Welcome To The Detroit Tiger Optimists Club

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I get it, bunky.

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It’s mid-January–the days are short, the light is gray.

The holiday parties are over, bills are landing in the mailbox faster than Rob Lowe commercials pop up on TV, and your favorite NFL team has been eliminated from the playoffs in excruciating fashion.

And now Max Scherzer is no longer a Detroit Tiger.

Aside from keeping the Suicide Hotline Number on speed-dial, what’s a Tiger fan to do?

Maybe take a flyer on that 5-hour energy stuff?

Nah. Even if it works, that still leaves 19 hours a day to contemplate the utter desolation of your existence.

What Tiger fans need, now more than ever, is some Good Old-Fashioned Optimism.

And it just so happens your friendly Motor City Bengals’ staff writer is on call, ready to administer a double dose.

So let’s all put on our blue and orange-colored glasses for a moment, and take a look at the team as currently constructed. As we embark on this cathartic journey, we’ll consider all that’s righteous and good about the state of the Detroit Tigers heading into spring training.

Starting Pitching

David Price is now the unchallenged ace of the staff, and is one of the finest pitchers in baseball. He pitches deeper into games than Scherzer, and should have a banner year as he heads into free agency in 2016.

Though Justin Verlander had some lingering health problems and had a down year by his standards in 2014, he finished strong (1.15 WHIP in September). Unlike last winter, he’s performing his full regimen of rigorous core training this off-season, and likely will more closely resemble the JV of old than the imposter who’s been sneaking into his uniform the past couple years.

Anibal Sanchez is just one year removed from leading the American League in ERA (2.57 ERA in 2013) and may have the best pure stuff on the staff. Many a team would love to roll him out to the mound every fifth day as their number three starter.

Though newcomer Shane Greene is not well-known to most fans, Tiger hitters remember him well–pitching for the Yankees last year, in two August starts he allowed Detroit only ten hits and two runs in fifteen innings. Overall he had a 3.78 ERA, with 81 strikeouts in 79 innings. According to former Yankee teammate Brandon McCarthy, Greene has filthy stuff. This could be his moment.

Not many teams can claim their number five starter was an All-Star the previous year, but Alfredo Simon‘s meteoric first half (12 wins, 2.70 ERA) earned him a berth on the National League squad. Although the ex-Cincinnati Redleg right hander tailed off in the second half, he was a workhorse (196 innings) as a first-time starter. In addition he excels out of the bullpen, where he could find himself in the event the Tigers pick up an additional starter.

Relief Pitching

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The much maligned Tiger bullpen should be improved this year, if only for the fact that they’re overdue for some good things to happen.

Closer Joe Nathan has always been a premier reliever and it’s at least conceivable last year was simply an anomaly. If so, a regression to his career ERA of 2.89 and save percentage of over 89% would immediately buttress the back-end of the pen, and allow manager Brad Ausmus greater flexibility to deploy his phalanx of set-up men.

Unfortunately, last year Tiger fans never saw the real Joakim Soria. With a career ERA of 2.58 and a WHIP of 1.06, he has unequivocally proven himself to be both an effective eighth inning set-up man and closer. There’s a strong likelihood the 30 year-old will revert to that form in 2015 and be the stalwart the Tigers traded for last July.

Al Alburquerque was quietly the team’s most effective reliever in 2014, with an ERA of 2.51 and a WHIP of 1.17. It would not be a surprise to see the man with the virtually unhittable slider and mid-90’s heater assume a more prominent role this year.

As he was the past two years, fireballer Bruce Rondon remains the “X factor” in the bullpen. If the Tigers finally catch his lightning in a bottle and he completely recovers from last spring’s Tommy John surgery, Rondon would single-handedly (or should we say single-armedly?) upgrade the quality of the pen.

Speaking of luck and sore-armed relievers, the Tigers are taking another shot with Joel Hanrahan. The rehabbing former star closer (76 total saves in 2011-12) is still at it, and could yield a substantial return on his bargain basement contract if his right arm starts launching missiles again.

