Three reasons to watch the Detroit Tigers in 2015

If you buy into numbers and stuff, the Detroit Tigers aren’€™t exactly trending in a positive direction. Granted, they have won four straight division titles, and whaddayaknow they’€™re favored to make it five. It’€™s fair, I think, to mention that the Tigers were fundamentally dominant in just one of those four championship seasons. In 2013, they ranked third in the majors with a +172 run differential. In the other three seasons, though? They finished with the seventh-, 12th-, and seventh-best run differentials in the majors.

Of course we shouldn’€™t just ignore 2013. But it’€™s manifestly true that with the exception of 2013, the Tigers have been a good team during their run, but not really a great one. What does any of this have to do with 2015? Just this: 2015 is shaping up like a non-2013 season. If you believe the projections, anyway. The good news for the rest of us? With the Tigers looking just decent and the Royals, Indians and White Sox looking nearly as decent, we should have an exciting race in the AL Central this season. And if that’€™s just not enough, here are three more reasons to watch the Tigers this season:

1. Hey, was that the real J.D. Martinez?

It was one of the feel-good stories of 2014! The Tigers beat out the Royals by a single game in the Central, and there’€™s essentially no way that happens without J.D. Martinez, probably the Year’€™s Most Surprising Player.*

* not an official award but should be

How surprising? Martinez entered 2014 with a .251/.300/.387 line in 252 major-league games, all of them with the Astros. These are the same Astros who a) are considered one of baseball’€™s smartest franchises, and b) released Martinez shortly before Opening Day one year ago.

Two days later the Tigers scooped him up. After a few crazy-good weeks with Corporal Klinger’€™s favorite team, Martinez joined the Tigers and proceeded to play in nearly every game the rest of the way, posting a .315/.358/.553 line. As I said, if the Astros don’€™t release Martinez and the Tigers don’€™t sign him, the Tigers simply don’€™t win that fourth straight division title.

So is Martinez for real? There are good reasons to believe that he is. Before spring training last year, Martinez fundamentally changed his swing, a story that’€™s now been told in enough places by enough people to make you believe it. Still, we must remain vigilant against 26-year-old hitters having a season that’€™s completely out of character with their previous numbers. I believe in Martinez and you probably believe in Martinez … but let’€™s give it another few months before we hand him off to Scott Boras for the 10-year, $250 million contract.

2. 2014’€™s supposed shortstop

Remember, it was supposed to be Jose Iglesias. In 2013, Iglesias was a sensation at third base for the Red Sox, then less sensational at shortstop for the Tigers after a mid-season trade. Still, he was supposed to establish himself as one of the league’€™s better shortstops in 2014 … only to miss the entire season due to stress fractures in his shins.

This season is supposed to be different, and probably will be. But whereas J.D. Martinez is enjoying a tremendous spring training, Iglesias has just two hits in 27 at-bats, which probably doesn’€™t mean anything but we can’€™t really believe he’€™s 100 percent until he goes out there and plays well for a few months.

3. Will the real Justin Verlander please …

OK, so maybe this is a stretch. Maybe there’€™s just no reason to think we’€™ll ever see the old, Cy Young Award-winning version of Verlander again. After all, the effectiveness of Verlander’€™s fastball and his curveball –€“ his two best and most important pitches –€“ fell off significantly in 2013, and fell again in 2014, presumably because he just doesn’€™t seem to have the same oomph on them as before.

But as fans, we can always hope, right? We can hope that the tremendous pitcher we saw from 2009 through ‘€™12 can still show up on the hill, at least occasionally?

OK, probably not. That guy who threw 94 mph in the third inning and 98 in the eighth probably isn’€™t coming back. Was probably too good to be true, for more than a few years anyway. But just as with Martinez and Iglesias, we won’€™t be sure unless we watch…

Detroit Tigers

2014 record: 90-72

Playoffs: Lost to Baltimore Orioles (3-0) in ALDS

Projected 2015 record:  84-78*

Key additions: OF Yoenis Cespedes, SP Alfredo Simon, OF Anthony Gose, SP Shane Green, RP Tom Gorzelanny, SP Alex Wilson

Key subtractions: SP Max Scherzer, SP Rick Porcello, OF Torii Hunter, SS Eugenio Suarez, RP Phil Coke, OF Andy Dirks, OF Don Kelly, SP/RP Robbie Ray

*Projected records courtesy of Fangraphs