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Injuries sabotaging Tigers' chances at another division title

The SportsXchange

The Detroit Tigers entered spring training set and solid, but will begin the chase for their fourth straight American League Central crown shaken and possibly sabotaged by injuries.

There was still plenty of good news -- right-hander Justin Verlander's 20 scoreless spring innings plus the announcement first baseman Miguel Cabrera agreed to an eight-year contract extension -- but the grim news on the medical front might make it a lot more difficult for Detroit to win a fourth straight division title.

The Tigers lost left fielder Andy Dirks for 12 weeks early in the spring when he had to undergo surgery to repair a disc problem in his back. He will be replaced by rookie Tyler Collins, described as a version of Dirks when drafted by the Tigers in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, but whose first Major League at-bat will be his first above the Double-A level.

Then came the devastating loss of skilled defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias, for at least 4-6 months and possibly the season, when it was learned he has stress fractures in both shins. The Tigers tentatively plan to replace him with a platoon of two recently acquired shortstops, veteran Alex Gonzalez and Andrew Romine. Many are skeptical this arrangement will last.

The day after learning of Iglesias' plight, Detroit found out anticipated setup man Bruce Rondon will need Tommy John surgery and be out for the season. The Tigers may take a grab bag approach to the eighth inning, but insiders expect young right-hander Corey Knebel, supplemental first-round pick out of Texas last June, to have some kind of impact on the bullpen -- and soon.

An already questionable bullpen, with aging Joe Nathan at the back end, is further weakened entering the season and threatens to undermine a rotation that ranks among the strongest in baseball with Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly taking their turns.

Scherzer turned down a contract extension offer by Detroit that clearly fell short of what the Cy Young Award winner wanted. Negotiations are thus off until season's end, when Scherzer will be days shy of becoming a free agent.

The Tigers do not have a championship bullpen at this point, at least not until they ascertain who their seventh- and eighth-inning guys are. And Joe Nathan, at 39, granted a two-year contract by Detroit, is no certainty at the back end. One point in his favor as his fastball diminished, his slider has gotten better.

Bullpen adjustments are all but guaranteed as the season moves along.

Gonzalez, 37, was added at the last moment but has not played shortstop full time since 2011.

Romine is a journeyman added to give Detroit a left-handed bat at the position. The history books are not full of teams winning the World Series with such an arrangement at short.

Rookie Nick Castellanos was handed the third base spot when Detroit traded first baseman Prince Fielder to Texas during the winter, which allowed the club to shift Cabrera back to first. Castellanos is not seen as a Gold Glove at third, but his bat may wind up as silver at some point. The Tigers would be grateful if he hits .275 and 15 or so home runs with 75 RBIs.

Ian Kinsler, acquired in the deal for Fielder, should turn in a respectable season while Cabrera, who might have challenged for a second straight Triple Crown had he not been hobbled the last two months of last season by a sports hernia, had a solid spring and appears poised for a run at a fourth straight AL batting title. His home runs total could diminish without Fielder hitting behind him, although Victor Martinez would benefit from Cabrera being walked more.

No one expects Scherzer to go 21-3 again, but Verlander looks ready to rebound strongly from his 13-12 record of a year ago and possibly be closer to his 24-5 2011 MVP/Cy Young Award season.

Detroit dealt right-hander Doug Fister away but replaced him with lefty Drew Smyly, who debuted as a starter two years ago before moving to the bullpen for last year.

First-year manager Brad Ausmus replaced grizzled Jim Leyland as Detroit's manager, but sage Gene Lamont was retained as the bench coach so the newcomer won't miss anything.

The changes between seasons should make Detroit at least marginally better defensively and significantly better in terms of team speed. One of the story lines to follow all season will be whether that speed will offset the loss of Fielder's 30-plus home run potential with no corresponding replacement.

One key plus for the Tigers: the club has never been shy about making moves in July and August.

Detroit will be tough to beat out in the AL Central but the run of injuries will probably make it more difficult for it to beat back the competition.

NOTES, QUOTES

--3B Miguel Cabrera agreed to an eight-year contract extension March 27 that makes him the highest paid player in the history of baseball. Cabrera, who turns 31 next month, has two more seasons at $22 million left on his current pact, then a run of $31 million seasons that extend through 2023. Critics rail at the length of the dea,l but it would be nearly impossible for the Tigers to replace a player who has won three straight batting titles and two MVP crowns for them had he left after the 2015 season. Cabrera appeared fully recovered this spring from sports hernia surgery at the conclusion of last season. He is five hits shy of 2,000 for his career with 365 career home runs and 1,260 RBIs. "I spent a lot of time with my family in the offseason thinking about how bad I wanted to stay in Detroit," Cabrera said. "If there was any chance we could work out this deal to agree with the front office with the Tigers to make this happen, I was hoping to do it. I was never thinking about going to free agency. I want to be here. I want to stay here. I want to be a Tiger." The deal reportedly has two additional option years at $30 million that vest if Cabrera finishes in the top 10 in MVP voting the previous season.

