January 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' star-laden lineup making it easier for Jim Leyland

Detroit — This is not going to be easy. Look at the Tigers' star-laden roster and try to find issues to passionately debate. Oh, something will surface during a long summer, but right now, we're down to a few legitimate questions.

Can rookie reliever Bruce Rondon close games? Will they even need a closer when they're leading 9-1 every night?

Who will be the No. 5 starter? Will they even need a No. 5 starter with the top four throwing three-hit shutouts every other night?

I'm kidding, mostly. But I'm not kidding about the roster, which is so set, Jim Leyland actually might miss the days of fans and media griping about his lineup.

"Dave (Dombrowski) is making it easier for me," Leyland said at TigerFest Saturday. "Most people would say, 'Why doesn't he play this guy or that guy,' but now it's pretty simple. I mean, does anybody here not want to lead off Austin Jackson, hit Torii Hunter second, hit Miguel Cabrera third, hit Prince Fielder fourth, hit Victor Martinez fifth? You don't have to go to Harvard to figure that out, do you?"

Nope. Even I can figure out the Tigers are World Series contenders again, and this time, they really mean it.

Consider the concerns just a year ago: They weren't set or didn't have their current first baseman (Fielder), second baseman (Omar Infante), third baseman (Cabrera), right fielder (Hunter), left fielder (Andy Dirks), fourth starter (Anibal Sanchez), or designated hitter (Martinez).

Fielder signed shortly after Martinez was injured, which pushed Cabrera to his new-old position. Infante and Sanchez arrived later in trades. Owner Mike Ilitch then reaffirmed the goal by giving $80 million to Sanchez and $28 million to Hunter. The only notable subtractions were closer Jose Valverde, who faded, and DH Delmon Young, who was due to go.

Now, oddsmakers generally lump the Tigers with about four others — Dodgers, Blue Jays, Angels, Nationals — as favorites to win it all.

"Every year since I've been here, we've had the talent to win the World Series," Justin Verlander said. "I really, really like this team and our chances to do something special."

If things go as planned, they'll arrive at spring training in two weeks and launch a methodical march to October. Of course, things rarely go as planned, and you can bet the closer situation will be this year's Topic That Doesn't Die.

All that's left is to win

If you recall last season's twisting trek, Leyland spent chunks of time fending off critics. That's what happens when expectations are raised so high.

"They're gonna fire me about five times again this summer, I know that," Leyland said. "I don't mind second-guessing — I think that's healthy. It's the people that are vicious, calling you an idiot, a moron, that's not necessary.

"I made a mistake last year and I apologize, because I think I insulted (the fans) a little bit, but I didn't mean to do it. The fans ride an emotional edge — we can't ride that same edge. We never panicked, never got caught up in all the stuff going on."

Amid injuries, ineffectiveness and defensive concerns, second-guessing became the No. 1 pastime. With most of those issues seemingly addressed, there isn't a lot to argue about, yet. If you want to get all antsy about the fifth-outfielder spot, go for it.

Remember, at the start of last season, Brandon Inge was still trying to solve the second-base riddle, Ryan Raburn was still in the mix, and the rotation was decent, but not deep. The Tigers found enough pieces to win the Central Division again and reach the World Series, where they were swept by the Giants.

World Series-or-Bust has been the unspoken mantra for a few years. But this is the year it really would be a major disappointment not to get there.

"If you look at our team compared to others on paper, you'd definitely say we're the team to beat," catcher Alex Avila said. "The thing is, you never know how it's going to go. Each year, we've gotten a little closer. The only thing left to do is win it."

Rondon seems chief issue

Ah, but can they get closer without an established closer? They should be better, no doubt. But can Cabrera reprise his spectacular Triple Crown season? Can Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister keep expanding their games? Will Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly earn the No. 5 spot, and will the other — if not traded — be effective in the bullpen?

And yes, is Rondon, 22, ready to show his 103-mph fastball isn't urban legend? My guess is, he'll have overpowering moments, but at some point Dombrowski will bring in a veteran, unless Phil Coke or Joaquin Benoit takes over.

Rondon reportedly is more than just a flashy fireballer, with a slider, a change-up and an easy delivery that allows him to regularly hit 100 mph. His minor league numbers last season — 66 strikeouts and 26 walks in 53 innings — reflect the high-risk, high-reward nature of the Tigers' biggest question.

"People can talk about the closer being overrated all they want, but trust me, it's not," Leyland said. "At this time last year, we had a bona fide major league closer. I love this team, don't get me wrong. The names on the back are pretty impressive. If we all play for the name on the front, we'll be pretty good."

It's a sentiment echoed by the players, pushed by management and touted by fans, who eagerly swarmed the Tigers' winter caravan. There's not much to debate right now, but that can change when only one step and one goal remain.

Key Tiger dates

Feb. 11: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Lakeland, Fla.

Feb. 14: Position players report to spring training.

Feb. 22: First spring training game, against Atlanta at Kissimmee, Fla., 1:05 p.m.

Feb. 23: First home spring training game, against Toronto at Lakeland, Fla., 1:05 p.m.

March 2-19: World Baseball Classic.

April 1: Regular-season opener, at Minnesota, Target Field, 4:10 p.m.

April 5: Home opener, vs. N.Y. Yankees, Comerica Park, 1:05 p.m.



First baseman Prince Fielder hands back a jersey after applying his autograph at TigerFest. / Todd McInturf/Detroit News
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