MLB: Does Justin Upton Make the Tigers the AL Central Favorites?

SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 27:  Justin Upton #10 of the San Diego Padres hits a two-run home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Petco Park June 27, 2015 in San Diego, California.   (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has been crystal-clear about his goals. At age 86, he wants to see his team win now and he doesn’t care how much it costs him. With Justin Upton coming aboard at $133 million over six years, Ilitch again put his money where his mouth is. Though Upton gives the club an offense to rival the league’s best, Detroit’s middling rotation and aging roster will make it tough to overcome Kansas City in the AL Central.

Detroit, which now rivals the Cubs as the biggest free-agent spender of the offseason, continued upgrading its roster by plugging Upton in the hole vacated by former left fielder Yoenis Cespedes. The deal averages $22 million per year and will take Upton into his age-34 season. In a lineup loaded with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez, the new Tigers slugger gives a dangerous group another lethal weapon.

We don’t see the heavy stacking of right-handed hitters changing that. Even without Cespedes in the lineup for the final months of the season, Detroit had an MLB-best .270 average in 2015 and the third-best OPS at .748. Where Detroit struggled mightily was on the mound with both starters and relievers ranked in the bottom three for ERA and FIP last season — stats that included four months of David Price before he left for Toronto.

Since the Tigers can slug with baseball’s best, any talk of the team’s upgrades has to start with the starting rotation and perennially bad bullpen. To the credit of GM Al Avila, Detroit has done good work on this side of the ledger as well, beginning with the Jordan Zimmermann deal that opened an unprecedented year of spending by the game’s richest clubs.  Zimmermann instantly provided stability and depth to a starting corps that was thin without Price. However, the upgrades to the bullpen may represent the biggest area of improvement.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers

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Along with Francisco Rodriguez in the closer role, the Tigers pen now includes the hard-throwing Justin Wilson from the left side and right-hander Mark Lowe; the latter coming off the best season of his career. As opposed to the terror Detroit fans felt when the outfield gates swung open in the past, the Comerica faithful can expect good things from the relief corps in 2016.

That newfound strength should serve to take some of the pressure off a rotation that includes Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Daniel Norris, and the ever-tweeting Justin Verlander. We can’t see Detroit going anywhere without strong seasons from Sanchez and Verlander, despite the World Series hype you can find in Motor City media following the Upton acquisition.

In the worst-case scenario, injuries again pile up for Detroit and the team does not have enough rotation depth to weather attacks from opposing offenses. Because of these concerns, the division still looks like Kansas City’s to lose, despite the early projections that predict a Royals failure next season. Minnesota and Cleveland — two other clubs that finished ahead of the Tigers in the Central in 2015 — will do their own parts to make division play unpleasant.

On the positive side, there is no question that the Tigers have a better roster heading into 2016 compared to the end of last season. With more firepower in the lineup and quality arms in the pen, this team will be fun to watch. If fans shouldn’t bank on a division title, the club certainly should play meaningful games in September. Depending on how the competition shakes out, we can even see Comerica rocking in October.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com.

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