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DETROIT — For a second straight year, Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers enter the season with sky-high expectations.
That’s no guarantee of success — but it sure beats the alternative.
“I love being a target. That means you’ve got a good team,” Leyland said. “We’re going to be the hunted. We were the winner. We were the American League champs. That’s a good thing.”
After two straight AL Central titles and a World Series appearance, the Tigers enter 2013 with the same core of stars. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, ace Justin Verlander, and slugger Prince Fielder carried Detroit into the postseason last year, and those three MVP candidates are showing no signs of slowing down. The only remaining goal in Detroit is to take that final step and win the World Series after being swept by San Francisco last October.
“I chose to come here because I knew they could win,” said right fielder Torii Hunter, who signed with the Tigers in the offseason.
Detroit received plenty of attention from the outset in 2012 after signing Fielder to a huge contract. For much of the year, the Tigers were a disappointment, but they finally overtook the Chicago White Sox in September and won the division with an 88-74 record.
Behind a stellar performance from its starting rotation, Detroit beat Oakland and the Yankees in the postseason before losing to the Giants.
Leyland does his best to limit distractions, and this year’s everyday lineup was mostly set before spring training even began. Detroit resolved one significant question Tuesday, announcing that right-hander Rick Porcello would be in the starting rotation, with left-hander Drew Smyly heading to the bullpen.
The last lingering issue — and perhaps the trickiest — is who will close games. Jose Valverde had a poor finish to 2012, so the Tigers let him go. Bruce Rondon was expected to be the closer, but he was shipped to Toledo last week to start the season.
“He can throw the ball as hard as he wants, but he needs movement,” Leyland said. “At this level, anybody can hit it no matter how hard it is thrown. You can fire it with a machine gun and these guys can hit it.”
The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games in 2011, but they never opened much distance between themselves and the rest of the division last year. Their defense was a problem, and beyond Cabrera, Fielder, and leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, the offense wasn’t all that deep.
That could change. Designated hitter Victor Martinez returns from a knee injury that cost him all of 2012, and Hunter’s addition should help both at the plate and in the field.
“I felt fine this year,” Martinez said. “It was tough sitting out last year, but I feel great, and it’s like I never was away.”
The starting rotation is full of proven arms. Verlander is the headliner, but Max Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in the American League down the stretch last year, and Doug Fister was effective when healthy. When Detroit re-signed Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers suddenly had six potential starters. Now Smyly is the odd man out.
“It is what it is,” Smyly said. “I’ll pitch out of the bullpen. Anything to help the team win. I am just happy to make the team.”
The big question heading into this season isn’t whether the Tigers will be near the top of the AL Central, but whether anyone else in the division is ready to mount a serious challenge. Detroit was hardly dominant in 2012 but finished first anyway. Can Chicago, Kansas City, or someone else in the Central close the gap?
The Tigers will try to set the bar as high as possible.
“It’s a wonderful thing when you start getting more national attention ... but you also have to be smart enough to know how to handle that. Don’t get carried away with it,” Leyland said. “I want them to enjoy the fact that we’re supposed to be good, we’re supposed to accomplish something. But I want them to understand the process that it takes to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”