After four straight A.L. Central titles, expectations were high for the Tigers heading into 2015. At 23-14 on May 16, things appeared to be going according to plan. As fate would have it, that would be the final day the Tigers would occupy first place for the season. With injuries and overall ineffectiveness the primary culprits, the Tigers slipped to 39-39 and 3rd place by July 2. Faced with an ugly collapse and the impending free agency of stars such as David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, the Tigers made the difficult decision to punt the remainder of 2015.
Price and Cespedes both went on to contribute to playoff teams and the Tigers limped to a last place finish at 74-87. The immediate future in Detroit could be brighter as the Tigers added multiple arms that appear ready to contribute to the Major League pitching staff in those deadline deals. Those trades, combined with another classic Mike Ilitich free agency spending spree, have the retooled Tigers in a position where they head into 2016 looking to reclaim their lost spot atop the A.L. Central. Here we will take a look at some of the players who will need to step up if the Tigers are to return to October.
Top Candidate: Daniel Norris. Acquired from Toronto in the David Price trade in July, Daniel Norris is well known to prospect enthusiasts everywhere. A 2011 2nd round pick out of Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee, Norris was regarded as one of the higher upside arms in his draft class. The Blue Jays handled Norris carefully while allowing him to get his feet wet in pro ball. By the end of 2014, Norris had made his Major League debut and began to look like a potential difference-maker at the big league level.
All of the major media outlets ranked Norris among the top pitchers in the minor leagues last off season including an impressive A/A- Grade from our own John Sickels. Norris broke camp with the Blue Jays, but was sent back to Buffalo after surrendering a .267/.363/.453 line to opposing hitters in five April appearances. He spent May, June, and July trying to smooth out the rough edges in Triple A before returning to the Majors with Detroit in August.
In eight second-half appearances for the Tigers, Norris was much improved allowing a .216/.250/.424 line against while finishing with 27 strikeouts against just seven walks in 36.2 innings. His 2015 campaign should be considered all the more impressive in light of his October announcement that he had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the season. Reports from after his October surgery indicate he is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
Norris appears to have made some adjustments as last season went on. The single most encouraging aspect of his late season run with the Tigers is probably his 1.72 BB/9 during that stretch. It was an impressive display of control for any pitcher, but given Norris's career 3.82 BB/9 mark in the minors, it is very significant here. With four potentially above average pitches, control like he demonstrated in August and September would give Norris a very real chance to reach his ceiling as a number two starter. It may take a couple of seasons for him to consolidate all of his skills, but I expect Norris to be at least league average this season with the chance for him to leap beyond that at any moment.
Dare to Dream: Nick Castellanos. The 44th overall pick of the 2010 draft out of Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, Florida, Castellanos has been in the forefront of off season discussions about the future of the Tigers for years. After bursting onto the pro scene with a 129 wRC+ line for West Michigan as a 19 year old in the Midwest League in 2011, Castellanos was immediately thrust into Top-100 conversations.
After three straight off seasons with a B+ Grade here at Minor League Ball, Castellanos reached the Majors for good in 2014. In his two seasons as the starting third baseman in Detroit, he has been underwhelming. A career 94 wRC+ along with consistently sub-par defensive numbers have left him with -0.7 fWAR to show for the beginning of his big league career.
In spite of his inauspicious start, there is reason to be optimistic when evaluating Castellanos. 2016 will be his age 24 season, so he should still be in his pre-peak phase. He also finished up strong in 2015 with 116 wRC+ in the second half. His late season surge was fueled by a rise in both his walk rate and isolated power markers. Optimists see these as signs that Castellanos is coming into his own as a hitter.
John voiced some concerns about Castellanos as a prospect that remain valid. Notably, he has always demonstrated some issues controlling the strike zone while simultaneously lacking the elite power typically associated with top prospects that have that problem. The questions of whether or not he can make the necessary offensive and defensive adjustments to become an above average third baseman remain. At an age where many solid prospects are still awaiting their first crack at a job, Tigers fans can #daretodream that Castellanos will learn from his 1192 mostly unremarkable big league plate appearances and finally emerge as a key contributor for them in 2016.
Rookie Watch: Michael Fulmer. Like Norris, Fulmer represents another piece in a solid trade deadline haul for the Tigers. Acquired from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, he ranks perhaps just a rung behind Norris and fellow deadline acquisition, Matt Boyd on the immediate depth chart for Tigers starting pitchers. Even still, Fulmer's combined efforts for the Double A affiliates of both the Mets and Tigers in 2015 leave him knocking on the door of a big league trial this year.
The 44th overall pick of the same 2011 draft that produced Norris, Fulmer saw his stock slip following an injury plagued 2013 campaign that limited him to just 46 innings. 2014 saw a healthier, but less effective version of the promising right-hander as he worked 98.1 innings, mostly at High A, while posting a 4.39 ERA and an ugly 1.55 WHIP. Fulmer was reduced to a Grade C on John's 2015 preseason list.
Fulmer rebounded with a strong showing in 2015. In 124.2 total innings, he finished with a 2.24 ERA and 1.08 WHIP on the strength of a strikeout per inning and 2.2 BB/9. In July, John noted that Fulmer had the potential for three above average pitches and was increasingly looking like a starting pitcher. It's also worth remembering that Fulmer peaked at a Grade B/B- for John prior to his lost 2013 season, speaking to his mid-rotation upside.
While Fulmer appears to be highly unlikely to begin the season in the Majors, he is not far off. The Tigers rotation is likely to feature a front four all over the age of 30 with only newly acquired Jordan Zimmermann having been both healthy and effective for the entirety of 2015. Fulmer can position himself as an option to be called up should a need in the rotation arise. Alternatively, he also has good enough stuff to profile as a potential boost to the Tigers bullpen should they seek reinforcements there.
Final Notes: The aforementioned Matt Boyd is another interesting player to watch this year. Although he lacks the long term profile or prospect pedigree of Norris or Fulmer, he has fared quite well in the upper minors and has already made his Major League debut. He has exceeded expectations so far and could continue to do so.
Corner infielder Jefry Marte completed what had become an improbable climb to the Majors when he made his debut in July. Now on his third organization, it's easy to forget how excited the prospect world was after Marte posted 162 wRC+ at age 17 for the Mets Gulf Coast League affiliate back in 2008. Despite often providing above average offense relative to his leagues, Marte failed to meet the lofty expectations set in his stateside debut. His 139 wRC+ at Triple A Toledo in 2015 leaves us wondering whether or not he has finally figured it out.
There is no obvious path to a big league role here. His glove work at third leaves much to be desired and corner at-bats will be scarce barring injuries to Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera, or Victor Martinez. In spite of those obstacles, Marte is just entering his age 25 season making him a very intriguing name to watch in 2016.