Pressing Questions: The Detroit Tigers

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Pressing Questions: The Detroit Tigers
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Although it’s been 31 years since Detroit’s last World Series title, the Woodward faithful hasn’t had much to complain about in recent years. The Tigers are taking aim at their fifth consecutive AL Central title. The glorious run has been fueled by a mix of potent offense (no one has scored more runs since the beginning of 2013) and reliable pitching (Top 10 team ERAs for three straight campaigns). Detroit generally assembles a strong lineup and a formidable starting staff and dares teams to match it over the six-month marathon. Most opponents fall short.

To be fair, there are subtle areas where the Tigers routinely struggle. They’ve been one of the worst defensive teams in the majors for several years now, and the bullpen hasn’t been good for a while. Detroit fans become anxious whenever the opponent puts the bat on the ball, and there’s a collective Eight Mile shriek whenever the bullpen door opens. 

Order up a hot and ready and let's try to figure it all out. 

How do we price J.D. Martinez after that shocking monster year? 

I understand why a lot of pundits will run from Martinez this year. His 2014 breakthrough took everyone by surprise, and sometimes the scribes hold a grudge for that sort of thing. And obviously no one wants to pay the freight on a career year; no one wants to be that sucker.

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But remember “Regression!” should always be viewed as the start of a conversation, not the ending of one. Even if Martinez comes down notably from last year’s .315-25-76 line (and certainly no one expects him to bat .315 again), he has a chance to return you a fantasy profit. Sometimes you can cobble together a nifty profit simply by fading the Regression Police. 

Keep a few things in mind as you try to digest last year’s emergence: Martinez consistently posted silly numbers in the Houston minor-league system; the breakout came during his Age 26-27 season; Martinez significantly altered his plate mechanics prior to last year; and he showed monstrous power to all fields (as opposed to being a pull-happy slugger). He also posted a line-drive rate over the league average. Attribution can be a tricky thing in the fantasy racket, but at least we have something we can hang our hat on.

Martinez’s 2014 stats were heavier in the first half, but it’s not like teams solved him after the break (.292/.342/.478, 10 homers). He’s working in a strong lineup, with some notable OBP monsters just ahead of him (okay, and hacking Yoenis Cespedes). Martinez is a Top 35 outfielder on my board entering the first days of draft season. I could live with him as my third outfield option, and I’d really love him as an OF4 or OF5, something you might be able to get.

Any interest in a Justin Verlander comeback season on the eve of his 32nd birthday? 

Generally I never say never on anyone, assuming it's a draftable commodity in the first place. Maybe the price will be so cheap on game day, I’ll be tempted. But Verlander’s career trajectory scares the daylights out of me.

Anytime you see a name player – especially a name pitcher  performing like dirt, you worry about an unreported injury. Maybe Verlander pitched through problems in 2014 that no one knows about. But I can’t get past the fact that his ERA and WHIP have spiked for three straight years (bottoming out at 4.54 and 1.40 last year) while his fastball velocity has dropped five straight seasons. Verlander’s K/9 dropped below 7.0 in 2014, and his swinging strike number was the lowest it’s been since 2008. 

Framed a different way, my problem with Verlander isn’t 2014 isolated, it’s the path his career is taking. 

Verlander currently trades as the No. 47 starting pitcher in NFBC leagues, so not everyone has given up the ghost. Ian Kennedy, Mat Latos and Phil Hughes are a tiny bit pricier; Jose Quintana is cheaper. I have no problem talking myself out of Verlander at his current sticker.  

Speaking of Age-32 seasons on the way, what do we do with Miguel Cabrera

I don’t want to hear anyone bellyaching about Cabrera’s .313-109-25-101 haul from last year. Sure, it was a mild disappointment from the level of production we’re used to, but Cabrera was playing with a bum ankle through most of the year  and still gutted his way through 159 games. And heck, all you really want from a first-round pick is a cornerstone type of season  everything else is gravy. If your team finished under your expectations, it wasn’t Miggy’s fault. 

Cabrera was hobbling around like Fred G. Sanford in September, on a crummy wheel that required surgery after the season  and somehow managed to bat .379 with eight homers that month. Tip your cap for that unreal performance. 

We live in a world of shiny-happy surgery anecdotes, but the Tigers haven’t treated Cabrera’s situation that way. When Miggy had his October procedure, GM Dave Dombrowski frankly conceded the injury was “worse than what we ever would have anticipated.” Earlier this month, Dombrowski admitted the team isn’t certain Cabrera will be on the field for Opening Day.

Johnny B Good (Topps)
Johnny B Good (Topps)

With all that in mind, we’re presented with a risk-reward question for our draft seasons. I still view Cabrera as a first-round pick. He’s been durable through his career (averaging 157 games over the last 11 years) and he’s also shown that he can still produce when he’s not healthy. He wants to stay in the lineup, even when he’s not close to 100 percent. We’re not buying him for base running or defense.  

If I were drafting tomorrow, I’d have no problem taking Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt or Giancarlo Stanton over Cabrera. After that, it’s a conversation. Is Carlos Gomez worth consideration in the middle of the first round? Is any pitcher worth that tag, even someone as dominant as Clayton Kershaw? Are you willing to spend a premium pick on someone who might not be ready in March or April? These are questions everyone has to answer for themselves. For the time being, I’m giving Cabrera the benefit of the doubt. 

Tiger Tales: The club would like to see Joe Nathan take the closing job and run with it, though he’s 40 and is coming off a horrendous season (4.81 ERA, seven blown saves, five homers, 29 walks). Joakim Soria is a solid Plan B, albeit he didn’t pitch that well after his acquisition at the trade deadline . . . Rajai Davis has a sneaky way of playing more each season than anyone expects, but the Tigers might stop that trend now that Anthony Gose is on the roster. Goes is a better defender in center field, while Davis is the superior offensive player. The big concern with Davis: his career OPS is .804 against left-handers but just .645 versus the righties. If this turns into a straight platoon, Davis would be on the shallow end of it . . . If you need a Home Run Derby guy or someone to chuck a baseball 300 feet, Yoenis Cespedes is your man. But his offensive game becomes less interesting the closer you examine him (which might explain why he’s been traded twice in six months). A .263 average and .316 OBP isn’t what you expect from a corner outfielder making decent coin, and even his .464 career slugging percentage is a disappointment. Maybe leaving Oakland will push the numbers up, though Cespedes was comfortable enough at home to post a .277/.343/.490 slash there. Cespedes has the arm for right field but not the experience; thus, the Tigers will probably sink or swim with Martinez in that key spot . . . Alfredo Simon steps into the rotation as the Rick Porcello replacement, and both right-handers have the same game plan (throw strikes, rely on ground-ball outs). Your league format makes the call on Simon – he's not someone you can trust if K/9 is the golden goose, but he might be a sneaky, underrated commodity in deeper pools that have more liberal rules. Double-digit wins and an ERA under 4 seems within reach . . . I wish I saw Ian Kinsler's monster year coming. Oh, I thought he'd do fine in the womb of the Detroit lineup, but I also expected him to miss the Arlington undertow, and I didn't expect a full season, either. You could probably win a few bar bets centered on Kinsler's GP and RBI columns from last year. He was also one of the few Tigers who played acceptable defense. Sure, Kinsler's walk rate plummeted, but when the production is this good, I'm not going to sweat it. He looks like a solid option somewhere in the fourth, fifth or sixth round of your draft. He's currently No. 4 on my second-base board.