MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Tigers a championship team months in the making

Justice: Tigers a title team months in the making

Tigers a championship team months in the making
SAN FRANCISCO -- This is where the 2012 Detroit Tigers always expected to be. That was true in the first hour of the first day of Spring Training, and never wavered through an underwhelming regular season.

To focus on 88 victories is to miss the point, (much like, dare I say, my MLB.com colleague Anthony Castrovince does when he backs the Giants) because the Tigers -- at least these Tigers, this team that probably will win the 2012 World Series -- took a long time coming into focus.

Their general manager, Dave Dombrowski, was challenged to rework his roster on the fly. Their manager, Jim Leyland, was confronted with an array of injuries and poor performances. Meanwhile, their best players -- Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder -- understood they had to lift the club on their shoulders.

World Series

In the end, they all did their jobs. Say this for the Tigers: they never once ducked the expectations that accompanied them to Spring Training. They accepted that they were supposed to be good and that anything short of the World Series would make the season hugely disappointing.

The Tigers were not a great team in April or May. They weren't all that hot in June or July, either. They only emerged as a championship-caliber team in September, late September.

By then, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson had gotten healthy. Anibal Sanchez had gotten comfortable in his new surroundings, and Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia had settled into their new roles.

Once all those things happened, the Tigers finally ran down the White Sox in the American League Central, and once the playoffs began -- and there was some doubt they'd be in the playoffs because they trailed the White Sox by three games with 15 to play -- the Tigers morphed into a team good enough to win a championship.

We may someday see the Tigers as a case study in how good organizations deal with problems. There's a fine line between being aggressive in changing a roster and in panicking and making silly decisions. The Tigers seemed to walk it perfectly.

They're a reminder that championship teams are fragile things, woven from an array of good planning, good fortune and competent management.

OK, who are these Tigers now? They're 16-5 since September 24. No team has better starting pitching, and that's the No. 1 reason they should win the World Series. Baseball's best offensive player, Cabrera, is the centerpiece of their offense. And the Detroit bullpen is riding an unexpected hero, Phil Coke.

What could derail the Tigers? They've got their pitching lined up, they're rested, and they're confident.

First, the five days off between the end of a four-game sweep of the Yankees and the beginning of the World Series. Even though Leyland attempted to keep his guys game-ready, there's nothing he can do in an empty ballpark in Detroit that will replicate the packed house that'll be at AT&T Park for Game 1 on Wednesday.

If Verlander comes out and picks up where he left off in the ALCS, it'll be a terrific sign for the Tigers. Their rotation allowed two earned runs in 27 1/3 innings in the ALCS sweep of the Yankees and has a 1.38 ERA for the entire postseason. If they keep that momentum, they're probably unbeatable.

The Giants aren't going to win if Verlander is executing his pitches the way he did against the A's and Yankees. And the guys behind him -- Fister, Sanchez and Scherzer -- have been tremendous in the postseason.

There could be some mild concern about the workload of those starters. Verlander is at 262 innings, which is nine shy of his 2011 career high. And he did show some wear and tear at the end last season.

So far, he has given no indication that he's tiring. In his last two starts, he threw 254 pitches while allowing one earned run in 17 1/3 innings. Sanchez has pitched a career-high 208 innings, and Scherzer, who is at 197 innings, is approaching his, as well.

If they're good for another 10 days, there's likely to be a World Series champion in Detroit for the first time in 28 years. Remember, the Tigers needed 85 games to clear .500 for good and 155 games to pass the White Sox for the last time.

By then, they were significantly different than the club that left Spring Training. Omar Infante had taken over at second. Garcia and Berry had formed a productive outfield platoon. Sanchez had deepened the rotation. Gerald Laird was sharing some of the workload behind the plate with Alex Avila.

Inch by inch, the Tigers emerged as the team they were expected to be. Unless the five days off has somehow taken away their edge, the Tigers have put themselves in the best position possible to win a World Series. There wasn't a lot of joy in the journey at times, but there's plenty to go around now.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.