Henning: Tigers will be scratch above .500 at best

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander 's numbers are stacking up for a Hall of Fame induction.

Tampa, Fla. — Notes, thoughts – and observations – on a 2017 Tigers team that’s three weeks and change from playing games for real:

Justin Verlander’s evolving Hall of Fame career.

Quick trivia question to toss at a bar-stool companion next time conversation beats whatever’s in your glass:

In how many games has Justin Verlander pitched in his 11-year big-league life? How many has he started?

The answer, each way, is 352.

As a comparison, Curt Schilling, who when not driving away voters with some Neanderthal-era social commentary has been picking up steady Hall of Fame steam, started in 436 games (and another 133 as a reliever) during his 20 seasons in the bigs.

Schilling had a 3.46 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. Verlander is at 3.47 and 1.18. Schilling averaged 8.6 strikeouts and two walks per nine innings. Verlander: 8.5 and 2.7.

And as long as Verlander has anything remotely approaching the health with which he’s been knighted since he arrived with the Tigers in 2006, he’ll weave numbers better than a good many pitchers who already have earned, and will yet earn, a valet space at Cooperstown.

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He turned 34 a couple of weeks ago and this spring has looked like a replica of last season’s Verlander. Or, like all those Verlanders apart from his comparatively disjointed summers of 2013 and 2014.

He is on his way to the Hall of Fame — if that so-far indestructible right arm can stay sturdy for only a few more seasons.

Sizing up assorted Tigers pitchers, some of whom might as well be wearing team colors of black and blue following a tough first month.

Jordan Zimmermann: Healthy. Throwing well. Will yield his hits and runs, but solid overall.

Michael Fulmer: No sign of a slowdown. If there’s to be a sophomore struggle, nothing in spring camp has hinted hitters will have any more fun with his fastball-slider combo than they had in 2016.

Daniel Norris: So talented. He’ll steadily smooth out. Should be an All-Star-grade left-hander as early as this season.

Daniel Norris

Matthew Boyd: Has made perhaps more progress relative to talent than any of the Tigers’ young starters. Throws four good pitches.

Anibal Sanchez: Difficult to believe he’ll go north. Tigers must pay him either way. Looks today as if he’ll exit Lakeland with $21.8 million as severance salary. Remember that Sanchez is on the slight side (barely 6 feet). The Tigers front office wasn’t wild in 2012 about a long-term deal, knowing body size, age, and Sanchez’s past ills ranked as a gamble. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch felt differently. And that explains why he was signed — just as some of those earlier fears and realities are tied to some ragged recent years in Detroit.

Mike Pelfrey: The Tigers need a long reliever. Pelfrey could qualify, but it would require a different Pelfrey from the one on display this spring. Otherwise, he, too, will be handed a buyout ($8 million).

Kyle Ryan: Quietly, one of the better pitchers in camp. Can toss multiple innings. Throws left-handed. Should have a job.

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Bruce Rondon: Is there ever a spring in which Rondon isn’t an issue? He pulled into camp last month and seemed to have left part of his fastball on the Florida Turnpike. The Tigers assume his high-90s velocity will return. But assumptions and Rondon are dangerous when mixed.

Shane Greene: Has too much gunpowder in that arm to fail. It’s a bit bewildering why he hasn’t been more consistent. But Tigers, properly, will wait on a guy with some of the best pure stuff on Detroit’s staff.

Francisco Rodriguez, Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Justin Wilson: Good pitchers who are among safer bets to be trusted with the car keys late in a game. No serious issues, although Justin Wilson must get a second pitch going.

Notice that if you remove Sanchez and Pelfrey from the above cast, it leaves Tigers manager Brad Ausmus with (Verlander included) 12 pitchers.

That’s the way it probably would shake out today. But consider this name:

Arcenio Leon: He’s been one of spring camp’s few dazzlers. The Tigers signed Leon in October as a minor-league free agent, convinced the right-handed reliever had an arsenal that might be helpful in the days ahead.

He has pitched in four Grapefruit League games this month spanning 3⅓ innings. Thus far: no hits, no walks, four strikeouts, with a fastball that runs 94-97 alongside some impressive side-dish pitches.

“Of all the six-year minor-league free agents we’ve signed,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said after Saturday’s game, which saw the Yankees pop the Tigers, 7-1, at Steinbrenner Field, “we believed this was the guy who can do something for us.”

Leon came to Lakeland as a non-roster contestant, which led Saturday to a droll line from Ausmus.

“He’s played as well as anyone in camp,” Ausmus said, “and he’s not even in camp.”

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Leon’s someone to follow, particularly when the established cast is subject to blowouts, and when three more weeks remain for injuries and performances to carve a final dozen on Ausmus’ 25-man Opening Day manifest.

What the Tigers’ position gang has been displaying during a quiet spring camp.

Justin Upton: Can’t shake thoughts Upton will have a large year: 30-plus home runs, with more consistency, perhaps, than a notoriously streaky hitter has known in his 11 years in the big leagues. He’s tied for the team lead in Grapefruit League homers (prospect Dominic Ficociello also has three) and has been swinging better than his numbers.

Nicholas Castellanos: In step with a man who this spring added a couple of syllables to his first name (formal references, only), Castellanos is showing more and more dimension as a hitter and as a defender. He could make an All-Star team very soon. Look for 25-30 home runs this season, with a heavy batting average.

J.D. Martinez: This almost certainly will be his last year in Detroit. He knows it. He has been working on his defense, knowing a better two-way player will be that much more marketable as he hits free agency this fall. His bat will resemble the Martinez bat of past seasons. Dangerous.

JaCoby Jones: By mid-season, he could — and should — be the Tigers’ everyday center fielder. He probably needs a couple of good months in Triple A. But it’s no certainty he’ll start there. The Tigers are still adrift in center field, with none of the early contenders showing they can be more than a straight platoon option. It’s a vacuum Jones might exploit.

James McCann: People are overlooking his bat. He’ll upshift a gear or more in 2017 after a bad ankle held him back last season. Tigers are so solid with McCann it’s easy to forget his strengths.

Jose Iglesisas: Along with K-Rod, probably the best bet to be dealt in July, or before, should another team lose its starting shortstop to mishap. He’s getting expensive and the Tigers want Dixon Machado as a young, less costly option somewhere in their mid-infield.

Miguel Cabrera: Mike Ilitch decided to pay him $300 million, not because the market said it was smart. It said no such thing unless the market occasionally gets drunk. He wanted Cabrera here forever, as a baseball player, anyway, because of his celestial skills and his ultimate place in baseball history. It was a generous move by an owner who in the case of Cabrera decided baseball lore beat the stuffing out of defensible economics.

The 2017 Tigers: It looks like a .500 club, maybe a tad better. There’s still time for a team to change complexion ahead of Opening Day. But even with a rotation that today looks as if it could be surprisingly good, this team lives in the American League Central. And as long as the Indians remain there, the playoffs likely aren’t more for Detroit than a wispy wild-card playoff thought.