In order for any team to be successful in a 162-game Major League Baseball season, a combination of solid defense, good hitting, and good pitching are needed.
In 2015, the Tigers lacked in the pitching department, mainly due to injuries and trades. With the addition of Jordan Zimmermann to the rotation, along with a healthy Justin Verlander, the Tigers have a solid 1-2 combo in the rotation. Both players are capable of putting up ace-like numbers, and each could come close to 20 wins. But could the Tigers have three aces in their rotation? It's certainly possible with a healthy Anibal Sanchez. Here's the reason why each one is a capable of being an ace for the Tigers this season.
Tigers fans didn't know which Verlander they were going to see when he returned from a tricep injury that sidelined him for the first two months of the 2015 season. In his first nine starts, it seemed that the vintage Verlander who made five consecutive All-Star Game appearances would never be seen or heard from again.
Verlander posted a dismal 5.05 ERA in 57 IP during that stretch, far from the numbers he was used to putting up. What happened after that, though, is what got Tigers fans excited at the finish of 2015 and heading into 2016. In his final 11 starts, Verlander posted a 2.12 ERA in 76.1 IP, while posting a quality start in 10 of his final 11 starts. With the departure of David Price at last year's trade deadline, Verlander is once again the ace of the Tigers staff. He may not be able to touch 100 mph late in games like he used to, but he still has some heat on his fastball when it's needed.
Verlander is capable of hitting 96 to 98 mph when he needs the strikeout pitch. He's also transformed his game from a pitcher who blows you away every inning to one who will mix up his pitches to keep batters off balance.
Healthy and on a mission once again, the drive that makes Verlander one of the fiercest competitors in baseball seems to have returned. Who will follow him to complete the second part of our trio? None other than Zimmermann, a new acquisition.
Coming from a Nationals team loaded with starting pitching talent, Zimmermann was often overshadowed by the success of Max Scherzer and the continued hype of Stephen Strasburg. Year after year, Zimmermann was one of the most consistent starters not only for the Nationals, but in the entire National League. A career 3.32 ERA leads the Tigers' three main pitchers, though there was concern over the jump in ERA from 2014 to 2015, which saw Zimmermann's number go from 2.66 to 3.66.
Despite a higher ERA last season, Zimmermann continues to be a high strikeout pitcher, striking out 164 batters in 201.2 IP, good for 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. The American League is considered to have better hitters, so there is reason for concern over last season's ERA. Despite this, Zimmermann will have a defense behind him that ranks in the upper echelon of Major League Baseball.
While we know what Verlander and Zimmermann are capable of, the last pitcher in our trio, Sanchez, can give the Tigers a three-headed beast capable of locking down all opposing teams.
Hampered by injuries in the last two seasons, Sanchez has become a wild card in the Tigers rotation. Last season was perhaps the worst of his career, and 2016 is off to a rough start with an injury two weeks into spring training that sidelined him for more than a week.
Sanchez gave up a career high 29 home runs last season, which led all of baseball. Pitching while injured for most of the season never allowed him to settle down and find a groove. Despite a few stellar performances, most notably a near no-hitter against Toronto, Sanchez's overall display in 2015 was poor.
Sanchez led the league in ERA just three seasons ago — it's still too early to write him off. If he's able to stay healthy and limit his home runs, there is no reason why he shouldn't bounce back to near-ace form in 2016. Sanchez has two years remaining on his contract, with a team option in 2018. He should benefit from a strong defense behind him as he pitches to contact. He still has the ability to deceive batters, as he struck out 138 batters in 157 IP, good for a 7.9 K/9.
It's difficult to make out what Sanchez's 2015 season means. Could it be the beginning of a sharp decline? Sure. Sanchez also pitched while hurt for a majority of the season, which could explain why he was giving up so many home runs, as he would try to change his arm slot to limit the pain. Prior to last season, Sanchez gave up 33 home runs in three seasons, so it's possible last season was just a fluke. A healthy Sanchez could be a wonderful surprise for the Tigers and their fans.
While these are the three most likely candidates to be atop the Tigers rotation, there are still other players who can step up and surprise us this season. That's why games are played on the field and not on paper.
Will the Tigers have three aces in 2016? At the very least, fans can hope for a better performance from three pitchers whose most recent season was uncharacteristically weak.