It's now or never for the Tigers

Justin Verlander heads a rotation that could be as good as any other in the AL Central

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.

2010 record: 81-81
Finish: Third place, AL Central
2010 final payroll: $135.9 million
Estimated 2011 opening day payroll: $105 million

Offseason action

Perhaps Mike Ilitch's punishment for unleashing that inedible concoction called Little Caesar's pizza on an unwitting world was the contracts the Tigers owner doled out late last decade. They are a Who's Who of Awful: Magglio Ordonez(notes) with vesting $18 million-a-year options, Jeremy Bonderman(notes) and Dontrelle Willis(notes) pocketing around $12 million per annum, and the ultimate yikes: $9.6 million to watch Nate Robertson(notes) stink in another uniform last year.

All are finally off the books, and Ilitch's liege and the negotiator of those deals, Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski, took his newfound cash flow and turned reasonable.

Victor Martinez(notes) for four years at $50 million? Sounds about right.

Ordonez at $10 million instead of $18 million? Fair enough.

Jhonny Peralta(notes) for a little more than $11 million over two years? Better than Juan Uribe(notes) for $21 million over three.

Brad Penny(notes) on a make-good one-year, $3 million deal? Absolute steal.

Sure, Dombrowski threw $15 million at reliever Joaquin Benoit(notes), who couldn't even get a major league deal last spring and whose name is among the chief candidates to be bracketed by the clauses "Elbow soreness forced" and "to the disabled list." Still, the Tigers needed bullpen depth, and Benoit's upside is greater than his peers in relief excess, Matt Guerrier(notes), Jesse Crain(notes) and Scott Downs(notes).

Considering Ordonez's last contract cost the Tigers $93 million for six years, the $89 million they spent this offseason is a bargain. Their relative financial flexibility is laudable, too: Though right now Detroit is one of only four teams with multiple $20 million-a-year players signed for 2012 – Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Justin Verlander(notes) – both deals are reasonable. Cabrera is well worth the $106 million for five years if he stays sober and thin, and Verlander has proven a robust ace.

There is no Willis or Bonderman or Ordonez deal on this team, certainly not a Robertson disaster, and for that the Tigers are thankful. Anchors aweigh, they're ready to cruise into a tough three-team race in the AL Central. Now if they could just do something about that cardboard crust.

Reality check

Difficult as it may be to believe, the Tigers haven't won a division title since capturing the AL East in 1987. They choked away a big lead in 2009 and lost a one-game playoff. They made the 2006 World Series from the wild card. And before that, they alternated between bad and really bad.

So when manager Jim Leyland hails this a make-or-break year for himself and Dombrowski, he's not exaggerating. Enough mistakes have been made and enough money misspent that a World Series appearance five years ago no longer will save a job. The Tigers need to be Chrysler-Super Bowl-commercial good, and their roster isn't lacking.

Cabrera vies daily with Albert Pujols(notes) for the title of best hitter in baseball, and Martinez's presence and Ordonez's return from injury ought severely cut the number of intentional walks he receives from the 32 in 2010. Where Leyland plays Martinez and Ordonez will determine much of his managerial value this season, as he weighs offense and defense and finds an optimal lineup.

If Martinez spends most of his time at DH, it forces Ordonez and his balky legs to regular duty in right field. If Ordonez is the DH, it gives regular at-bats to the limited Brennan Boesch(notes) or the young Casper Wells(notes). In either of those scenarios, Carlos Guillen(notes) turns into an everyday second baseman, which, considering Peralta's lateral deficiencies, would give the Tigers the worst up-the-middle defense in baseball. With Guillen at DH, Martinez takes his noodle arm behind the plate, and Detroit's opponents will star on Baserunners Gone Wild.

The Tigers have flaws. Their rotation shouldn't be one. Verlander has a Cy Young season in him. After a midseason demotion, Max Scherzer(notes) ranked fourth in baseball in strikeouts (158 in 153 2/3 innings) and fifth in ERA (2.46). Rick Porcello's(notes) stint in Triple-A likewise straightened him out. If Penny can stay healthy or Phil Coke(notes) can pull a C.J. Wilson(notes), the Tigers will go pitcher for pitcher with Chicago and Minnesota.

Detroit should break a long and remarkable streak this year. Over the last 17 years, the Tigers have had 17 different players finish the season leading the team in Wins Above Replacement, according to To not once have a player head the team in back-to-back seasons, let alone twice at all, isn't just unlikely; it's damn near impossible. The list, in reverse order, goes: Cabrera, Verlander, Curtis Granderson(notes), Ordonez, Guillen, Brandon Inge(notes), Ivan Rodriguez(notes), Dmitri Young(notes), Jeff Weaver(notes), Steve Sparks, Bobby Higginson, Brad Ausmus(notes), Damion Easley, Justin Thompson (whose 7.1 WAR in '97 leads the group), Omar Olivares, David Wells and Tony Phillips, who also led in '93.

Maybe Martinez or Scherzer or Porcello or Austin Jackson(notes) will outdo Verlander and Cabrera and extend the streak to 18. Fine by the Tigers, as long as they win the division and snap that longer streak.

Tigers in haiku
Miggy quit drinking
If Leyland gives up heaters
They deserve a ring

Next: St. Louis Cardinals