Detroit Tigers set opening day roster

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Logan Kensing, shown during a spring training game, made the Detroit Tigers opening day roster, beating out Lendy Castillo for a spot in an overhauled bullpen suffering from a slew of injuries. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

After a couple unexciting roster battles and a few health-related setbacks, the Detroit Tigers have 25 men ready to open the regular season Tuesday night against the Miami Marlins. Read on for the rundown.

Lineup:

Ian Kinsler RH 2B
Justin Upton RH LF
Miguel Cabrera RH 1B
Victor Martinez SH DH
J.D. Martinez RH RF
Nick Castellanos RH 3B
James McCann RH C
Jose Iglesias RH SS
Anthony Gose LH CF

This won’t be the lineup Tuesday, with the Tigers traveling to a National League park. Cameron Maybin in center field should also see plenty of starts upon recovery from a fractured left wrist. But this is likely close to an everyday configuration, barring more injuries.

Last year’s opening day lineup included Rajai Davis leading off (though platoon partner Gose ended up starting more games), Yoenis Cespedes at No. 6, and Alex Avila batting eighth (though McCann soon took over primary catching duties). Cespedes has been replaced by Upton, and in Davis’ absence, Maybin will share time with Gose.

Bench:

Jarrod Saltalamacchia SH C
Andrew Romine SH IF
Tyler Collins LH OF
Mike Aviles RH UT

Maybin will likely push Collins off the roster in a few weeks.

Last year’s group predominantly consisted of some combination of Davis, Romine, Avila, Collins, Jefry Marte, Dixon Machado, Bryan Holaday, Hernan Perez, and Josh Wilson. Detroit looks to have improved its bench significantly.

Rotation:

Justin Verlander RHP
Jordan Zimmermann RHP
Anibal Sanchez RHP
Mike Pelfrey RHP
Shane Greene RHP

The race to be fifth starter was saturated with competitors after frontrunner Daniel Norris’ spine fracture but ended up being pretty anticlimactic. Matt Boyd and Buck Farmer were in the running late in spring training, but the Tigers determined the former needed more seasoning and the latter was needed in the bullpen. Greene could move to a relief role once Norris completes his injury rehabilitation process.

Last year’s rotation included David Price and Alfredo Simon, who general manager Al Avila has replaced with Zimmermann and Pelfrey. Verlander and Sanchez are back and hoping to produce healthier and more consistent seasons. Greene, Boyd, Norris, and Farmer each started games last season, while Kyle Lobstein, Randy Wolf, and Kyle Ryan completed the fifth starter contingent. Lobstein and Wolf are out now, but midseason trade acquisition and consensus top prospect Michael Fulmer adds some depth.

Bullpen:

Francisco Rodriguez RHP
Mark Lowe RHP
Justin Wilson LHP
Drew VerHagen RHP
Kyle Ryan LHP
Buck Farmer RHP
Logan Kensing RHP

No one from last year’s opening day bullpen remains, and only Rodriguez, Lowe, and Wilson were considered locks at the start of spring training. Shoulder issues for Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, the best relievers in Detroit last year, guaranteed a spot for VerHagen, another 2015 success story. Lendy Castillo, Bruce Rondon, and Bobby Parnell were in the mix, but initial longshots Ryan, Farmer, and Kensing (a non-roster invitee) earned the final three spots. It might not seem like an exciting group, but when Alex Wilson and Hardy are ready and Norris displaces Greene, this group could look a lot different. And say what you will about Rondon, but he and Parnell have high upside and await opportunities to prove themselves.

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J.D. Martinez deal might be Detroit Tigers’ best on the books

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J.D. Martinez bats during the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park on Oct. 5, 2014. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Detroit Tigers have agreed with outfielder J.D. Martinez on a two-year deal worth $18.5 million, avoiding arbitration with the slugger until he becomes eligible for free agency after the 2017 season.

The deal, first reported by Robert Murray of Baseball Essential and later confirmed by Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish, might be the best the Tigers have on the books with their 17 players beyond the pre-arbitration phase. The length, crucially, will allow the team to wait to see whether Justin Upton exercises his opt-out clause before deciding whether to pursue a long-term contract with Martinez.

