Detroit — Every sport has its haves and have-nots.
Baseball just so happens to have much more of the latter these days.
And, yet again this season, you can almost assuredly count the Detroit Tigers among the sport's lower-class — three years into a massive rebuild that has the fans thinking, maybe Jim Leyland wasn't so bad, and maybe, just maybe losing in the World Series is better than not getting there at all.
That said, there still is some intrigue surrounding this organization, mostly in regard to potential and the past — they will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the 1984 world-champion Tigers this year — and not so much the present.
As the 2019 season gets under way, here's a look at 10 storylines to monitor.
The big man
The biggest question, by far: Is Miguel Cabrera back? He's had a fine spring, and has been upbeat and smiling, indicators he's feeling good, health-wise. (When he's hurting, a scowl is the unmistakable sign.) He's coming off another injury-plagued year, he's about to turn 36, and so many around the game already have written him off. Then again, they once wrote off Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz, too, at a similar age, and turns out, he had a whole bunch of good years left. The Tigers can only hope that's the case with Cabrera, under contract for at least five more years and $154 million — not necessarily because it would boost their playoff chances (who knows how far they are away from contending again), but because, let's be honest, it would make this team just a little more fun to watch.
Jordan Zimmermann is another veteran to watch, for similar reasons to Cabrera — particularly the injury issue. But his resurgence is critical for another reason. If the right-handed starter can find his old self, perhaps he could be a marketable trade commodity at the deadline (yes, deadline, singular; MLB finally is getting rid of the August waiver trade deadline). If the Tigers could move Zimmermann, under contract for 2019 and 2020 at $25 million each season, that would leave only Cabrera signed beyond 2019. His $110-million contract has been a disaster for Detroit; he's been worth barely more than a single Win Above Replacement over his first three years with the Tigers. The reports from spring training, though, are as encouraging as they've been in quite some time, particularly the strikeouts, for the Opening Day starter.
The Tigers won just 64 games in 2018, and yet that was good enough for a third-place finish in the American League Central standings. (This, mind you, a year after 64 wins earned the Tigers the No. 1 pick in the draft.) The eye test suggests the AL Central might be even worse this season, with the Indians down a bit (thanks to several huge injuries) yet still the heavy favorite; the Royals, like the Tigers, deep into rebuild mode; the Twins stuck in purgatory, the worst place to be; and the White Sox, while improved, still coming off a 100-loss season. That could lead to a smoke-and-mirrors record for the Tigers, and perhaps even with a decision to make at the July 31 deadline. Let's say they're .500, or a game or two below, but just a couple games out, come late July. What do you do if you're Al Avila? Take a stab, or stand pat?
OK, let's get back to reality a little bit here. Obviously, it's unlikely the Tigers will sniff contention this season, and if even they do, it's highly unlikely Avila will call off the rebuild and go for broke. They're too deep into the process. Far more likely, the Tigers will be sellers, and they could have several interesting trade chips — especially if veteran starters Tyson Ross, a right-hander about to turn 32, and Matt Moore, 29, a left-hander, can bounce back much the way Mike Fiers did in 2018. Fiers was netted a couple A's prospects. Ross and Moore are, combined, an $8.25-million investment for the Tigers, money well spent if they, too, can be flipped. Same goes for second baseman Josh Harrison, 31, a two-time All-Star who cost the Tigers just $2 million as he tries to get his career back on track.
Tigers fans have been sold a bill of goods before on this prospect, or that prospect. But there's much more consensus these days that, yes, things are trending in the right direction in the minors, especially pitching. The question is, how soon will we see some of these blue-chippers on the mound at Comerica Park? Probably not as soon as the fans would like. If you're going to lose 90 or 100 games, why burn valuable service time with premature promotions? Case in point is last year's No. 1 pick, Casey Mize, the right-hander who, by all accounts, could pitch in the majors right now — if he was with a contender. But here, there's no need. September is possible, but even that's no guarantee. Same for Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, etc. Kyle Funkhouser is on his way, though.
Things on the farm aren't nearly as great on the position-player front, at least at the higher rungs of the minors. One player that fans have been itching to see, however, will get his shot, and that's outfielder Christin Stewart. He's done all he can do at the minor-league level, hitting 83 home runs the last three seasons, as he's risen from Single-A Lakeland to Triple-A Toledo, where he hit 23 of those in 2018. Stewart, 25, a left-haned behemoth, made a cameo in Detroit last season, and whet the fans' appetite. Now, we're about to see what he can do over the course of a full season. There will be surges and slumps, to be sure, just like with third baseman Jeimer Candelario last season. And Stewart's defense will cause headaches (JaCoby Jones' range in center will help). But it's time to see, for better or worse.
Speaking of poor outfield defense, ladies and gentleman, the quandary that is Nick Castellanos. He just turned 27 and is entering what should be his prime. Normally, he's the type of guy you'd build a team around — a 25-homer, 100-RBI type. But these aren't normal times for the Tigers. That's why Avila was open to fielding offers for Castellanos this winter. The problem is, those offers never came. Baseball's marketplace has flipped on its head, with Castellanos, in pre-arbitration, getting a $9.95-million contract for 2019, while free agents Adam Jones ($3 million, Diamondbacks) and Nick Markakis ($4 million, Braves) were signed uber-cheap. You can see why Castellanos has talked more lately about an extension, which the Tigers likely won't entertain as they continue shopping him in-season.
Time to produce
Given the prized pitchers waiting in the wings in the Tigers' minors, this should be an important season for left-hander Daniel Norris. And the same holds true for center fielder JaCoby Jones, who could be pushed soon by Daz Cameron (especially now that he'll start the season on the IL). That's not to say that it's now or never for either of them, but time certainly isn't on their side like it used to be. Norris, who turns 26 in April, came over as the headliner in the David Price-to-the-Blue Jays trade in 2015, but since, thanks to injuries and wildness, has been passed by fellow lefty Matt Boyd. A move to the bullpen could be in his future, and maybe he'll thrive there. As for Jones, 26, he's the most-athletic player on the team, and is a pleasure to watch roam spacious Comerica Park. But he has to hit, and, while things were better in 2018, it wasn't pretty.
Feel the draft
Forget July and the trade deadline. The month to watch for Tigers' fans could actually be June — as in the June MLB Draft. ESPN's Keith Law, long (and rightly) a critic of the Tigers' farm system, acknowledged recently that the team has made some fine strides in recent years. But he says it's going to take at least another good draft or two, starting this year, when Detroit will draft No. 5 overall. That's prime position, and should net the Tigers a quality prospect, and probably a hitter in a draft that's deep with big sticks. But the Tigers have to start hitting on picks beyond the first round, too. That's what separates the elite organizations from all the rest. The Tigers might've just hit in the second round in 2018 with outfielder Parker Meadows, and they'll need to keep connecting.
Safe or sorry?
There haven't been too many rumblings about Avila's job status, but that could start to change in the coming months as he gets deeper and deeper into that five-year contract he signed when he took over for the fired Dave Dombrowski in the summer of 2015. It's hard to perfectly judge Avila, given he took over when the team was about to dive — and the jury remains out on some of his more consequential moves, most notably trading Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez for prospects. Team CEO Christopher Ilitch, whose late father hired Avila, has repeatedly praised the general manager, and he doesn't seem like the trigger-finger kind of owner anyway (see the Red Wings' front office). But at some point, you'd think some of the kids he's acquired will have to start giving his boss some reason to see this through.