DETROIT – Spring Training is the most optimistic time of the year for fans of professional sports. As position players join their pitchers and catchers in camp, every MLB team believes that, with a little luck, they could be heading to the postseason.
It's strange that baseball, unlike any other sport, breeds such hope at the beginning of the year. Statistically, baseball offers the lowest chance for teams to make a playoff run, as it sends only 10 of 30 teams into the postseason, four of which face elimination in the very first game.
For the Tigers, preseason optimism holds more weight than that of teams like the Marlins or Mets, thanks to a remarkable run of four straight AL Central Division titles. But it's important to remember that over a 162-game season, every weakness will inevitably be exposed.
Health is the most pressing question for the Tigers heading into the 2015 campaign, as Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera hope to rebound from offseason procedures. With those three players, 20 All-Star appearances, seven silver sluggers, three MVPs, a Cy Young and two Triple Crowns (one hitting and one pitching) hang in the balance.
It's fair to say that if the Big Three is healthy, the Tigers are the team to beat in the American League. But if not, that's $64 million worth of payroll struggling to stay on the field.
During last month's Tigers Caravan, Verlander said he added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and finally put the core muscle problems behind him. A healthy Verlander would certainly soften the blow of Max Scherzer's departure to Washington. If last season's 4.54 ERA was a result of injury, not natural regression, then Verlander will slide nicely into the No. 3 spot behind David Price and Anibal Sanchez in the starting rotation.
Cabrera and Martinez present a more serious concern, as their rehab schedules have put both Opening Day statuses up in the air. The Tigers need both sluggers to return fully healthy to anchor a new-look lineup, even if that means sacrificing the first few weeks of April.
A smaller scale, albeit significant, injury concern is Jose Iglesias, the defensive whiz at shortstop who's returning from a year-long battle with shin splints. Detroit's offseason moves laid a heavy emphasis on defensive strength up the middle, and Iglesias makes up a major piece of that puzzle.
Keep an eye on those four players. If they stay healthy, Dave Dombrowski and Brad Ausmus can finally put their offseason plan into action.
Read: Five players to watch during Tigers' Spring Training
The most precarious minefield for Ausmus to navigate comes in the form of a bullpen restocked with more question marks than solid answers. Detroit responded to the complete ALDS meltdown by signing Tom Gorzelanny and Josh Zeid and coaxing Alex Wilson into the Yoenis Cespedes trade. The Tigers are counting on bounce-back seasons from Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria, a complete recovery from Bruce Rondon (after Tommy John surgery) and breakout years from these new additions to improve the bullpen this season.
At best, the bullpen will be miles ahead of last year's group. At worst, the new cast will only slightly improve upon the 2014 debacle.
Even with significant bullpen improvement, the Tigers need the back end of a new-look starting rotation to hold up behind Price, Sanchez and Verlander. Shane Greene was the prized return in the trade that sent Robbie Ray to Arizona, joining Detroit after an excellent rookie season in New York.
Greene gave the Yankees 14 solid starts last season, posting a 3.78 ERA and striking out 81 hitters in 78.2 innings. His 1.40 WHIP and .262 opponent's average were slightly inflated, but Dombrowski fell in love with his stuff during two wins over the Tigers in which he allowed just two runs in 15 innings.
Alongside Greene arrives Alfredo Simon, the reliever-turned-starter from Cincinnati. Simon's 2.70 ERA and 12-3 record earned him an All-Star invite last season, but the 33-year-old wore down in the second half, posting a 4.52 ERA and 3-7 record in 14 starts.
Heading into 2014, Ausmus was comfortable with Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly rounding out the rotation. Now, with Greene and Simon, the future is less certain. Both starters have shown brief glimpses of brilliance, and the Tigers are banking on returns to that level in 2015.
Unlike the acquisitions of Greene and Simon, the trade that brought Anthony Gose from Toronto to Detroit flew under the radar. Gose is considered one of the best young outfielders in the game, but has struggled to produce any offense in 552 career at-bats.
Gose joins Rajai Davis, Ian Kinsler and Iglesias in a group of players vying for a top spot in the batting order. But as Ausmus fills out his lineup card throughout the spring, will any of these options produce?
Kinsler shouldered most of the leadoff duties in 2014, playing 83 games in the top spot. In those games, the 32-year-old walked just 13 times in 372 plate appearances, resulting in a .316 on-base percentage. Davis, though he hit .290 from the leadoff spot, posted a similar OBP of .324.
Gose owns a career OBP of .301 and a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 0.28.
The top two positions in the Tiger order are crucial to the team's offensive success. When Cabrera, Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Cespedes come to the plate, base runners will not only provide more run-scoring opportunities, they'll also make these sluggers much more difficult to pitch to.
Maybe Iglesias, who posted an OBP of .306 with the Tigers in 2013 but finished at .349 overall, is the answer at the top of the order. If not, Ausmus will be forced to make a difficult decision between several unproven options.
Yes, the Tigers have some unanswered questions, but they're still likely to play in the postseason.
Even with all these questions, the Tigers enter Spring Training as favorites to bring home another division crown. Cleveland and Chicago made significant upgrades during the offseason, but the Tigers drastically improved defensively and added another elite power threat to already championship-caliber roster.
Tigers fans should enjoy the spring optimism, because the team remains a legitimate World Series contender. Just remember that no roster, even a four-time division champion roster, is without weaknesses.