Tigers hope health will be difference in 2017

Tigers hope health will be difference in 2017

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Tigers squad each day this week. Today's topic -- What's the difference?

DETROIT -- The Tigers fell two games shy of Wild Card contention when their 2016 season ended.

Their offseason wheeling and dealing consisted of three moves -- one to trade away center fielder Cameron Maybin at the start of the offseason, another trade to acquire outfielder Mikie Mahtook last month, and the return of backup catcher Alex Avila on a $2 million free-agent contract. Detroit shed more salary than it added in the deals, part of its long-term goal to reduce payroll.

How, then, do the Tigers believe they can improve on last year by two games, if not more? It's not about who they added and subtracted, but who's still around.

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It's about a full season from J.D. Martinez, who missed a month and a half at midseason with a fractured right elbow, and Nick Castellanos, whose fractured left hand in early August denied them a run producer down the stretch until a desperate return in the final week.

Tigers look to healthy spring

It's about more than a healthy month or two out of Jordan Zimmermann, whose neck issues derailed what had been a potential All-Star campaign in the making after a dominant first month in Detroit.

It's about a full season of production from Justin Upton, who initially looked like one of the bigger busts of last year's free-agent market until he finally grew comfortable with American League pitching and went on a two-month tear near season's end.

"We should be better than last year, simple as that," manager Brad Ausmus said last month. "We have some young guys with a year of experience, hope they're better. We have guys like J.D., Nick, Zimmermann, who are hopefully healthy, and that the rest of the guys are relatively healthy. We're not going to stay completely healthy, but you hope we don't have any major injuries.

"We should be better, simple as that."

Tigers pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training on Feb. 13, with the first workout the next day. The first full-squad workout is slated for Feb. 18.

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Other teams lost more players for more games in 2016. Actually, the Tigers weren't even in the top half among games lost to injury last year according to mangameslost.com. It's the quality of players they lost, and the struggles to replace them, that had an impact. Some injuries created opportunities for youngsters to step up, such as Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris in the rotation, but others were nearly impossible to fill.

There's no guarantee that it won't happen again. Considering the three most productive Tigers in 2016 by Wins Above Replacement -- Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera -- will all be 34 or older by the end of April, expecting another season of full health for all of them logically becomes more difficult. But considering the toughest injuries for the Tigers last year came from players age 30 or younger, they at least have to feel hope to have a healthier roster on the whole.

"What we're hoping for," general manager Al Avila said last month, "is that our team stays healthy, and our guys get off to a good start, and we're right there at the Trade Deadline as a good team, looking to the playoffs, rather than selling off. Because it'd be great to make the playoffs and get to the World Series. …

"We feel like we have a pretty good team, a team that can compete, a team that can go into the playoffs. We might have to make some minor changes as we move forward, as any team does, but we feel like we have a good team."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.