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No. 7 Tigers: Weak division, big-spending owner and stars should put Detroit back in playoffs

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Detroit Tigers.

MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | No. 28 Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians | No. 23 Mariners | No. 22 Padres | No. 21 Cubs | No. 20 Brewers | No. 19 Red Sox | No. 18 White Sox | No. 17 Royals | No. 16 Orioles | No. 15 Phillies | No. 14 Diamondbacks | No. 13 Athletics | No. 12 Rangers | No. 11 Yankees | No. 10 Rays | No. 9 Cardinals | No. 8 Giants

2012 record: 88-74
Finish: First place, AL Central
2012 final payroll: $140.7 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $150 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 7th

Hashtags: #resignverlander #mashgame #cardboardpizza #slackers #shinyobjects #rug #scratchmybackproletariat #fauxlineups #surplus #oldrichguys

OFFSEASON ACTION

Nothing in sports beats a rich, old owner who turns a championship hunt into his late-life passion project. You know the old adage that there's no such thing as bad pizza? Mike Ilitch pushed the boundaries on that aphorism and made his billions off it anyway, and now, as a thank you to the city that made him, Ilitch wants to buy a championship.

It's not as blatant, say, as the Los Angeles Dodgers' infant eyes flitting toward shiny objects. The assembly of these Tigers is calculated and purposeful. Detroit wanted Torii Hunter and struck quickly to fill one of its corner-outfield vacancies for two years and $26 million, which, considering Shane Victorino got the same per-year salary for another season, makes Hunter a bargain of the offseason. Detroit wanted to re-sign Anibal Sanchez, watched the Cubs bid him up and trumped them with five years and $80 million.

Mike Ilitch wants. Mike Ilitch gets.

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Mike Ilitch has opened up his wallet in recent seasons. He will have to pry it open again for ace Justin Verlander. …

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He wanted a championship-level team, and he's got one under general manager Dave Dombrowski, the architect of a team with almost every principal under contract for at least two more seasons and a payroll that, compared to television revenue, is disproportionately high. In other words: The money is coming out of Ilitch's pockets, and the city with so many economic woes responded with more than 3 million in attendance last season. That's back-scratching at its finest.

Ilitch's final order of business for the time being: scratch, massage, use warm rocks – whatever gets Justin Verlander to stay in Motown. While six-year contracts for pitchers are about the worst idea possible, Verlander's almost-singular ability to stay healthy and play workhorse merits a Zack Greinke-level deal – say, something like six years, $150 million, which would surpass Greinke and still give the Tigers a $5 million-a-year break on what the free-agent market would give Verlander after the 2014 season.

REALITY CHECK

Were the Tigers in, say, pretty much any other division, they would not rank this high. Every team in the AL East could be good. The AL West has three potential dynamos. The two best teams in the NL are in the East. Or is that the Central? Wait, but the defending champion and the richest team in history are out West, right?

The Tigers have the Royals, White Sox, Indians and Twins.

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They had them last year, too, and for about five months underachieved so spectacularly you'd think they were called the Red Sox. Then they started pitching, got some hits from guys not named Miggy, Prince and Austin, watched Chicago fold like a MASH game, commandeered a playoff spot and rode the talent to the World Series.

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It'll be difficult for Miguel Cabrera to top his Triple Crown/AL MVP run last season. (EFE)

On paper – two of the most misleading words in sports, sure, but at least in the offseason every team is on paper and thus judged similarly – nobody in the AL Central should come within 10 games of these Tigers. They've got the best rotation in the division by a long shot – especially if second-half Max Scherzer shows up – and their lineup is almost as good as a lineup made of the best players from all the other teams in the division.

(Who ya got? Austin Jackson, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Andy Dirks, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Omar Infante vs. Alex Gordon, Joe Mauer, Paul Konerko, Billy Butler, Asdrubal Cabrera, Josh Willingham, Mike Moustakas, Jason Kipnis, Alejandro De Aza.)

If Nick Castellanos is as good as scouts say – and they think he can become one of the best right-handed bats in the league – the Tigers soon will welcome his presence, either as a platoon in left with Dirks or someone who can let Cabrera shift to DH, Martinez to catcher and make a dangerous lineup even scarier. Considering their outfield surplus already – Dirks, Avisail Garcia, Brennan Boesch and Quintin Berry will fight for at-bats – a trade may be in order.

And if it brings the Tigers a late-inning bullpen arm, all the better. Already they've got a mishmash of possibilities for the ninth inning: Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque and the wild card, right-hander Bruce Rondon, he of the 100-mph fastball, 275-pound frame and 29 2/3 innings of experience beyond Class A. Since the Tigers shifted Rondon from the rotation three seasons ago, he has thrown 125 1/3 innings, allowed 67 hits, walked 76 and struck out 160. Manager Jim Leyland says he is comfortable handing him the closer's role. Leyland also was comfortable keeping Jose Valverde in it last year.

Ninth-inning problems early in the season almost never wreck a year entirely. They do disrupt them, though, and as we saw last season, the last thing the Tigers need is an April stumble.

SAVIOR

No, Miguel Cabrera did not stick his hand into the fire pits of hell and valiantly pull the Detroit Tigers' season from it. That is not how baseball works, and that should not have been why he won the MVP. If he was going to win, the argument was on the merits of an incredible offensive season. Let's put it this way: In history, 14 players have hit .330, gotten on base at a .393 clip, slugged .606 and bopped 44 home runs in a season. Babe Ruth did it eight times, Barry Bonds, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig four, Albert Pujols two and Cabrera, Derrek Lee, Todd Helton, Vlad Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Larry Walker, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Hack Wilson once. Good company. Now he just needs to stop taking 89-mph fastballs down the pipe.

HAIKU

Ajax, Vic, Miggy
Prince and Torii: Doesn't get
Much better than that

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