LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers have talked for the past year about building a team that can contend for years to come, thanks in no small part to an owner who has spent what it takes to win for a decade. This isn't about that.
Go around the clubhouse this year, and there's a quiet sense of urgency among some parts. It's not a fear that Detroit is headed back to the dark days of 10-12 years ago. It's the logic that all great teams have to evolve.
There's a reason why the 1990s Braves are an outlier among the dynasties in modern baseball: It's hard to keep great teams together. Eventually, whether for age or payroll, teams have to identify core players and build supporting casts around them, shifting the latter every so often. Even the Tigers had to do that five years ago, trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson while signing Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander long term.
Verlander was the Rookie of the Year when the Tigers rallied from cellar-dwellers to American League champions in 2006. He looked around the clubhouse last week and realized he's now the longest-tenured Tiger here, despite having just turned 31.
"There's been a lot of changing pieces since I've been here," he said. "A lot of changing pieces, but every year we've been able to put a quality ballclub out there."
The faces have changed, including the manager, but the standards have remained. With Brad Ausmus now on board, the vibe and the style have both shifted. The new path the Tigers intend to take toward wins, manufacturing offense and designing defenses to support the strong pitching, doesn't change the end goal.
With a slew of players up for free agency in the next two years -- Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter could hit the open market next winter, just before Cabrera, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila enter their potential contract years -- Verlander knows some faces could change again. It's not a window closing, he insists, but with the look of this team shifting this year, he knows better than to take what they have for granted.
"You can't think this is the one shot or whatever. You just go play the game to play the game," Verlander said. "I'm cognizant of it, though. I know that Miggy has a contract coming up, and Max. In a perfect world, we'd lock up both those guys and you'd have myself, Max and Anibal [Sanchez] locked up for four more years or whatever it is, and then Miggy too, and just go. But with success, those guys are expensive.
"[Team owner Mike] Ilitch has shown that he'll do whatever it takes to win, but he's also smart about it. We're not the Yankees. We don't have an unlimited budget. I know that and I think everybody here knows that."
He also knows that the 84-year-old Ilitch, who has spent quite a bit to build a winner, has a sense of urgency to win as well. That isn't waning.
"Mr. Ilitch is getting up there, too," Verlander said. "I can speak for myself, I know being around here as long as I have, that I definitely want to win one for him. I know how much he yearns for one and wants to win a World Series title. He grew up playing Minor League baseball, and I think baseball's near and dear to his heart, and that's why he's made such a push with this team. I really want to do this for him just as much as I do [for] myself."
On the other side of the clubhouse, Ian Kinsler spent his first Spring Training as a Tiger watching and reading his new clubhouse. He was a cog in the first part of the evolution back in November, acquired in the Prince Fielder trade.
He doesn't know many of these guys, not well anyway. Yet he, too, has a sense. It's a slightly different take, but similarly imperative.
"There's a lot of drive on this team," Kinsler said. "There's a lot of guys that have been around for a while and done a lot of great things, except for winning a world championship, so there's a lot of drive for that. Our staff is amazing, they're young, they're energetic. Right now, it's a great feeling."
Though Spring Training injuries have depleted the Tigers' supporting cast -- from season-ending injuries to shortstop Jose Iglesias and setup man Bruce Rondon, to back surgery that will keep Andy Dirks out until at least June -- it has not depleted the tone. Scherzer's contract year can't be timed for a fully healthy bullpen. Hunter is 38 years old, with or without a fully stocked Tigers outfield. Iglesias' aching shins have no regard for rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos' transition to the big leagues.
It might not be their best chance, but for some, it could be their last.
"For me, it's a sense of urgency to get it done," Hunter said.
Kinsler's arrival and Fielder's departure comprised the headline deal of the Tigers' transition this offseason, sending a power-hitting cleanup hitter to Texas in exchange for a multi-faceted leadoff man who is expected to become a gap-slasher in the spacious confines of Comerica Park and a table-setter for Cabrera and new cleanup hitter Martinez. Cabrera, in turn, moved back to first base, a more effective position for him as he ages into his early 30s, while Castellanos returned to his roots at third after a foray to the outfield.
The transition continued with the free-agent signing of speedster Rajai Davis to fill left field and take bases.
With Fister gone, Drew Smyly returns to the rotation, where he crashed the Tigers roster two years ago. Porcello, just 25 years old yet in his sixth Major League season, moves up in profile behind what is expected to be an improved defense in what could be a critical season for his development.
The core, for now, is unchanged, Cabrera anchoring the offense with a starting trio of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez. If the Tigers win a fourth consecutive division title, it'll be on the strength of those four players.
If they can get back to the playoffs, they arguably have the type of style that can win in the playoffs. But they have to get there first. Ironically, that could be as tough as any time during their recent run of success.
"We've had the talent every year," Verlander said. "We've put ourselves in a good position, the last few years in particular, making it to the [AL] Championship Series every year. That's a pretty incredible feat. But when it gets to that point, you've got to win. If you don't, you go home. And unfortunately, we just haven't been able to quite cross that threshold yet.
"Hopefully, this is the year. I mean, that's what everybody in here is thinking."