In essence, the Tigers' push for 2014 began with a swinging strikeout in 2013.
It was with two outs in the top of the ninth of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park when Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias fanned against Boston closer Koji Uehara, ending the Tigers' season. The Red Sox looked toward the pitcher's mound, mobbing Uehara to celebrate the team's third AL pennant in the last 10 years, and the Tigers looked ahead to next season.
"We can always look back and think of certain situations, certain pitches, certain situations we didn't come through in," veteran Torii Hunter said that night, after seeing his hopes of winning a World Series dashed yet again. "You can always look back and second guess.
"We probably should've won at least one of these games, and [the series] should've been 3-3, but why? It's over with. You can't do anything about it, can't take it back -- it's over. It's tough. Tough for me. The door's closing."
The goal in Detroit now is to ensure the door doesn't close on this era of great Tigers teams before it can achieve its greatest goal -- a World Series championship. This was Detroit's third trip to the ALCS in as many years, with as many AL Central titles in that span to boot. But with a rotation headlined by AL Cy Young Award winners Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander and a lineup by back-to-back AL Most Valuable Player Award winner Miguel Cabrera, that hardly seems like enough.
Owner Mike Ilitch is dead set on winning a World Series title to sit on his mantle alongside the Stanley Cup accomplishments he's garnered with the city's hockey team, the Red Wings. He's fallen just short in each of the team's last few tries, but 2014 should feature another strong push.
Gone are All-Stars Omar Infante (free agency), Prince Fielder (trade), Joaquin Benoit (free agency) and Jhonny Peralta (free agency), as well as Doug Fister (trade) and Jose Veras (free agency). But as general manager Dave Dombrowski looks to retool the roster while remaining competitive in the ever-improving AL Central, the Tigers have shed a bit of payroll (with hopes of potentially extending Scherzer and Cabrera) while infusing the lineup with some new skill sets.
They acquired second baseman Ian Kinsler from Texas in the Fielder trade, and signed outfielder Rajai Davis to platoon with Andy Dirks in left field. The pair has combined to average 55 stolen bases over the last eight seasons. No player on the Tigers roster last year swiped more than eight, and the entire club stole a measly 35.
Joe Nathan, another veteran without a title -- much like Hunter when he signed prior to the 2013 season -- has been brought in to close, and Joba Chamberlain was signed to hopefully lend a hand in the later innings of games. The team will likely be counting on young Bruce Rondon again as well.
"Why would I come here? Shoot, I think the question is why wouldn't I?" Nathan said at his introductory news conference. "This team is ready to win. They're ready to win now. It's not just about getting to the postseason, but for me it's about getting to the big one, to get into the World Series. It's something that's not been a part of my career. It has eluded me, and that's what it's all about now for me."
Still, the most conspicuous dugout change may be in the man filling out the lineup card. Longtime manager Jim Leyland stepped down to take on a new role with the organization, and the team went out and secured Brad Ausmus to take the helm. Ausmus has never managed in the big leagues, but the former Tigers catcher suddenly finds himself steering a team with World Series aspirations.
"Jim was one of the best managers of his time," Ausmus said. "And we're talking about the time where there were some pretty darned good managers -- three just got elected to the Hall of Fame. But I don't go in trying to be Jim Leyland. I'm not Jim Leyland. I wouldn't expect anybody to want me to be Jim Leyland."
Ausmus may not have to be Jim Leyland, but Tigers fans hope he'll still have this Detroit team in prime contention for the same prize it's been vying for in Leyland's recent tenure -- a World Series title.