The Tigers enter this season without the title of American League Central champion affixed to their name for the first time in four years, and neither man nor machine can agree whether they’re actually any good.
The Tigers will win 85 games this year. Unless they win 81. Or possibly 78.
The 85-win figure came from an actual human, the sports book director of the Atlantis Casino. The second number came from Fangraphs’ projected standings, and the third from Baseball Prospectus.
Ask around a bit and you’re likely to hear a prediction ranging anywhere from the 60s from the grouch down the street to the 90s from your overly optimistic friend.
“I think they can easily win this division, but the perception from the public is they're not going to get to 85 (wins),” Steve Mikkelson of Atlantis Casino told Bless You Boys, showing just how hard this season is to nail down. “So I anticipated the public would initially bet the Tigers under because they only had 74 wins (in 2015) -- and they're not looking at the big picture.”
It’s easy to understand why. The top of the rotation is led by a former ace, Justin Verlander, no longer at the top of his game. Except he was pretty good in the second half last year. Jordan Zimmermann is coming over from the NL, Anibal Sanchez was hurt (and already suffered a minor setback this month), and somehow Mike Pelfrey ended up on the roster.
There’s no doubt the rotation looks worse than it did a year ago at this time, when it included David Price.
Then you’ve got a lineup that had a half-season of Miguel Cabrera and Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of it, yet it somehow failed to score 700 runs last year. And Cespedes is gone now.
Oh, and everybody got older.
Moments from the last days of Tigers spring training.
Contrary to some beliefs, what the fan sees pretty closely resembles what the computer projection systems see.
Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, which can be viewed at Fangraphs, seem a fair starting point.
The big problem lies in a pitching staff worth just 12 wins above replacement, with Verlander’s 3.89 ERA the best in the rotation. That figure sits right around the middle point of Verlander’s last two seasons.
Zimmermann should put up similar numbers, and the rest pretty much fall off from there.
The lineup, led by Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, does appear as formidable as you’d think.
Even Victor Martinez. The Tigers’ designated hitter is given a .279/.338/.451 line with 18 home runs.
Whether you want to massage the numbers up a bit or bring them down is a measure of how optimistic you are -- and there’s good reason to go either way.
Health is a key concern, especially with continued depth problems in the organization. Neither Cabrera nor Verlander has had a completely healthy season in a while. Both could beat their projections just by doing so. Even Victor Martinez, who had the best season of his career in 2014, could exceed expectations as well.
Pelfrey might be better than expected, and Daniel Norris showed incredible flashes to suggest his potential being above No. 5 starter, as well.
And then you get to the bullpen, which looks a darn sight better than it has in years but still has to actually prove it.
Ultimately, the Tigers seem a little better than the more pessimistic computer and human projections, but it’s a little too early to be ordering your playoff tickets.
What the team lacks for clarity, at least it makes up for with intrigue. The 2016 season is one that could truly go either way. For the first time in years, that might be a good thing.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.