Can 'same ol' Tigers' realistically challenge Indians?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers' Miguel Cabrera

Detroit — The thing about maintaining the status quo, particularly in professional sports with all the dynamic, ever-changing, ever-evolving variables, is that it’s just about impossible to do.

Which is why the notion that the Tigers will intrinsically be a better team in 2017, without making significant roster changes, borders on delusion.

Yes, the Tigers managed to stay in the playoff hunt until the last day of the season despite crippling long-term injuries to key players, despite having their complete starting nine for just 14 games. But that doesn’t guarantee anything — not good health nor more wins — for 2017.

General manager Al Avila admitted as much at his postseason address in October.

“If you just stay status quo, it doesn’t tell you that people are going to get hurt again next year,” he said. “It doesn’t tell you that there will be some players who don’t perform as expected. Every year you have injuries and you have players who don’t perform as expected. It’s not as easy and clear cut as that.

“With our organization and its lack of depth, it’s dangerous to make it that simple. We’re not going to get faster. Our defensive won’t improve that much. Status quo looks good, but overall it might not be the best decision. That’s why we’re going into the winter with an open mind and see what changes we can make.”

Well, here we are, at the end of December, just seven weeks away from the start of spring training, and the only changes have been trading away of center fielder Cameron Maybin and signing backup catcher Alex Avila.

There hasn’t been the market for some of the Tigers’ older and more expensive players that Al Avila had hoped for and he’s smartly stuck to his asking price — which starts with multiple top prospects.

He said from the start that it wasn’t going to be a fire sale, it wasn’t going to be a salary dump. On that he has been resolute. It would be far worse for the Tigers to make a bunch of bad deals than it would be to going into the season with essentially the same core group of players.

That’s where it stands today and yet, things look somehow brighter than they did in October. Look at the Central Division — talk about no status quo. The Indians, adding Edwin Encarnacion and a presumably healthy Michael Brantley, seem unbeatable. But the Twins, White Sox and Royals are all in different stages of rebuilding programs.

Suddenly, the Tigers lineup and up-and-coming pitching staff, looks like the only legitimate threat to the Indians within the division.

So, given that as the backdrop, with the clear understanding that the picture could look different even before pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 14, here are five things that have to happen in order for the Tigers to compete for the Central Division title in 2017.

The Tigers were 4-14 against Terry Francona's  Indians in 2016.

1. Beat the Indians.

The Tigers don’t have to win the season series, nothing that grandiose. But they have to be a heck of a lot better than 4-14, which they were against the Indians last season.

The Indians outscored the Tigers 106-71 last year. They hit .284, with a .354 on-base percentage and a .828 OPS against Tigers pitching. Six Indians hit .280 or better with an OPS above .875. Those six players (Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli and Tyler Naquin) amassed 181 total bases in 18 games.

So how is that going to change? For one, it’s doubtful that Anibal Sanchez will be in the rotation, and the Indians beat him four times last year (10.13 ERA). Jordan Zimmermann made only one start against them, and it was a disaster (seven runs in 3⅔ innings).

Spread out those four Sanchez starts and those missed by Zimmermann among a healthy Zimmermann, Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and lefties Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, and you’ve taken steps forward.

Also, there were so many bizarre things that happened against the Indians, things you don’t expect to repeat — inexplicable lapses, fly balls lost in the dark, balks, boneheaded baserunning mistakes. They even made history, losing a 1-0 game in 10 innings in a game in which the Indians used nine different relievers.

That kind of bad juju can’t linger beyond one season, can it?

Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer went 11-7 with a 3.06 ERA in his rookie season.

2. Solid rotation.

This will be the key. On paper, the Tigers have a solid starting rotation with Verlander, Fulmer, Zimmermann, Norris and Boyd.

But we are presuming that Verlander stays healthy at age 34, and he repeats his Cy Young-worthy 2016 season.

We are presuming Fulmer avoids a sophomore jinx and builds on his breakout rookie season.

We are presuming Zimmermann returns to at least a reasonable facsimile of his former powerful self.