--RHP Justin Verlander concluded the spring perfectly -- leaving Florida with a run of 20 scoreless innings. Already named Detroit's Opening Day starter for the seventh straight year, Verlander closed the spring with a 6 1/3 inning outing in which he allowed just one hit, struck out seven and walked one. "I'm definitely encouraged," said Verlander, coming off January sports hernia surgery on both groin muscles. "There hasn't been a lot of solid contact, so I know that what I've been working on has been beneficial to me."

--LF Tyler Collins, who played at Double-A Erie last season, appears to be Detroit's choice to platoon in left field with LF Rajai Davis while LF Andy Dirks recovers from spring back surgery. Collins became pull conscious last season and it sent his strikeout total up and his batting average down, but he appears to have tamed some of the wildness in his swing this spring. "Not doing too much, that's exactly what I've been doing," Collins said of a spring in which he's hit .250 but with some extra-base hit production. "Quit fighting myself. But I feel like I've found a way to consistently do it. Just stay easy, free and smooth. It's like Wally (hitting coach Joyner) said to me today: 'Dude, if you do anything this year, don't stop relaxing and being easy with that swing.' " Davis will play against more right-handed pitchers than he would have had Dirks been available, but Collins will get a lot of playing time unless he shows he's clearly overmatched.

--RHP Max Scherzer turned down an offer of a contract extension from the Tigers and will play through the season before either negotiating a new deal with Detroit or becoming a free agent. The Tigers reportedly offered $144 million for a six-year deal, but the pitcher is looking longer-term. Scherzer met with Dave Dombrowski after the Detroit GM revealed March 23 talks had broken off. "He expressed regret over how things had been portrayed in the media," Scherzer said. "He said he needed to let fans know they (the Tigers) were doing their job. He regretted any negative light it might have placed on me. He also said he didn't give out any numbers and that he was upset over numbers that had been released." Scherzer had a career year in 2013, going 21-3 and winning the AL Cy Young Award.

--RHP Evan Reed, a high-velocity thrower who improved his off-speed stuff this spring, apparently made Detroit's 25-man roster. Reed was still there after the Tigers made their final cuts but a late deal to remake the club's bullpen was also possible. Reed, who is out of options, allowed two earned runs in 11 1/3 innings over nine spring games entering the final weekend of play before the regular season. He performed well in several stints with the Tigers last year. He likely will be used in long relief early but could graduate to late-inning situations given the unsettled nature of the back end of Detroit's bullpen.

--RHP Luke Putkonen, who has been up and down with Detroit the last couple seasons, appeared set to open the season with the Tigers this year after a strong spring left him one of the last 25 players following the final spring cuts. Putkonen added a split-finger fastball to his list of pitches last year and it has become a great offset to a good fastball. He gave up just two runs in 11 1/3 spring innings entering the final weekend before the regular season, striking out 10 without issuing a walk.

--LHP Phil Coke, who endured a shocking trip to the minors last August during a nightmarish 2013 season, shored up his position with two strong final weeks of spring training. In Coke's seven outings entering the final spring game, he allowed four hits in 7 1/3 innings with nine strikeouts and two walks. "The thing that stood out about Coke is his breaking ball was a lot shorter and crisper," manager Brad Ausmus said. "It was more slider-ish than slurve-ish." He's been showing a tighter breaking ball than the sweeping curve he had trouble getting over the plate last year. His contract was not guaranteed and Detroit could have cut him and paid just $475,000 of his now-guaranteed $1.9 million deal.

--SS Alex Gonzalez, a late spring add to Detroit's roster made in an effort to cover for injured SS Jose Iglesias, will enter the season as the Tigers regular despite having played just 14 games at the position over the previous two years. Gonzalez, 37, played short this spring with Baltimore and was hitting well when Detroit obtained him March 24 for UTL Steve Lombardozzi. New Tigers' first base coach Omar Vizquel watched Gonzalez play winter ball and recommended him. "He still looks like a shortstop and has the actions of a shortstop," manager Brad Ausmus said after viewing the newcomer in some Detroit spring games. "I think he'll be fine." "For me, it's great to be back at my position," Gonzalez said. "I can still get (ground) balls. Not the same range, but I can still make plays. I've got experience. I know the hitters."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Anytime you give long-term contracts, you're concerned. That's the way it is, because anything can happen in the game. Sure, you feel a little uncomfortable, but if you're ever going to take a chance -- and there is (a risk) -- but to get a deal done you need to take that chance, I would take the chance on him." -- Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski on the signing of 3B Miguel Cabrera to an eight-year extension worth $31 million annually.

