Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Detroit Tigers enter the 2013 season as defending American League champions and anything less than another trip to the World Series would have to be considered a huge letdown in the Motor City.
The Tigers entered the 2012 campaign as huge favorites to win an American League Central title. While it may not have been easy, as the team sat below .500 for most of the first half of the season, and never actually clinched a division title until the final week of the regular season.
Detroit then outlasted the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS before sweeping the New York Yankees in the ALCS. But that offense that carried the Tigers for much of the second half of the year and through the first two rounds of the playoffs disappeared in the World Series, as they were swept by the San Francisco Giants in four games.
As good as the Tigers were a year ago, they may be even better this season with the additions of outfielder Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury.
Of course, the Tigers are led by Triple Crown winner and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, who had a season for the ages in 2012, leading the league with a .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. His partner in crime, Prince Fielder, enjoyed his first year in Motown, as he hit .313 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI.
While Cabrera and Fielder hold down the fort from the offensive side, it doesn't get much better on the mound than Justin Verlander, who followed up his MVP and Cy Young seasons with another typical great year in 2012.
As 2013 gets underway, manager Jim Leyland guides a club that is better on paper than his championship team was a year ago. And there are some rumors that this may be the 68-year-old Leyland's last at the helm.
Is there a better way to end a career than with a championship?
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Tigers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2012 FINISH (88-74) - First Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Torii Hunter (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Gerald Laird (C), Delmon Young (OF), Jose Valverde (RHP), Daniel Schlereth (LHP), Ryan Raburn (2B/OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Austin Jackson (CF); Torii Hunter (RF); Miguel Cabrera (3B); Prince Fielder (1B); Victor Martinez (DH); Andy Dirks (LF); Jhonny Peralta (SS); Alex Avila (C); Omar Infante (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Justin Verlander (RHP); Max Scherzer (RHP); Doug Fister (RHP); Anibal Sanchez (RHP); Rick Porcello (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Bruce Rondon (RHP)
MANAGER: Jim Leyland
THE BEST LINEUP IN BASEBALL?
The Tigers already had one of the more potent lineups in the American League. It figures to be even better this season with the addition of Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez.
Essentially Hunter will replace light-hitting Brennan Boesch, while Martinez will re-claim the designated hitter spot that was occupied by Delmon Young, who reached base a miserable 29-percent of the time.
Just having those two, along with tremendous speedy leadoff man Austin Jackson, should create more run opportunities for Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
Speaking of Cabrera, there really is no reason to think he won't replicate his average from last year and the lineup additions should net him close to his RBI total from a year ago. If he's able to match his home run production, he may very well repeat as a Triple Crown winner. Even still, a big offensive season is expected regardless if he leads the league in those categories.
It's not all rainbows and sunshine in Tigers land. The team is going to be one of the best in baseball, but they still are trying to find a closer.
Righty Jose Valverde was replaced in the playoffs last season and was not re- signed this winter. Lefty Phil Coke got some opportunities last postseason and seemed to do an admirable job, but still manager Jim Leyland has not given him the job. In fact, he's almost gone out of his way not to name him his closer.
In a perfect world rookie Bruce Rondon would have wowed everyone with a tremendous spring and would have been given the job. However, the highly touted prospect struggled at the outset, leaving the Tigers back at square one. But, he showed flashes of being a capable closer recently and appears he will be the guy to head north.
However, if those struggles return, look for Detroit to use a closer-by- committee and as much as everyone may not like it, Coke will likely get the bulk of the opportunities. But, Leyland still feels more comfortable with him as a left-handed setup man along with righty Joaquin Benoit.
The more likely scenario is that the Tigers deal Rick Porcello for an established closer. The only problem is that Porcello has looked really good this spring and the Tigers may not want to part with him.
Speaking of that starting pitching ...
IS VERLANDER ON HIS WAY TO BECOMING THE FIRST $200 MILLION PITCHER?
When Felix Hernandez inked his $135 million extension, the contract focus shifted to Justin Verlander, whose $80 million deal expires at the end of the 2014 campaign.
Some are speculating that he could wind up being the first pitcher to top the $200 million mark. And rightfully so. The former AL Cy Young and MVP had another marvelous season for the Tigers in 2012, as went 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and an MLB-high 239 strikeouts, earning his fourth consecutive All-Star selection, to go along with a second-place finish in the AL Cy Young race.
Quite simply he's the best the game has to offer at the moment. And as good as the lineup is, this team isn't going anywhere without their now 30-year-old right-handed horse.
But, it's not just Verlander, though.
Tigers' starters in general last season combined to go 63-51 last season, with a 3.76 ERA. The group posted the second-best ERA in the AL last year, and tied for second in the league with the least losses suffered, just one worse than the New York Yankees.
Righties Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister all slot in behind the great Verlander, while the fifth spot figures to go to either lefty Drew Smyly or Porcello, if he's still there.
X-FACTOR: ALEX AVILA: One of the few disappointments for the 2012 Tigers was the regression of catcher Alex Avila. After a career year in 2011 that saw Avila hit .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI, the backstop managed to hit at just a .243 clip last season and saw his power numbers drop to nine home runs with a 48 RBI. His struggles led to less playing time and not helping things was the fact that Gerald Laird shined, while Avila sat. But Laird is gone. There is no more confusion as to who the starting catcher is. Avila is as good a defensive catcher as there is in the league, but he needs to be better at the plate, specifically he needs to cut down on his strikeouts. Leyland has told him he needs to swing more. If he takes his manager's advice and he gets back to where he was two years ago offensively, the Tigers are going to be even more dangerous than people think.
The sky is the limit for the defending American League champions. Anything less than an AL Central title would be a huge disappointment, especially when you consider the return of Martinez and the acquisition of Hunter. The Tigers are good. There are not many teams in the league who not only have an MVP candidate, but a Cy Young frontrunner as well. How often can you say that a player has a legit shot to repeat as a Triple Crown winner?
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