Jennifer Hammond of Fox 2 Detroit reported Martinez, whose deal is pending a passed physical, will earn $6.75 million this year and $11.75 the next. Averaged over the two seasons at $9.25 million (and even at face value), the price is higher than the $8 million Martinez sought when 2016 salary numbers were exchanged before the Jan. 15 deadline. The price tag also is more than 50 percent higher than the $6 million Detroit offered him at that time, three days before it signed Upton.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers
J.D. Martinez celebrates after hitting a two-run home run against the Chicago White Sox on June 25, 2015. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Still, the new J.D. Martinez contract might be the Tigers’ most valuable. By giving Martinez a little more money up front and signing him for an extra year, general manager Al Avila secured one of the greatest potential bargains of 2017.

MLB Trade Rumors projected Martinez’s arbitration salary at $7.8 million after he made $3 million last season. The arbitration panel likely would have awarded him the $8 million he requested, meaning Detroit, by locking him up, essentially got him for $10.5 million next year. Considering his career trajectory and skyrocketing worth, Martinez likely would have received an even bigger arbitration payday next offseason had he stuck to a one-year deal.

Matt Swartz of MLBTR compared the Martinez case to those of Chris Davis and Jacoby Ellsbury, who got huge raises after their breakout seasons. Notably, Davis and Ellsbury both had comparatively dismal seasons immediately after and still got raises of $1.65 million and $950,000 in their final years of arbitration eligibility.

Martinez, though, has shown no signs he will falter as they did. Last season, his triple-slash line was down across the board, from .315/.358/.553 in 2014 to .282/.344/.535. But advanced statistics suggest he became a more disciplined, productive, and sustainable hitter in 2015:

Statistic 2013 2014 2015
K% 26.5 26.3 27.1
Walk% 3.2 6.3 8.1
O-Swing% 35.8 37.7 36.4
Z-Contact% 83.6 81.8 80.6
P/PA 3.78 3.9 3.96
BABIP 0.319 0.389 0.339
LD% 21.7 22.7 22.3
GB% 44.2 40.5 34.2
FB% 34.1 36.8 43.5
GB/FB 1.3 1.1 0.79
HR/FB 9.5 19.5 20.8

You’ll notice his strikeout rate was higher last season, up to 27.1 percent. But besides the increase being incremental, it’s also understandable given that Martinez is a power hitter who blasted 38 home runs. He also walked in 8.1 percent of his plate appearances, almost a third more often than he did in 2014 after barely taking bases on balls during his 2013 half-season with the Houston Astros. He made contact a little less often when he swung at pitches inside the zone, but he also swung less often at pitches outside the zone.

More often, he waited for his pitch. And he squared them up. His batting average was down, along with his BABIP, but his line drive rate stayed relatively flat. What changed most drastically from 2014 to 2015 was his ground ball to fly ball ratio, which decreased by a massive 28.2 percent. In doing so, he sacrificed his batting average somewhat (as a rule, ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls that don’t leave the ballpark).

But that sacrifice was clearly for the best. Martinez has discovered the type of hitter he is: the type that can absolutely and consistently mash baseballs with a bat. While hitting more fly balls last season, an even higher percentage of them (20.8) went for home runs. His hard-hit rate of 42.3 percent was also the best mark in the major leagues.

The improvement is no fluke. This article from June by Eno Sarris of FanGraphs demonstrates that Martinez is a thoughtful player who has made calculated changes to his swing to become more effective. Barring injury, he will be one of the league’s premier hitters for a long time—including in 2017, when the Tigers will have him in their lineup for a relative song.

Steamer projections: Minimal losses, substantial gains mark Detroit Tigers offseason

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Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila and outfielder Justin Upton announce the latter’s signing with club during a Jan. 20 press conference. (Photo by Mark Gunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Since the Detroit Tigers played their last baseball of 2015, general manager Al Avila has been at work trying to turn a last-place club back into a contender. Whether he has done so remains to be seen as spring training approaches. But the Tigers have definitely improved on paper since the last season ended. Steamer Projections confirms their gains have been greater than their losses.

To recap, here are the 18 players who have left the organization since Oct. 5, not including minor league free agents:

Josh WilsonAlex AvilaRajai DavisRandy WolfTom GorzelannyAlfredo SimonJoe NathanAl Alburquerque, and Neftali Feliz elected to become free agents. Detroit traded Javier Betancourt, Manny PinaIan Krol, Gabe SpeierChad GreenLuis CessaKyle Lobstein, and Jefry MarteGuido Knudson was claimed off waivers.

Steamer predicts this bunch will net just 2.7 WAR in 2016 (removing those projected to end up with a negative number), with Avila and Simon combining to account for two-thirds of that value and only five others contributing above replacement level.

