Detroit – Hey, what's with all the doom and gloom? Pitchers and catchers report in 12 days; that's the first sign of spring, right? You remember spring, a time of rebirth and hopefulness, a time when nobody's lost a game and everybody thinks they can win it all.
If you've been listening to or reading the national and local pundits this past week, though, you'd be hard-pressed to feel much hopefulness about the Tigers. The consensus seems to be that their time as legitimate World Series contenders is up. They won't be able to make up for the loss of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, the bullpen is still too unstable and there are far too many unproven and unknown factors.
And that was before Victor Martinez tore his surgically-repaired left meniscus last week.
I heard one analyst on MLB Network last week say the Tigers, because of a bloated payroll, will soon face their day of reckoning, predicting they would become the American League version of the Phillies in a few short years.
Amplifying the point, ESPN's Keith Law rated the team's farm system as the worst in baseball while his colleague Jayson Stark noted the Tigers have $330 million tied up in Cabrera (who will be 32 in April) and Martinez (36) through 2023.
Both Cabrera and Martinez could miss the start of the season, which has people concluding the Tigers are going to start slowly, and given that they play 28 of their first 35 games against much-improved teams from the AL Central, it only stands to reason they are going to dig too deep a hole to climb out of.
Woah, woah, woah. Let's pump the breaks on this for a second. Let's not go straight to the worst-case scenario and bury the boys before the first team meeting, group stretch and long toss of the spring.
If I may step out of my own personal, typically negative, comfort zone for a second, I'd like to illuminate a couple of pertinent facts.
1. The Tigers are not an old team.
The only "old" players are closer Joe Nathan (40), Martinez (36) and maybe Rajai Davis (35). The core of the team are players still in the prime of their careers – though you can argue some are approaching the latter end of that spectrum. Cabrera is going to be 32 in April. Justin Verlander is 32. Ian Kinsler is 33. Yoenis Cespedes is 30. David Price is 29. Anibal Sanchez will be 31 this month. Joaqim Soria is 31.
An aside on Cabrera: Does anybody really think his days as a dominant hitter are winding down? I can easily see him being an ultra-productive designated hitter through age 40. Edgar Martinez hit .305 with 164 home runs, 669 RBI and an OPS of .930 from the ages of 35 through 41. Raul Ibanez hit 167 home runs with 628 RBI and a .789 OPS from the ages of 35 through 42.
I like Cabrera's chances on matching or bettering those post-35 numbers.
But to say the Tigers are going to be the Phillies in a couple of years is a stretch given the strong group of young players either already at the Major League level or about break through -- third baseman Nick Castellanos, outfielder J.D. Martinez, shortstop Jose Iglesias, catcher James McCann, outfielders Anthony Gose and Steven Moya, plus a bunch of talented young arms (Shane Greene, Bruce Rondon, Ian Krol, Blaine Hardy, Buck Farmer, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Drew VerHagen, Kevin Ziomek, Austin Kubitza, just to name some).
There certainly could be a drop-off in the next couple of years. That's only natural. But unless there is a significant change in ownership or administration, I can't see it falling completely off the cliff.
2. Martinez's injury isn't career- or season-threatening.
I get that Martinez is 36. I get that this is the same knee upon which micro-fracture surgery was performed in 2012, a surgery that cost him that entire season. But this is a different, much less severe injury. In 2012, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, which required the micro-fracture surgery. Subsequent to that, he had the lateral and medial meniscus repaired.
Meniscus is cartilage, not ligament. The surgery he will undergo Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla., is to repair the medial meniscus. Dr. James Andrews will either clean it up (by trimming a piece of it) or completely repair it.
Given Martinez's age, medical history and the fact that he was in good shape before the injury, there is a good chance Dr. Andrews will opt to clean it up. If so, a four-to-six week recovery time is most likely.
If it needs a full repair, Martinez could be out some 12 weeks.
OK, so what's the worst-case scenario? He's out until the end of April, maybe early May? Let's say he's out until May 8, returning after the Tigers' 10-game road trip through Minnesota, Kansas City and Chicago. He will have missed 29 games. Twenty nine of 162. Is that a season-breaker?
You say, well, who knows how he will perform once he gets back. Remember how he struggled early when he came back in 2013? Come on, now. Missing a full offseason and then a full baseball season, like he did in 2012, is a much longer layoff than this worst-case-projected 12-week recovery would be. You can't compare the two.
People are trying to draw conclusions on Martinez's return from Ryan Howard's experience. That doesn't wash at all, either.
Howard had meniscus surgery at the All-Star break in 2013 and missed the rest of the season. First, Howard, though younger, weighs about 70 pounds more than Martinez. Two, Howard was a year removed from Achilles tendon surgery when he tore the meniscus. Both were negatively impacting him. Third, the Phillies fell quickly out of contention after the All-Star break and there was no reason to rush Howard back.
Shine a light
Obviously, losing Martinez for any length of time is not optimal, especially with the possibility of Cabrera starting slowly as he recovers from serious ankle surgery. I am not trying to sing in the rain here.
But it's way too early in the process to shovel dirt on the 2015 Tigers. Our obsession with the question marks and concerns, a byproduct no doubt of last season's miserable ending, might be clouding our overall vision of this team. Here are some things to like and look forward to.
* A much-improved defense with Alex Avila and James McCann behind the plate, Kinsler and Iglesias up the middle, and Gose and Davis in center. The outfield defense will be much-improved with Cespedes and J.D. Martinez (or Davis, or Tyler Collins or Moya) in the corners. Love Torii Hunter to death, and his bat and leadership will be missed, but his range had shrunk severely in right field.
* A still-formidable offense, even if it is still right-handed heavy. At some point, sooner than later is my guess, manager Brad Ausmus is going to write the names of these healthy hitters in the middle of his lineup – Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Cespedes, Castellanos. He will have Kinsler hitting before that group. Not too shabby.
* Verlander is healthy and strong, coming off a full offseason work regimen. He may not be able to bring the consistent 98 mph gas any more, but he still possesses four elite pitches. The smart money is on a big-time bounce back year.
* Verlander, Price and Sanchez as the top three guns in the rotation – not what any sane observer would call a weak spot.
* With Rondon and Soria healthy, Ausmus has legitimate options should Nathan falter again. Also, there are eight to 10 other strong-armed prospects in the wings who will compete for bullpen work all season. There might not be the marquee names we'd all love, but there is quality depth. Unlike last season, Ausmus won't have to ride slumping relievers for very long.
* Greene could prove to be an upgrade on Porcello. Greene, like Porcello, throws a power sinker and cutter, but he has more average velocity (94 mph). He will welcome pitching in spacious Comerica Park, as opposed to hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. This guy is just scratching the surface.
So there you go. Some pockets of hope amidst the portents of doom. You are welcome.