Tigers still very much a contender in a wide open AL Central Division

Fans of the Detroit Tigers this offseason were frantically chewing their fingernails in anticipation of the potential teardown happening in the Motor City. Yet, the club opted to retain almost everybody for 2017 and make one last push.

And it just may have been the right move for team management and ownership this offseason, because the Tigers are still very much a threat in the American League, but more specifically the Central Division.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers
Sep 11, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The club is not far removed from their most recent playoff season in 2014. They’ve had countless opportunities to consider tearing things down and rebuilding for the future, mostly with outside voices breathing down their necks. But with a potent corps still very much in tact, it became clear that the Tigers still have something to say about who runs the show in the AL Central.

Detroit still has a group of veterans still producing at a high level in Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez. As those three go, so do the Tigers. Having said that, there is the always-growing concern of their production level as players of their caliber begin to age and their production gradually begins to dwindle. Having said that, the Tigers still possess a group of complementary role players to aid this veteran trio in getting the Tigers back to playing October baseball.

For a number of years now, going back to this championship-caliber run in 2011, the strength of the Tigers has been in the hitting. While that aspect of their club is still very much surreal, it is the pitching that could lead Detroit to a division crown and much more in 2017.

Justin Verlander will be running the show once again, who will be starting on Opening Day for Detroit for the ninth time in ten seasons. For a good portion of last season, he was a one-man show. Now it is looking he may have plenty of reinforcements, in the form of some youngsters.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays
Mar 22, 2017; Dunedin, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris (44) throws a pitch in the first inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Fulmer, 24, looks to piggyback his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2016, where he logged a sub-3.00 ERA in 26 starts. Fulmer will be getting the ball in the Tigers’ home opener against the Red Sox.

Lefty Daniel Norris, 23, has been impressive yet underrated since coming over mid-season in 2015 from Toronto. In 22 games (21 starts) with Detroit, Norris has posted a remarkable 3.48 ERA.

Detroit will also be hoping for a big bounce-back season from another veteran in Jordan Zimmermann. His first season with the Tigers after signing a five-year, nine-figure deal was terribly marred by injuries. Both the team and fans need to be extra patient with Zimmermann due to the health concerns, as they do with the young guns because of their relative lack of experience at the big league level and being prone to going through rough patches.

Barring some major injury woes *knock on wood*, the decorated careers of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez expect to be in full swing and continue in 2017. They, however, will have some help with driving in runs.

March 21, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; USA infielder Ian Kinsler (3) hits a double in the eighth inning against Japan during the 2017 World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit has one of the better table-setter hitters in all of baseball in Ian Kinsler, who has been nothing short of outstanding in his first three seasons donning the old English D. And coming off winning his first Gold Glove as well as helping lead Team USA to their first ever World Baseball Classic championship, Kinsler’s confidence is sky high.

Look for Nick… excuse me, NICHOLAS, Castellanos to continue his development as a big league player. Still just 25 years old, Castellanos was on pace for an incredible breakout season before being sidelined for nearly two months with a broken hand. However, his offensive numbers significantly improved from his first two seasons in a Tigers uniform. There is also the very real possibility that he finds himself moving up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup behind Kinsler and in front of the 2-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, thus creating much more opportunities to do damage.

No doubt Detroit has the talent and the experience to get things done. But how are they going to stack up with their rivals in the AL Central Division?

It should be a virtual 3-horse race this season, with the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals running stride for stride with Detroit throughout. The Minnesota Twins are in a clear rebuilding stage, and the Chicago White Sox waved the proverbial white flag this offseason with some trades they made. But this is baseball, after all, anything can happen.

It’s pretty ironic given how the AL Central for some time now has been perceived to be the weakest among the divisions in the American League, yet the teams that represented the junior circuit in the World Series each of the last two seasons, and four of the last five, have come from the Central Division.

Both Cleveland and Kansas City made noteworthy additions this offseason to add to their championship-caliber corps of players. The Indians are still extremely deep at pitching, but their biggest splash came in signing slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a multi-year deal. The Royals meanwhile also added some lumber in smaller waves, adding Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss, as well as deepening their rotation behind lefty Danny Duffy.

Let’s not forget that the Tigers last season against both Cleveland and Kansas City posted a combined record of 11-26. They also finished with a winning record in every month last year with the exception of May (11-17). They ultimately finished 8.0 games back of the division-winning Indians and 2.5 out of a playoff spot, despite those porous records against Cleveland and Kansas City.

They’re already in contention. Now is the year to get over the hump.

Written by Alex Muller

MSU Graduate. Just a city boy born and raised in south Detroit. Baseball is life, a pitcher at heart. Freelance writer for MIPrepZone (News-Herald, Press & Guide).

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