12/31/12 10:00 AM ET
Tigers set their sights on next step in 2013
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
For the vast majority of the people in that clubhouse, no reminder will be needed. Most of the players coming back lived through the example of what expectations mean.
Not until mid-September of 2012, with the season seemingly on the verge of ruin, did Detroit start to play the kind of baseball everyone expected for an extended stretch. The dream-team aura was off, the grandiose predictions were long gone and all that was left was a sense of urgency.
If the Tigers didn't already know better than to expect glory, they know it now. Nothing is assured. In all fairness to new right fielder Torii Hunter, that experience might be the best acquisition the Tigers have made.
So far, their offseason moves have been more practical than eye-popping. Hunter's arrival didn't grab anywhere near the headlines that Prince Fielder's contract did late last offseason. Anibal Sanchez was a major piece for the Tigers to retain. Brayan Pena was never going to be confused with Victor Martinez.
They weren't moves meant to build a sense of anticipation in Detroit. That was already there. They were tweaks to turn a pennant-winning team into a champion. If last year taught the Tigers anything, it's that it doesn't happen automatically, and it's never as easy as the previous year seems to be.
Here's a look at some of the Tigers' burning issues heading into the 2013 campaign:
1. How will Miguel Cabrera follow up his Triple Crown season?
Nobody expects another Triple Crown. The last winner, Carl Yasztremski, repeated his batting title the next year but fell well back in home runs and RBIs. Frank Robinson finished second in batting average after his Triple Crown year but dropped to third and fourth in home runs and RBIs. Neither, however, had as good of a team around him the next season. If the Tigers lineup around Cabrera is better next season, it'll be interesting to see what he can do.
2. Can Martinez regain his 2011 form?
Everybody expects Martinez to be back in the Tigers lineup when the season opens. His effectiveness is another issue. The track record of players coming back from microfracture surgery is mixed. Though some regain their old form as if nothing happened, others suffer residual problems. For others, such as Carlos Guillen and Grady Sizemore, Martinez's former teammate, the knee injury starts an overall physical breakdown. Martinez -- recovering from left knee surgery -- doesn't have to worry about playing defense, but he's still 34.
3. Will 2012 end up being a breakout or a blip for Max Scherzer?
The question was much the same after the 2010 season, when Scherzer had a dominant stretch from Memorial Day on. He turned in a 15-win season in 2011, but his ERA jumped by nearly a full run. It's a matter of consistency with Scherzer's mechanics, and he finally seemed to have it down this year. Now, the right-hander has to carry it over into a new season, something he couldn't do in 2011. A muscular issue in his right shoulder was cause for concern in October, but that isn't expected to lead to problems in 2013.
4. Will the Tigers lock up Justin Verlander long term?
Now that Sanchez has been re-signed, Verlander is the next step, even though he isn't up for free agency for another two seasons. Most teams try to make a decision on starting pitchers then, realizing it's the fulcrum for when long-term security still outweighs the lure of the open market for many arms. This is the point in his contract at which Verlander signed his current five-year deal -- after the 2009 season. His last two seasons give the ace right-hander a chance to set a new market, a factor that should only be slightly tempered by his 30th birthday, coming up in Feburary. Owner Mike Ilitch wants superstars on his team, and Verlander is the one star the Tigers have who is homegrown, having come up through the farm system.
5. Who will close?
That's the big roster question left with no clear answer. The Tigers have stayed out of the closer market all winter, insisting they want to give triple-digit fireballer Bruce Rondon a chance to win the job. Come January, however, the free-agent market always has a closer or two available who has held out for bigger money that was never offered. That's how Detroit signed Jose Valverde, the top closer on the market three winters ago. Will that be the setup that brings Detroit and Rafael Soriano to talk?
6. What role will Phil Coke fill in 2013?
Asking another question is required to answer that one: Which was the real Coke last year? If it's the middle reliever who gave up a .324 batting average in the regular season, including .396 to right-handed hitters, then the Tigers will have to pick their spots. If it's the guy who fed off playoff adrenaline in save situations and dominated through October, then Coke could be much more than a situational lefty. Depending on how the rest of the bullpen looks, he could be called on in some save situations again.
7. Is Avisail Garcia ready to stick in the big leagues?
The Tigers have made it clear that a September surge and October magic don't guarantee Garcia anything. Moreover, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has emphasized that Garcia can't stick in the big leagues as a right-handed hitter in a pure platoon with Andy Dirks. He'll need to earn more than that to break camp with Detroit. Talent-wise, the ability is there. The question with the 21-year-old is the polish, especially his plate discipline, which was outstanding at season's end. Bottom line, this looks a lot like a Spring Training battle in the making.
8. How far away is Nick Castellanos?
According to MLB.com, he's the top prospect in the Tigers system and one of the top pure hitting prospects in baseball despite a subpar performance in the Arizona Fall League. He's good enough to enter Spring Training with the chance to at least compete for a job with the big club. That said, Dombrowski told fans in a Twitter question-and-answer session before the holidays that Castellanos will likely start the season playing the outfield at Triple-A Toledo.
9. How much longer will Leyland manage?
Leyland said at the Winter Meetings that he's not putting any timetable on managing and that he's comfortable with going year to year on his contract. As long as he feels good, Leyland wants to keep going. Whether he has a job as long as he wants it depends on ownership, and Ilitch wants to win. So the same managerial saga that followed the Tigers all summer could well repeat in 2013, this time without all of the rumors involving Terry Francona, who will manage the Indians next season.
10. How long can the Tigers spend like this?
The Tigers have carried a big-market payroll for so long, it's hard to remember the days when they were spending like a mid-market club. Ilitch's continued desire to add a World Series trophy to his Stanley Cup titles from the Red Wings' success means the Tigers probably won't be in a budget crunch as long as he owns the team. What happens if and when the Tigers win it all is anyone's guess, but it's a reminder to enjoy the here and now.