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Tigers are back in the hunt in the AL Central

The Tigers have the pieces in place to retake the division title, unless literally anything goes wrong.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I was sick over the weekend, so I kind of feared that the Justin Upton signing was some kind of fever dream. It was not, sadly (I'm a Twins fan, after all), which means that the Tigers have gotten better again this offseason in their quest to bounce back from a truly awful 2015. The question is whether they've done enough.

Last year, after four straight division titles, the Tigers lost 87 games. It was their worst finish since 2008, and there was understandable concern that the Tigers collectively had gotten too old and expensive, and their farm system too depleted, to stay afloat. That suspicion was confirmed by the injury problems suffered by Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander, Jose Iglesias, and Anibal Sanchez, while the Tigers simply did not have the depth to replace them effectively. On the back end of the starting rotation, Shane Greene, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer, and Randy Wolf combined to post a 6.71 ERA over 55 starts. On top of that, the Alfred Simon experiment proved to be a truly awful idea.

The plan, this offseason, seems to have been for new GM Al Avila to replace the production that the Tigers shipped out of town at the trade deadline. A healthy trio of Verlander, Sanchez, and new acquisition Jordan Zimmermann should at least match, and probably surpass, the 2015 performances of David Price, Verlander, and Sanchez. Daniel Norris almost can't help but be better than Alfredo Simon. And, as awful as he's been, Mike Pelfrey is still an upgrade over all the dreck the Tigers ran out at the back end of their rotation. Now Upton will match almost perfectly what the Tigers got out of left field last year. Tigers left fielders hit .287/.323/.493 in 2015, a 119 sOPS+ compared to the rest of the league. For his career, Upton has hit .271/.352/.473, a 121 OPS+.

Avila has upgraded the club's corps of relievers, bringing in Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, and Francisco Rodriguez to strengthen one of the worst bullpens in baseball. The Tigers' pen will be better, but will it make a significant difference when they lost 21 games in relief last year, below the AL average?

The Tigers of 2016 look a lot like the Tigers of 2014 or the team we thought they'd be going into last year. So once again, it's going to primarily come down to whether the Tigers can be healthy and if they have pieces in place to absorb the loss of anybody who does go down. Anthony Gose fits in much better as a fourth outfielder and Jacoby Jones will be available as a potential utility player as the season wears on. Boyd and Greene won't be relied on to fill rotation spots, but can spot when necessary. Jarrod Saltalamacchia profiles to do better than Alex Avila in the backup role behind the plate. Still, these are not terribly good players, and some of them utterly failed in 2015. Any stumble will still force the Tigers to rely on players who are, at best, replacement level.

The pieces are in place, and the Tigers are conceivably better than they were a year ago. But it's a chain forged of paper, rather than iron. The slightest rip will tear the whole team apart. But as long as their biggest guns don't go down, they're potential contenders in what should be a thoroughly mediocre AL Central.