DETROIT (AP) - When Justin Verlander takes the mound for Detroit on opening day, maybe then the Tigers will be able to enjoy a much-needed sense of normalcy.
As an offseason of drama gave way to spring training injuries, it was easy to forget the Tigers still have one of the most talented rosters in baseball. Sure, there have been some early problems for new manager Brad Ausmus to address, Detroit still figures to be the favorite to win its fourth consecutive AL Central title.
“We have a new look this year,” outfielder Torii Hunter said. “Little bit more speed and we’ll miss the big man, but we’ll score some runs.”
The “big man” is Prince Fielder, whom the Tigers traded to Texas in a blockbuster deal that brought second baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit. That move gave the Tigers more financial flexibility, although they weren’t all that aggressive in pursuing free agents. Detroit did sign Joe Nathan to replace departed closer Joaquin Benoit.
The Tigers also traded right-hander Doug Fister to Washington.
Lately, the focus has been on right-hander Max Scherzer, who enters his final season before free agency after winning the Cy Young Award in 2013. Negotiations with the Tigers on a long-term deal have stalled.
“They respect where I’m at. I respect where they’re at, and we’ll revisit this after the season,” Scherzer said. “I still want to be in Detroit. I love this clubhouse and everything about it. There’s been a history of this team signing free agents so hopefully I’ll be a part of that history as well.”
But right now Scherzer’s future is uncertain, and with Hunter and Victor Martinez in the final season of their contracts, it’s hard to say what Detroit’s 2015 roster will look like.
So the Tigers may never have a better chance to win a World Series with this group than right now.
Here are five things to watch in Detroit this season:
INJURY WOES: Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera is healthy again after hobbling through the stretch drive in 2013, and Verlander has recovered well from offseason surgery to fix a groin problem. As long as Detroit’s stars are in the lineup, the Tigers won’t need to panic too much.
But outfielder Andy Dirks, shortstop Jose Iglesias and reliever Bruce Rondon have all gone down with major injuries, and their recoveries will be measured in months, not days or weeks. It doesn’t look like the Tigers will make any major moves right away to fill those holes, although they did trade for shortstops Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez recently.
NEW-LOOK INFIELD: The entire infield will look different from opening day last season. Fielder was traded, and the double play combination of Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante left via free agency.
Kinsler steps in for Infante at second base, while Cabrera moves from third back to first to replace Fielder. Shortstop is now a major question mark - free agent Stephen Drew is still available, at a high price - and rookie Nick Castellanos is the new third baseman.
Castellanos has been one of Detroit’s top prospects, and the Tigers are hoping for a solid year from him with the bat.
TOP ROTATION: Even after Fister was traded, Detroit still boasts perhaps the game’s best group of starting pitchers. Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez headline the rotation, and Rick Porcello has become a mainstay as well.
Left-hander Drew Smyly, who was terrific in the bullpen last season, will start this year.
“With our staff of Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Smyly and Porcello, that’s pretty deep,” Ausmus said. “A lot of clubs would like that.”
BETTER BULLPEN?: The bullpen cost the Tigers dearly in their AL championship series loss to Boston in 2013, and now Nathan arrives to take over the ninth inning. But will Detroit’s relief pitching be improved, overall? Benoit left via free agency, and Rondon’s injury now leaves newcomer Joba Chamberlain on the spot. Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque will likely play important roles.
With Smyly no longer in the bullpen, left-hander Ian Krol could be crucial. Detroit acquired Krol in the trade for Fister.
Jim Leyland stepped down after managing Detroit to two AL pennants and four postseason appearances. Ausmus takes over, and he’s brought a relaxed, confident approach to the clubhouse.
But the pressure will be on right away. The Tigers have been to the ALCS three straight years, but they’re still without a World Series title since 1984.
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