Are the Detroit Tigers back to being contenders?
Take a look at their aggressive offseason and liberal spending, and it's clear that was the aim of an abundance of signings that brought a load of new talent to Motown. Also obvious is the driving force behind the all-in approach.
Mike Ilitch, clearly rankled over an abysmal 2015 campaign (74-87) and desperate to win a world championship, opened the coffers and directed a determined effort this winter. Not only did the 86-year-old patriarch allow Al Avila to spend aggressively this offseason, but he also effectively mandated that his first-year general manager pursue some of the biggest names on the free-agent market.
Just when the Tigers appeared to be wrapping up a frenetic winter flush with activity -- and after Avila insisted the team was unlikely to engage in any big-game hunting -- the club made a splash by signing outfielder Justin Upton.
The six-year, $132.75 million pact, which ensured the Tigers exceed the luxury tax threshold for 2016, was an unequivocal sign that the team was prepared to go for it.
With that sort of financial commitment comes a host of lofty expectations. Simply making the playoffs, as the team has done four of the past five seasons, will not suffice. Ilitch has been steadfast about his quest for a World Series, and the window is narrowing.
What do the Tigers need to do to vie for a title?
Justin Verlander remains the most critical component in the equation. The club's resident ace was dashed by disappointment when he sustained a triceps injury that landed him on the disabled list the past spring. When Verlander returned to the mound in mid-June, it was with mixed results.
By the time Verlander returned to form in late July, the team was forced to make a tough decision: stay the course or sell at the trade deadline in hopes of adding assets for the future. The Tigers, under former GM Dave Dombrowski, chose the latter, and the team's season skittered along from there.
The silver lining was that Verlander seemed to get stronger as the season progressed, and he gained confidence and command with each start. Perhaps that is what emboldened Ilitch to view the future with both promise and potential.
Assuming Verlander can sustain the momentum from the second half of the past season, the Tigers' rotation appears to be in good shape. Behind Verlander will be free-agent acquisition Jordan Zimmermann, who signed a five-year, $110 million deal in November, and a healthy Anibal Sanchez, whose 2015 season was cut short by shoulder injury. Another free-agent signing, Mike Pelfrey, should anchor the back end of the rotation, with the fifth spot up for grabs. Although 22-year-old Daniel Norris appears to be the front-runner to nail down the job, Shane Greene and Matt Boyd should also be competing for the gig.
Avila stressed the team's dire need for pitching, and he acted accordingly this winter by adding to the team's rotation and greatly improving the club's beleaguered bullpen.
Avila acquired a bona fide closer in trading for Francisco Rodriguez and brought in setup men such as Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe. Add in the likes of Blaine Hardy, Alex Wilson, Drew VerHagen and, possibly, prospect Michael Fulmer, and the bullpen already appears to be significantly deeper.
Offensively, the Tigers are in good shape, if healthy. The club is hoping for a bounce-back season from Victor Martinez, who was hampered by injury for much of last year. Manager Brad Ausmus said Martinez is good to go for spring training, so one can bet he is eager to see what the 37-year-old switch-hitter is capable of after a full offseason to rest and recover. Having both Martinez and Miguel Cabrera healthy will be a massive coup for the heart of the lineup. If the Tigers continue to receive steady production from recently re-signed J.D. Martinez, who led the club last year with 38 home runs, and Ian Kinsler, who had a fantastic second half in 2015, the club will boast one of the most dangerous lineups in the American League.
Reason for optimism is plentiful, as the Tigers methodically addressed the team's glaring holes this offseason, but spring training is only just beginning. As the Washington Nationals proved during their disastrous implosion the past season, expectations can be crippling.
Baserunning remains an issue -- the team is enlisting Kirk Gibson to help during spring training -- and just one significant injury could alter the team's course. Plus, the competition is fierce. After all, the team to beat -- the 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals -- plays in Detroit's division.
By no means are the Tigers a lock for the playoffs, but after months of aggressive spending, anything less would be a great disappointment.