By: Will Burchfield
Amid all the local prognostications surrounding the Tigers this time of year, it can be helpful to consider a national perspective.
The view from up close isn’t always the same as the view from afar.
So what does Jon Morosi, reporter for MLB.com and FOX Sports, see as he sizes up the 2017 Tigers?
“There’s still a lot of talent on this team. It’s not as good as it was in 2013 or 2012, clearly, but to me it’s still a team that, if things go right, can make the playoffs,” Morosi told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket.
Morosi said the Tigers are “clearly behind Cleveland,” but feels they otherwise stack up well in the A.L. Central.
“I think the narrative of building a wild card team is a little easier in this division…because I don’t think it’s quite as competitive as the other two divisions in the American League,” he said.
But Morosi is hardly ready to punch the Tigers’ ticket to the postseason. The absence of J.D. Martinez to start the season, the much-maligned bullpen and the backend of the rotation are all things that give him pause.
Martinez will miss the first three to four weeks with a sprained right foot, forcing Ausmus into a tough decision regarding the batting order. Nick Castellanos had seemed destined to start the year in the two spot, but the injury to Martinez has thrown things into flux.
“I saw the reports yesterday about Ausmus thinking about where he’s going to arrange Castellanos to start the year without J.D. I think that’s a really crucial decision and I think he’s right about being wary of shortening the lineup too much by having Castellanos bat second,” Morosi said.
In short, Morosi isn’t convinced that an aging Victor Martinez can provide Miguel Cabrera sufficient protection on his own.
“If Victor isn’t quite the Victor that he was four years ago, then you wonder, ‘Okay, how are we going to handle the middle part of that lineup if they sort of pitch around Miggy a little bit?’ Do they then feel like there aren’t quite the repercussions there used to be without J.D. there in the fifth spot? It’s a lineup that probably isn’t as deep as it was last year, certainly to start the year without J.D,” said Morosi.
Where the lineup is a new concern for the Tigers, the bullpen is a familiar one. Detroit returns the same core of relievers that finished 13th in the A.L. last season with a 4.22 ERA.
“I know it’s certainly a common lament around this great state about the Tiger bullpen, but I’ll say this. I think you saw last year that K-Rod wasn’t quite ready to begin the year, and he really has not pitched that many innings this spring. So I think that’s one more concern,” Morosi said, “and then I look at the way the rotation lines up.”
Outside of Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer, Morosi isn’t sold on the Tigers starting pitchers.
“(Anibal) Sanchez looked good over the weekend, but how sustainable is that? (Daniel) Norris had a very short outing yesterday. (Jordan) Zimmermann had a very good outing over the weekend, but, again, he’s still just coming back from the neck issue he had all last year,” said Morosi. “So I think the middle part of that bullpen and the length of the rotation is a two-pronged concern for Brad Ausmus as the year gets underway.”
One pitcher who could help fortify the bullpen is Joe Jimenez, but the hard-throwing righty was sent to minor league camp on Sunday as part of the Tigers’ latest round of cuts. Morosi feels Jimenez was a victim of limited use in the World Baseball Classic, where he logged just three innings for Puerto Rico.
“Clearly he’s shown that he’s a major-league caliber player right now. The issue that I have is, with the WBC, I don’t know that he got the consistent work that he really needed to have that strong foundation to begin the year,” Morosi said. “I think he’s going to be a Major League pitcher this year, but I just wonder if delaying it a little bit is prudent from the standpoint of making sure he’s got the right innings under him.”
“Also,” Morosi added later, “I think there’s always incentive to start the year with the guys that are out of (minor league) options so you have an easier time maybe to get guys through waivers, if you have to, later on.”
It is for this same reason, Morosi suggested, that the Tigers could hand the fifth spot in the rotation to Sanchez instead of Matt Boyd.
“To me, it’s as much to do with options and the ability to send Boyd to the minor leagues as anything else. I think that’s really a key factor here,” said Morosi, while also pointing out that the Tigers would like to extract some value from the $16 million they owe Sanchez in 2017.
“I think it’s really a matter of sustaining your depth as best you can,” he went on. “I realize the numbers for Sanchez last year weren’t great, but the spring training performance for him has been good enough that it justifies him starting the year in the rotation.”
That would leave Boyd, whose performance this spring Morosi deemed “phenomenal,” as the odd man out.
“It’s not necessarily fair to Boyd,” said Morosi, “but it might be the best decision in the big picture.”