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Tigers' perception reshaped under Dombrowski

Free agents now pursuing opportunity to win title in Motown

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DETROIT -- Eleven years ago, the Tigers couldn't get free agents to return their phone calls, let alone agree to play in Detroit.

Now, there might be higher expectations for the Motor City ballclub than at any point since Dave Dombrowski took over as general manager, president and CEO in 2002.

Dombrowski spoke Tuesday to media and to the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association at a luncheon at Hockeytown Cafe, and reflected on how, at the start of his term, unsigned players and their agents wouldn't bother returning voicemails left by John Westhoff, the club's vice president of baseball legal counsel.

"From the beginning," Dombrowski said, "I said one of our main goals needs to be to start having players want to come to Detroit, rather than having them give us all the reasons why they do not want to come here."

The Tigers have reached that point.

Detroit inked outfielder Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million pact in November and re-signed right-hander Anibal Sanchez to a five-year, $80 million contract that includes a club option for a sixth season.

"The reality is a lot of players want to come here and play because they think we have a chance to win," Dombrowski said.

Reaching the World Series last season certainly didn't dampen Detroit's attractiveness. The Tigers won the American League Central, squeaked by the Athletics in the AL Division Series and swept the Yankees in the AL Championship Series before falling victim to the surging San Francisco Giants in the Fall Classic. Hunter took notice.

"I was scouting clubs just in case the Angels didn't bring me back," Hunter said upon signing the deal, "and this was just the best team."

Hunter, who batted .313 with 16 homers and 92 RBIs last season, gives the Tigers stability in right field, leaving left field as the only non-pitching position up for grabs. Dombrowski said Andy Dirks "has a leg up" on Brennan Boesch and Quintin Berry as the club departs for Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 12, and the rest of the team joins them for the first full-squad workout on Feb. 15. The Tigers play their first spring game against the Braves on Feb. 22 in Kissimmee, Fla.

Dirks batted .322 with a .370 on-base percentage in 88 contests last season.

"He's taken a big stride forward," Dombrowski said. "He does a lot of things well and, per se, nothing great. He's not a big power hitter. He's not real fast. He's not a Gold Glove guy. But he does them all very solidly."

The rest of manager Jim Leyland's lineup is virtually set, with Victor Martinez returning to the designated-hitter role after missing the 2012 campaign with a torn knee ligament. Dombrowski said Martinez has been running the bases and swinging a bat for several weeks.

Detroit's pitching staff has a pair of question marks entering Spring Training. Rick Porcello, a right-handed sinkerballer, will compete with southpaw Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Sanchez.

The much-ballyhooed topic of conversation over the winter focused on the club's closer gig. Dombrowski anticipates 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon to prove his ability during the spring, leaving Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal to middle relief and setup roles.

"He's the one guy that isn't battle-tested at the Major League level, so he's going to get a lot of attention," Dombrowski said of Rondon. "He has that mentality of a closer. He wants the ball in the ninth inning of a one-run game. Other people may shy away from that. We're not anointing him that role. We hope he earns it during Spring Training."

Jose Valverde served as the team's closer for the last three years, and he racked up 110 saves. He converted all 49 save opportunities he was presented during the 2011 regular season, and made two All-Star teams during his tenure in Detroit. He faltered in the 2012 postseason, however, and the Tigers decided that they had no margin for future error with championship aspirations in 2013 and beyond.

Since his arrival in Detroit, Dombrowski has been preparing for days like this, when he can talk shop with a fan base that is eager for the start of a season in which an October World Series trip is the expectation.

"We're going into our 12th year here," Dombrowski said, "and you'd hope that by the time we get to this point, we'd be in a position where on a yearly basis, we have a chance to win a championship."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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