Best and Worst Case Scenarios for the Detroit Tigers: Part II

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Recently, I shattered any hopes that fans had of their beloved Tigers by listing out the reasons why they will not win the World Series in 2016. I also went out and said the Tigers will make the playoffs. But then I went with a World Series prediction out of left field (HA!) when I picked the Nationals to play the Astros.

I think I was punished by the Detroit sports gods after saying the Tigers wouldn’t win the World Series because shortly after that article was published, my computer broke. During that time, fans have seen a fairly solid start for their team and have gotten a glimpse at a still-mediocre Justin Verlander, cursed bullpen, and an offense that is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

I know everyone has been anxiously awaiting my part II, so get ready to see me contradict everything I said in the last article and tell you why the Tigers will win the World Series. Grab yourself a $5 Hot ‘N’ Ready pizza, because this is the year!

Pitching Like it’s 2011

Of the four main starters, everyone not named Mike Pelfrey had a great 2011. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that the starting pitching staff needs to find the fountain of youth and start pitching like they have in the past. I’m especially looking at Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez’s seasons last year; seeing those two guys at the one and two slot in the rotation should scare fans. But I’m here to say there is a chance.

Verlander saw a glimpse of hope towards the end of last season after getting roughed up when he made his return from injury in June. In the second half of the season Verlander held opposing hitters to an average of .216 while posting an ERA of 2.80 respectively. He also was able to strike out 69 batters in that same period. But the question remains, will the 33-year-old be able to carry this momentum to the 2016 season? It seemed like JV started to find himself again at the end of last season, and he has also told reporters in the offseason that this is the best he has felt in a long time.

Sanchez’s season last year could be seen as an anomaly. In 2013, he led the league in home runs through nine innings (which is a good thing, for those unfamiliar with the stat). But last year, he led the league in home runs allowed. However, prior to last season’s 29 home runs allowed, the most Sanchez had let up in a year was 20, though in that season he had pitched 38 more innings.

Sanchez was also able to go four hitless innings in his spring debut as well. Of course, 32 isn’t young, but there’s no reason that in his 11th season he can’t turn things around, especially with the amount of talent he has.

After three starts so far this season, it isn’t the issue of Sanchez getting lit up. Instead, he has had an inability to go late into games, only reaching 5 2/3 innings at the most so far. He is finding himself near 100 pitches after four innings of work, which is a big no, no for a team that does not want to lean on its bullpen.

Zimmermann is elite. And I don’t think the media is talking enough about how much of a key addition he was to a Detroit team that needed pitching. He has amassed over 195 innings pitched each of his last four seasons. In every one of his full seasons, his ERA has stayed within the ranges of low-two’s to mid-three’s. He’s good for over 150 strikeouts per year. His numbers are very consistent, making him the perfect match for the Tigers, who have struggled to find a guy that can be a rock in the rotation.

As of April 18, Jordan Zimmermann has yet to allow his first earned run as a Tiger. Fans should be elated over this.

Daniel Norris and/or Shane Greene breaking out this year would be a huge addition to a team that had one of the worst collective ERA’s last year.

Norris is a former top prospect and was supposed to be Detroit’s fifth starter. Now, he is battling a back injury. Norris, 22, has a long career ahead of him and has a chance to be one of the top pitchers in the league. In his 13 starts last year between Toronto and Detroit, he posted a 3.75 ERA with a WHIP of 1.200. Not good, not bad. Maybe under new pitching coach Rich Dubee, who has worked with one of the best pitching staffs of all time in the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, Norris can breakout.

Shane Greene got off to a phenomenal start as I highlighted in Part I. After starting off so well, he really couldn’t find what was working for him earlier. This spring he earned the fifth starter spot, only allowing four runs in 19 1/3 innings of work. That’s complemented with over a strikeout an inning, throwing 23. Greene is not as young as Norris, so if he is going to break out at the age of 27, now is the time to do it. The glimpses of success are there; it’s just being able to maintain that success all season.

The Bullpen is Fixed

Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, and Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez will be the main late-inning guys, no doubt. Three completely new faces for Detroit’s late innings, which is what you want from a team that was in the top five of worst bullpens in the league last season.

