Tigers start task of living up to high expectations

Tigers start task of living up to high expectations

Tigers start task of living up to high expectations
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers have heard about expectations for five months.

When they entered the offseason, they were American League contenders.

When they lost Victor Martinez for the season with a knee injury, they were suddenly a little vulnerable atop the American League Central.

When they answered by signing Prince Fielder, they were American League favorites to some.

When they started out Spring Training on a tear, they became World Series favorites for many.

When Justin Verlander leads them onto the field Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park to take on the Red Sox, they'll be 0-0.

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And with the first pitch, predictions and expectations will be over.

"I think high expectations are for everybody else," manager Jim Leyland said last week. "I can't get into all that, because I know the work that has to be done.

"It all depends on how you accept those expectations. If you handle those properly, then normally things work out good. If you don't, then they don't work out as good. I like expectations, because that means you have a good team. I'm certainly glad that everybody's hyped up and everything, and I would never want to temper that, but I can't get into that. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got a lot of games to play against good teams."

All spring, Leyland has tried to get his team to embrace the expectations. People don't expect that from you, he would say, unless you have a good team. This is the same manager who once said the Twins deserved high expectations rather than overachiever status back when they had the American League Cy Young Award winner in Johan Santana, the MVP in Justin Morneau and a batting champion in Joe Mauer.

Leyland has the same thing with AL pitching Triple Crown winner Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. The manager also has a former National League home run champion in Prince Fielder who could win it in the AL, and a Rolaids Relief Man of the Year winner who didn't blow a save last year in Jose Valverde.

As individual seasons go, the Tigers were going to have a lot to defend whether they did anything in the offseason or not. Now that owner Mike Ilitch made the commitment and added Fielder, the team expectations might be the highest of them all.

"No offense to the Brewers when I was there, but when I was there, I don't think our team can match the level of talent we have on this team," Fielder said last week. "I mean, we've got the Cy Young and the MVP. Just imagine that: That you have one guy with both. We didn't have that. We had a batting champion in Braunie [Ryan Braun] this year, but as far as the total, I think we have a lot of talent [here].

"So it's just going to be high expectations because of the moves that Mr. I made in the offseason. ... Of course, there's supposed to be a lot of pressure, because Mr. I is doing his part. So it's time to do our part."

It won't be easy.

The last team with these kind of expectations, last year's Boston Red Sox, will be known for an awful start and an even worse finish that cost them a postseason spot and caused an organizational overhaul. They won't be remembered for the 72-37 baseball they played from May through August.

Leyland doesn't need to be reminded. He knows what happens when teams aren't as good as advertised, because he lived through it with the Tigers in 2008. Everybody has said this team is different. The pitching is better, for one, especially the bullpen, and the core of the team is much, much younger. The supporting cast has way more talent.

That doesn't mean the Tigers are frostproof. One look at their early schedule maps out how they could get off to a slow start and lead to the same critiques the Red Sox heard a year ago and the Tigers heard during their 0-7 start in '08.

Thirteen of their first 22 games are against teams that won at least 90 games last year. By the time they return from New York at the end of the month, they'll have faced every other team from the AL postseason, including a four-game ALCS rematch with the Rangers at Comerica Park April 19-22.

It's almost fitting that out of the gate, they'll face last year's can't-miss team, the Red Sox, with a new manager. They'll face a lot of good lineups looking to get to the Tigers' rotation, and they'll face a Rays pitching staff that can stifle any offense.

In theory, they could play the same caliber of baseball that won them the AL Central last September and be a .500 team or worse. And that's when they'll be challenged about expectations.

"I think we'll have the right approach to this," Leyland said. "I've been preaching it all spring, so certainly we should have the right approach to it, which is to focus on the task at hand and nothing else. Don't focus on the negative. Don't focus on the positive. Just focus on today's game, who we're playing.

"I've really preached long on that, long this spring about that. I've reminded them almost every meeting. Don't get wrapped up. Because what happens, I'm smart enough to know that if you don't get off good, everybody's going to start. They'll be negative about that. That's only natural."

At the same time, Leyland says he wants the Tigers to focus on winning series. Win two out of three more than not, and they'll get themselves back to the postseason. Then they can have a new season, with new expectations.

The current expectations turn into reality Thursday.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.