Tigers ready to embrace pressure

For a second straight year, Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers

enter the season with sky-high expectations.

That’s no guarantee of success – but it sure beats the

alternative.

”I love being a target. That means you’ve got a good team,”

Leyland said early on in spring training. ”We’re going to be the

hunted. We were the winner. We were the American League champs.

That’s a good thing.”

After two straight AL Central titles and a World Series

appearance, the Tigers enter 2013 with the same core of stars.

Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, ace Justin Verlander and

slugger Prince Fielder carried Detroit into the postseason last

year, and those three MVP candidates are showing no signs of

slowing down. The only remaining goal in Detroit is to take that

final step and win the World Series after being swept by San

Francisco last October.

”I chose to come here because I knew they could win,” said

right fielder Torii Hunter, who signed with the Tigers in the

offseason.

Detroit received plenty of attention from the outset in 2012

after signing Fielder to a huge contract. For much of the year, the

Tigers were a disappointment, but they finally overtook the Chicago

White Sox in September and won the division with an 88-74

record.

Behind a stellar performance from its starting rotation, Detroit

beat Oakland and the New York Yankees in the postseason before

losing to the Giants.

Leyland does his best to limit distractions, and this year’s

everyday lineup was mostly set before spring training even began.

Detroit resolved one significant question Tuesday, announcing that

right-hander Rick Porcello would be in the starting rotation, with

left-hander Drew Smyly heading to the bullpen.

The last lingering issue – and perhaps the trickiest – is who

will close games. Jose Valverde had a poor finish to 2012, so the

Tigers let him go. Bruce Rondon could take over that role, but it’s

not clear yet. The hard-throwing Rondon has never pitched in the

majors.

”He can throw the ball as hard as he wants, but he needs

movement,” Leyland said. ”At this level, anybody can hit it no

matter how hard it is thrown. You can fire it with a machine gun

and these guys can hit it.”

The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games in 2011, but they

never opened much distance between themselves and the rest of the

division last year. Their defense was a problem, and beyond

Cabrera, Fielder and leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, the offense

wasn’t all that deep.

That could change. Designated hitter Victor Martinez returns

from a knee injury that cost him all of 2012, and Hunter’s addition

should help both at the plate and in the field.

”I felt fine this year,” Martinez said. ”It was tough sitting

out last year, but I feel great and it’s like I never was

away.”

The starting rotation is full of proven arms. Verlander is the

headliner, but Max Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in the

American League down the stretch last year, and Doug Fister was

effective when healthy. When Detroit re-signed Anibal Sanchez, the

Tigers suddenly had six potential starters. Now Smyly is the odd

man out.

”It is what it is,” Smyly said. ”I’ll pitch out of the

bullpen. Anything to help the team win. I am just happy to make the

team.”

The big question heading into this season isn’t whether the

Tigers will be near the top of the AL Central, but whether anyone

else in the division is ready to mount a serious challenge. Detroit

was hardly dominant in 2012 but finished first anyway. Can Chicago,

Kansas City or someone else in the Central close the gap?

The Tigers will try to set the bar as high as possible.

”It’s a wonderful thing when you start getting more national

attention … but you also have to be smart enough to know how to

handle that. Don’t get carried away with it,” Leyland said. ”I

want them to enjoy the fact that we’re supposed to be good, we’re

supposed to accomplish something. But I want them to understand the

process that it takes to accomplish what we’re trying to

accomplish.”