After years of close calls, Tigers time to win a title is now

Friday October 4th, 2013

Detroit has a great shot at its long-awaited championship with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder still in their primes.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers may have more chances to win the World Series. They will never have a better one. Of the eight teams left in baseball's postseason tournament, the Tigers stand out, not for being the best (though they might be) but for needing it the most. Players on other teams want to win just as much, of course. But as a franchise, the Tigers need this more than anybody else.

Look around. St. Louis won the World Series two years ago. The Pirates could all get arrested on the way to the stadium and this would STILL be a feel-good year. Atlanta has been so good for so long, and has so many gifted young players, that this feels like so many Octobers in the past and the future. Four months ago, the Dodgers represented the old and the dead; now they stand for both dominance and (thanks to phenom Yasiel Puig) youthful exuberance, and they will surely keep spending their way to contention.

The Red Sox are both relatively recent World Series champions and a revived franchise. Win or lose this month, most Boston fans will be pleased about 2013. Tampa Bay's playoff contention is an annual miracle, and anyway, there aren't enough fans there to take any postseason complaints seriously. Oakland's entire franchise identity is built on not being the favorite.

The Tigers? They are expensive and in their prime. They have been sniffing and circling around a championship since 2006 but haven't won one since 1984. The last two postseasons have given Detroit a sense of progression: American League Championship Series loss leads to World Series loss leads to .... well, it could lead to anything, of course. That's how baseball works.

"We don't live by expectations," Miguel Cabrera said this week. "People can say a lot of things. They say Toronto is going to win the division. They say Washington is going to win the division. And they don't do it. So it doesn't matter what people say, what people expect."

Cabrera was asked if there is anything different about the Tigers' clubhouse this year, and he said "the paint." Manager Jim Leyland was asked a similar question, and he dismissed it; the Tigers want to win, but hell, they wanted to win last year, too.

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Still, the questions themselves tell you that people in Detroit think this is their year. And that means this team faces a different kind of pressure from everybody else in the postseason. Even with Cabrera gamely playing through severe pain, as he often has, the Tigers are set up as well as anybody.

Consider the starting rotation. Likely AL Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer will start Friday night's Game 1 against Oakland. The Game 2 starter is Justin Verlander, who would have gotten a lot of votes for best pitcher in baseball in March. The Game 3 starter is Anibal Sanchez, who led the AL in earned-run average this year. And the Game 4 starter is Doug Fister, who is so calm that his blood pressure is probably four over two. Fister has a postseason ERA of 2.97, and has only allowed one home run in 26 1/3 playoff innings.

Of course, the rotation looked dominant last year, too, right up until the San Francisco Giants swept them.

The point here is not that the Tigers will win. The point is that the clock is ticking, the way it ticks on every nucleus. The Tigers themselves might not even realize it -- players usually overestimate their own longevity. But winning gets harder from here on out. By 2016, the team will owe $68 million to just three players: Prince Fielder, who will be 32, Justin Verlander (33) and Anibal Sanchez (32). If they sign Scherzer and Cabrera to market-value contract extensions, the Tigers would owe more than $115 million to five players that season, some of whom will surely be past their prime. And if they don't sign Scherzer and Cabrera, their best pitcher and hitter this season, the picture probably won't be pretty either.

Just two years ago, the Phillies were the National League version of the Tigers. They had the best starting pitching in the game and talent all over the diamond. Now look at them. Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski has deftly infused his team with young talent in the past, but that's hard trick to keep pulling off.

In the American League Central, the Cleveland Indians made the playoffs, the Kansas City Royals are coming, and the Minnesota Twins are probably only two years behind the Royals. And looming over Detroit's run is this: 84-year-old owner (and former Tigers farmhand) Mike Ilitch is willing to spend beyond reason to win his first World Series. Will Ilitch keep spending if his team finally wins it? What will the Tigers' payroll look like in five years?

These questions, like everything about these Tigers, have been put off until tomorrow. They have an endearing go-for-it mentality that runs counter to all the talk these days about club control and cost efficiency. They recognize that you can't hold a parade to celebrate your farm system, just as NBA teams can't raise a banner for having the most salary-cap space. The Tigers and their city are ready to win a championship right now. But will they?

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