DETROIT — Five things to know about the Detroit Tigers as they start spring training camp:
TAKING OVER: Brad Ausmus will face high expectations from the start as he replaces Jim Leyland as Detroit’s manager. The Tigers have won three straight AL Central titles but are still without a World Series championship since 1984. Ausmus will be expected to keep Detroit’s run atop the division going — especially since nobody can be sure how much longer this team’s window of opportunity will remain open.
ON THE MEND: Miguel Cabrera won a second straight AL MVP last year, but he was hobbled down the stretch by a tear in his groin. After offseason surgery, he’s expected to be ready for spring training — but in January, ace Justin Verlander had his own muscle repair surgery. The Tigers hope to have him back by opening day, but it’ll be interesting to see how Verlander’s spring training routine is affected. Verlander and Max Scherzer headline what could be baseball’s best starting rotation.
BLOCKBUSTER: When the Tigers traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler in the offseason, they gave themselves some financial flexibility by unloading Fielder’s massive contract. They also lost his powerful bat, of course, and Detroit did not bring in anyone likely to replace it. This figures to be an improved team defensively, albeit one with a little less pop. That transition began to some degree when shortstop Jhonny Peralta was suspended last season as part of baseball’s drug investigation and the Tigers traded for Jose Iglesias to replace him. Peralta returned and helped Detroit in the postseason, then left via free agency.
It will be interesting to see whether this more multidimensional Detroit team is as successful as last season’s. The Tigers also added some speed by signing outfielder Rajai Davis.
ALL SMYLES: Detroit had so much starting pitching depth that an offseason trade sending Doug Fister to Washington might not hurt the rotation that much. Left-hander Drew Smyly, who went 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA in relief last year, will start in 2014. The 24-year-old Smyly already has plenty of big league experience, and with Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello also in the rotation, the Tigers may overwhelm the rest of the AL Central with pitching alone.
CLOSING IT DOWN: Of course, Detroit’s embarrassment of riches in the rotation could go for naught if the bullpen doesn’t perform. Joaquin Benoit settled into the closer’s role last year, but he left via free agency. The Tigers signed Joe Nathan, who is baseball’s active leader with 341 saves now that Mariano Rivera has retired. Detroit also brought in Joba Chamberlain to join a bullpen that includes hard-throwing Bruce Rondon and the enigmatic Al Alburquerque.