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Time is running out: A Detroit Tigers preview

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A look ahead at the defending AL Central champions

"Look, the bullpen will be just fine.  It just will."
"Look, the bullpen will be just fine. It just will."
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

These are desperate times for the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers have been the clear-cut alpha dog in the AL Central for awhile now, as they've worn the division crown each of the last four seasons while winning at least 88 games in each. Owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski have pushed repeatedly to acquire big-name stars to keep the team a cut above its division rivals, and they've gotten results they've wanted, at least prior to the playoffs. In 2012, they reached the World Series, but their postseason results have declined in the years since. 2013 saw Detroit fall in the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox, while in 2014, the Tigers were eliminated by the Orioles in the ALDS without winning a single postseason game. Though postseason success isn't a great indicator of the future, in this case, it mirrors a real truth that the Tigers have been fading.

One result (and partial cause) of all the Tigers' recent success is that the farm system has been stripped bare. With no high draft picks in the first round and multiple trades of young talent in an effort to win now, the Tigers' farm system now ranks as the worst in baseball. Furthermore, after increasing payroll by roughly $19 million per season since 2011, the Tigers only saw about a $7 million rise in player salaries from 2014 to 2015, reflective of either payroll constraints (somewhat unlikely, due to Ilitch's deep and loose pockets) or the increasing difficulty of finding solutions on the free agent market due to the recent league trend of extending young stars. In short, the Tigers are running out of ways to add talent to their major league roster.

Worse still, the quality of the major league roster has slipped from its peak. In 2013, the Tigers boasted one of the best starting rotations in major league history, with Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, and capable starter-in-waiting Drew Smyly, who was busy putting up zeroes in the bullpen. Only Sanchez and Verlander still remain, and at this point, Verlander doesn't seem like the ace he once was. Core muscle surgery before the 2014 season seemed to sap Verlander of his big fastball, and while he's a good bounceback candidate, he's no longer close to a top-10 pitcher in the game. The right triceps strain he suffered this spring isn't a good start, and he'll be on the shelf for another week or so.

Sanchez is still good, however, and although no one is expecting him to lead the American League in ERA like he did in 2013, his four-pitch mix is still effective. He should bounce back from last season's injury-deflated campaign to be a reliable number-two starter. The number one? That'd be David Price, the former Rays ace who worked into the 8th inning in 21 of his 34 starts last season. Price's walk rate has stayed below 4 percent each of the last two seasons, and he can get you out with mid-90's heat or his excellent changeup.

While the Tigers are strong at the top, the back of their rotation is much less inspiring than it used to be. They struck a trade with the Reds to bring in Alfredo Simon, who enjoyed some success in the rotation last season. Simon is a right-handed sinkerballer that uses his splitter to great effect against lefties. He will love pitching in front of shortstop Jose Iglesias this season.  Rounding out the rotation is newly acquired Shane Greene, who somehow put up respectable numbers for the Yankees last year. He struck out over 23 percent of opposing hitters last year by largely relying on a breaking pitch that resembles a curveball that doesn't dive. The Tigers trust in his stuff, but Greene feels like a tightrope act.

Even if the starting staff performs well, there's a real risk that their ability to win games will be impaired by the bullpen. The Tigers struggled to close out games last season, and they'll be counting on mostly the same pitchers again this year. In the closer role is 40-year-old Joe Nathan, whose ERA finally dipped back below 5.00 in September last season after a bad start. Nathan got wild last year and was tagged for more base hits than ever before. He'll presumably be on a short leash, but at this point, Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain, and Al Alburquerque don't present exciting alternatives. That trio will have to get by for now, as Nathan is rehabbing from a strain to a muscle in his elbow. The ninth inning option with the highest upside is probably Bruce Rondon, who returns from Tommy John surgery this season.

With some questions surrounding the pitching staff, it seems that if the Tigers are to repeat again as division champions, they'll have to get it done on offense. Thanks to the re-signing of Victor Martinez to hit behind Miguel Cabrera, they'll once again have the most enviable 3-4 combination in all of baseball.  Either guy is a threat to be the best hitter in the American League this year, as it's been one of the two for each of the last three seasons.

Things get dicier when you get past those two. The Tigers acquired Yoenis Cespedes from the Red Sox, and they really needed him. Cespedes brings his slugging (yet undisciplined) ways to Comerica Park, and he should be good for 20-some home runs and good defense in left field. Less convincing is the other corner outfielder, J.D. Martinez.  Though he slashed .315/.358/.553 last year, he had the benefit of a .398 BABIP that came with an unremarkable line drive rate. That doesn't scan, so don't expect a repeat performance.

Elsewhere, leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler is coming off of a remarkably healthy season in which he led baseball in plate appearances. The 33-year-old can still pick it at the keystone and hit a few out, but his walk rate shrank to 4 percent last season. He won't be long the top of a productive lineup if he repeats last season's .307 OBP.

Those five guys are going to carry a lineup rounded out by catcher Alex Avila (who's more valuable behind the plate than next to it), Iglesias, third-sacker Nick Castellanos, and a speedy Anthony Gose / Rajai Davis platoon in center.  Former top prospect Castellanos could take a big step forward at age 23, but the others are not great bets to hit. The stars-and-scrubs construct isn't as extreme as it once was in the Detroit batting order, but it's still there.

The tone of all of this may seem negative, but it's only out of comparison to what the Tigers were and projection to where the Tigers are headed. They may no longer look like a 90-win team at their core, and they're probably (expensive) favorites to land in the AL Central cellar two to three seasons from now, but this shouldn't cloud the fact that they came into this season at minimum co-favorites in the division, and should be considered standalone favorites after their extremely hot start. That said, the stars of the recent great Tigers teams are aging, and the team is not well-hedged at all against injuries to key players. There's enough talent here to make the Tigers AL Central champions, but enough risk to make missing the postseason entirely a real possibility.

Predicted Record and Finish: 89-73, 1st place, AL Central

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Anthony Gose - CF

SP1. David Price - LHP

2. Ian Kinsler - 2B

SP2. Anibal Sanchez - RHP

3. Miguel Cabrera - 1B

SP3. Alfredo Simon - RHP

4. Victor Martinez - DH

SP4. Shane Greene - RHP

5. J.D. Martinez - RF

SP5. Kyle Lobstein - LHP

6. Yoenis Cespedes - LF

CL. Joakim Soria - RHP

7. Nick Castellanos - 3B

RP1. Al Alburquerque - RHP

8. Alex Avila - C

RP2. Joba Chamberlain - RHP

9. Jose Iglesias - SS

RP3. Tom Gorzelanny - LHP