NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Tigers had barely finished celebrating a fourth straight division title last year when they were dispatched from the playoffs by Baltimore in a Division Series sweep. Then Kansas City — the team the Tigers fought so hard to hold off in the AL Central — rolled to the AL pennant and came within a game of winning the World Series.
It was enough to turn the Tigers into October afterthoughts for the first time in a while, and now it’s fair to wonder whether Detroit’s best chance to claim baseball’s ultimate prize with its current core of stars has already come and gone.
“I’m not worried about what people are saying about us. I’m more worried about how we perform,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “I feel like this team is a winning team. This is a team that has an opportunity to win a World Series.”
The Tigers edged Kansas City by one game in the division last year in Ausmus’ first season as manager, and their 90-72 record was similar enough to their previous work during this run of postseason appearances, but a three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles snapped Detroit’s streak of three straight trips to the AL Championship Series.
Then the Tigers lost Max Scherzer in the offseason, and it remains to be seen how much longer Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez can keep this team’s run of success going.
Cabrera and Martinez each missed a chunk of the exhibition schedule after offseason surgery. Verlander is coming off a down year and has been displaced as Detroit’s opening-day starter by left-hander David Price.
Over the past three seasons, the Tigers have fought off challenges in the division from the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland and Kansas City — but those teams essentially made their bids for first place one at a time. Now all three appear poised to threaten Detroit’s reign.
“I think quietly, I’ve said for the last two or three years, I’ve said we have the best division in baseball. Nobody really talked about it because there weren’t sexy names besides the Tigers, who had won however many straight and been to a couple World Series and had a lot of star power,” Verlander said. “The Royals won the pennant last year so, obviously, what I was saying wasn’t just hogwash. We see all the teams in the AL quite enough, and I know that these teams are good enough to make our division one of the best in baseball.”
Here are a few things to watch as the Tigers try to make it five division championships in a row:
ON THE MEND: Cabrera had offseason surgery on his right foot and Martinez had an operation to repair his left knee. Their health is crucial, but the Tigers also are hoping for big contributions from shortstop Jose Iglesias and reliever Bruce Rondon, both of whom missed all of 2014 with injuries.
NEW-LOOK ROTATION: Scherzer isn’t the only player gone from last year’s starting staff. Rick Porcello was traded in a deal that brought Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit, so the Tigers had two openings in their rotation. They filled them by acquiring Shane Greene from the New York Yankees and Alfredo Simon from Cincinnati.
BULLPEN BLUES: Closer Joe Nathan is back after a rocky first season in Detroit. If the Tigers run out of patience with Nathan, Joakim Soria also returns. He was acquired shortly before the trade deadline last year, but his impact was limited, in part because of injury.
EXTRA POWER: J.D. Martinez provided a surprisingly productive bat last year after joining the Tigers, and the trade for Cespedes also gave Detroit some additional pop to supplement Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
NEW ACE?: Price is slated to start on opening day, a sign of just how much the Tigers are leaning on him after Scherzer’s departure. He was acquired at the trade deadline last year, and Detroit is hoping the trio of Price, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez will make for a pretty impressive anchor to the pitching staff.
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