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Tigers, Tribe should battle it out again

03/30/2014, 12:00am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Tigers, Tribe should battle it out

The Detroit Tigers went to spring training just a few weeks ago seemingly without a care in the world. With baseball’s best starting pitching and a solid, bordering on star-studded, everyday lineup, they would steamroll the American League Central, blow into the playoffs, and adopt a “World Series or bust” mentality.

Then they lost a left-handed bat and platoon left fielder, Andy Dirks. Then they lost their shortstop, Jose Iglesias, and they will try piecemeal solutions — Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez — to patch the hole. Then they lost their flame-throwing setup man in the bullpen, Bruce Rondon. None is a short-term injury.

They did not, however, lose Miguel Cabrera. He’ll be around through the year 2023 with a contract extension that, added to his existing deal, will pay him $292 million over the life of the contract.

Arguably the best hitter in baseball, the 2012 Triple Crown winner is inarguably the highest-paid position player now.

It is a deal that either thrills or appalls you. There is not much shoulder-shrugging middle ground.

The critics wonder about the timing, since Miggy would not have been a free agent until after the 2015 season. They wonder about the length of the deal, considering he will be in his early 40s by the time it ends. At what point does Cabrera, who is large and lumbering, become a designated hitter?

David Ortiz of Boston, 38 years old and primarily a DH for several seasons, recently got a short extension that will bump him to $16 million, about half what the Tigers will be paying Cabrera per season in his eight extension seasons. Big Papi may not be Cabrera, but his 30 home runs, 103 RBIs, and .309 average last season weren’t chopped liver. And the Tigers remember well what Ortiz did in the postseason.

Regardless, if Cabrera stays healthy and productive, Tigers fans won’t care much either way. But he was not healthy late last year and that helped derail Detroit short of the World Series. The current Tigers DH, Victor Martinez, is 35 and has gone through serious injury issues as recently as 2012, when he missed the entire season.

He and right fielder Torii Hunter, soon to turn 39, are in the final years of their contracts.

We won’t even get into what an injury or two could mean to the pitching staff. Why go there? Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez are the real Big Three in Motown and three of the best in the game. Joe Nathan is new to Detroit and a solid closer.

If the pitching remains stout and the lineup that debuts Monday at Comerica Park against Kansas City is basically intact through Sept. 28, when the slate concludes against Minnesota at Comerica, then the Tigers just might steamroll their way into the playoffs, as so many expect.

If not, they could find themselves in a tight AL Central race and, like last year, it might be against the Cleveland Indians.

The Tribe went 92-70 in Terry Francona’s first season as manager. That was a 24-game improvement on 2012, when Cleveland lost 94 games, and Francona was named AL manager of the year for getting full-time production out of some part-time players. If he can come close to duplicating a 92-win season this time, he should probably be named the league’s top skipper again.

The Indians players, to a man, talk about how much Francona means and how much they enjoy playing for him. He’s clearly a players’ manager and he gave another example why last week during a spring training game.

Francona went to the mound to remove pitcher Blake Wood, who was on the roster bubble. Francona asked reliever Wood if he’d ever made a team while standing on the mound. “Well, you just did,” Francona said. Woods’ smile as his manager patted him on the face was priceless.

Wood and his pitching mates will have a lot to say about the Indians’ chances in 2014.

A couple guys who delivered last season, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, are gone. Can Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister repeat their contributions? Justin Masterson is the ace, but may be pitching for a free-agent contract, which can sometimes be tricky. The bullpen is a bit of a question mark all the way through to closer John Axford.

The Tigers made it to the AL championship series last season before limping to an offensive no-offense conclusion. The Tribe was eliminated in the one-game wildcard round. But before that the two teams finished a mere one game apart in the AL Central standings.

Francona is a known commodity with the Indians, who open the season Monday night in Oakland. Detroit, meanwhile, goes into its first campaign under the rookie-est of managers, Brad Ausmus, who will turn 45 on April 14.

Might another red-hot, season-long pennant race be in the offing for our two “local” teams?

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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