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Alligator Blood - A Detroit Tigers preview

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A look ahead at an AL Central foe on the periphery of the playoff picture

No words.
No words.
Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

When I think of the Detroit Tigers' offseason and season-to-date, I'm reminded of this quote from one of my favorite movies, Rounders:

"Hanging around, hanging around. Kid's got alligator blood. Can't get rid of him." ~ Teddy KGB

The rest of the AL Central has been waiting patiently for the Detroit Tigers to bottom out and pay the price for their many years of low draft slots, handing out hefty contracts, and selling whatever talent they could accumulate in their farm system for veterans that could help put them over the top. It appeared that 2015 represented the beginning of their downfall, as they won just 74 games and finished last in the AL Central. To make matters worse, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez were signed to big contracts that had begun to cross over into their respective underwater phases. Finally, it would be time for the Tigers to accept their fate.

However, owner Mike Ilitch and new general manager Al Avila had other thoughts. Seeing that their current core was a weird combination of untradeable and too good to plunge into the dregs of the major leagues, they chose to double-down in the short-term and add a couple more big contracts to the mix. Former Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann was signed for $110 million through his age-34 season early in the offseason. Detroit followed up that splash by surprisingly inking power-hitting corner outfielder Justin Upton for almost $133 million through his age-33 season. While the contracts carry plenty of risk, fewer heavy decline years are included compared to those for the former trio; there's at least some optimism that these players will be useful through their expiration.

Thus far in 2016, the Tigers have received widely variable performances from their big-money players. Cabrera won a batting title last season, but his power had been in rapid decline for a couple seasons. He's bounced back a good deal in the power department so far this year, though nowhere near to the extent of his back-to-back MVP campaigns from a few years ago. Martinez was one of the worst players in the major leagues in 2015 and looked the part of very expensive deadweight. Now, he's back to hitting over .330 with some pop. Just when it looked like things would lighten up, the Tigers' middle of the order is back to being a nightmare for opposing pitchers.

Also on the positive side of the ledger is Zimmermann, who boasts one of the lowest ERAs in the American League thanks primarily to his stellar control. Zimmermann's velocity and strikeouts are down a little this season, but neither has negatively affected his results thus far. Verlander's ERA is less glowing, but don't let it fool you; he's throwing the ball well this season. This post-peak version of Verlander sits in the 93-94 mph range with his fastball. His strikeouts are up from the previous two seasons, most likely because he's getting better break and dip on his off-speed offerings. Verlander is nowhere near what he once was, but he still has the talent to be a legitimate number-two starter.

Of course, as the Tigers are currently below-.500, these nice performances have been somewhat negated by poor ones elsewhere. While always a streaky player, the version of Upton that's shown up in Detroit is simply unrecognizable. He's been striking out more than Adam Dunn, walking about as often as Dayan Viciedo, and showing about as much power as Gordon Beckham. If these unfortunate ex-Sox comparisons aren't doing it for you, he's been about as productive as Jerry Sands in far more plate appearances. It's unlikely that Upton will continue to go full LaRoche, but the Tigers have to be regretting this one.

Another high-earning disaster has been Anibal Sanchez, who's led the American League in home runs allowed both this year and last after having one of baseball's lowest homer rates from 2013-14. Sanchez's velocity is down a shade from his peak years, but that doesn't come close to explaining such a stunning reversal. He says his problems are mental, but whatever the cause, Sanchez has simply lost the ability to command his fastball and this year has sometimes had problems finding the strike zone at all. The Tigers elected to remove him from the rotation in favor of lefty Matt Boyd, groover of low-90s fastballs.

The remainder of the rotation is filled by Michaels Fulmer and Pelfrey. Fulmer was the top prospect the Tigers acquired for Yoenis Cespedes. The hard-throwing righty has stymied major league batters with his slider and changeup but his fastball and sinker have been quite hittable. The full package has been average, yet promising thus far, and Fulmer could be a member of the Detroit rotation for years to come. Mike Pelfrey has pitched like Mike Pelfrey; he hasn't struck anyone out and has been hit really hard. Prospect Daniel Norris, who was acquired for David Price and has been pitching well at Triple-A Toledo, could supplant him soon.

To have success, opponents need to take advantage of the Tigers' weaker starters and leaky bullpen, because the offense has been humming along quite effectively. In addition to the core, Ian Kinsler's power is back, J.D. Martinez is well on his way to another 30-plus homer season, third baseman Nick Castellanos is in the midst of a breakout campaign, and center fielder Cameron Maybin, acquired in an offseason deal with the Braves, has been the hottest hitter on the team since returning from injury in mid-May. Sure, defensive stalwart Jose Iglesias' bat has gone limp and both catchers are living below the Mendoza line (with sub-par defense in the aggregate), but the Tigers have plenty of weapons at the plate.

That lineup will need to act quickly for the Tigers to make some headway in a division that's starting to sort itself out. With the future payroll commitments looking ugly and little money coming off the books after this season. It's unclear whether Ilitch will continue to want to make these big annual splashes in free agency if the team's revenue begins to decline from a prolonged lackluster performance. Detroit is hoping to squeeze one more postseason run out of a core built years ago from Cabrera, Verlander, Kinsler, Sanchez, Martinez, and Martinez. If this is the end of the Tigers' stretch of competitive teams, it was a great run that probably deserved a championship to show for it.

This is where the Rounders comparison breaks down. After his resilient showdown with Teddy KGB, the sky's the limit for Mike McDermott, a young man ready to bet on himself and fulfill his considerable potential. By contrast, the Tigers' bold and stubborn refusal to simply go away is likely only delaying (and possibly extending) a prolonged collapse.

Projected Record and Finish: 76-86, 4th place AL Central

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, June 3: Carlos Rodon vs. Jordan Zimmermann
  • Saturday, June 4: Chris Sale vs. Mike Pelfrey
  • Sunday, June 5: Jose Quintana vs. Justin Verlander

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Ian Kinsler - 2B

SP1. Justin Verlander - RHP

2. J.D. Martinez - RF

SP2. Jordan Zimmermann - RHP

3. Miguel Cabrera - 1B

SP3. Mike Pelfrey - RHP

4. Victor Martinez - DH

SP4. Michael Fulmer - RHP

5. Nick Castellanos - 3B

SP5. Matt Boyd - RHP

6. Justin Upton - LF

CL. Francisco Rodriguez - RHP

7. Cameron Maybin - CF

RP1. Justin Wilson - LHP

8. James McCann - C

RP2. Alex Wilson - RHP

9. Jose Iglesias - SS

RP3. Mark Lowe - RHP