The Detroit Tigers won their annual spring warm-up game against the Florida Southern College Moccasins on Monday, 7-2.
Grapefruit League action kicks off on Tuesday, as the Detroit Tigers host the Pittsburgh Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium at 1:05 PM. After having fun at the expense of Florida Southern on Monday, the Tigers face-off against Major League talent for the first time since last October, when they failed to make the playoffs despite having over a $160 million payroll.
Fortunately for new-ish General Manager Al Avila, his former boss and friend Dave Dombrowski made some vital moves for the Tigers future at last years trade deadline, just before being awkwardly relieved of his duties following an Illitch charity even almost immediately after . He traded expiring contracts for solid prospects, knowing the Tigers could not make the playoffs, and that they had one of the worst farm systems in baseball.
Avila has now made put his mark on the Tigers roster, spending like Dombrowski but doing things a little differently. Comically the Tigers did not have an analytics department until Avila took over. Obviously, no data in the world could have helped some of the decisions Manager Brad Ausmus made last season, but in an era where AL Central rival and now reigning World Champion Kansas City Royals are winning on “small ball”, it’s a good thing Avila brought in some tech people to get the Tigers where the rest of league has advanced to.
Increasing payroll to almost $200 million will help things a bit too.
But will the signings Avila made blow up in his face like the Prince Fielder deal did Dombrowski? Will the prospects pan out and help the team this season? Here are some important things to look at as the Tigers kick off this afternoon:
1. The Anibal Sanchez Situation – Sanchez was finished on August 20th last season with a rotator cuff injury, and still managed to tie for the lead league in home runs given up by a starting pitcher (29). After his worst season ever, the Tigers are desperately counting on him to bounce back this season. Unfortunately, without even playing live baseball, Sanchez is injured again. This time it’s his tricep. He resumed baseball activity today, however, it’s unsettling to see him hurt this early into Spring Training. If he can’t stay off the disabled list, those young arms acquired last year will be forced to step into larger rolls, most notably Michael Fulmer.
2. The Bullpen – One thing Dombrowski refused to address was the bullpen. He consistently thought he could outsmart everyone, and every trick he tried never ended up working out in the long run. This season, new management has brought in some new faces, most noticeably Francisco Rodriguez aka K-Rod as the Tigers new closer. Rodriguez has an impressive resume, racking up 386 saves over a 14-year career, including being named an All-Star the past two seasons. However before 2014, he was basically irrelevant for almost a decade. If he can lock down the 9th inning, Ausmus and the coaching staff can focus more on maneuvering the young and mostly inexperienced bullpen into situations they are most comfortable with. Mark Lowe and left-hander Justin Wilson join K-Rod as the final pieces of Avila’s bullpen puzzle, which truly can’t be any worse than last years anyways.
3. Mike Pelfrey – Analytics anyone? Almost everyone in Detroit was shocked by the two-year, $16 million contract the Tigers gave out to the 10 year veteran. But what people forget is that there are new people running the show, and they are looking at things in much more different ways than what we have grown accustomed to. A left-hander would have been nice, but starting left-handed pitchers cost much more than the $8 million given to Pelfrey. For example, Matt Harrison of the Philadelphia Phillies is making $13 million this season, and his ERA was over six last year. If Pelfrey can solidify the back end of the starting rotation, along with showing some much-needed leadership in the clubhouse, the Tigers will be in great shape going into Opening Day.