LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers came to Spring Training a year ago with seemingly few questions and a relatively set squad. They left camp six weeks later with more questions than they came in with, thanks to season-ending injuries to starting shortstop Jose Iglesias, left fielder Andy Dirks and budding setup man Bruce Rondon.
It was a lesson in how much Spring Training can change things for a team. This year's Tigers have to hope for the opposite effect.
They come to camp with more questions than this article can fit, arguably more than they've taken into a season in years. Spring Training should have the answers. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski ran down the list a few weeks ago, and that was before Victor Martinez tore the meniscus in his left knee.
"I keep looking at why people are not sure of this, not sure of that," Dombrowski told fans at TigerFest. "I understand. It's just a less certain club. When I say less certain, there are more unknowns. They don't know how Iglesias is going to be at shortstop. They're not sure about Miguel Cabrera. They haven't seen [Yoenis] Cespedes play. They haven't seen [Anthony] Gose play center field. They've never seen [Alfredo] Simon pitch. They don't know Shane Greene. They're not sure about [Justin] Verlander and [Anibal] Sanchez, because they didn't have [good] years. They haven't even seen David Price pitch all the time. They haven't seen [Joakim] Soria. They don't know how Rondon is going to be.
"People say these are all question marks, but there's a difference. They're not really question marks to us. It's not like they can't play. It's just that they're unknowns. I think with that, people are not quite sure how to take that."
It's because of the questions, or the unknowns, that the range of potential on this team is so vast in both directions. If the questions don't have a good answer, the Tigers could face the biggest threat yet to their four-year reign atop the American League Central. If the unknowns go in their favor, these Tigers could be the most well-balanced club that Detroit has taken into October in some time.
Here are the three biggest questions:
1. Will Cabrera and Martinez be ready for Opening Day?
The Tigers are hopeful both of them can be, but they likely won't know for sure until the latter stages of camp. Cabrera is rehabbing from October surgery on his right ankle and foot, repairing a stress fracture in the latter, and he is expected to be ready on or shortly after Opening Day.
Martinez's meniscus was surgically clipped, rather than reattached, giving him a shorter recovery time of 4-6 weeks. That should put him in line for the start of the season, though his age could add on some time. If either has a slower recovery, second-year manager Brad Ausmus will have a quick scramble to adjust his lineup accordingly.
2. Is Joe Nathan the closer for 2015?
Dombrowski has defended Nathan, saying he improved over the second half last season after adjusting his arm angle, and he has a chance to rebound this spring. Nathan himself has said he rededicated enough to offseason conditioning, looking to improve his agility and prove to skeptics he still has something left. If Nathan struggles in Spring Training, however, Dombrowski and Ausmus have said they're open to making a change if need be.
Soria looms as a former closer in his prime years, though he struggled back from an oblique strain shortly after his trade from Texas last July. The one certainty about the Tigers' closer job is that Detroit doesn't want a repeat of last season, when struggles affected the rest of the bullpen.
3. What can the Tigers expect out of Verlander?
He feels better this spring after a full offseason of conditioning helped him put on 25 pounds, and his early bullpen sessions have revealed crisper pitches and a sharper curveball. How those pitches translate into Verlander's game is the big question, and one that Grapefruit League games might not completely answer.
Tigers officials and former pitchers have talked with him about adjusting his game as a thirtysomething hurler. Verlander wants to see how he feels and looks this spring and adjust on the fly.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.