Tigers preview: 5 keys to winning

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
A healthy Victor Martinez, batting in the No. 4 spot, would be a big boost to the Tigers offense.

Chris McCosky of The Detroit News lists five critical areas where the Tigers need to excel in order to win the AL Central.

FIVE PREREQUISITES TO WINNING

1. Health

GM Al Avila has improved the depth, with the Tigers and at Triple A, but no amount of depth can offset long-term injuries to key players like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander or Anibal Sanchez. Learned that last year. You can add Francisco Rodriguez and Ian Kinsler to that list.

2. Better run production

The Tigers led the American League with a .270 team batting average last year but were 10th in runs scored. Many factors contributed, not the least of which were the injuries to Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. But the team needs to be better at situational hitting and better running the bases.

3. Bullpen efficiency

This is a no-brainer. The bullpen ranked last in the American League in WHIP (1.44), next to last in ERA (4.38) and third-worst in saves (35). The additions of Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson should rectify the problem.

4. Three reliable starters

If Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez can remain healthy and produce close to their career levels, the Tigers should be able to endure the ups and downs that typically befall the Nos. 4 and 5 starters. Last year, the Tigers got spotty production from the top and bottom of the rotation.

5. Bonus production

Generally speaking, teams that win have a player or two that exceed expectations. Other than possibly James McCann, the Tigers didn’t have that last year. They could use a breakout performance or two, or three — Nick Castellanos? Anthony Gose? Teams that win also, typically, get a boost from an unlikely source down the stretch (ala Quintin Berry, Delmon Young). Daniel Norris and Alex Wilson, who will start the season on the disabled list, would be candidates.

New closer Francisco Rodriguez should be someone that Tigers fans can rely on to finish games on a strong note.

FIVE NEW FACES TO WATCH

1. Justin Upton, LF

If this season is like many of his others, he’s going to drive Tigers Nation loco. He’s going to carry the team for stretches and going to disappear for stretches. When they add them up, though, he’s likely to have posted 25 home runs and 80-90 RBIs.

2. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP

His work ethic and mound demeanor will fit well in Detroit. Tough, efficient, no frills. He’s like an anti-diva — low-maintenance star, shuns the limelight, just wants the ball every five days.

3. Justin Wilson, LHP

It’s been a long time since the Tigers have had a legitimate power lefty in the bullpen. Phil Coke gave us a glimpse. Wilson can bring the same heat, the same attack mentality with more command and consistency.

4. Francisco Rodriguez, RH closer

After Justin Wilson and right-handed setup man Mark Lowe get done throwing mid-90s heat for two innings, opposing hitters will be treated to some off-speed wizardry in the ninth. When he’s right, watching Rodriguez is like watching a clinic on the art of pitching.

5. Cameron Maybin, CF

He’s already made a lasting contribution to the Tigers — he was part of the trade that brought Miguel Cabrera to town. It’s a mystery what his current contributions might be, though. He will start the season on the disabled list and could wind up platooning with Anthony Gose in center.

FIVE TO BREAK OUT

1. Nick Castellanos, 3B

Despite enduring the worst slump of his baseball life, he still produced more home runs and RBIs than his rookie season. There are 20 home runs and 80-100 RBIs in this guy — why not this year?

2. Drew VerHagen, RHP

There was a time when he was projected as a top of the rotation talent. A back injury forced him into a bullpen role. Things happen for a reason. In short stints, his fastball sits in the upper-90s with movement and his secondary pitches (curve and changeup) are more than good enough. He could have a Wade Davis-type impact on this bullpen.

3. Jose Iglesias, SS

He’s already hit .300 and made an All-Star team, so what constitutes a breakout year? A full productive season — 140 games and more than 500 at-bats and 23 RBIs. Making more winning plays than highlight-reel plays.

4. Anthony Gose, CF

He hit .254 in his first full season in the big leagues, that’s 30 points higher than his career production. Is there another 30-point step in him? He is trying to add the bunt to his arsenal, which will help against left-handed pitchers. He’s going to steal more than 23 bases. He has double-digit home runs in him, too.

5. Shane Greene, RHP

With the nerve issues in his throwing arm gone, he has again shown dominating stuff — mid-to-high 90s fastball and hard sinker, with a cutter and slider. Whether he starts or comes out of the ’pen, he has a chance to make a real impact.

FIVE TOP TIGERS FANTASY PICKS

(per ESPN’s Top 300 rankings)

18. Miguel Cabrera

26. J.D. Martinez

45. Justin Upton

68. Ian Kinsler

124. Francisco Rodriguez

Others: Jordan Zimmermann (126), Justin Verlander (151)

Outfielder Steven Moya has taken big steps to showing the Tigers that he would worthy of being called up at some point this season.

FIVE WHO MAY HELP LATER

1. Daniel Norris, LHP

He’s going to start on the disabled list, but the season is long and no team ever gets through a year with just their top five starters. He will have a chance to make a sizeable impact.

2. Matt Boyd, LHP

He’s going to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter sooner than later. He’s got a five-pitch repertoire, a bulldog mentality and an indefatigable work ethic.

3. Michael Fulmer, RHP

The club’s No. 1 prospect has top-of-the-rotation stuff and makeup. Even though he hasn’t pitched above Double A, he was in the conversation for a bullpen spot for half the spring. Best for him to remain in the rotation at Triple A Toledo and keep developing his arsenal, but he’s coming.

4. Steven Moya, OF

He has put himself back at the top of the call-up list with by finishing strong last season, having a productive season in winter ball and a torrid spring. He’s vastly improved in terms of pitch selection, plate discipline and his ability to hit left-handed pitching. That he bats left-handed with power could also hasten his return to Detroit if one of the outfielders is injured.

5. Bruce Rondon, RHP

While he didn’t make the 25-man roster out of camp, he’s seemingly taken to the mentorship of Francisco Rodriguez and getting a better understanding how to use his high-velocity stuff. If he stays on course, he could be a major asset down the stretch.

FIVE (OR SIX) CAN’T MISS SERIES

1. April 8-10, Yankees

It’s Opening Day, how are you going to miss that? Plus, New Tigers RHP Jordan Zimmermann will make his debut. It’s also your only chance to see the Yankees.

2. July 15-17, Royals

Believe it or not, this is the first time the defending world champs come to Detroit this season.

3. Aug. 5-7, Mets

Come cheer or jeer for former Tigers OF Yoenis Cespedes.

4. Aug. 18-21, Red Sox

Come cheer or jeer for former Tigers LHP David Price (or former GM Dave Dombrowski).

5. Sept 23-29

The two final home series are against the Royals and Indians. If the Tigers are still in the hunt, these could be pivotal games.