February 8, 2013 at 10:12 am

John Niyo

Tigers at the start of something special

Detroit -- Winning isn't everything.

Winning everything might be, I suppose. But all the winning the Tigers did last fall clearly wasn't enough for Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and the rest of the defending American League champs.

So, as the Tigers gather in Lakeland, Fla., for the official start of spring training next week, that's the underlying sentiment: The only thing missing for a team that seems to have everything is the only thing that matters.

"We're here for one reason: To win the game at the end." said Cabrera, the reigning AL MVP and baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years. "That's our goal, talking about all 25 guys."

And considering all but a few of those guys are returning from last season, including all the critical pieces, the ring's the thing for the Tigers in 2013, without question. They won their division and the pennant before making a World Series appearance last October that ended all too abruptly with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Giants.

"I think it does add to it," Verlander said when asked about the residual effects of that success and failure. "You get that taste, and that desire. And you can draw from the disappointment, I guess, to come so close.

"I mean, you've got to look at the big picture and realize what we accomplished last year was great. But it wasn't the ultimate goal. We were four wins away from the ultimate goal."

The challenge for manager Jim Leyland is making sure his players understand they're probably 100 or so wins away from that ultimate goal. Maybe more, depending on how the Central Division race shapes up.

Last year, Leyland had all sorts of worries heading into the season, trying to figure out what to do at second base, and in the outfield, and with the back end of the rotation, and so on.

This year, there are a few issues, most notably the unsettled closer's role in the bullpen, with rookie Bruce Rondon the fingers-crossed answer for now, and the three-way battle for the starting job in left field, where Andy Dirks should get the nod over Brennan Boesch and Avisail Garcia.

But beyond that, blessed with a $145 million payroll, Leyland's primary task the next couple months will be trying to figure out what to do with all the expectations, just so they don't get in the way.

"The names on the backs of our jerseys are pretty impressive," Leyland said. "If we play good, that's the key. You can never guarantee that."

And from Leyland, the only guarantee you'll get about this season — which is the same as any other — is he's not going to change his routine.

"I'm ready to rock," said Leyland, who agreed to another one-year contract after the World Series. "I'm ready to get back to work. I don't get too excited about it, but I am excited. … You've gotta be like an old shoe, though. You've just got to be methodical and work at it, day in and day out."

Leadership qualities

Methodical doesn't have to be monotonous, of course. But that's the way the Tigers clubhouse felt, at times, last season. And the criticism of the team's less-than-lively ways late — particularly as they got lit up by the fired-up Giants in the Series — didn't fall on deaf ears.

"We have a real good group of guys and they come to play hard, day in and day out," president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But they're sort of a quiet group of guys, all in all."

Hailed as one of the game's better leaders, Torii Hunter was the No. 1 target in free agency. The Tigers needed better defense and speed in the outfield, and a reliable right-handed bat to add to the top of the lineup.

But they also needed to find, as Leyland said, "the right guy with the right heartbeat." And as soon as owner Mike Ilitch met Hunter last November, the deal was essentially done: Hunter was the right guy.

"It's just one of those situations where (it felt like), 'I've known this guy for 20 years,'" Ilitch explained at the time.

Leyland tried his best to downplay the impact the loss of charismatic veteran Victor Martinez had on his team last season. But while his bat was obviously missed in the No. 5 hole in the lineup, his voice was missed nearly as much, it seemed. Now a full year removed from his ACL surgery, Martinez sounds ready and, by eyewitness accounts, raring to go down in Florida. ("He looks great," Verlander said. "He looks fantastic.")

Hunter sounds ready to help him with the leadership chorus.

"Not by screaming and yelling," the 37-year-old cautioned. "Because that gets annoying."

Rather, he'll do it by talking to anyone — and everyone — who'll listen, whether that means mentoring Austin Jackson the way he did Mike Trout with the Angels or helping Boesch stay out of his own head or whatever.

"He's not overbearing," Dombrowski said. "He's just got a great personality and he brings people together. He just does that naturally."

And, again, that's the point: If the Tigers do what comes naturally, there's no reason they can't get everything they want out of this season.

"Usually, when you get a lot of guys that have the talent and have the desire," Verlander said, nodding, "good things happen."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Clockwise from top, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Drew Smyly, Anibal Sanchez and Miguel Cabrera and the rest of the Tigers are looking for a return trip to the World Series. (Photos by Elizabeth Conley, Robin Buckson/Detroit News. Illustration by Kim Storeygard/Detroit News).
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