Wojo: Tigers no lock to keep ruling division

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera's ability to rebound from offseason ankle surgery is one of many questions the Tigers face entering the season.

Detroit — It happens every year around this time. The rest of the AL Central emerges and sees the Tigers' shadow, thus ensuring six more months of slumber.

Or something like that. The Tigers have won the division four straight seasons, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. But as the old warning goes, every groundhog has its day, and this is as vulnerable as the Tigers have been. The White Sox and Indians got better, the Royals went to the World Series, the Twins are a perpetual nemesis.

When spring training begins in a few weeks, it will launch the Tigers' Year of Living Dangerously. They lost one big free agent in Max Scherzer, and have other key players entering the final year of their contracts. They have stars trying to rebound from injuries and stalwarts trying to rebound from failure.

From Miggy to Iggy, the Tigers have far more uncertainty than normal, as GM Dave Dombrowski rightly noted. Miguel Cabrera might not be fully healed from ankle surgery in time for Opening Day. Shortstop whiz Jose Iglesias missed an entire season with shin fractures in both legs and appears ready to go. So does Justin Verlander, a year removed from core-muscle surgery. But until you see it from these guys, you wonder.

The Tigers haven't always rolled to the division title, winning by 15, three, one and one games. They're slightly favored this season, and they should be, but Vegas oddsmakers have dropped their World Series chances to as low as 10th in the majors. The Tigers have slid, on paper and in pitching, and that elusive championship doesn't appear any closer. But it's never out of reach when you win your division, avoid the wild card and take your shot in the playoffs.

Suggest to the Tigers their Central dominance is in peril and they're no longer penciled in, and they claim to like it.

"Good," manager Brad Ausmus said. "It's certainly different than the past few years, but I tell you what, I think we got a really good team. And I hope the vast majority say the Royals or the Indians or the White Sox — I'll lay in the weeds with this team any day of the week."

The Tigers aren't exactly lying in the weeds, but they have a healthy (and unhealthy) batch of issues. Their offense should be better and more balanced, buoyed by Yoenis Cespedes' arrival. Their defense should be much better. Their pitching is in flux.

Certainties but questions

How dramatically has the team and its strengths changed? You can argue one of the few certainties is a guy who wasn't here most of last season. And David Price might not be here the following season, as he heads toward free agency.

So who can the Tigers truly count on? Baseball is the ficklest of sports, and remember, they thought they had all sorts of certainties last season, and barely scraped out a division title and then got swept by the Orioles.

Victor Martinez always looks like a sure thing, even at 36, with a new four-year deal. Ian Kinsler is a perfect fit at second base. When healthy, Cabrera can carry the team.

Beyond that? Cespedes struggled down the stretch in Boston and also is entering the final year of his contract. J.D. Martinez was a revelation who now must become a constant. Nick Castellanos, Alex Avila, Rajai Davis, Anthony Gose? Impossible to guess what they'll provide.

Joe Nathan used to be a star closer, fell apart, then began to recover late last season, but he's 40. Joakim Soria was a star reliever, then fell apart after he got here. I suspect he'll rebound nicely as he also enters his contract year. The bullpen is a puzzle because it's always a puzzle, no matter how many pieces Dombrowski collects. Bruce Rondon has been out a year after Tommy John surgery, and counting on him is both necessary and dangerous.

Five times is tough

There's no trickier variable than the starting rotation, which could be really good, or could show more signs of wear. I expect Price to regain his dominant lefty status, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Verlander shave a run off that bloated 4.54 ERA. Anibal Sanchez also is at a critical juncture, after missing time with a strained pectoral. Newcomers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon may be promising, but they're largely unproven.

"People say these are all question marks, but they're not really question marks to us," Dombrowski said. "It's not like they can't play. It's just that they're unknowns."

You used to be able to pencil in a lot of names, then write the division title in ink. Not this time. It's in the Tigers' control until they prove otherwise, but Dombrowski and Ausmus might have to act more urgently as the season unfolds. I don't think they should go grab free-agent pitcher James Shields, but if Greene or Simon scuffles early, some sort of move would be necessary.

This isn't a year the Tigers can assume the status quo, sit back and wait for their division counterparts to collapse.

"I think to do anything five times in a row is going to be difficult," Castellanos said. "A lot of teams made strides forward. But at the end of the day, I still think the Central is our division. I firmly believe you still have to go through Detroit."

Yep, you do. But the Tigers have to be careful, because the shadows are growing.