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Rob Parker: Hard to believe in 2015 Tigers

Tigers face injury, pitching questions

LAKELAND, Fla. – Vegas, apparently, is still in on the Detroit Tigers.

An odds-maker has picked the Tigers to win the American League Central for a fifth straight season.

Given the Tigers' losses in the rotation and a still-leaky bullpen, that's a bit surprising. Without question, the division is definitely better than it has been.

Another odds-maker has even given the Tigers 16/1 odds of winning the World Series in 2015.

That's not the greatest odds, but still it's far from being buried before the season has even started.

Justin Verlander, for one, isn't surprised. JV has taken exception to those doomsayers who think the Tigers' best days are behind them, that the Tigers won't compete for the championship anymore.

"We have the perfect puzzle pieces to slide in and continue to build this championship franchise," Verlander said recently at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Vegas also has the Tigers winning just 84 games this season, a sizable slide from the past four years when the Tigers averaged 91.5 victories.

"We're also favorite to win the division by Vegas," Verlander shot back. "The next favorite team is picked to win 83. Boom. Right back at you."

Verlander was pretty happy that he had information to counter reporters' questions about the expected decline of the Tigers in 2015.

For sure, in years gone by, the Tigers were picked to go to the World Series seemingly every year. They accomplished it in 2012 when they made it, but were swept by the San Francisco Giants.

But a lot has happened since then. The two names alone that made the Tigers contenders automatically aren't where they used to be. Miguel Cabrera is coming off an injury and off-season surgery and a down season for his standards. After hitting 40-plus HRs in the two previous seasons, Miggy hit just 25 in 2014.

And Verlander isn't the same pitcher he was when he won both AL MVP and Cy Young in 2011.

Last season, Verlander was bad, with a 4.54 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP. Both were his worst marks since 2008. He also averaged less than seven strikeouts per nine innings, a career low.

Then you add in the losses of starters Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. That doesn't help. Plus, GM Dave Dombrowski brought back basically the same bullpen that blew up in the playoffs.

All that makes it hard for fans to buy that this team is going to win its first World Series since 1984. Just making the playoffs is no big deal anymore.

The Tigers' projected decline isn't just about them, either. The competition is simply better. The cupcake schedule is gone.

"The division is strong," said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. "The White Sox got better, Cleveland's gotten better. Kansas City went to the World Series last year. Minnesota's gotten better. So I would imagine it will be a similar dogfight this year."

J.D. Martinez agrees with his skipper. Still, he believes in his roster.

"I'll still take our team over any other team out there," Martinez said. "I still think player for player, we're still one of the best teams in baseball. We should have the expectations to go to the World Series."

JV believes in the organization to make things better, even in the season if need be.

"Our front office is very smart," Verlander said. "We have a great owner, who has shown he's not going to stop. He wants to put a winning product on the field. So if there's an opportunity to sign somebody or trade for somebody that's going to help this ball club now (in the) present, and that's what Dave has been so great at, looking at present and future at the same time."

For the Tigers, the future is now. The other teams around them in the division are younger and hungry. It's hard to imagine the Tigers winning easily, especially with so many question marks. 

Can Joe Nathan still handle the closer role? Does Joba Chamberlain have anything left in the tank? Can Bruce Rondon stay healthy?

Then there's Victor Martinez coming off injury, like Miggy. Verlander needs a bounce back season, big time. And Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon have to produce in the rotation.

"You guys say the window is closing," Verlander said. "I say, 'No.'"