By: Will Burchfield
At long last, the 2017 baseball season is here. The Tigers kick things off on Monday afternoon versus the White Sox (weather permitting), before welcoming in the Red Sox on Friday for the home-opener.
It is a critical season for the Tigers, who seem to be fighting for more than a potential playoff berth. In many ways, they’re fighting to keep the core of this roster together. With the organization at a crossroads and a new owner at the helm, the fate of this year’s team could go a long way in determining the makeup of those that follow.
Without further ado, here are five storylines to watch for the 2017 Tigers.
1. Michael Fulmer’s Encore
Much of the optimism surrounding the Tigers this season stems from the one-two punch at the top of the rotation: Justin Verlander and last year’s A.L. Rookie of the Year, Michael Fulmer. For Fulmer, the question is how he’ll adjust to a league that is sure to adjust to him. The burly right-hander faded down the stretch last season, perhaps in part due to hitters picking up on his pitches, so he’ll have to rediscover his edge in 2017. His first few starts will be telling.
2. A Center field Solution
Manager Brad Ausmus announced on Friday that JaCoby Jones and Andrew Romine will split time in center field to start the season. Jones was the dark-horse candidate to win the centerfield job throughout spring training and a strong performance in the Grapefruit League thrust him to the front of the pack. But he hasn’t assumed full control of the reins just yet. To evolve into the Tigers’ everyday center fielder, he’ll have to shore up his holes at the plate, particularly in regard to his strikeout rate. The opportunity is there for the 24 year old — it’s up to him to seize it.
3. Bullpen Saviors
The Tigers’ most obvious soft spot is their bullpen, but two young flamethrowers could help solidify things. It’s not too hard to envision Bruce Rondon, 26, and Joe Jimenez, 22, forming a sturdy late-game bridge to closer Francisco Rodriguez as the season progresses. Jimenez will have to earn a call-up from Triple-A, of course, and Rondon will have to find more consistency and control, but both pitchers have the goods to be dominant relievers. The Tigers, who lacked a reliable set-up man last season, would benefit greatly from the duo’s emergence.
4. J.D.’s Future
If the Tigers aren’t up to snuff over the first four months of the season, expect them to be sellers at the trade deadline. And expect J.D. Martinez to be their biggest name on the block. The 29-year-old right fielder is set to become an unrestricted free agent next winter and will likely be due a serious raise — somewhere in the realm of an additional $10-$15 million per year. That sounds like a prohibitive cost for the now fiscally-minded Tigers, who, depending on their playoff prospects, would be better served trading Martinez than losing him for nothing.
5. The Zimmermann Conundrum
Which Jordan Zimmermann will the Tigers get in 2017 — the one who claimed pitcher of the month honors last April, or the one, beset by injuries, who was drilled toward the end of the season? The answer will go a long way in determining the team’s fate. Zimmermann doesn’t have to be a Cy Young candidate for Detroit to contend, but a performance similar to last year’s – 9-7 with a 4.87 ERA – won’t cut it. What the Tigers need is what they signed last offseason from the Nationals. To wit: 30 starts, 15 wins and an ERA in the mid-to-low 3’s.