The Detroit Tigers won their third consecutive AL Central division crown last season.
After a headache induced, gut-wrenching, and nerve-racking 2012 regular season, the Tigers put on a better display in 2013 as the division seemed in hand after a sweep of the Cleveland Indians in early August.
But those same Cleveland Indians only finished one game behind those same division winning Detroit Tigers in the final standings.
Granted, the Tigers locked up the division on Sept. 25 and had nothing to play for in Miami during the final weekend of the regular season while the Indians were fighting tooth and nail for a wild-card spot. But in the end, the Indians only finished one game behind the Tigers.
It is expected that the Tigers will win their fourth consecutive division title in 2014. Despite first-year manager Brad Ausmus at the helm, the Tigers are still loaded with a potent lineup and dominate starting pitching. But unlike years past, there are two teams the Tigers have to be weary of when the season kicks off Mar. 31 at Comerica Park.
Those same Cleveland Indians and the up and coming Kansas City Royals.
Both teams have come a long way recently as the Indians don’t appear to be that same “1st Half Division Champs Only to Collapse in the 2nd Half” team anymore while the Royals’ youngsters are finally developing into major league caliber players.
However, the Tigers should “Own the Central” once again. But in order for them to continue their reign of dominance, here are five things that need to happen:
5. Get off to a quick start
As fellow MCB writer Sam O’Toole mentioned in a previous post, the Tigers would benefit mightily from a fast start. Expecting an ’84-esque 35-5 start is a bit too much, but the Tigers have been notorious for starting off slowly. Yes, it’s all about how you finish and the Tigers have done that quite well, but with a new manager for the first time since 2006, it sure would silence anyone that doubts Ausmus’ ability to run a team that has World Series aspirations.
4. Solid role player production
The Tigers are loaded with stars as usual.
Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Victor Martinez anchor the squad. You know what to expect from these guys season in and season out. But it’s the role players that can turn a fringe division title contender into a World Series contender.
Guys like Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Rick Porcello, and Nick Castellanos don’t need to be spectacular, but they need to produce. We have seen it before with Avila in 2011 and Jackson in 2012, Porcello possibly has his best defensive infield since his rookie season, and Castellanos needs to prove he’s major league worthy. If these guys can complement the stars, the Tigers should have no problem holding onto the division for another year.
3. Another strong season from Max Scherzer
We knew Max Scherzer was good. Just not THAT good.
Scherzer was so good that he made a so-so Verlander look incredibly awful last year. But Scherzer needs to prove that last season isn’t an outlier in his young career.
The Tigers have three starting pitchers that have the ability to win 20 games in Scherzer, Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez. Both Verlander and Sanchez are here to stay, but this is a contract year for Scherzer. With many pitchers across baseball getting enormous amounts of money, Scherzer should be motivated to repeat his stellar 2013 season and help the Tigers win another division crown.
2. An anxiety-free bullpen
Oh that bullpen.
When was the last time Tiger fans felt safe when a manager called to the bullpen?
It’s been awhile. But the addition of All-Star closer Joe Nathan has given Detroiters some hope that there may not be any anxiety attacks come the late innings. Bruce Rondon was marvelous toward the end of last season after a slow start. Signing Joba Chamberlain was an interesting move. Chamberlain was fantastic as a rookie back in 2007, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him during the rest of his tenure as a New York Yankee.
It will be a different look as the Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit eras are over as both have moved on. It will be interesting to see who Ausmus goes with in the earlier innings as well as who he uses as a lefty specialist. But that won’t matter to fans as long as that 9th inning is secure. Especially when it’s possible that a blown save in April could be the difference between a playoff berth and a long offseason.
1. Stay healthy
The importance of health to the Tigers in 2014 is comparable to the importance of owning a snow blower in Michigan.
For the most part, the Tigers have avoided any crippling injuries that could have kept them from a division title. But it’s a scary thing when three of your top stars have dealt with major injuries the past three seasons. Martinez tore his ACL during offseason workouts prior to the 2012 season, Cabrera limped to the finish line last season and had “core muscle repair surgery” this offseason, and Verlander underwent similar surgery last month. If any of these three get hurt again, the Tigers chances of another division title will fall dramatically.
Brad Ausmus can teach and manage all he wants, but no one can prevent an injury. Luck will have to be on the Tigers’ side in 2014 as far as health goes.
If the Tigers can stay relatively healthy and accomplish the other four things mentioned above, another AL Central division title will be in their grasp come September.