AL Central's best keeps getting better

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2013 - 1:24 PM

The Tigers didn’t stand pat after last season’s World Series berth, adding more weapons to their loaded lineup.

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Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez missed all of the 2012 season because of a knee injury, but he drove in 103 runs and batted .330 in 2011.

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The Tigers tried sitting still, and discovered there’s no such thing in baseball. Not moving forward inevitably means you’re moving backward.

Lesson learned.

Detroit General Manager Dave Dombrowski kept his 2006 American League champions almost completely intact after they lost the World Series to the Cardinals, and watched as the Tigers’ victory total declined from 95, to 88, to 74, never again reaching the playoffs with that Pudge Rodriguez/Magglio Ordonez/Kenny Rogers nucleus. Now Dombrowski’s challenge is the same — get the AL champions, fresh off another World Series disappointment, to take that one last step — and he’s taking a different approach.

“We had some places we felt we could upgrade,” Dombrowski told the Detroit News in December. “You can’t be afraid to make changes to help your club.”

He made several, improving the Tigers in right field, designated hitter and second base, the latter move made at the trade deadline in July. The bullpen has been reshuffled, too.

All of the upgrades, around a core that includes the two most recent AL MVPs, have made the Tigers heavy favorites to defend their AL Central title, and a good bet to reach the World Series again, too. Miguel Cabrera is coming off the game’s first Triple Crown season since 1967, while Justin Verlander followed his Cy Young season with a Cy Young runner-up effort. Prince Fielder hit 30 or more home runs for the sixth consecutive season, and Austin Jackson has turned into one of the American League’s best leadoff hitters. Righthander Max Scherzer is becoming almost as feared as Verlander.

Yes, everyone is aiming at the Tigers now.

“I love being a target,” said manager Jim Leyland, entering his eighth season in charge in Detroit. “That means you have a good team. Other teams are going to get sick of reading about how good the Tigers are. I warn the players: Don’t get wrapped up in it. You are either the hunted or the hunter, and we’re the hunted.”

Maybe so. But they added a hunter, too. A Torii Hunter.

Dombrowski’s biggest offseason move was to replace a failed right field platoon of Brennan Boesch and Ryan Rayburn, a duo that produced mostly strikeouts. Now Hunter, who has bedeviled Detroit for years, takes over in right, coming off a career-high .313 batting average with the Angels. “Torii is about as sure a thing as you can find,” Dombrowski said when he signed the former Twin to a two-year, $26 million contract. “He’s a steady producer and a steady person.”

But Hunter probably won’t be the biggest addition to the Tigers’ lineup. Victor Martinez drove in 103 runs in 2011, batted .330 and had an on-base percentage of .380, but he missed the entire 2012 season after blowing out a ligament in his left knee during a workout. He’ll replace Delmon Young, who was allowed to leave after posting a .296 on-base percentage last year.

Jose Valverde’s flameout in the postseason — he posted a 30.37 ERA in four appearances and blew a 3-1 lead in what could have been a division-series-clinching game against Oakland — forced Dombrowski to make a brave choice in the bullpen. The Tigers intend to turn over the closer role to 22-year-old Venezuelan phenom Bruce Rondon, one of the top 100 prospects in the game, according to Baseball America. But Rondon’s control abandoned him early in spring training, so Leyland might have to turn to Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel early in the season, until Rondon gets comfortable in the role.

Big changes. Potentially big payoff.

“I like the fact that we’re supposed to win. But I never talk to the team about winning,” Leyland said. “I talk to them about preparing to win. If we’re prepared, we’ll win. How many, I don’t know. But we’ll win our share.”

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