Henning: Tigers set to prosper, but will improvements take root?

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jordan Zimmermann

Lakeland, Fla. – There are the sounds of saws churning, as well as utility vehicles in beep-beep-beep back-up mode. Mounds of dirt are heaped along a drive where in earlier years Tigers players parked their cars.

Cranes and front-end loaders surround the biggest area of change at Marchant Stadium, where a decidedly different experience is being etched at the Tigers’ spring-training complex.

Three floors of steel beams and columns, with workmen in hard hats stepping among them in space that once was the Tigers batting cages behind right field, are an imposing skeleton of what a year from now will be a dramatic new stadium, with roofed seating from the left-field line running counter-clockwise to the center field scoreboard.

And wait until those familiar with Tigertown’s trappings get a load of the new, fenced-in parking lot in front of the Tigers’ clubhouse. The commissioner’s office in New York has ordered stepped-up security. No more parking for the public in a lot that is now reserved strictly for Tigers players and personnel.

All of this new construction at what was a staid and pastoral baseball setting is part of a $40-million makeover that by 2017 will have transformed quaint Marchant into what will be the finest spring-training facility in Florida.

And yet the Tigers are arriving this week not to don hard hats. They’re pulling on baseball caps four months after their own overhaul began, overseen by a new general manager, Al Avila, whose work alongside owner Mike Ilitch cost much more than $40 million and might or might not have led to changes as stunning as those being crafted at Marchant.

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The Tigers finished in last place in 2015. Their pitching was a wreck, and so was their health. They’ve since made as many improvements as Avila and Ilitch could reasonably or even ideally have achieved. Justin Upton for the outfield, two new starters for the rotation, three new bullpen arms, a backup catcher – it was quite a renovation.

But unlike those guys in right field working on an 80-degree February day in Lakeland, who need only stick to plans and to their expertise to know progress, Avila and Ilitch must pray for health and for performances across the board that in big-league baseball can be so difficult to harmonize.

Avila’s offseason labors were more than impressive in that his team needed so much. Acquisitions on a grand scale are tough to pull off when budgets and trade pieces are limited, as they were heading into October.

Ilitch’s decision in January to fetch Upton handed manager Brad Ausmus a brand of playoff-grade bat the Tigers outfield had to have. Avila had already attacked the shopping list’s other musts, including the bullpen, which was Dave Dombrowski’s biggest failing during his otherwise sparkling years in Detroit. The bullpen appears – as nearly as relief pitching can be projected – to have been healed of its annual ills.

Justin Upton

Other pluses: Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are feeling fine, which, if their health holds, should help the Tigers be one of the league’s better run-producers.

But this is baseball. Always there are issues. Always. And for those who know big-league teams only are as good as their weak link, you must wonder if the biggest component to any playoff-bound team, starting pitching, will be strong enough to carry the Tigers past the Royals and Indians and White Sox and Twins – teams that all finished ahead of Detroit in 2015.

Justin Verlander turns 33 later this month. But the bet here is Verlander will be up to his old tricks as staff ace. Jordan Zimmermann, one of Avila’s most rapid moves, is a blue-chip starter, although his numbers slipped a tad in 2015 and his age (30 in May) is moving into the post-prime zone.

Anibal Sanchez, like Verlander, has a birthday later this month (32) and has in his files a list of injuries, including shoulder issues that crimped his 2015 season.

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Daniel Norris, the prized left-hander whom the Tigers snagged in last summer’s David Price trade, could be a big winner in his first full season of big-league work, but Mike Pelfrey, the tentative No. 5 starter, needs to pitch closer to the Tigers’ projections and less like the Pelfrey of some past seasons.

All of which makes this Tigers team a difficult pick to prosper in 2016 when one remembers that it was starting pitching – Verlander, Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Kenny Rogers, etc. – who were the drive train for past playoff and World Series teams from the past decade.

But then you remember something else about big-league baseball. The surprises that annually creep into an unpredictable picture.  And you think about Shane Greene, who is due for a rebound after his circulatory surgery. And about that bulldog of a top prospect they have in right-handed rookie Michael Fulmer, who could find his way to Detroit at some point this season.

And you say, because this team is probably due for a surprise on the happy side following last year’s soap opera, that this could be Detroit’s season to squeeze out a division title and maybe raise a ruckus in October.

That script, which isn’t quite as linear or defined as those construction blueprints being unfurled today at Marchant, remains to be written.

In the meantime, the saw blades whine. The grandstand along the left-field line, which seems to have been inspired by the hotbox in “Bridge Over The River Kwai,” will be knocked down and replaced as soon as the Tigers depart spring camp.

And the 2016 season, which for the Tigers will take initial shape under a hot Florida sun, will reveal to us its mysterious plans and realities.