ROSTER REPORT

The strength of Detroit remains its starting pitching, but a bullpen filled with question marks threatens to sabotage it. Three critical spring injuries (LF Andy Dirks, SS Jose Iglesias, RHP Bruce Rondon) are almost certain to lead to in-season changes.

ROTATION:

1. RHP Justin Verlander

2. RHP Max Scherzer

3. RHP Anibal Sanchez

4. RHP Rick Porcello

5. LHP Drew Smyly

Verlander finished with 20 scoreless spring innings, emphatically answering questions whether there would be lingering effects from his January sports hernia surgery. He was picked to open the season for Detroit for the seventh straight year.

Scherzer had a solid spring, too, and will enter the season in limbo as far as his future with Detroit beyond 2014 is concerned. The two sides could not agree on a contract extension so will table talks until the end of the season. Both sides feel this will have no effect on the reigning Cy Young Award winner's performance.

Sanchez had a spot of shoulder fatigue, which sidelined him more than a month last year, but feels he is ready to begin the season with no problem. Detroit is hoping for an injury-free beginning to the season because he will need time to develop a viable sub from the minors.

Porcello had a rocky spring but was focused on refining his curve and getting his arm in shape. Smyly looks good as the fifth starter (he won't start until Detroit needs one later in April) after spending a year in the bullpen.

BULLPEN:

RHP Joe Nathan (closer)

RHP Al Alburquerque

RHP Joba Chamberlain

LHP Ian Krol

LHP Phil Coke

RHP Luke Putkonen

RHP Evan Reed

Loss of prospective setup man RHP Bruce Rondon (Tommy John surgery) severely hurt an already thin bullpen.

Chamberlain did not have a good spring, although he was better than in recent seasons, but Coke had a smart bounce-back after a rocky early spring.

Putkonen and Reed had solid springs and could move rapidly into late-inning roles as new manager Brad Ausmus sorts out his bullpen.

Help could be available from the minors after good spring showings by LHP Blaine Hardy and hotshot rookie RHP Corey Knebel, who a year ago was pitching for the University of Texas.

LINEUP:

1. 2B Ian Kinsler

2. RF Torii Hunter

3. 1B Miguel Cabrera

4. DH Victor Martinez

5. CF Austin Jackson

6. C Alex Avila

7. 3B Nick Castellanos

8. LF Rajai Davis/LF Tyler Collins

9. SS Alex Gonzalez/SS Andrew Romine

New manager Brad Ausmus spent the exhibition season experimenting with batting orders and was not tipping his hand as Detroit broke camp. He seems to have settled on Kinsler, who led off for Texas, as his first hitter as Jackson hit well in the fifth and sixth slots this spring.

The loss of SS Jose Iglesias, probably for the season, with stress fractures in both legs led Detroit to scramble for two journeymen to replace him: Gonzalez, who has played only sparingly at short the last two years, and Romine. Further change at the position would not be unexpected.

Losing LF Andy Dirks (back surgery) for 12 weeks and the trade of UTL Steve Lombardozzi to Baltimore for Gonzalez opened up a roster spot for the rookie Collins, who spent last season in Double-A but is seen by the Tigers as comparable to Dirks.

Castellanos looked good at the plate this spring but shows rustiness in his return to third.

RESERVES:

INF Andrew Romine

C Bryan Holaday

LF Tyler Collins

UTL Don Kelly

Romine will see most of his action at short in a mini-platoon with SS Alex Gonzalez and is likely to see late-inning action as a defensive replacement for 3B Nick Castellanos.

Collins bats left-handed, so if he hits he could wind up seeing more action in left than Davis, who will start against all lefties and some right-handers.

Holaday will spell C Alex Avila against some tough lefties while Kelly will again play a variety of positions, mostly in the outfield.

MEDICAL WATCH:

--LF Andy Dirks (lower back surgery in March 2014) is expected to be out until late June/early July. Dirks said he has had problems with his lower back since high school but it locked up on him early in spring training.

--SS Jose Iglesias (stress fractures in both shins) will open the season on the disabled list with a prognosis of a 4-6 month absence.

--RHP Bruce Rondon (right elbow Tommy John surgery) will miss the entire 2014 season. Rondon complained of some soreness in the elbow early that week and was sent to Dr. James Andrews, who diagnosed the injury.

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