By: Will Burchfield
The Tigers have a tall task in the American League Central this season.
To keep up with the loaded Cleveland Indians – and fend off the athletic Kansas City Royals – they’ll need big performances from a number of players. They generally know what to expect from their stars – the Verlanders, the Cabreras, the Kinslers – so that’s not really where they stand to gain ground on last season’s 86-win pace. Rather, it’s increased production from the team’s second tier of players that could make a big difference in 2017.
In that regard, keep an eye on these three Tigers.
1. Nicholas Castellanos
Consider this about Castellanos’ 2016 season. Despite playing in the fewest games (110) of his three-year career, he set personal highs in home runs (18) and runs scored (54). He also posted career bests in average (.285) and OPS (.827), and looks poised to carry this momentum into 2017 based on his scorching performance in spring training.
“Really I just feel like I’m building off of last year and continuing to make the strides to move forward as a better baseball player,” Castellanos said on Friday. “I don’t really think it’s one thing, one iota of information that I found out that is all of a sudden allowing me to have success. I think it’s just the gradual maturity and the process of being a Major League baseball player.”
Castellanos’ trajectory aligns with his age. He has improved with each season in the majors, a trend that’s likely to continue as he enters his age-25 campaign. Then there’s the fact that he looks slated to bat second this year, up from his typical spot of sixth or seventh, affording him significantly more plate appearances and the benefit of hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera.
[RELATED: Castellanos In Awe Of Cabrera]
Take Castellanos’ 2016 numbers and then adjust for the following in 2017: full health, continued development and more opportunity. (For reference, he was on a 25-home run, 85-RBI pace last season prorated over 155 games.) 30 homers and 100 RBI, plus an average near .300 and an OPS near .900 doesn’t seem out of reach for Castellanos in his fourth full season in the bigs.
2. Daniel Norris
Know how many times Norris surrendered more than three earned runs in his 13 starts last year? Not once. Going deep into games was certainly an issue – he pitched past the sixth inning on just three occasions – but Norris proved over and over he has the stuff to keep big league hitters in check.
His effectiveness stems from his penchant for strikeouts. Relying heavily on a mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider, Norris averaged 9.2 K/9 last season, trailing only Justin Verlander among Detroit’s starting pitchers. He was especially effective down the stretch, going 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA and 11.5 K/9 in his final five starts.
The 23-year-old lefty credited a change in his perspective for his late-season surge.
“With baseball, I almost care too much. It’s the one thing I’m super passionate about — it just gets overwhelming at times,” Norris said in the offseason. “There was a turning point last year where I was literally on the steps about to (take the field) and start the game. A teammate came up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Just have fun.’ I went out there and from that point on I threw the ball better than I’ve ever thrown it because I just had that same mindset. It was like night and day.”
Norris is in the same position now as he was entering last season, with two essential differences: he’s healthy and he’s relaxed. (For a pitcher as introspective as Norris, don’t discount the value of mental peace.) If he can stay that way for the duration of the season, he stands to have the breakout year everyone’s been waiting for.
3. Justin Upton
What a season it was for Upton in 2016, his first with the Tigers. He was awful, he was awesome, he was benched, he was redeemed. When it was all said and done, he had put together an undeniably productive offensive campaign, one that actually justified his $22.125 million salary. (Seriously.)
Upton’s rebound from a dreadful first half was concentrated in late August and September. In his final 38 games, he slugged 18 home runs, racked up 41 RBI and posted an OPS of 1.162. It was an episode of offensive catharsis for the Tigers left fielder, who released all that pent-up production in a six-week fury. He won’t hit at that pace throughout 2017, but Upton is much closer to the player we saw at the end of last season than the beginning.
“He’s always been a big-time producer,” general manager Al Avila said in the offseason. “If you look at the analytics and his history, there’s consistency there with the batting average, the home runs, the RBIs, years and years of being a star-type player. So the way he started for us last year was an aberration, in our opinion, that is not going to be the norm moving forward. We fully expect for him to have a more even year.”
In his interactions with Upton throughout the offseason, Avila detected a much more comfortable player.
“Just seeing how he went about his business this winter, you see him a lot more calm, cool and more himself,” said Avila.
Freed from the pressure of a brand-new contract and aided by a year of facing A.L. pitchers, Upton looks poised to build on last September and make a major impact in 2017.