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For Tigers, another AL Central title hinges on lineup health, better bullpen

Detroit has snagged the last four division crowns in the AL Central, but with a bad bullpen and creaky lineup, is this the year that their reign comes to an end?

This week, is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 9: the Detroit Tigers.

2014 Record and Finish: 90–72 (.556), first place in AL Central (tied for fifth overall)

2015 Projected Record and Finish: 87–75 (.537), second place in AL Central (ninth overall)

The Case For

The Tigers, who have won the last four AL Central titles, look like they have the pieces to extend that streak to five. They may have lost ace Max Scherzer, but they planned for that by trading for David Price last July. Price and the underrated Anibal Sanchez ease the pain of Justin Verlander’s descent into the ordinary, allowing the former ace to slip to the No. 3 spot in the rotation.

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Detroit's lineup, which scored the second-most runs in the majors last year, is still potentially devastating, with Yoenis Cespedes replacing Torii Hunter in one corner and J.D. Martinez looking to build on his breakout season in the other. They'll complement MVP candidates Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the heart of the order. In the field, shortstop Jose Iglesias is back from a season lost to stress fractures in both shins and will combine with second baseman Ian Kinsler to give Detroit a slick-fielding double-play combination. That should be a boon to groundballing rotation addition Shane Greene, whom the Tigers hope can replace Rick Porcello, the low-strikeout groundballer they traded to Boston to land Cespedes.

Add to that a full season of Joakim Soria in the bullpen, which also gained valuable lefty utility pitcher Tom Gorzelanny and could benefit from the return of fireballing righty Bruce Rondon from Tommy John surgery, and Detroit looks as strong as ever. It won't hurt that the Royals, the biggest intra-divisional threat a year ago and the reigning AL champions, are expected to regress.

The Case Against

There is significant downside here, starting with the rotation. Greene, acquired from the Yankees, is a 26-year-old former 15th-round pick who posted a 4.39 ERA in the minors, and the chances are slim that he’ll successfully replace what was easily Porcello’s best season. Alfredo Simon, a 33-year-old with just 51 major league starts under his belt and whose surprisingly effective 2014 campaign in the Reds’ rotation was largely the result of good luck on balls in play in the first half, is even less likely to make a positive contribution. And there’s little reason to expect Verlander to rebound to anything more valuable than a mid-rotation innings eater in his age-32 season.

The bullpen gets back Soria and adds Gorzelanny—a free-agent signee who was the only notable arm added this off-season—but still posted the fourth-worst such ERA in the majors (4.29) and allowed the second-highest opponents’ OPS (.752). Forty-year-old Joe Nathan is still the closer, but his effectiveness eroded with his velocity last year, resulting in his lowest strikeout rate since his relief career began in earnest in 2003.

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As for the everyday players, Cespedes, for all of his Home Run Derby theatrics and highlight reel throws, is a 29-year-old who has hit just .251/.298/.446 over the last two seasons. Martinez is almost guaranteed to regress from his remarkable .315/.358/.553 line last year, even if his career-altering season was the result of meaningful changes in his swing. Despite his impressive, BABIP-inflated showing with the Red Sox in 2013, it’s still not a given that Iglesias can hit major league pitching, particularly after not facing any for a full year. Kinsler, who turns 33 at the end of June, had a career-low .307 on-base percentage last year and Nick Castellanos was more than a win below replacement level due to a weak bat and lousy fielding. The likely job-share between Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose in centerfield is an underwhelming compromise, while Alex Avila has hit .222/.323/.367 (90 OPS+) over the last two seasons and has a history of concussions that could end his catching career at any moment.

That all puts a ton of pressure on Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who will be 32 and 36, respectively, this season, and both of them missed most of spring training following offseason surgery. Cabrera went under the knife in October to remove a bone spur from his right ankle and repair a previously undetected stress fracture in the navicular bone on the top of his right foot. Martinez had the meniscus in his left knee repaired on Feb. 10—the same knee that caused him to miss all of the 2012 season—and may not be ready for Opening Day. If either of those two struggle with their health or production once the season gets underway, Detroit will be vulnerable.

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X-Factor: Playoffs

After four straight division titles, simply reaching the postseason is not going to be enough for the Tigers, their fans, or most of all, their owner, soon-to-be–86-year-old Mike Ilitch, all of whom continue to hunger for the franchise’s first world championship since 1984. Looking at Detroit’s projected roster, only Gose, Greene and the last few arms in the bullpen have never appeared in a playoff game. However, in the last four years combined, the Tigers have won a total of just eight games after the first round of the playoffs, losing the ALCS in 2011 and ’13 and being swept in both the World Series in '12 and the ALDS last season.

Last year’s failure against the Orioles is particularly remarkable given that Detroit had both Scherzer and Price in its rotation. However, the bullpen was the biggest culprit for losses in Games 1 and 2, and Price lost, 2–1, in Game 3. There’s no secret recipe to postseason success, but the big takeaway from that series was that the Tigers needed to significantly improve their bullpen, something they did not do this offseason.

Number To Know: Five

Detroit is bidding to become just the fifth team in the divisional era (since 1969) to win five straight division titles, joining the 1995–05 Braves (11), '98–06 Yankees (nine), '95–99 Indians (five) and '71–75 Athletics (five). In addition to those four teams, only two other teams finished first in five straight seasons prior to division play: the '49–53 and '60–64 Yankees. Of those six teams, the post-strike Indians were the only one not to win a World Series during their string of first-place finishes. Including these Tigers, only four other teams have ever finished first four years in a row (the '21–24 Giants and '36–39 and '55–58 Yankees). Unencumbered by a multi-tiered postseason, the other three all won multiple World Series titles during those runs.

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Scout's Takes

Most Overrated: Alex Avila, C

“On paper, he looks good, but the reality is that he had one big year, and he has an injury history. When you catch, there’s a lot of chances you can get hurt. It’s not his fault. It’s just the position that he plays. With his concussion problems, he could be a foul tip away from sitting out two weeks.”

Most Underrated: Anibal Sanchez, SP

“He has the ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and shut down big lineups. Other teams go, 'Oh, Anibal Sanchez,' and everybody kind of rolls their eyes a little bit. But then they face him, and he’s got a better fastball than they expected, a better breaking ball, better command. They’re surprised. He’s not a big name guy, but he really competes, he knows how to pitch and he puts up nice numbers.”