Lowe was seen as one of the more dominant eighth inning guys last year, and he was a key addition to a Blue Jays roster seeking their first playoff appearance since 1993. Lowe finished the year with only 12 runs allowed (between Seattle and Toronto) in 55 innings total of work. Part of his success has been to lean very heavily on the slider, throwing it about half the time in 2015. Pitching in a big Detroit ballpark leaves room for error with the slider as well, in that hanging offspeed pitches like that may not make it out of the park like it would at some more hitter-friendly stadiums.

Wilson is one of the better young bullpen arms in the league. General manager Al Avila played the game of “you got to give up talent to receive talent” when acquiring Wilson from the Yankees. Detroit gave up one of their better minor league starting pitchers, Luis Cessa, for Wilson. But the bullpen was more of an ailing problem, and Wilson could be a guy that is in the back end of this bullpen for years to come.

In his three full seasons with Pittsburgh and New York, Wilson has proved he’s good for about a strikeout an inning and won’t walk anybody. The numbers show he is a consistent guy but also very reliable in a seventh or eighth inning situation. Consistency, once again, is big for the Tigers, because it’s something that wasn’t there last season. That put manager Brad Ausmus in situations where he didn’t know what would be safer: leaving in a starter who is getting roughed up or handing the ball over to the bullpen who could make things worse. Wilson will hopefully extinguish these situations.

K-Rod could make an argument for one of the top closers of all time. It looks like Detroit acquired him at a good point in his career as well. After leading the league in saves multiple times during the beginning of his career with the Angels, K-Rod hit a downward spiral with the Mets, and later, the Brewers. There were seasons he wasn’t even awarded the ninth inning role.

Coming off back-to-back All-Star seasons, the Tigers may have acquired a K-Rod who has rediscovered himself. His WHIP was below 1 in each of his last two seasons, and he averaged well over a strikeout an inning. It seems by turning into a changeup pitcher rather than a “blow it by you” fastball guy, K-Rod has been able to adapt to his declining ability and stop guys in a different way.

However, K-Rod and Lowe have allowed a combined six earned runs in only 11.2 innings of work. That’s not what you want from your brand-new setup man and closer. I really am starting to think there is a curse on this bullpen. Maybe the ‘pen was built on an ancient burial ground. Whatever it is, these two players need to pitch to their full potential.

Staying Healthy

This seems like an obvious one, right? When it comes down to it, if this batting order, one through nine, plays as many games as Ausmus wants them to, it’s up there with the top offenses in the league. If all of the above happens, the team establishes a consistent starting rotation (not starting 12 different guys like last year), and keeps the guys management wants in the late innings, there’s no reason why the Tigers can’t win the World Series. There’s an overwhelming level of talent. So why do so many analysts having the Tigers finishing third to fifth in the division?

A lot of key guys went down last year: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Sanchez, and Verlander. I’ve already mentioned Sanchez and Verlander, but it’s the same for Cabrera and Martinez. This team isn’t just relying on these guys to come back and play; they’re relying on a bunch of guys over 32 to come back, play a full season, and play incredibly. This is a different team with a Martinez that bats over .300, forcing you to pitch to the best hitter in the game in Cabrera. And if we’re being honest, the season truly went to the gutter when Cabrera went down last year. You just can’t replace someone like that. So there is a lot riding on these veterans to put up top-tier numbers in a young man’s game, a game where the top three players are all under 24 years old.

Staying healthy plays a part in the chemistry game as well. Having the same lineup over the course of the 162-game season gets players used to playing with the same guys every day and feeding off each other’s energy. But when you have a new starting nine every other day, which happened a lot last year, and guys are bouncing up and down from Triple-A to the majors, there are no established roles or bonds being formed. Plus, morale is down when your stars are hurt.

Injuries are going to happen, but minimizing them and hoping they don’t all happen at once will be key.

The best case scenario for this team can truly be a World Series title. This organization knows what its players are capable of, but if this team wants to roar like it’s ‘84, a lot needs to go right. This starts with going from a bottom-tier pitching staff to a stable one that can contend. That’s a big leap in one offseason. The bats will always be there, but keeping the important ones in the lineup will also be necessary for a World Series run.

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