And we are presuming Norris and Boyd continue to progress as they have the last two seasons and can each give the club 25-30 starts.

There isn’t a ton of depth beyond this quintet — Buck Farmer, Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Myles Jaye.

Tyler Collins will compete with JaCoby Jones and Anthony Gose for the center-field job in spring training.

3. Find a center fielder.

Something has to give here. The Tigers were unwilling to pick up the $9 million option on Maybin, which, given his history of injuries and the fact he only played in 94 games last season, was understandable.

But that decision has left a hole. JaCoby Jones is viewed as the team’s future everyday center fielder. But the consensus within the organization is he needs more seasoning at the Triple-A level.

Still, he, Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose will compete for the job in spring training.

Meanwhile, Avila is still searching for a veteran to plug in on a short-term basis. Former Tiger Austin Jackson remains available on the free-agent market, though he too is coming off an injury-plagued year.

But if the Tigers are going to contend, either Jones has to grow up quick or Avila will have to get creative with a trade or with the finances.

Tigers' Justin Upton  struck out a team-leading 179 times in 2016.

4. Minimize deficiencies.

This incarnation of the Tigers, for all its star power and slugging capability, is characterized by three glaring weaknesses: bad baserunning, horrendous outfield defense and strikeouts.

If the roster remains mostly unchanged, it’s hard to see how the baserunning and outfield defense will improve. Manager Brad Ausmus acknowledged as much during the Winter Meetings.

“We could be better, but we're not a fast team,” he said. “We're not going to be running around the bases like a carousel. We have a lot of guys that are more base-to-base guys, and we have other guys that have the ability to run a little bit, but we are not a fast team.

“Speed makes up for a lot of baserunning mistakes, and what happens is when you've got speed and you make a mistake, you end up being safe.  When you don't have speed and you make mistakes, you end up being out. We don't have speed.”

Ausmus said Kirk Gibson will again work with the baserunners during spring training, as he did last year. And certainly if Jones were to make the club, that would improve the team’s speed and athleticism.

But at the end of the day, Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Nick Castellanos will comprise the heart of the order. Lots of slugging; not much running.

As for outfield defense, Ausmus said the club’s beefed up analytics department may help, in terms of better positioning within games. But, again, Upton and J.D. Martinez, two average at best defenders, are likely to man the corner outfield spots.

“Again, similar to baserunning, if you have speed it makes up for things,” Ausmus said. “And when you have a large outfield, like we do, from right center to left field line, it makes up for even more.”

Ausmus, though, is going to take a proactive approach to the strikeouts. The Tigers whiffed a franchise most 1,303 times. Developing a better two-strike approach will be a point of emphasis for new hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.

Tigers' Jose Iglesias hit .255 in 2016.

5. Bonus production.

The premise of this exercise presumes the Tigers’ proven commodities — Verlander, Francisco Rodriguez, Cabrera, Kinsler, Upton and Victor Martinez — will reprise their typical yearly production.

But for the club to be a legitimate contender and to avoid an inevitable sell-off at the trade deadline, there has to be some unexpected gains. There has to be another Fulmer-type emergence, another breakout season or an unsuspected bounce-back season.

Certainly Jones, with his raw athleticism and energy, could be that guy — if not in April, then possibly June. James McCann is due for a breakout, offensive season. Castellanos, whose breakout year was derailed by injury last season, is capable of 20-plus home runs and 80-plus RBIs.

Jose Iglesias hit only .255 last season; he’s 30 to 40 points better than that.

As for comebacks, the Tigers are counting on one from Zimmermann, but they would also welcome any sign of life from Mark Lowe, Mike Pelfrey or Sanchez.

In the bullpen, Justin Wilson is a far better pitcher than he showed last season, as is Shane Greene. If they can revert to form — or at least pitch to their capabilities more consistently — and Bruce Rondon can prove that what he showed last season was real — the bullpen can be formidable.

And waiting impatiently in the wings is Joe Jimenez. If you are looking for a guy to make an impact out of the farm system next season — he’s your guy.

Twitter @cmccosky