February 19, 2015

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) For the first time in a while, the Detroit Tigers may not be favored to win the AL Central.

That uncertainty will be the backdrop when Detroit's pitchers and catchers take the field for their first official workout of spring training Friday. After four consecutive division titles, the Tigers still have a star-studded roster, but they have started to show some signs of vulnerability. And Kansas City, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox all look like potentially dangerous challengers from within the division.

Detroit edged the Royals by one game last year, but it was Kansas City that went to the World Series, while Baltimore swept the Tigers in the AL Division Series.

Here are a few things to watch at spring training for the Tigers:

HOBBLED SLUGGERS

Miguel Cabrera is coming off ankle surgery, and Victor Martinez recently had an operation on his knee. Neither is expected to miss many regular-season games - if any - but their status could remain uncertain all the way until opening day.

Those two combined for 57 home runs and 212 RBIs last year, so it's obvious what the Tigers would be missing if either is sidelined into the regular season.

NEW STARTERS

Max Scherzer left via free agency and Rick Porcello was traded, so the Tigers will have two new starters in their rotation. They acquired Shane Greene from the New York Yankees and Alfredo Simon from Cincinnati in the offseason.

Greene went 5-4 with a 3.78 ERA in what was his debut season, and Simon was 15-10 with a 3.44 ERA while setting career highs in starts (32) and innings (196 1-3) in 2014.

BULLPEN QUESTIONS

Where to begin? Joe Nathan tries to bounce back after blowing seven saves for Detroit in 2014. Joakim Soria returns after an injury limited his usefulness to the Tigers down the stretch last season. Bruce Rondon missed the whole season because of an elbow problem, but the team hopes the 24-year-old right-hander can provide a big boost in 2015.

The bullpen has been a major issue for the Tigers the last couple seasons. Any improvement would be a big help.

EXTRA POWER

Detroit relied heavily on Cabrera and Martinez last year, but outfielder J.D. Martinez gave the Tigers an unexpected lift, hitting 23 home runs in 123 games. Third baseman Nick Castellanos, meanwhile, hit 11 homers in his first full season.

With Yoenis Cespedes coming to Detroit in the trade for Porcello, the Tigers may have a slightly deeper group of power hitters.

VERLANDER'S OUTLOOK

Justin Verlander turns 32 on Friday, and he's coming off a frustrating season in which his ERA jumped to 4.54. The right-hander has struggled to recapture the form he showed while going 41-13 in 2011 and 2012, and Scherzer's departure puts him on the spot even more.

NOTES: The Tigers have 26 players on their 40-man roster under contract for 2015. They announced Thursday that they'd agreed to terms with 11 players on 2015 deals: RHPs Angel Nesbitt, Jose Valdez and Drew VerHagen, LHPs Blaine Hardy and Kyle Ryan, C James McCann, INFs Jose Iglesias and Dixon Machado and OFs Wynton Bernard, Daniel Fields and Steven Moya.

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