MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cards, Tigers still at top of Central heap

Detroit, St. Louis are favorites despite the gains made by division rivals

Cards, Tigers still at top of Central heap

The line has been drawn, as it always is this time of year.

On one side are the teams who are expected to win their divisions; on the other, the long line of teams that would love to knock them off.

As has been true for five years now, the two Central divisions are headlined by their traditional favorites.

Oh, it's been an interesting Hot Stove season, with changes up and down the ranks inflating the hopes of contenders, like so much helium. But when teams go to camp next week, it will still be the Tigers favored to repeat in the American League Central and the Cardinals favored to win the National League Central.

As a reminder, the big boys haven't gone anywhere.

As favorites go, there's not much difference between the Cardinals and the Tigers. Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus work to sustain the legacy of Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland, whose teams met in the 2006 World Series. And while the storyline might sometimes seem stale around the country, it's fair to say nobody in St. Louis or Detroit has gotten tired of winning.

The Tigers are looking to five-peat this year, continuing the success they've had behind Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, among many others. The Cardinals are expecting a fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs, hopefully as a division champ for the third consecutive time.

Detroit has won 366 regular-season games over the past four seasons, but only 17 in the postseason. The Cardinals won one less regular-season game but have 31 postseason wins the past four years, highlighted by their World Series comeback against Texas in 2011.

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The Cardinals won eight of 11 postseason series in this stretch, including the 2011 NL Wild Card Game. The Tigers haven't been as effective in October, getting swept by the Giants in the '12 World Series and winning only four of their past eight postseason series overall.

Few teams face as much of a win-now edict as the Tigers, who haven't won the World Series since 1984. The losses to the Cardinals and Giants in their past two Fall Classics were body blows for Dave Dombrowski and everyone else in the franchise, as the pursuit of a happy ending has turned into an annual event.

When Dombrowski is at the plate, he swings for the fences. He did that in style last July, shocking everyone by adding David Price to a rotation that already included Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Verlander. But there was no reward.

Relievers Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria and Phil Coke allowed eight runs in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Orioles last fall, and for the first time since 2010, the Tigers didn't win a postseason game. So the pursuit continues, now without Scherzer, who signed a $210 million deal with the Nationals after turning down an extension with the Tigers last spring.

For a variety of reasons -- including the loss of Scherzer and concerns about Verlander (his ERA has climbed from 2.64 to 3.46 and 4.54 the past few seasons) -- the Tigers won't be such heavy favorites in 2015 as they were heading into last season. The Royals are confident after turning an AL Wild Card berth into a pennant, the Indians are rallying behind AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, and the White Sox have imported Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson as part of an impressive offseason overhaul.

V-Mart out four to six weeks

But the Tigers' run of success in recent years has been more about Cabrera, Victor Martinez and the rest of the lineup than the rotation, and they believe they dodged a bullet with a positive report on Martinez after his knee surgery on Tuesday. He could be ready for Opening Day, and Cabrera could be better than he's been in awhile after surgery on his right ankle in October.

You'll understand if Dombrowski and Ausmus watch those two closely in Florida, along with shortstop Jose Iglesias, who might be the biggest concern in Lakeland, Fla., given the importance of his position and the mystery that surrounded the stress fractures in both shins that caused him to miss last season.

Dombrowski has added Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene to the rotation and Yoenis Cespedes and Anthony Gose to the lineup. He can only hope those moves will pay off like the addition of Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder a year ago. Kinsler and J.D. Martinez joined Cabrera and Martinez to help the Tigers score 757 runs last year, ranking second in the AL for the second year in a row.

The Cardinals likewise made only a handful of moves this offseason. GM John Mozeliak showed his confidence in Adam Wainwright's recovery from an elbow cleanup by dealing Shelby Miller to land Jason Heyward and power reliever Jordan Walden, who allows Carlos Martinez to move into the rotation.

While St. Louis won 90 games a year ago, when it rolled to the NL Championship Series, the lineup was a huge disappointment. It had scored 783 runs in 2013, leading the league, but ranked 10th with 619 runs last year. The tragic death of top prospect Oscar Taveras contributed to the need for Heyward, who will play right field and hit at the top of the lineup, in front of Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Yadier Molina and Johnny Peralta.

The strength of the Cardinals should again be the rotation, which has ranked in the top third of the NL in ERA during five of the past six seasons (the exception being 2011, when an Albert Pujols-led lineup delivered a World Series championship). Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey are as strong of a front three as there is in the NL, and Martinez and Mark Buehrle clone Marco Gonzales look like excellent options for the other two spots.

Michael Wacha, who is recovering from a rare scapular stress injury, and Jaime Garcia are working hard to get back on the mound. Carlos Villanueva, who was signed recently to a Minor League contract, provides some depth.

When the Pirates, Reds, Brewers and Cubs look at the Cardinals, they see a team that has more vulnerability than it did a year ago. The situation is the same in the AL.

A lot of people will tell you the Tigers have lost their mojo.

Maybe. But a wise person replies that he'll believe it when he sees it.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.