Now that 2011 has arrived, this is the year the Tigers believe they can win. But they're going to have plenty of competition trying to get there.
They boast arguably the best trio atop any rotation in the division in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. They finally added the extra run producer in the middle of the order that they lacked for the past two years when they signed Victor Martinez. With Joaquin Benoit now wearing the Old English D, and Joel Zumaya now hopefully behind his injury woes, the Tigers have the potential for a deep, deep bullpen.
This year has the chance to unleash the most complete Tigers team since the 2006 squad went to the World Series. And with manager Jim Leyland and president/general manager Dave Dombrowski both in the last year of their contracts, the mission is clearly to win now.
But with the White Sox having improved their roster, and with the Twins still boasting young talent to build around Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, it's easier said than done.
"You might as well make up your mind," Leyland said at baseball's Winter Meetings in December, "that this is going to be a true dogfight in the Central division. You might as well make up your mind of that, because you can sit there and you can make a case for Minnesota and you can make a case for the White Sox and you can make a case for us."
We take a look at some of the Tigers' most burning issues heading into the 2011 campaign:
1. Do the Tigers have enough offense to overcome the Twins and White Sox?
Injuries and inconsistency are going to have a lot to say on that one, but if everyone's healthy, the Tigers have a chance to boast a really balanced, productive lineup with proven run producers everywhere from third through seventh in the order. They might not be big on home run power aside from Miguel Cabrera, unless Martinez really finds Comerica Park to be a cozy place to hit. But it'll be deeper in hitters who can drive in runs in big situations.
2. Who's going to try to protect Cabrera batting behind him in the lineup?
With Magglio Ordonez back in the fold to most likely hit in front of Cabrera, the fifth spot falls to Martinez, who similarly protected Travis Hafner during his younger days in Cleveland. Some might argue that Cabrera should bat third, with Martinez and Ordonez after that, but there's a thought process that it's easier for Cabrera to drive in Ordonez or Martinez than the other way around.
3. How much is Ryan Raburn going to play?
Looks like he'll be playing regularly in left field, certainly as long as he hits. Though Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells could make a case for playing time, especially if they have a good Spring Training, the Tigers' view on Raburn has changed to a proven run producer with a nice power punch to add to the order. He could conceivably bat second if the Tigers can't find a more natural candidate.
4. Who's in the rotation after Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello?
Leyland and Dombrowski are steadfast in their plan to use Phil Coke as a starting pitcher, and that his stuff should translate well to the role if he can find a way to channel his adrenaline. He was a godsend as a setup man last year, but with Benoit now in that role, and Daniel Schlereth capable of retiring left-handed hitters, Coke's more valuable if he can start. Armando Galarraga has the fifth spot for now, but the Tigers will give Andy Oliver a chance to prove he's ready for the big leagues.
5. Does Alex Avila have to look over his shoulder at catcher with Martinez as the DH?
The Tigers insist he shouldn't. They believe he has the chance to develop into a very good catcher, and they're ready to hand him the bulk of the starts behind the plate to prove it. Still, a fast start at the plate would do a lot to allow Avila to relax and not worry about the All-Star switch-hitter Martinez and how many games he could catch. Avila has the respect of the pitching staff, including Verlander, which should mean plenty, as well.
6. Who will start at second base?
Dombrowski said at season's end that he saw Scott Sizemore and Will Rhymes battling for time at second next season, with Carlos Guillen getting some starts. But now that Guillen is looking more and more likely to be ready for Opening Day after knee surgery late last season, Leyland and others talk about him more as a second baseman, and potentially the key to balancing out the lineup. Simply put, his offense is too good to keep out.
7. Can the Tigers count on Guillen being healthy?
That, of course, is the follow-up question. All the reports from the club and from Guillen suggest he should be fine, though he'll probably be slowed a bit during Spring Training as a precaution. The bigger question for the Tigers is how long he can stay healthy. He hasn't played a full Major League season since 2007, suffering injuries to his back, shoulder, hip and knees, and he'll be trying to handle the middle infield at age 35. With one more year guaranteed on his contract, though, it makes sense for Detroit to get whatever they can for him and hope he can stay on the field.
8. Where does Zumaya fit in the bullpen if he's healthy?
Zumaya says he wants a chance to compete with Benoit for setup opportunities, but realistically, his best fit in this bullpen is as a seventh-inning shutdown reliever who can shift into the eighth when Benoit is off. If he can do that, it puts a lot less pressure on Detroit's starting pitchers to try to get extra outs and pitch deeper, and it puts less pressure on Zumaya to cover multiple innings like he did last year.
9. What's the next step for Austin Jackson?
Jackson will have to cut down on the strikeouts, first and foremost. There's no way he can maintain a .396 average on balls put in play, which means he's going to have to put the ball in play more often to give himself more chances at base hits. The power bat that scouts and other talent evaluators talk about should develop down the road, but the Tigers aren't worried about that now.
10. Will Leyland's expiring contract be an issue?
It shouldn't be, but the reality might depend on how the Tigers perform in April. Leyland went into 2009 without an extension, the casualty of the mess of a season in '08, but Detroit's fast start earned Leyland a two-year deal in early June. The tricky part now is that it's difficult for Dombrowski to sign him to an extension when Dombrowski, too, isn't under contract past this season. That's why they have to win now, and why their fates look a lot like a package deal at this point.