White Sox shipped perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale to Boston and stud center fielder Adam Eaton to Washington. Sale and Eaton combined for 11.1 wins above replacement-level players in 2016, so Chicago figures to be much worse this season (though it's set up to be a World Series contender in the future after poaching elite prospects such as Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech in return).
Meanwhile, Kansas City traded away closer Wade Davis and lost young starter Yordano Ventura to a traffic accident in the Dominican Republic. The Royals won the World Series in 2015 by building an elite bullpen, playing solid defense and putting the ball in play. That identity has started to fade with the team's recent acquisitions, so it's unlikely that the Royals will be a strong playoff contender.
The American League East and West divisions will be much tougher for wildcard teams, as both divisions have at least three playoff contenders. The Tigers play 35.2 percent of their games against the Royals, the White Sox and the Twins, which is a huge advantage.
Miguel Cabrera isn't slowing down
When Opening Day rolls around, there are three cliches that Tigers fans hear on a yearly basis: "if they can stay healthy," "bullpen concerns" and "not getting any younger." Every year, Miguel Cabrera is one of the players brought up in the inevitable age conversation, but he hasn't shown any signs of slowing down.
Cabrera ranked among the best hitters in baseball last season, slugging over .950 and belting 38 home runs. He came up just short of 200 hits, and according to Statcast, deserved even more. Statcast shows that Cabrera was robbed of seven hits on balls that traveled at least 400 feet, and he easily could have finished with an OPS north of 1.000.
His stats aren't entirely on par with his Triple Crown season, but they aren't far off. Cabrera finished within percentage points of his career batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. There's no reason to believe that he won't be on the doorstep of 200 hits, 30 doubles and 30 home runs again this season.
The Tigers are one of the few teams in MLB that legitimately have five players who (when healthy) could reach the 30 home run mark. Two of those players -- J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton -- are playing for potential contracts.
Martinez is off to a rough start. He'll begin the season on the disabled list and isn't expected to return to baseball activities until mid-April. He'll have about 140 games before he hits the free-agent market for the first time since his career resurgence in 2014.
Martinez turns 30 in August, so this contract will be the most important of his career. The injury bug has struck him twice over the last 12 months, so this summer will be an opportunity to re-establish himself as an elite free agent target.
Upton's situation is a little different, but he should be similarly motivated in 2017. The 29-year-old has an opt-out clause in the six-year deal that he signed with the Tigers. If Upton has a monster year, he can opt out, hit free agency as a 30-year-old and sign a mega deal that carries him into his late 30s. If he struggles and stays on his current deal (still worth a healthy $22 million per year), it would leave him searching for his next deal at age 34.
Upton finished with decent offensive numbers last year, thanks to a huge second half, but beyond the 31 home runs, there's plenty of room for improvement. Upton posted his lowest WAR since 2010 and struck out at an insane rate. Meanwhile, he walked only 50 times in 153 games -- the lowest output in a full season of his career.
Contract seasons often bring out the best in players with proven track records. This duo definitely fits the bill.
Shane Greene bounce-back year
Stop me if this sounds crazy, but Shane Greene seems like a player who could help stabilize the bullpen this season.
Greene's short tenure in Detroit has been a rocky one. He was acquired two years ago in a three-team trade with the Yankees and the Diamondbacks in which the Tigers sent pitching prospect Robbie Ray to Arizona. Through three starts in 2015, Greene looked like the best starter on the roster, allowing 12 hits and one run in 23 innings. Since then, it's been a disaster.
At 27 years old, when Greene should have been at the pinnacle of his career, he was going through a position change as the Tigers moved him into the bullpen. But that experiment didn't go well: Greene graded out below replacement level in his 50 appearances last season.
Despite his ugly 2016 numbers, there's hope for a Greene resurgence. His peripherals suggest that he could be a critical asset this season if he can cut down on the walks.
Greene has all the tools to be an excellent late-inning reliever in the big leagues. His strikeout rate (8.80) is plenty good enough for high-leverage situations, and he allowed a respectable .680 opponents' OPS. In 60.1 innings, Greene allowed just three homers, 10 doubles and one triple, holding batters under one hit per inning overall.
His real problem was finding the strike zone, or getting hitters to chase when he threw his slider out of the strike zone. Greene's slider is one of the nastiest pitches on the Tigers' team, but when he walks over three batters per nine innings, it isn't nearly as effective.
Luckily for the Tigers, Greene is only in his second year as a reliever, and walks weren't an issue for him as a starter. If he can cut down on the free passes and maintain his strikeout rate, Greene could become a nice weapon for Brad Ausmus.
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