By: Will Burchfield
Leading up to the 2017 season, we were sold on the potential of the Tigers. The pitch — the ruse? — centered on the fact they had won 86 games in 2016 despite considerable adversity. Injuries. Under-performances. (The Cleveland Indians.) With good health and regression to the mean in 2017, the thinking went, the Tigers would be capable of even more.
Through 53 games, they have 25 wins — a 76-win pace for the season. Gone is the optimism that surrounded this team two months ago. Taking its place is frustration, deep, vexing frustration, but also confusion as to how expectations could have been so high in the first place. Heck, there were people picking the Tigers to win the World Series. What did we miss in sizing them up? Where did we go so awry?
Health, for one, should never be taken for granted. But the Tigers banked so heavily on avoiding injury, discussed it with such confidence in the offseason, that it nearly became a given. Never mind the fact that they entered the spring with one of the oldest rosters in the league, headlined by an aging core. Because they were so crippled by injury in 2016 and because that couldn’t possibly happen again a year later, they’d stay healthy. They had to.
They haven’t, of course.
Two months into the season, J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler have all missed significant chunks of time. Martinez’s foot sprain was a fluke injury that can be chalked up to bad luck. But the ailments that have sidelined Cabrera (strained groin, sore oblique) and Kinsler (strained hamstring) feel more predictable given their age. Both players are 34 years old and have played over 1,500 big league games. Their bodies, even if they feel the same, are more susceptible than ever to general wear and tear. The same goes for a number of key players in the Tigers clubhouse. To expect this team to stay healthy was wholly unrealistic.
It was further assumed, idealistically so, that Jordan Zimmermann would regain his form as a top-of-the-rotation starter and that Justin Upton would produce more consistent offense in his second season in Detroit. At the same time, it was overlooked that Zimmermann was already on a downward trend when he signed with the Tigers two years ago and that Upton has always been a streaky hitter. If anything, the troubling trends both players exhibited in 2016 were likely to continue.
But the Tigers would surely improve with Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd displacing Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey in the rotation, right? That exchange had to be worth a few additional wins. It’s quite possible we overestimated the ceiling for both Norris and Boyd, at least in the short term. There is youth and then there is promise, and so far both pitchers have demonstrated much more of the former.
We were led to believe the Tigers underachieved in 2016. Is it possible the exact opposite is true? We saw Ian Kinsler rack up 28 homers and 83 RBI from the leadoff spot. We saw Francisco Rodriguez notch 44 saves. We saw Victor Martinez turn back the clock to his prime. We saw all these things and penciled in more of the same for 2017. Now that regression to the mean has taken hold, it’s not in the direction many had hoped.
Another thing we saw? Cameron Maybin post the best offensive numbers of his career. They weren’t sustainable and the Tigers weren’t wrong to trade him, but his was yet another source of production the team was unlikely to recover. Now, with most of the big bats struggling, that black hole in center field is deeper and darker than the Tigers had prepared for.
It is dangerous to assume things in baseball. There is so much room for miscalculation, so much possibility for misfortune. The Tigers have been undone by both through the first two months of the season. They figured players who struggled last year would rebound; those who excelled have regressed. They figured an old team would stay healthy; it can’t even seem to get healthy. Through the rose-colored lenses of March, the Tigers’ 25-28 start might look like a surprise. But was this team truly ready to flourish?
There is positive regression coming, to be sure. Cabrera isn’t going to hit .260 for the rest of the season, just as Kinsler won’t hit .240 and Nicholas Castellanos won’t hit .210. Jordan Zimmermann can’t possibly pitch to a 6.50 ERA. Those numbers will correct themselves soon. The injury bug figures to relent at some point, too, and the Tigers will be better for it. They will make a push and turn some heads. They will stick around in the A.L. Central for as long as management wants them to.
But we know where their ceiling lies — they just about reached it last year. Think about all those terrific individual performances in 2016, even some that have gone unmentioned here. Look where it got the Tigers. Might they have fared better had J.D. and Castellanos not missed long stretches of time? Sure, but they’ve already lost a month of production from J.D. this season and probably about the same from Castellanos given his tough-luck start. To push their ceiling higher, the Tigers need a breakout player to emerge.
Who is this year’s Michael Fulmer, this year’s Cameron Maybin? In the rotation, Norris and Boyd are the obvious candidates, although Boyd inspires less confidence with each passing start. In the lineup, the hope and the onus still fall on Castellanos. But he has a long, long way to go to fulfill his potential.
The same could be said of the Tigers. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe their potential was never all that high to begin with.
At their best, the Tigers are merely good. Is there any point in waiting around for them to get healthy?