3 Early-Season Detroit Tigers Storylines to Follow Most Closely

Brett Kaplan@brettkaplanCorrespondent IIIApril 8, 2013

3 Early-Season Detroit Tigers Storylines to Follow Most Closely

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    The Detroit Tigers are still World Series contenders in 2013, but as their series against the Minnesota Twins showed, they must win the AL Central first.

    The Tigers are by far the most talented team on paper in the AL Central, but they need to play together and can't afford to give away too many games like they did on April 3.

    That is why there are three early-season storylines to follow with the Tigers on their way toward a potentially special season.

Can Victor Martinez Return to the Hitter He Was in 2011?

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    Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez missed all of the 2012 season with a knee injury, but the Tigers are relying on him in 2013 to provide protection for Prince Fielder.

    Martinez, who is 34 years old, hit .253 in spring training in 83 plate appearances. Martinez has followed his spring training numbers up with a batting average of .143 early on this season.

    No one should be concerned with Martinez's early batting average, as it looks like he is slowly getting his timing back at the plate. However, if he is still hitting in the low .200s into May, then it could be cause for some concern.

    Fielder looks ready to challenge for the AL MVP award in 2013, but he can't do it if Martinez struggles.

    For this reason, the focus will be on whether Martinez can hit as well as he did before his knee injury.

How Soon Will Nick Castellanos Make an Impact?

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    The Detroit Tigers have a dilemma that most teams would love to have.

    The Tigers have a prospect in outfielder Nick Castellanos who is projected to be an impact bat once he reaches the majors. Yet, the Tigers want him to play every day and left fielder Andy Dirks is occupying the outfield position that will be Castellanos' one day.

    The question is a matter of how soon that day will come. If Dirks doesn't produce much in April, it would not be surprising if Castellanos is called up to be the everyday left fielder.

    Dirks, who is batting .154 in 18 plate appearances, needs to help the Tigers in some way. Otherwise, he will be relegated to the bench or even waived.

    It would be smart for the Tigers to wait until September to bring Castellanos up to the majors, but if Dirks struggles, then the Tigers might not have a choice.

    That is why all eyes will be on Toledo, where Castellanos is playing Triple-A baseball awaiting his call-up.

Who Will Close for the Detroit Tigers?

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    This is the million-dollar question.

    When closer candidate Bruce Rondon got sent down to Triple-A after spring training, the Tigers announced they were proceeding with closer-by-committee.

    The closer-by-committee worked out great during the season opener against the Minnesota Twins, but not so well against the Twins in the second game on April 3 where pitcher Phil Coke blew a save.

    On April 4, the Tigers announced that they signed their previous closer, Jose Valverde to a minor league deal.

    While Valverde had a rough 2012 postseason, he provides insurance to the Tigers at a low-risk price if no one steps up to be the closer.

    No one knows for sure who will be closing, but there is no "sure thing" option for the Tigers at this stage.

    On April 6, Tigers manager Jim Leyland even suggested to MLive.com's James Schmehl that last year's setup man Joaquin Benoit could become the closer:

    We will use anybody, but the ideal situation probably -- as it’s set right now -- is to try and get to Benoit to the ninth inning.

    Whoever the Tigers utilize as a full-time closer will be facing a lot of pressure. If the closer blows a few saves, then the fanbase will turn on him.

    Benoit is a decent setup man, but that doesn't mean he has the temperament to close.

    Regardless, the closer question is one that needs to be solved immediately. If a solution isn't found, then the Tigers will have a hard time competing for a championship.

    Don't be surprised if, due to Valverde's experience, he is closing for the Tigers within the next three weeks. 

    *All statistics are as of April 7

    **All statistics are from baseball-reference.com