They can pitch and hit, but can they catch?

The Tigers expected the changes they made after last season would bring them to the top of the American League Central, and spring training has shown they have that capability. Pitching and defense are the building blocks upon which championships are usually built, and Detroit potentially has that kind of pitching. As for the defense, well ...

The Tigers' corner outfielders, Ryan Raburn and Magglio Ordonez, leave something to be desired with gloves on their hands, but Austin Jackson will cover up some of their deficiencies.

Jhonny Peralta and manager Jim Leyland's pick to play second, Will Rhymes, are on the fringe of the league midpoint for defense. Brandon Inge can compensate for some of that, but Miguel Cabrera, while a better defender than most think, has little or no range at first.

General manager Dave Dombrowski targeted offensive help in the offseason and quickly landed free agent Victor Martinez to DH and help provide some protection for cleanup hitter Cabrera in the No. 5 spot in the batting order. The organization felt bringing back Peralta and Inge was preferable to going after whatever else was on the market, and it also chose to re-sign Ordonez for $10 million after declining his $15 million option.

Ordonez, coming off an ankle fracture, looked sound in spring training and, though he's 37, his bat still appears to have enough hits and RBI left to compensate for whatever age will take from his power. A good year from him is key because baserunners will make opposing teams pitch to Cabrera instead of giving him the chance to break the record for intentional walks he almost set last season. Most of those walks came after Ordonez broke his ankle in late July.

The return of Ordonez and the insertion of Martinez, who will DH most of the time and catch against left-handed starters, means the Tigers don't have to ask Inge and Peralta to give more than they are capable of giving. Having them bat in the 6-7-8 slots instead of fifth and sixth will make a difference.

The organization had enough confidence that Alex Avila was ready to be the de facto regular catcher it let Gerald Laird go, and team officials believe Jackson's runner-up finish in the Rookie of the Year voting was no fluke. Raburn has had two straight strong second halves, and the Tigers gave him a two-year contract to show him it had confidence in his ability, hoping that will let him develop into a full-year player.

Detroit likes power arms in the bullpen, and it has a lot of them. It is potentially strong at the end of the game, and it's also deep.

Dombrowski gave a three-year contract to a setup man, Joaquin Benoit, which angered some of his compatriots but brought a smile to his manager. Adding Benoit was a safety net for the rest of the bullpen, taking some of the pressure off closer Jose Valverde while giving Ryan Perry another year to develop. It also covered the Tigers in case Joel Zumaya got hurt for a fifth straight year, which has happened in the form of continuing soreness in his surgically repaired right elbow tip.

Zumaya and Carlos Guillen were placed on the disabled list for the start of the season. Shifting Phil Coke from the bullpen back to the rotation (where he pitched in the minors) appears to have a chance to work out, and Detroit dumped Armando Galarraga in favor of Brad Penny, who has an injury history to live down.

A bounce-back year from Rick Porcello is deemed crucial to Detroit's success, and his exhibition appearances seem to make that a realistic expectation.

The 1-2 combination of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer is among the best in baseball based on how they pitched most of last season. Add Porcello, Coke and Penny, and the Tigers have one of the better 1-5 rotations in the majors -- at least until they show otherwise.

Injuries took Detroit out of contention after the All-Star break last year -- but not until after a nearly week-long losing streak put it in a deep post-break hole. The loss of three regulars in less than a week (Inge, Ordonez and Guillen) gave teams the courage to pitch around Cabrera, resulting in him nearly setting a league record for intentional walks.

The Tigers believe their offseason changes and avoiding a crippling run of injuries will make them competitive with the defending division champion Minnesota Twins and the always dangerous Chicago White Sox. Kansas City and Cleveland have been down the last couple of seasons but always give Detroit trouble.

Detroit entered the spring unsure if Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner were ready in case they were needed but sent them back to the minors assured they were close enough.

Rhymes edged Scott Sizemore, sent back to the minors, for the second base spot largely off his showing as a replacement last season. Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells showed promise in emergency roles last season and also made the Opening Day roster.

Rookie Brayan Villarreal showed two qualities that endeared him to Leyland -- throwing strikes and getting outs -- and will be an early man out of the bullpen along with veteran non-roster invitee Enrique Gonzalez. Detroit cut Gonzalez, who pitched briefly for the club, after last season but re-signed him to a minor league deal.


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