And here are the 10 players the Tigers have brought in to help right the ship:

Washington Nationals v New York Mets
Jordan Zimmerman pitches for the Washington Nationals during a game in August. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Justin UptonJordan ZimmermannJarrod SaltalamacchiaMike PelfreyMark Lowe, and Mike Aviles signed as free agents. Cameron MaybinJustin WilsonFrancisco Rodriguez, and Kody Eaves were acquired in trades.

Steamer projects this group will compile 9.5 WAR this year, with Upton at 3.4 (more than all the outgoing Tigers put together), Zimmerman at 2.4 and Maybin at 1.1.

That’s a net gain of 6.8 WAR for the offseason, according to Steamer. That’s statistically significant even considering how far off projections can be, especially for individual players.

However, it’s worth noting that the players Detroit acquired will make a little more than $70 million in 2016, not including potential bonuses. Meanwhile, it’s clear the Tigers’ outgoing players would have been much cheaper. Rajai Davis at $5.25 million, Neftali Feliz at $3.9 million, and Alex Avila at $2.5 million are the most expensive of the bunch under contract so far, and, though Simon and Nathan remain free agents, neither will break a team’s bank when they do sign deals.

Mike Ilitch probably has paid more than the going rate for each victory he has bought this winter, but no one will care if Upton and Zimmerman win his team a World Series.

Al Avila has more chances to tweak Detroit Tigers roster

By signing outfielder Justin Upton to a six-year deal worth $132.75 million, owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Al Avila gave the Detroit Tigers offense “more than a tweak.” Upton fills the last glaring hole on a team that last year finished more than 20 games behind the American League Central Division champions. But the move also increased the flexibility Avila has to fine-tune his club’s recalibrated roster even further.

As things stand, the Tigers have clear frontrunners to start at every position except center field, where Cameron Maybin and Anthony Gose likely will split the workload. That means 10 position players are relative locks heading into spring training, leaving three spots on the bench—assuming Detroit sticks with a traditional construction. To compete for those places, the Tigers have eight players on their 40-man roster.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers
Detroit Tigers catcher Bryan Holaday throws a ball during the first game of a September doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Two are catchers. Conventional wisdom says Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be the backup on opening day. He has played in 538 major league games over the past five years, while Bryan Holaday has just 282 career plate appearances. Holaday, like starter James McCann and most of Detroit’s lineup, bats right-handed, while Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter with power and has limited experience as a first baseman in case the club gets into a pinch. That leaves no room for Holaday, who would be an asset for the Toledo Mud Hens but is out of minor league options and would thus need to clear waivers to get there. Expect the Tigers to hold onto him for a bit, as 30-year-old catchers like Saltalamacchia can be susceptible to injuries. But if Holaday impresses in Lakeland, it could be worthwhile for Avila to shop him to other teams.

Three more in the mix are infielders—Mike Aviles, Andrew Romine, and Dixon Machado—at least one of whom Detroit will need to carry. And the other three are outfielders: Tyler Collins, Steven Moya, and Wynton Bernard. Bernard, Moya, and Machado are prospects who would have to light Grapefruit League competition absolutely on fire to earn a place in the big leagues. That leaves Aviles, Romine, and Collins for the final two roster spots. Collins, despite his promising left-handed bat, is the only one of that trio who has minor league options and the only one who really only plays one position—one the Tigers just spent more than an eighth of a billion dollars filling.

Detroit Tigers v Texas Rangers
Tyler Collins hits a two-run single for the Detroit Tigers during a game in September against the Texas Rangers. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Since he has options and would not need to clear waivers to go to the minor leagues, Collins’ situation has an extra layer of complexity. Detroit could simply hold on to him and let him play in Toledo for a third season. But this is a guy who played two years in college and has amassed 2,514 plate appearances as a professional, including 1,999 in the minors. (Check out this article that demonstrates decreased MLB production when a college player gets more than 2,500 plate appearances at the MiLB level.) He played fairly well in significant playing time for the Tigers last season after they traded Yoenis Cespedes and was expected to play an equally large role this year.

Collins might not be more than a fourth outfielder, but his potential will never be realized if he doesn’t find a spot in the major leagues—and fast. Detroit likely cannot offer him that spot, so it might be mutually beneficial for Avila to send him somewhere with a more spacious outfield. The first-year general manager has said he would “still like to have more depth in pitching.” One argument for holding onto Collins is the injury history of Victor Martinez, who would leave a huge hole in the lineup if he misses significant time again. But in that case, the Tigers could still turn to Moya or even Dean Green.

Holaday and Collins would not bring back anything overly impressive on the trade market, but they are both redundant pieces on Detroit’s roster and could enjoy much better opportunities elsewhere.