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Hal Bodley

Tigers still legitimate contenders despite setbacks

Ausmus forced to navigate injuries, but Detroit remains team to beat in AL Central

Tigers still legitimate contenders despite setbacks

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For much of Spring Training, the Detroit Tigers were on cruise control, a multi-talented team poised to win another American League Central title.

And then "we hit some traffic," said rookie manager Brad Ausmus, and he wasn't referring to the green light he's been flashing on the basepaths all spring.

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Just when it appeared the Tigers were rolling, they ran into the unexpected heavy traffic.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias is probably out for the season with stress fractures in both legs. Setup man Bruce Rondon is done for the year, headed for Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow.

And just to add another distraction, 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who can be a free agent in November, broke off contract talks. There will be no negotiating during the season, which means this could be Scherzer's final season in Detroit -- although the right-hander and general manger/team president Dave Dombrowski did recently meet to clear the air.

Before Spring Training got underway in earnest, left fielder Andy Dirks underwent back surgery and is expected to miss about 12 weeks. He was slated to start in a left-field platoon alongside the speedy Rajai Davis.

Welcome to the world of big league managing, Mr. Ausmus.

Despite those interruptions to an otherwise smooth spring, the Tigers should once again win their division for the fourth consecutive year.

On this cool Wednesday afternoon at Bright House Field, Justin Verlander demonstrated the No. 1 reason why it's difficult to pick a team other than the Tigers to win the AL Central.

In fact, it's not too difficult to picture Detroit back in the World Series.

Over 6 1/3 innings, Verlander, the 2012 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, allowed only a soft two-out single by the Phillies' Chase Utley in the first inning. He struck out seven, issued just one walk and during one stretch retired 16 consecutive batters as the Tigers won the Grapefruit League game, 1-0.

Any doubts Verlander would not come back strong from January's core muscle repair surgery have been put to rest this spring. He suffered the injury during workouts in December.

Verlander, who will start Monday's regular-season opener against Kansas City at Comerica Park, didn't allow a run during spring 20 innings. He gave up just eight hits and fanned 17.

"I was efficient, and that comes back to my fastball control," he said. "I was able to locate real well and get ahead of a lot of guys. It was a good day."

Ausmus said Verlander went through the physical therapy and strengthening regimen early on "to the point where he became comfortable his surgery was healed. Now, he's doing what he's always done. He pitches.

"I don't think the surgery is going to have a major impact on his ability to pitch. I've spoken to him about it, and he's completely comfortable, says he doesn't even thing about it anymore."

Even though the injuries do pose a challenge to Ausmus, who turns 45 on April 14, the Tigers have such as strong nucleus they should overcome those setbacks.

Ausmus has been impressive. He has no experience as a coach or manager, but that hasn't seemed to matter. Replacing the legendary Jim Leyland is no easy task, but Ausmus has already put his stamp on this team.

"I'm not trying to be Jim Leyland by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "I'm not saying there aren't some similarities between us, but I'm not trying to imitate him in any way."

Spend a few minutes with the former catcher and it's obvious he's a thinking man's manager -- more cerebral than Leyland, but far from being totally sabermetric.

Friends talk about his intelligence and his Ivy League education (Dartmouth), but I have long believed the best students of the game are former catchers.

As an aside, Ausmus grew up in a family where his dad was an author and college professor. As a player, his work ethic bordered on the extreme. He spent hours going over scouting reports and preparing for each game.

"I came here because I wanted to play under Jim Leyland," said veteran outfielder Torii Hunter. "I enjoyed every minute of it, but Brad Ausmus is doing a great job. He's certainly a player's manager."

One of the first things Ausmus did when the Grapefruit League games began was to give his baserunners a constant "green light." It was his way of adding speed to the lineup and encouraging them to steal more bases.

"I think it's gone well, overall," he said. "I think guys are aggressive on the bases. We have morning meetings and I occasionally remind them. Baseball is such a long season it's easy to forget what we're trying to accomplish early on. Some of these guys will have the green light yanked away from them when we leave here, but most of them will continue to keep it."

With Prince Fielder and his big bat traded to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers will put even more emphasis on their starting pitching -- Verlander, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez et al. Veteran Joe Nathan was signed to be the closer.

Miguel Cabrera, back-to-back AL MVP winner, is healthier after sports hernia surgery. Kinsler, who hit 64 homers and drove in 221 runs the past three seasons for the Rangers, adds stability to the batting order.

"It's a little bit different," said Ausmus. "You take Prince's bat out of there, that's a little bit of thump being removed. But you add a little bit more of a dynamic player in Kinsler. The home run isn't the only way to score runs in baseball."

Bottom line: The AL Central is still the Tigers' to win or lose.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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