Henning: Tigers' chances hinge on pitching, big bats

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Those folks streaming through Comerica Park’s cold concourses Saturday, bundled in their coats and gloves and fur-lined hoods, seemed particularly animated, even by TigerFest’s high-voltage standards.

“There’s a buzz,” said Ron Colangelo, the Tigers vice president of communications, who had noticed the same energy.

The reasons, in no particular order:

■ This is Detroit and Michigan and a new baseball season is a few weeks away. That gets blood pumping in an old and deep baseball market.

■ Justin Upton’s arrival last week turned a town and audience somewhat tepid about a team’s chances into a community that senses the Tigers have a shot.

■ Al Avila’s first offseason as Tigers general manager was about as good as it could have been, particularly in treating an old sore spot on this team: the bullpen.

The question, from Woodward Avenue to Copper Harbor, is whether a team accustomed to winning, but fresh from a last-place tumble, can again be a playoff team with a decent chance of winning a World Series.

The answer: Yes. But it will require some things happening, not all of which are typically cited.

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No. 1, and an easy call: Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez must stay healthy and productive. Cabrera turns 33 in three months, Martinez last month hit 37. As the past few years have proven, it gets rugged as you get older, physically and from a performance standpoint, so these are hardly givens, particularly in the case of Martinez.

No. 2: Anibal Sanchez is required to have a Sanchez-grade season with 30 starts and something approaching 180 good innings. Even more than Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann, who are relatively safe in terms of projection, Sanchez is key. If he holds together the No. 3 spot, the Tigers have their bridge to the back-end starters and a potentially solid rotation.

No. 3: The Tigers will need as many plus surprises in 2016 as they got bad breaks in 2015. This isn’t asking for a lot, because a team suddenly has more arms — starters and relievers — than it has had in years. But it will mean some brand of luck and serendipity must be realized from a group of pitchers whose seasons could go either way. Among some names here: Daniel Norris (the safest bet to star), Shane Greene, perhaps rookie Michael Fulmer, and very likely a reliever who has been dismissed for good reason but who could become an inning-changing weapon: Bruce Rondon.

If there isn’t a relative alignment of the above planets, the Tigers face the specter of being a $200 million, middle-of-the-pack team. Worse, if they tease and contend just long enough to avoid a July deadline sell-off, but miss a playoff ticket, the Tigers could be looking at a long and painful rebuilding process hamstrung impossibly by a payroll that can’t easily be undone.

It hinges on pitching, and on the Tigers’ game-changers, their No. 3 (Cabrera) and No. 4 (Martinez) hitters staying intact and free of injuries and falloffs that destroyed Detroit’s 2015 season.

It’s doable, even if fans cringe at names such as Rondon, or Nick Castellanos, a third baseman who in six weeks turns 24 and who is a good pick to have a bigger season with the bat, and a slightly improved year on defense.

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Tigers’ best is necessary

The Tigers’ problem is that anything beneath a superior level of play can be hazardous in a division as steadily rugged as the American League Central.

Kansas City has played in the past two World Series and has won one of them. The Indians did little during the offseason, but they have pitching, and a super-talented youngster at shortstop in Francisco Lindor. They will play for keeps.

So, too, will the Twins, all because they have a superstar emerging in Byron Buxton, a slugger in Miguel Sano, and a line of young power pitching that is moving closer to Target Field.

The White Sox? They got Todd Frazier during the offseason and will play the Tigers tough, especially with Chris Sale showing up in too many series. Dismiss the White Sox at one’s own peril.

What must be remembered is this is baseball and every year there are teams that take prognostications and turn them to ash. The Tigers, who might be underestimated after last year’s weirdness, could cheat age and question marks and coalesce on enough fronts to make owner Mike Ilitch’s 2016 gamble a good one.

Making their pitch

But it will rest primarily on pitching. The rotation is, on its surface, seaworthy, but there are questions about Sanchez’s health, Norris’ readiness for regular work, Mike Pelfrey’s ability to keep his team in games, and how much trustworthy help exists if any of the front five gets hurt or gets hammered.

Avila has done a remarkable job adding bullpen arms: a true closer in Francisco Rodriguez, as well as a pair of reassuring set-up men in Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe. Drew VerHagen should help, as will Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson. Rondon is the X-factor. He should — should — be healthy and reformed following last season’s necessary lessons in maturity. If he finally has straightened out, the least predictable area on a team’s roster — the bullpen — should be in better stead than it has been in five years.

That’s banking on a lot of good things happening, this scenario in which the Tigers contend and win. But in the same way as last year’s bizarre stream of aches and accidents and performance blackouts seemed to meld into a star-crossed season, the Tigers are probably due for a handful of breaks in 2016.

If they get those, and it’s conceivable they could, Ilitch and his fan base will be quite happy with the 2016 product.