DETROIT — For the last four years the Tigers had been on their own level within the American League Central Division. That may no longer be the case with offseason moves made within the division. While at TigerFest, Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski said the 2015 season will likely be a free-for-all, but that uncertainty might not be a bad thing.
The prevailing thought regarding the Tigers going into the 2014 season was that Detroit would dominate its division and run away with the title well before the season was over. While initially true, the team and fans were served a large dose of reality when the Tigers ran into a 9-20 stretch before resurfacing. The result produced a roller coaster ride for the rest of the season and the team didn't clinch the division until the last regular game of the season, only to end their stint in the playoffs after just three games against the Orioles.
"Our expectations are to win the division and try to win a world championship," Dombrowski said. "To me, it's real simple. I think the biggest difference is I keep looking at why people are not sure of this, not sure of that. I understand. It's just a less certain club. When I say less certain, there are more unknowns."
After last season, expectations for the team are, in all likelihood, more realistic. That's not to say that fans aren't expecting the Tigers to battle for a deep postseason run, but the latest acquisitions aren't as flashy as thoughts of retaining Max Scherzer were, and the unknown factors attached to other players make winning a World Series seem more difficult.
Some of the unknowns include the health of Jose Iglesias and Bruce Rondon returning from year-long stints on the disabled list. Miguel Cabrera had his second surgery in as many offseasons, and Justin Verlander has been unlike himself for two consecutive seasons. Include the additions of Shane Greene, Alfredo Simon, and a bullpen that has been marred by inconsistency and it's easy to see why fans skeptical.
Unknown doesn't necessarily equate to instability but it certainly doesn't help boost confidence. Will Joe Nathan be able to close games like he did in the final month of the season? Is Joakim Soria capable of being lights-out like he was with the Texas Rangers? The outfield defense was a disaster waiting to happen for large portions of the season, particularly after the Tigers lost Austin Jackson in the trade that brought David Price to Detroit.
Concerns that Tigers fans have for the 2015 season are not invalid, if anything they're warranted. With so many changes having been made to the White Sox, Indians, Royals, and Twins in one way or another, the balance no longer tips heavily in Detroit's favor. Still, it might not be a negative thing.
"You look up and down our division, there really isn't one team that we're going to count out and I think that may help us," Nathan said. "Sometimes you get into a series where you think you have an easier series and you're playing a team that you should beat. You kind of put yourself to sleep and don't play as well and go out and lose two out of three or get swept, and then you look back and go what just happened."
Without that surety that Detroit will blow away an opponent, the belief within the team is that no one player will take any games for granted. If the Tigers expect to clinch their fifth consecutive division championship in 2015, they are going to need to approach every game with the mental attitude that no team will be easy to face.
A prime example of that is the Twins. They may have been in last place in 2014, but the Twins were the toughest team for Detroit to face, and as a result the Tigers had their worst record against Minnesota versus any other team in the division. The Tigers, once written down as the favorites for the division, are no longer seated so comfortably, though Tigers manager Brad Ausmus likes it that way.
"Good. It's certainly different than the past few years," Ausmus said. "But I think we got a really good team. I hope the vast majority say well, the Royals or the Indians or the White Sox. I'll lie in the weeds with this team any day of the week. I have no problem with that."
On one hand, the Tigers lost two core pieces of a very dominant rotation over the offseason. On the flip side, however, the Tigers gained a more stable defense both in the outfield and around the diamond. The bullpen, which is a finicky thing at best, may not have expensive relievers at every turn tied to it, but it's been well-padded with arms for insurance.
Soria is healthy, Nathan was solid at the end of the season and has put 2014 behind him, and Verlander is no longer inhibited by an injury. The team may not be as flashy as it has been in the past, but sometimes flashy isn't what gets the job done. Once teams make it to the postseason you can essentially throw out the rule book on what to expect, but until then a tighter division may be what the Tigers need in the long run.
"We're in a spot where we really like our club," Dombrowski said. "We're in a spot where we have a very good chance to win and have a chance to go out there and bring home another divisional championship, and hopefully a world championship."