TIGERS PREVIEW: Eyes remain firmly fixed on the prize
So close. So stinking close.
The Tigers edged one step closer to the ultimate prize last season, making it all the way to the World Series, after falling just shy of that the year before.
That unfulfilled goal of the first World Series championship in 29 years still dangles tantalizingly in front of the Tigers, who merely added to the core that has won two straight American League Central titles, and two AL pennants in seven seasons.
Every eye on the team is firmly fixed on that same goal.
All eyes on the prize.
Right there for the taking — yet still so far away.
“I think that’s just a matter of ... kind of the mindset of the team,” catcher Alex Avila said of the team’s single-minded preparation in spring training. “The last couple years, getting so close to what we want to accomplish, making sure we do everything that we can, and cover all of our bases.”
Having made it to the final four of baseball each of the last two seasons — losing in six games to the Rangers in the 2012 American League Championship Series, then getting swept by the Giants in last year’s Series — there’s a perception that the Tigers are poised to take that next step.
An expectation. A foregone conclusion.
Pressure to go further, rather than regress.
“Do I feel pressure? Sure. Yeah. To me, it’s like I tell the players: It’s good pressure. We got a good team. We’re going to study for the test. We’ll be ready. Are we going to be good enough? I don’t know,” said manager Jim Leyland, who’s taken the Tigers to the playoffs three times in seven years.
“But it’s not bad pressure. It’s good pressure. Because we’ve got a good team.
“Like I said, I’ve managed teams where I went to spring training and you couldn’t (B.S.) anybody. You couldn’t hide it. We had no chance to win a division title. I mean, my first year in Pittsburgh, we had no chance. None. You can’t (B.S.) people. You know what the deal is.
“Everybody, as a manager, you’d like to come to spring training, and you’d like to know that you’ve got a chance to win. We’ve got a chance to win. Are we going to win? I have no idea.
“Two years ago, they picked us fourth, we won the division by 15 games. Last year, they picked us to win it easy, we were very fortunate to win. It’s hard.”
That’s the other part that’s very well understood in the Tigers’ locker room.
No one is assuming that they’ll even make it back to the playoffs, that they’ll match their runs of the past two years.
There are no givens.
Just look at last year, when the Tigers were — again — prohibitive favorites, and led the division for only 33 days, pulling it out at the end.
“The biggest thing, when you get expectations is you don’t get complacent. The other thing with expectations is that you don’t put too much emphasis on the final goal of the World Series, and forget about what’s going on, what’s the most important thing at the time, which is the regular season,” pitcher Max Scherzer said.
“I think if you handle those two aspects, then expectations are great.
“For me, of course I want this team to go to the World Series. But for us to be able to do that, we’re going to have to play hard during the regular season to be able to play up to our level, to be one of the best teams in the American League.
“That’s gotta be our first and foremost goal.”
That the Tigers already are one of the best teams in the American League is universally understood.
Considering the stacked divisions in the AL East and the AL West, the Tigers are widely considered to have the easiest route back to the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of good teams. The commissioner ought to be happy — there’s a lot of parity. I couldn’t give you a winner in the American League, in any division,” Leyland said.
“I think you can toss up the balls, (to) find out. I would have no idea. Yeah, the American League really looks — what’s the word they use in the NFL, parity? It looks like baseball has more of that than it’s had for a long time. I think it’s really good. It’s anybody’s game. That’s the way it looks like to me. East, West, Central, pretty much anybody’s game.”
But it’s more than just being the best of what’s perceived to be a bad — but improving — division.
The Tigers are one of the elite teams because they have some of the best talent.
They have the best rotation in the division, and the best lineup.
They have arguably the best (and definitively the highest-paid) pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander.
And they have the best hitter on the planet at the moment, in Miguel Cabrera, who is coming off the first Triple Crown season in baseball in 45 years.
Cabrera and Verlander were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 players by ESPN in its Baseball Tonight Top 500.
Not in the division. Not in the American League.
Yes, the Tigers are loaded.
They had three players in the BBTN500’s top 20, six in the top 90, nine in the top 150, 12 in the top 300, and 21 of 25 players on the roster ranked among the sport’s top 500.
By contrast, the newest members of the AL, the Houston Astros, had just six listed in the 500-player ranking, and none above 150.
“It’s fun to be part of this team. We’ve got as much talent as anybody in the American League. We realize we’re going to have a target on our back this year, and we’re going to have to go out there and have to play our best baseball to be at the top of the American League,” Scherzer said. “That’s what you want to be a part of: You want to be a part of a winning ballclub, you want to be a part of this clubhouse. That’s what makes baseball fun, when you win.”
Winning is why Verlander signed a five-year contract extension on the eve of the season, likely keeping him in Detroit for the remainder of his career.
Winning is why Anibal Sanchez re-signed with the Tigers after being traded over from Miami at last year’s deadline.
Winning is why free-agent outfielder Torii Hunter picked the Tigers out of the crowd of suitors.
Detroit was the quickest path to what the 16-year veteran wanted: A ring of his own.
“I haven’t had a conversation with Torii that I haven’t walked away just in awe of the fact of how ready he is to get it done. He’s HUNGRY,” reliever Phil Coke said of his new teammate on MLB Network Radio’s “Inside Pitch” show. “And that’s a dangerous thing, when you’ve got somebody that’s hungry, that’s been around the game for a while, and they know what they want.
And winning is why Leyland has kept coming back on one-year deals, trying to keep feeding fuel into that competitive drive that’s kept him in the game for half a century.
“I want to win games. That’s all I’m here for. That’s all I’m here for. I like to compete. I want to win games. I want to win another championship. I want to see Mr. Ilitch win one. I want to see Tiger fans get one,” said Leyland, who admitted there’s a sentimental wish that permeates the organization, hoping to reward owner Mike Ilitch for the millions he’s spent in trying to bring a winner back to Detroit.
“Me too. I’d like to win one for me. Let’s not (B.S.) anybody. I’d like to win one for me. I’ve got one, and I’d like to have another one,” Leyland said with a laugh. “I mean, Mr. Ilitch, you get a little sentimental. I’d like to see it happen for him. But don’t (B.S.) anybody. I’d like to see it happen for me. I want to win. I mean, I like to win. That’s what I do this for.”
Would he be sentimental enough to ride off into the sunset — as his good friend Tony LaRussa did after St. Louis won it in 2011 — should he win another ring?
Leyland doesn’t think so, especially since it’s not something that would tremendously change his legacy.
“I don’t think so. I’m not going to change anything. You are what you are. Your career is what it is. Is two better than one? Yes. Unless you’re talking about traffic tickets,” said Leyland, who won his first with the Marlins in 1997. “Sure two’s better than one. Absolutely. Unfortunately, we’ve had the chance to get that second one, and we just haven’t been able to do it yet.”
Would his players — who respect him a great deal — be surprised if he did, though?
“I wouldn’t have a problem with him (saying he’s) retiring if he got a championship,” Scherzer said with a wry chuckle, “because that means I got a ring, so ... I guess.”
Eyes firmly fixed on the prize.