Starting Pitching Key: Justin Verlander
It’s easy to say, “pencil Verlander in for 18-24 wins; 240 innings; 250 strikeouts; consistent dominance; etc.” It’s not that easy to do it on an annual basis no matter how great a pitcher is. Verlander is their horse and everything feeds off of him. The Tigers have depth in the rotation they didn’t have in 2011 when Verlander won—and deserved—the MVP as well as the Cy Young Award. They’d be competitive on the field without him, but the teamwide mental strain of an arm problem for Verlander could open the floodgates to a collapse.
Relief Pitching Key: Bruce Rondon
There are already rumblings that manager Jim Leyland wants to sign former closer Jose Valverde as insurance in case rookie Rondon can’t do the job. Veteran managers whose careers are winding down don’t need aggravation and they certainly don’t want to see a loaded World Series contender come undone because the bullpen ace isn’t ready. Valverde was awful last season, but Leyland has seen him get the big outs before and would trust him more than he’d trust Rondon at this point.
If Rondon is closing when the season starts, he has to convert the first few save opportunities to gain confidence in himself and from his manager. Leyland’s a good liar, but he’ll have a hard time making Rondon, the Tigers, the front office and everyone else believe that he’s confident in his rookie closer until he’s closed a few games.
Offensive Key: Miguel Cabrera
Yes, they have Prince Fielder. Yes, Victor Martinez is coming back. Yes, there’s Torii Hunter, Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and other guys who can hit. But it begins and ends with the 2012 Triple Crown winner, Cabrera.
Defensive Key: Jhonny Peralta
Peralta’s not as bad at shortstop as he’s portrayed and it was his adequate play on the left side of the infield that mitigated Cabrera’s lack of range at third. Apart from Cabrera, the Tigers’ defense is quite good. If they had a shortstop that covered a lot of ground, Cabrera wouldn’t be a concern at all—he catches the balls hit close enough to him to reach—but with Peralta’s up-and-down defense, it’s something to watch.