Detroit —You've probably heard the commercial come on the radio once, or 100 times, while bopping around in the car the last few months.
It's a McDonald's spot, where the father wants to play a game of "20 questions." First game, first clue: Place. First question: "Is it McDonald's?" the daughter asks. Ding, ding, ding. Second game, first clue: A drink. First question: "Is it this ice-cold McDonald's Coke?" the drive-thru worker asks. Ding, ding, ding.
The commercial was mildly tolerable the first time.
And it was downright annoying the second, third and 100th.
Well, the Tigers have a game of "20 questions" of their own going on, too, and it's equally annoying — at least for Tigers fans who are not at all convinced the moves Dave Dombrowski has made this offseason will get Detroit into the postseason for a fifth consecutive year. A good portion of the fan base — and many experts — are convinced the Tigers' best opportunity at a World Series title has now passed them by.
The Tigers, of course, scoff at that.
"They say the door's closing on the Detroit Tigers," manager Brad Ausmus told a crowd of fans in Warren during the Winter Caravan this week. "The door's not closing."
Time will tell, of course.
It'll all depend on a game of "20 questions" — the answers to which Tigers brass wish were as easy as that painful McDonald's spot.
Q. How do you replace Max Scherzer, who got $210 million from the Nationals?
A. You don't. Scherzer is one of the top five pitchers in baseball, and there's no other elite starter available — unless you count Cole Hamels, but the Tigers aren't trading for Cole Hamels. Sure, on the surface, free agent James Shields would seem like a suitable signing, but if the Tigers didn't sign Scherzer because they didn't want to pay a luxury tax and they didn't want to pay him into his late 30s, they'd be hitting the luxury tax and paying another pitcher into his late 30s if they sign Shields, who's three years older than Scherzer.
Q. Can Shane Greene replace Scherzer?
A. Technically, yes. He'll take up a spot in the rotation that Scherzer once pitched in. But Greene is no Scherzer. Not even close. The righty, who came over from the Yankees in a trade that cost the Tigers Robbie Ray (darn), has good stuff, but he's hardly tested in the major leagues, and even in the minor leagues, he wasn't all that special (4.39 ERA).
Q. So how about Alfredo Simon?
A. No, no, no. This was a bizarre trade by the Tigers, who gave up quality shortstop depth — Eugenio Suarez — to get a 33-year-old journeyman from the Reds. Sure, he was an All-Star in 2014 (hey, Mark Redman was once an All-Star), but he leveled off significantly in the second half, and historically has always been a much better reliever than a starter.
Q. Will Justin Verlander be Justin Verlander?
A. This is the Tigers' best chance to recoup the Scherzer production. Verlander has been on a two-year tailspin, and while he eventually got his act together late in 2013, he never did in 2014. It could be arm mileage. His fastball has dropped more than a mile per hour each year for several years, but he can still be a stud starter relying on his secondary stuff.
Q. They still have Anibal Sanchez, yes?
A. Sure do, and he's been very good for the Tigers — and, side note, how good does his $80-million contract look now, given the cash owners at showering on big-named pitchers? But Sanchez also has had his share of nagging injuries, and in 2014, they were more serious than nagging, costing him several weeks, including in a pennant race in September.
Q. Well, at least their offense is good, right?
A. Ausmus thinks so. He went so far as to say it'll be ever better than last year's. Of course, that's an interesting statement, given the team's projected starting center fielder is Anthony Gose, who came over in a trade with the Blue Jays. He's a heck of a defender, but his offense is abysmal. He's hit .234 in three major-league seasons, and barely better in the minors.
Q. Will the corner-outfield spots make up for that?
A. Seven questions in, and here's your first positive answer. Yes, almost assuredly yes. Yoenis Cespedes might've had a down year in 2014, but like many before him, he'll benefit from being surrounded in the lineup by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. And while J.D. Martinez can't be expected to duplicate his breakout year, he's no fluke, either.
Q. Speaking of Cabrera, what's up with him?
A. Here's another concern, though the concern isn't that he could miss the first weeks of April after having foot and ankle surgery this offseason. Given the choice, the Tigers would much rather he be healthy in October for a change. But again, his heavy offseason workout program was interrupted again, just like last winter, before his power dipped in 2014.
Q. What about the defense? That has to be an upgrade?
A. You'd think so. But that's assuming Alex Avila — one of the best defensive catchers in the game, for all the detractors he has over his offense — stays concussion-free. He's going to the hockey-style mask for 2015, as we reported weeks ago, hoping it'll be a better cushion on the foul tips. What might keep him fresher: A platoon with James McCann.
