Big-spending Tigers hope to return to top of AL Central
DETROIT (AP) Ian Kinsler felt a few butterflies while traveling to spring training this year, an unexpected sign of nerves for a veteran player.
''Maybe it was because of the way the season went last year,'' he said.
After four straight division titles, Detroit's run atop the AL Central came to an abrupt end in 2015, and now the high-priced Tigers have to prove their best days aren't behind them. They added two big names via free agency in Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, but it remains to be seen whether Detroit has done enough to bounce back from last year's last-place showing.
Although expectations are again high, Detroit's aging core is more susceptible to injuries now, and a once-dominant starting rotation has serious questions. In other words, the Tigers now know that they can't simply assume that they'll be in contention every season.
''There's always that doubt that sets in,'' Kinsler said at the beginning of spring training. ''When you go through something like that, it's possible, right? So that's always in the back of your mind.''
Detroit is under new leadership. The Tigers promoted Al Avila to general manager after letting Dave Dombrowski go after the trade deadline in 2015. Avila's first offseason in charge was a busy one, with owner Mike Ilitch authorizing more big spending in the free agent market.
Detroit signed Zimmermann to a $110 million, five-year deal early in the offseason, then later added Upton on a $132.75 million, six-year contract. Those two standouts will join the usual cast of big names - Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez - who the Tigers hope can lead a strong bounce-back effort in 2016.
Here are a few things to watch when the Tigers take the field this season:
HEALTH: Cabrera played only 119 games in 2015, while Verlander made only 20 starts. Martinez was limited to 120 games and hit .245.
Of those three players, Cabrera is the youngest, and he turns 33 in April. Martinez has already dealt with an injury this year. He's been recovering from a left hamstring strain.
The additions of Upton and Zimmermann may not be enough if the Tigers don't get more production from Cabrera, Verlander and Martinez. The health of those three could be crucial.
FIFTH STARTER: With Verlander, Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey set for the rotation, the final spot was all that really needed to be determined in spring training. An injury to Daniel Norris left Shane Greene in position to take over that role.
Greene got off to a great start last season, but he ended up going 4-8 with a 6.88 ERA. He then had surgery to repair a weakened blood vessel in his right shoulder.
BULLPEN OVERHAUL: Detroit's bullpen was a trouble spot even when the Tigers were winning division titles. The latest attempts to improve it included a trade for closer Francisco Rodriguez, who had 38 saves last season for Milwaukee.
The Tigers also acquired relievers Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson.
BALANCE: Upton's arrival bolsters the lineup, but he bats right-handed, just like Cabrera, Kinsler and J.D. Martinez. The switch-hitting Victor Martinez looks like Detroit's only real power threat who can hit from the left side, and his production is a question mark after a disappointing 2015.
HOT SEAT: Manager Brad Ausmus' status was in doubt toward the end of last season, and although he was eventually retained, Detroit's aggressive offseason means he figures to be under a lot of pressure to win. Ausmus won the division in 2014, his first season after taking over for Jim Leyland, but last year's slide left him only five games over .500 for his young managerial career.