Tigers open camp ready to defend AL Central

As pitchers and catchers officially report, Detroit sees itself as team to beat

Tigers open camp ready to defend AL Central

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The giant door that separates the Tigers' clubhouse from the playing field at Joker Marchant Stadium and the back fields for practice doesn't have much spring action left in order to close. It's historic, like a lot of things around Tigertown, and when the wind picks up going toward right field at the stadium, it tends to float halfway open, allowing air to rush in and giving players a clear idea what the weather is outside.

With a polar vortex bringing cold air and gusty winds into central Florida, it was floating open again as pitchers and catchers officially reported Thursday morning. So far, that has been the only talk around Tigers camp about a door closing.

"I still believe we are the team to beat," Justin Verlander said Wednesday. "You look around this [clubhouse], I would take us. Obviously, I am a bit biased. But look around this locker room. There is a wealth of talent. I think we have just as good a chance as we've had in the past. Is the division better? Yeah. But I still think we're the best team."

That's what Verlander's manager liked to hear as he checked in Thursday.

"Without question, the entire division has gotten better," Brad Ausmus said. "I don't think they will, but it doesn't bother me if the other teams forget about us. It doesn't bother me if other teams write us off. I don't think that's happening, but it certainly wouldn't bother me if they took us more lightly."

For a team that owns the last four American League Central titles, the Tigers open camp with an underlying sense of something to prove. If Ausmus worried about complacency at any point, recent prognostications have taken care of that.

Compared with previous camps, when former manager Jim Leyland had to talk about expectations meaning nothing amidst an ego-feeding frenzy, Ausmus has it easy. He has a lot of questions to answer, from his batting order to his rehabbing sluggers to a former Cy Young Award winner hopefully on the rebound, but motivation isn't one of them.

"Listen, this team, we expect to win," Ausmus said. "I know that there's always a lot of analysis of the Hot Stove league, but I look in that clubhouse, and I see a very good team. We do have some injuries to get past, but we will get past them."

Like many pitchers, Verlander has been here for a while, since he lives in Lakeland during the winter. Pitching coach Jeff Jones made the trip down from frigid Michigan last Saturday, and he had seen most of his pitching staff throw by Tuesday, including fellow starters David Price, Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon. At the opposite end, Anibal Sanchez drove up a couple days ago from his South Florida home, where he has been throwing off a mound for the past month and has completed at least a half-dozen seven-mile runs.

"Now I take my seat and get ready for Spring Training," Sanchez said.

The pitching roster filled out Thursday with the arrival of closer Joe Nathan and setup man Joakim Soria, who have as much motivation as anyone after last season.

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.