Q. Is McCann ready for that kind of responsibility?
A. Nobody knows yet, but Tigers brass are hopeful — and, frankly, they have to find out, since Avila is a free agent next winter. McCann hits right-handed and hits lefties well, Avila hits left-handed and hits right-handers well. If McCann can hit righties even a bit, that'll give Avila more time off, presumably better numbers and, more importantly, fewer headaches.
Q. Any more on the defense?
A. It has the potential to be very good, particularly up the middle, but as with so many things about the 2015 Tigers, there are what-ifs. Shortstop Jose Iglesias still isn't running on solid ground to test the shins that kept him out all of 2014. That's a huge hurdle. And while Gose drew comparisons to Devon White in Toronto, he has to hit to get himself into games.
Q. All these problems, and we haven't even talked about the bullpen yet?
A. I know, right. Here's the thing, though. The Tigers bullpen actually should be significantly better than it was last year, if for no other reason than Joakim Soria, a mess after last July's trade to the Tigers, should be settled in and again become a dynamite eighth-inning guy. Under-the-radar pickups Alex Wilson, Tom Gorzelanny and Josh Zeid could be big, too.
Q. Yeah, yeah. What about Joe Nathan?
A. Ahh, everyone's favorite punching bag — and for good reason, after the chin flick heard round the world, and the time he threw Nick Castellanos under the bus. Nathan learned a lot about himself last year. He wasn't at all used to adversity, and he didn't handle it well. That'll change. But whether he has much left to close games at 40, that's another story.
Q. If all goes perfectly, how will the back end of the bullpen look?
A. Nathan in the ninth, Soria in the eighth and Bruce Rondon in the seventh. All have questions. (Sensing a theme, yet?) If Nathan falters, Soria becomes the closer. That's a no-brainer. But if that happens, and Rondon isn't healthy, yikes. Rondon had Tommy John surgery last spring, and Dombrowski says he'll be ready next month. But that seems a bit optimistic.
Q. Who'll be the lefty relievers?
A. Not sure, yet. But we know Phil Coke won't be one of them; he's a free agent, and isn't coming back. The lead guy figures to be Blaine Hardy who had a nice 2014 season; competing for the second lefty spot should be Gorzelanny, a veteran who's had some good years and some not so good, and Kyle Lobstein, who'll also be the first spot starter.
Q. Are the Tigers still the best team in the AL Central?
A. Assuming everything goes perfectly for the Tigers in terms of injuries and such, then yes, they are. They still could be the deepest team in the division. But if even a few things go wrong, look out for the White Sox, who've made fantastic strides this offseason to upgrade their rotation (Jeff Samardzija), bullpen (David Robertson) and offense (Adam LaRoche).
Q. Not the Royals, eh?
A. No. First, they're losing two key contributors from their World Series run: Shields (still a free agent, but likely gone.) and Nori Aoki (Giants). They signed Edinson Volquez, who pitched over his head in 2014, and Kendrys Morales, whose days as an impact player are over. Also, long playoff runs usually take a toll on pitching staffs the following season.
Q. The Twins aren't a factor, right?
A. They have a long woy to come from 2014, and their offseason additions, while somewhat helpful — Ervin Santana is a desperately needed addition to that awful rotation, and Torii Hunter provides a veteran presence in a clubhouse of kids — were, on a whole, underwhelming. That said, they always give the Tigers fits, including winning 10 of 19 last year.
Q. That just leaves the Indians?
A. They could pose a big problem for the Tigers. Cleveland made a stunning playoff appearance in 2013, and another surprising late surge in 2014. The Indians are getting better, and their young, front-line starting pitching appears ready to burst onto the scene. Heck, Corey Kluber already has. They've also added Brandon Moss, mostly because he's a Tiger killer.
Q. OK, last question. Assuming many of the Tigers' issues don't get resolved, how do they fix them mid-season.
A. Trades, trades, trades. In July. Question is, do the Tigers have enough prospects to do any more deals of substance? Answer: Probably. Yes, the system has been decimated by big trades the last 12 months or so, but the Tigers' farm system is always criticized, yet deals keep getting done. The Tigers rarely sweat trading prospects, and with two first-round draft picks this year, they'll be even more care-free. Trade chips to watch this summer: outfielders Derek Hill and Steven Moya, pitcher Kevin Ziomek and catcher Grayson Greiner.