Breaking Down the Detroit Tigers' Blueprint for Winning the AL Central
Winning a division is simple.
If it was just on paper, the Detroit Tigers could hoist their third consecutive American League Central Division Championship trophy right now.
But that's why they play 162 games over seven grueling months, and fight so hard to be successful.
Every team needs a blueprint to carving out their championship plan, and the Tigers have been pretty good at following their own blueprint the last two seasons.
In 2013, the Tigers blueprint will be very similar to the ones that won them the AL Central each of the last two years.
The Tigers need their stars to be stars. They need to win in the division, especially against the top-tier teams. They need to have dominant starting pitching, and they need a closer to step up.
Here is my breakdown of the Tigers' blueprint to win the AL Central in 2013.
Cabrera Picks Up Where He Left off
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Miguel Cabrera had the season of his life a year ago, culminating in the first AL Triple Crown since 1967.
The 29-year-old slugger hit .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBI's last season, earning his first-career MVP Award.
Cabrera put the Tigers on his back all season, especially down the stretch when it seemed like everyone around him was struggling, and the right-hander carried his team in a tight race, leading Detroit to a narrow division championship.
The Tigers' third baseman will have Prince Fielder protecting him again in the lineup in 2013, and with improved talent on both sides of him in the lineup, the defending Triple Crown winner will be even scarier to face in the No. 3 hole this year.
Cabrera batted third in 161 games last season but didn't get a lot of help from the Tigers' No. 2 hitters.
The No. 2 batters combined to average just .257 last season, with only 27 doubles and nine triples. But, with the addition of veteran Torii Hunter in the No. 2 slot for Detroit this season, Cabrera will have a lot more to work with when he steps to the plate.
Hunter is a career .277 hitter and hit .313 last season for the Los Angeles Angels and will bring a huge veteran presence to the top of the Tigers lineup.
He'll be joined in the lineup by designated hitter Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.
Martinez, who will hit fifth behind Cabrera and Fielder, hit .330 in 2011—his first year with the Tigers—and added 12 home runs with 103 RBI's.
With such a loaded lineup, there will be no one for opposing pitchers to pitch around, making the defending AL MVP that much more dangerous.
Starting Rotation Continues to Dominate
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Tigers fans and baseball pundits in general have gotten spoiled lately, with the greatness of Justin Verlander.
Verlander has made domination look effortless in the past several seasons, and has taken his game to another level in the last two years.
After an MVP-winning season in 2011, Verlander picked up where he left off in 2012, leading a dominant Tigers rotation to their second consecutive AL Central Championship.
Led by their ace, the Tigers' starters combined to go 63-51 last season, with a 3.76 ERA.
Detroit's starters posted the second-best ERA in the AL last year, and tied for second in the league with the least losses suffered, just one worse than the New York Yankees.
Verlander went 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and an MLB-high 239 strikeouts, earning his fourth consecutive All-Star selection, to go along with a second-place finish in the AL Cy Young race.
He was helped by a surprise season from Max Scherzer, who posted a 16-7 record with a 3.74 ERA and was second in the major leagues with 231 strikeouts.
After acquiring Anibal Sanchez in July last season, the Tigers re-signed the veteran right-hander to a five-year, $80 million deal because of a dominating performance in the playoffs.
Sanchez held a 1.77 ERA in three postseason appearances last year and helped the Tigers sweep the Yankees out of the AL Championship Series.
Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander will be joined by Doug Fister and either Drew Smyly or Rick Porcello, and will look to dominate again in 2013.
Beat Up on the White Sox
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The Tigers spent the majority of last season on the outside looking in, thanks to the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central race.
One of the biggest reasons Detroit was able to overtake Chicago and win the division was the way it handled the White Sox, especially late in the season.
The Tigers went 12-6 against the White Sox last season and won eight of the last 10 meetings, turning a three-game deficit with 15 games remaining in the regular season, to the Tigers ultimate three-game lead in the division to end the season.
The White Sox will most likely be the Tigers' toughest division rivals in 2013, but with improved talent in the entire division, every intra-division victory will prove to be that much more crucial.
Victor Martinez Stays Healthy
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The Tigers sorely missed Victor Martinez last season after the veteran designated hitter went down with a season-ending ACL tear last January.
Martinez's .330 average and 103 RBI's both ranked second for the Tigers in 2011, trailing only the monstrous stats of Miguel Cabrera.
Martinez is a career .303 hitter in nine-plus MLB seasons and will be a huge presence as the No. 5 hitter in a loaded Tigers lineup.
His personal numbers aside, his presence in the lineup alone will make his teammates better.
If Martinez can stay healthy and produce anything like he did in 2011, he'll make it difficult to pitch around Cabrera and Prince Fielder.
He won't have to focus on playing any defense in 2013 which should help him stay fresh, as well as allow him to get extra at-bats in the cage when the Tigers are in the field.
He's a vital part of the Tigers' puzzle and another key veteran member of a loaded offensive lineup.
Suitable Closer Emerges
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The Tigers put all of their eggs in the inexperienced basket of closer Bruce Rondon and after a shaky start to Spring Training, the Tigers' front office was scrambling.
Rondon has looked worse than average in his first eight appearances this spring, posting a 1-1 record with a 3.52 ERA in seven and two-thirds innings.
After a poor outing on March 3, GM Dave Dombrowski made it public that he was interested in pursuing a new closer through free-agency, or in the trade market.
Rondon has improved since and the rumors have silenced for now, but as long as someone emerges as a suitable closer, the Tigers will be successful.
A dominant closer is usually extremely important in a team's run at a division championship, but with the talent the Tigers have, there are several combinations of options that can work at the back end of the bullpen.
Yes, the Tigers would like to see Rondon succeed, especially early in the season, but if he doesn't live up to the enormous expectations, the Tigers have other options at closer, as well as a loaded lineup than can help hide bullpen issues.
Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit all have the ability to be closers-by-committee, and can carry the back end of the bullpen.
As long as the Tigers offense performs the way they should, and someone emerges as a decent closer, the Tigers won't be in trouble.
This team's closer doesn't have to win games this season, they just can't afford to lose too many.