Other relievers supplying depth from the right side include Alex Wilson (1.91 ERA in 18 appearances), who came over quietly from Boston in the Porcello-Cespedes deal, and the emerging Angel Nesbitt (combined minor league ERA of 1.49). Luke Putkonen also returns after an injury-laden 2014, and is only one year removed from an impressive season (3.03 ERA as a Tiger reliever in 2013).

Recently signed veteran Tom Gorzelanny will solidify the left side of the pen. Though capable of starting, he performs better in relief, where he has a career ERA of 2.88.

Young Ian Krol is back, has good stuff, and will be anxious to demonstrate his fast start in 2014 was no fluke. Both Blaine Hardy and Kyle Ryan also pitched well at times last year and are also in the mix.

Catcher

Alex Avila returns and should see a lot of action against right handers. Players usually excel in their “walk year”, which is where Avila finds himself. As usual, he will comport himself in his typical stellar manner behind the plate.

The big news though, is that rookie James McCann appears ready for major league duty. Like Avila he’s a fine defender, but has made steady offensive strides the past two years and could push for significant playing time. In any case, at a minimum he and Avila should form a solid platoon combination.

Infield

Of course the world’s best hitter in the form of Miguel Cabrera is back at first base. Though fighting a serious foot injury near the end of last season, he still hit .379 with eight home runs in September, and was the American League player of the month. Not bad for a guy playing on one leg.

Ian Kinsler brings his world class defense back to second base, and of course also contributed mightily with the bat, hitting .275 with 92 RBI’s.

Last year the team struggled at shortstop in the absence of Jose Iglesias. This year Tiger fans should get a prolonged look at Iglesias’s defensive majesty, which invites comparison to the all-time great shortstops. The 25 year-old should also make a welcome contribution to the line-up with his bat and legs.

Third baseman Nick Castellanos (.259 BA, 66 RBI’s) has now seen a full year of major league pitching and is expected to take the next step in his quest to become an offensive force. He held his own last year at the tender age of 22, and should add thump to the bottom third of a strong line-up.

Outfield

The addition of left fielder Yoenis Cespedes (.260 BA, 100 RBI’s, 22 HR’s) immediately upgrades both the offense and defense. He hits for power, drives in runs, and his powerful arm will penalize runners foolish enough to challenge it.

If new center fielder Anthony Gose (.226 BA, .311 OBP) can figure out how to get on base, he might resurrect general manager Dave Dombrowski’s recently dented reputation as a personnel genius. With elite speed and a potent arm, Gose already has the requisite tools to electrify Comerica’s faithful. At a mere 24 years of age and pencilled in to get a lot of at bats, the future could be very bright for this toolsy gazelle.

Last year at this time outfielder J.D. Martinez (.315 BA, .912 OPS) was languishing in the Houston Astro system, patiently working on his swing mechanics. One year later he’s living proof the optimism underlying this article is justified. Obtained for a song, Martinez went on to compose his own masterpiece last season with his re-formulated swing. The only remaining question is what he’ll do for an encore, and all signs point to another big hit.

Designated Hitter

Victor Martinez (.335 BA, 32 HR’s, 103 RBI’s)  wreaked destruction from both sides of the plate while having a career year in 2014. While it would be unrealistic to expect him to duplicate that performance, Martinez remains the consummate professional both on the field and in the locker room. Every ship needs a rudder, and Martinez keeps the Tigers on course in stormy seas.

The Bottom Line

Obviously, like every other team in baseball, the Detroit Tigers have flaws.

For every glowing player projection listed above, a reasonable argument could be made that events won’t unfold that way.

I get that.

But that’s not what this article is about.

Rather it celebrates, as some English chap once said of second marriages, “the triumph of hope over experience”.

Last year a couple teams not even good enough to win their own divisions played for the world championship.

If only a select few of the rosy scenarios described above come to fruition, this year the Tigers could easily be one of those teams.

Welcome to the Optimists Club.

Detroit Tiger chapter.

Next: Yoenis Cespedes and David Price would like to stay, Iglesias nearing 100%

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