Mensching: Castellanos, Sanchez are bellwethers of Tigers' fate
For the Tigers to contend for their first World Series title in 32 years, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander will have to regain and retain their old form.
Neither has been healthy for an entire season recently, and both appear to finally have put their ailments in the rear view.
But baseball’s a team sport. It’s going to take a little more than the superstars being superstars for the Tigers to be playing in the postseason.
With that in mind, a pair of players a little farther down the roster might serve as bellwethers of
success: third baseman Nick Castellanos and starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez.
Castellanos’ 2015 was a mixed bag. His defense improved, but still wasn’t all that good. His game at the plate suffered to the point manager Brad Ausmus had to bench him for three days in June to clear his head. At the time Castellanos was hitting .217 with a lowly .594 OPS.
It worked, and Castellanos hit .283 with an .817 OPS from June 23 through the end of the season. He had 39 extra-base hits, including 11 home runs, during that time.
On the whole, his season wasn’t that good. Baseball Reference put his value at just a half-win above replacement level. He had his lowest average (.255) and on-base percentage (.303) of his career.
Tigers’ third basemen on the whole combined for 1.4 wins worse than average at the position, making it one of the team’s biggest struggles.
Only pitching and the designated hitter spot were bigger problems for Detroit last year.
General manager Al Avila spent a lot of his boss’ money to deal with the pitching issue, with Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson added to the roster.
DH will just have to depend on whether Victor Martinez is healthy and found a fountain of youth during the offseason.
Castellanos, though, now age 24 and entering his third full season, still has the big “p” going for him -- potential.
If he can bat like he did after that fateful June benching, and if his glove continues to make improvements, third base will no longer be an issue for Detroit.
A lot of people think Castellanos will be just fine and are tabbing him as the Tigers’ player most likely to break out in 2016.
And then there’s Sanchez. He just wasn’t healthy, nor was he comfortable, last season. He threw only 157 innings -- none after Aug. 18 -- and that’s the only reason the Tigers didn’t give up even more runs.
Sanchez gave up home runs on 16 percent of his fly balls allowed, a career-worst at a rate nearly twice his career average.
His strikeout rate was down from two years earlier. His walk rate was up. The end result was a 4.99 ERA, the highest it had been since pitching 51 innings for the Marlins in 2008. It was 3.43 in 2014.
That the Tigers’ once-proud rotation struggled mightily last season escaped nobody’s notice. That the rotation doesn’t appear to be as good as it was in 2015 hasn’t escaped notice, either.
Zimmermann is good, but he’s not as good as David Price, who he essentially replaced.
A healthy Verlander will go a long way toward making Tigers’ pitching stronger this year, but it will take Sanchez bouncing back from his ailments, as well.
If he’s healthy and if he can keep the ball in the park at a rate comparable to earlier in his career, the rotation really might be much improved. He doesn’t have to be an ace, but he does have to be a reliable mid-level starter.
It might not be four aces, but it’ll be enough pitching to take advantage of the Tigers’ unquestionably strong hitting.
So keep an eye on Castellanos and Sanchez as the plot of the upcoming season develops. The season doesn’t hinge entirely on their performances, but their successes would go a long way toward helping Detroit to a playoff run.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.