Detroit Tigers Head into Season with One Last Shot Mentality

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Panther Prowl

Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris pitches during a Spring Training game during March. PC: motorcitybengals.com

Tony Dombrowski, Editor-in-Chief

 

 

Heading into the 2016 season last April, the Detroit Tigers were thought of to be a real American League Central Division championship contender, or at the very least, an AL Wild Card contender. Although last season was filled with a lot of uplifting moments, the Tigers missed making the playoffs on the final day of the season. After the regular season ended, and the Tigers entered into an early offseason, many questions quickly began to hover around the team. Will manager Brad Ausmus return for a fourth season? Are the Tigers going to address the luxury tax situation? From the start, Detroit was a team that fans and media wanted answers from on what the team will do in the winter to be able to contend in 2017.

General Manager Al Avila did not waste too much time to address the baseball world on status of the Tigers and where the organization will head during the offseason. Shortly after the final pitch, Tigers General Manager Avila extended manager Ausmus to a fourth year option for 2017. Though many fans were unhappy with the move, Avila felt it was the best idea for the team going forward. Two weeks later, Avila took to the stand for the end-of-season press conference. In the conference, the GM mentioned where the organization was at the moment, and where it will go in the future. Avila mentioned the Tigers farm system needs to improve, and the salary cap for the team needs to be lowered. The Tigers were fearful they would have to pay for a luxury tax, which is the punishment that large market teams get for spending too much money. Avila wanted to cut down money to avoid that, and get younger in the process. Then the next three words Avila mentioned made Tigers fans from all over the world cringe in fear, “Change is coming.” Although he did not mention the dreaded “rebuild” word, fans and media knew the Detroit Tigers organization could take a major turn. This past winter could have quickly become one of the most impactful in the history of the organization.

After the press conference, rumors and talk began to quickly take over the baseball landscape about who could possibly be on the move in Detroit. Avila started right away with his mission, trading outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Victor Alcantara, a 23-year-old right-handed pitching prospect. After the move, the Tigers extended closer Francisco Rodriquez to a 2017 option, ensuring the team would have a top-tier closer for the 2017 season. After he dealt one of the more productive players on the roster in 2016, fans and media knew Avila was serious about cutting salary and getting younger. Quickly, rumors began to swirl about who was next to be dealt.

The Tigers had a number of players who had large contracts in 2016 who were mentioned in trade rumors. Among those names were: starting pitchers Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Jordan Zimmermann, and outfielder Justin Upton. However, the two names that fans and media knew were eating up the most money, and could bring in a good load of young talent were starting pitcher Justin Verlander and first basemen Miguel Cabrera. People knew the Tigers would not dare trade their two franchise players, right? The Tigers began to listen to talk about the two players, and much speculation began to fly around the league about a possible new destination for both Verlander and Cabrera. Rumored teams to be interested in the two future Hall of Famers included the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Dodgers. However, when all the smoke cleared, the two were not dealt, and are staying in the Motor City for now.

“I don’t want to go through a rebuild. I am too old for that kind of thing,” pitcher Verlander said on his twitter account in the midst of the rumors and speculation.

Though Avila could not get a deal for his two superstars, he knew the smartest idea was to shop his veteran second basemen Ian Kinsler and rising outfielder J.D. Martinez. Both will be impending free agents after the 2017 season, and with the financial situation for the team, it might be difficult for the team to resign both of the players. Throughout the winter, Avila and the Tigers stayed busy, actively shopping the two players. Similar to Verlander and Cabrera, the GM could never reach an agreement for either player when the winter months came to a close. The player who drew the most interest throughout the offseason was left-handed relief pitcher Justin Wilson. Avila felt the return for the players would not benefit his team enough for the future. As the offseason came to an end and Spring Training grew closer, the fans faced the reality the team would not really cut down much salary, or get much younger. The Tigers ultimately were one of six teams to pay the luxury tax this offseason, and Avila was faced with the fact he could not achieve his goal.

In order to provide a boost to the farm system, the team made a number of minor league signings throughout the offseason. Names including former Tiger Omar Infante and second basemen Brendan Ryan were just two of the many minor league signings. The team also brought back former starting catcher and Avila’s son, Alex Avila, to back up the current starting catcher James McCann. From the outside, the Tigers seemed to have a rather quiet offseason. However, it was a very busy few months for the Tigers front office members. As the offseason winded down, the team was now ready to head into Spring Training with relatively the same roster from last year. The Tigers are hopeful for one more shot at playoff glory with the same core group of players.

Heading into Spring Training, the Tigers had two important questions to answer. Who would start in centerfield for 2017? Who will be in the starting rotation with Verlander, Zimmermann, and AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer? The spring months served as competition for the players who wanted to fill those specific spots. For the centerfield job, young stud JaCoby Jones, former starting centerfielder Anthony Gose, former Tampa Bay Ray Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins, and Infante all competed for the job throughout the spring. According to MLB.com Tigers BEAT reporter Jason Beck, Jones was the most impressive for the centerfield job throughout the spring. As for the starting rotation jobs, over nine players competed for the spots, according to Beck. Young studs Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd stood out during the spring, beating out the other seven competitors including Pelfrey, Sanchez and Buck Farmer to win the final two spots in the rotation. Sanchez, who started the spring slow, pitched very well in his final few starts, and was moved to the bullpen to start the season in long relief. Relief pitchers Mark Lowe and Pelfrey were both released before the start of the season.

“He (Boyd) has pitched the best by far,” manager Ausmus said when asked about the fifth starting pitching job about midway through Spring Training.

One of the Tigers biggest problems in the 2016 season were injuries. Players such as Martinez, third basemen Nicholas Castellanos, and starting pitcher Zimmermann were just some players to experience a chunk of time on the disabled list. As a result of big players missing a lot of time, the team suffered in the long run because of the lack of depth to replace those players. The spring did not start well for the team as right fielder Martinez was diagnosed with a mid right foot sprain during a game in March. Team doctors determined he would stop baseball activates for about four to six weeks at the time of injury. With Martinez out, the door was opened for Mahtook and Collins to make the Opening Day roster and fill in the vacant spot in the outfield until the everyday right fielder returns in mid May.

When the offseason started, GM Avila had a mission to cut down the salary cap for the team and get younger to benefit the organization going forward. Although he was unable to do that, the Tigers players and staff still believe in this team heading into 2017. Players are adapting to playing with their new roles as the underdog, to try to chase down the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians in the Central Division. Although the team has an aging roster and a high salary cap, the Tigers believe that they can still contend. Adding to their drive to win was the passing of long time owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away in February. The team wants to bring the Ilitch family and the city of Detroit their first World Series championship since 1984. It will be tough, but anything is achievable with teamwork, hard work, passion and a love for the game. If the team is unsuccessful, however, it could be the start of a rebuild in the Motor City. The Tigers season started on April 3.