Three reasons to be optimistic for 2016:
1. Top two: Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of spring training for the Tigers thus far has been the performance of Justin Verlander. The 33-year-old ace showed flashes of his former self with a strong second half to 2015 and if the first month of camp in Lakeland, Florida, is any indication, he is poised to pick up where he left off. Verlander has given up just three runs in four starts this spring -- all of which came in his most recent appearance on March 20 -- and he has posted a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings. If he remains healthy, the Tigers are in good shape, especially considering the addition of free agent Jordan Zimmermann, a true workhorse whose grit and competitive fire should push Verlander even more. Zimmermann also has had a stellar spring, a good omen for the state of the club’s rotation, one of the problem areas that contributed to the team’s demise last season. Another benefit? A now-healthy Anibal Sanchez, who battled both triceps inflammation and a bronchial issue early in camp but returned to the mound this week and, as manager Brad Ausmus recently told reporters, is a candidate to pitch the second game of the season.
2. Bullpen depth: Unlike the piecemeal, muddled mix of relievers Ausmus was saddled with last season, the Tigers now boast a sturdier stable of pitchers. Arguably one of the most important of general manager Al Avila’s offseason additions was bona fide closer Francisco Rodriguez. But Avila didn’t stop there in addressing one of the club’s most glaringly insufficient areas. Instead, he added Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe to take on setup roles, creating a crowded competition for the other four spots in the bullpen. Drew VerHagen has pitched well enough this spring to nail down one of those and Kyle Ryan has also had a strong camp. Last year’s persona non grata Bruce Rondon had a few impressive outings in competing for a role, but was demoted because of his inconsistency, with the team hoping he can work his way back for a spot. Incumbents like Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson are battling setbacks of varying degrees -- Hardy is taking time off for “fatigue” that is not believed to be serious, while Wilson has yet to make a Grapefruit League appearance due to a lat strain -- which makes the battle a bit murkier. Don’t rule out longshots like Lendy Castillo and Logan Kensing, both of whom have had surprisingly good camps. Shane Greene is also a long-man option out of the pen should the Tigers keep Matt Boyd in the fifth starter role.
3. Proven stars: The Tigers have ample experience in some of their key offensive roles, with veterans like Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton expected to fuel the club’s production from the plate. Cabrera finally appears to be healthy after a full offseason of recovery, and considering what he accomplished while hampered by injury last season -- the two-time AL MVP snagged his fourth batting title -- that portends well for 2016. Kinsler had a terrific second half last year and is on a tear this spring. And though Upton has started slow since joining his new club as a marquee free agent this winter, his career stats leave little cause for concern. The nine-year veteran has five seasons of 26 home runs or more and a lifetime batting average of .271. If Victor Martinez can bounce back and J.D. Martinez can prove that a team-leading 38 home run 2015 was no fluke, the Tigers will be a force offensively.
Two reasons to be pessimistic for 2016:
1. Injuries: The Tigers have been lucky to avoid any earth-shattering injuries through the first five weeks of spring training, but some of the setbacks suffered early in camp have devolved into issues of greater concern. Designated hitter Martinez, who was a shell of himself last season as a result of a bad knee, could begin the year on the disabled list because of a hamstring strain. Daniel Norris, one of the team’s brightest young pitchers and a candidate for the fifth starting spot, will begin the year on the DL with a back problem (three non-displaced fractures in the spinal process). Reliever Alex Wilson, who was originally given a few days off as a result of shoulder tenderness, was later revealed to be suffering from a lat strain that has postponed his Grapefruit League debut. And let’s not forget Cameron Maybin, who will miss the start of the season with a broken wrist. Individually, none of these injuries are too harrowing, but collectively they are a bit concerning, especially considering how much the Tigers suffered last season as a result of poor health.
2. Strength of division: Let’s face it, even if the Tigers are at full strength, they are competing within arguably the toughest division in baseball. The reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals will be the team to beat, but any team in the AL Central could mount a serious campaign in 2016. The White Sox, if they can put the Adam LaRoche debacle behind them, can rely on a strong pitching staff. The Indians have rising stars in Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. And the Minnesota Twins shouldn’t be overlooked, either, with oodles of potential in Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Byung Ho Park. The Tigers once ran the table in the Central, with four straight division titles from 2011-14, but with a collection of teams so stacked, the race is now wide open and anyone’s game.