In baseball, most teams enter the season with known quantities, unproven youngsters, and some guys who need to step up, and the Detroit Tigers are no different. Detroit’s mix of lethal starting pitching and legitimate star power on offense is a given, and should be enough to put them in the pennant chase. But if a few key players are able to step and produce above their recent track record then this team could be in store for something special.
In this article I’ll look at one x-factor each from the position players, starting pitching, and the bullpen. If these three guys can get it going then it’s going to be an awfully fun summer in the Motor City.
It’s easy to pick on the oft-injured Avila who spends more time hunched over in pain behind the plate than he does ripping doubles to the gap. But the reason why we care so much as to get irritated with his performance is because we know there’s more to Avila than what he has shown in three of his four big league seasons.
Only once has he hit above .243 and that was in his dynamic 2011 season when he hit .295 with 19 homers, 33 doubles, and 82 RBI’s.
After taking repeated shots behind the plate last year, which eventually withered his offensive game down to a nub, the now 27-year old catcher finally reconfigured his catching gear, going with heavier equipment. He appeared to get healthier in the final month of the season and the results were in tune with that assessment as he hit .343 with a .430 on-base % in September before struggling again during the playoffs.
The point is this: Avila will bat in the bottom half of the order all year long, and despite his recent play, is the one guy down there who has legitimate 20-home run potential. Keeping company with Andy Dirks, Jose Iglesias, and Nick Castellanos in the bottom four of the order means that the Tigers will need Avila to produce at the plate with extra-base punch.
Detroit doesn’t need an All-Star season like 2011 out of their catcher. But a season in which he hits .270 with a strong on-base % and middle-to-upper teens home run power would be a substantial boon to the offense.
Some might say that Justin Verlander’s return to excellence would be the key here. However, I am anointing Porcello as the x-factor of this rotation for a few reasons:
- The 25-year old is fresh off of his best season since his rookie year, finally showing the ability to strike hitters out by logging a career-high 142 K’s and not losing any control along the way as he walked just 42 batters in 177 innings. He was a handful of shaky starts away from a truly dominant season. There is no reason to expect the growth curve to stop now as he is still a few years short of his expected prime.
- With Doug Fister gone, and assuming the Tigers make the playoffs again, they’ll need a new 4th starter in October. As much as drawing a lefty like Drew Smyly into that mix makes sense, expect Porcello to get the nod. He’s been waiting for this moment for a few years now, working out of the bullpen in a minimal capacity during the postseason. If Porcello can prove reliable in big moments during the regular season then he’ll make this an easy decision for Brad Ausmus.
- And finally, if Porcello does put up a big year, improving upon last year’s numbers across the board, it makes it that much easier to let Max Scherzer yank $200M or more from another team’s pocketbook next offseason. A 1-2-3 of Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and Porcello (if he continues his progression) is very strong and would allow the Tigers to spend some money on fixing the vacancies in their offense that will be left by Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez’s expected departures.
The problem isn’t the talent. He has all of it and then some. The problem isn’t so much the comfort level anymore as he had really settled into his role prior to being derailed last September and October by an arm injury. The concern is quite simply the workload in relation to what the Tigers need out of him.
The Tigers are expecting big things from Rondon, just like they were last offseason. This time though it’ll be in an 8th inning role. With a bullpen consisting of Joe Nathan and a band of unknowns Ausmus is going to need Rondon, who can be a legitimate difference-maker, to give him 70+ innings of great baseball.
The most Rondon has ever thrown was last year’s 58.1 innings between AAA Toledo and Detroit. He barely made it into September before being shut down. This simply can’t happen again with the degree of doubt that shrouds this pen.
As good as Detroit’s rotation is, and as deep into games as they tend to pitch, the front-end of the Tigers pen is rarely called upon, but the back-end must be stout. A healthy and dominant Rondon coupled with Nathan would put minds at ease.
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