MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Tigers in position to rule AL Central for years

Tigers in position to rule AL Central for years

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The American League Central Division title won in 2011 might have been just the beginning for the Detroit Tigers.

That championship broke a 24-year division championship drought. But the wait for another division title for the Tigers ought to be considerably shorter -- counting from right now, about seven months.

It is relatively easy to look at the AL Central and project the Tigers as 2012 division champs; with a 95-67 record last season, they won the division by 15 games. And they have not decreased in value since then. They lost Victor Martinez to a knee injury, but then they added Prince Fielder. Their talented young pitchers could reasonably be expected to improve.

This is bigger than concluding that the Tigers are distinct favorites in the 2012 version of the AL Central. In fact, the Tigers have a core of young pitchers that ought to make them, at the very least, contenders for years to come.

In the Tigers' search for a No. 5 starter this spring, there has been no need to go outside the organization. The Detroit farm system has produced candidates suitable in both quality and quantity. They include Jacob Turner, one of the top pitching prospects in the game, and four different styles of left-handers -- Drew Smyly, the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2011; Adam Wilk, who has a deceptive delivery and excellent command; Duane Below, a Michigan native who had a 3.13 ERA at Triple-A last season; and Andy Oliver, a legitimate hard-thrower.

Sitting in his office at Joker Marchant Stadium on Wednesday, Tigers manager Jim Leyland contemplated with genuine optimism the Tigers' depth of pitching prospects.

"I think our scouts do a great job," Leyland said. "Dave [Dombrowski] has always been a general manager who stockpiled good arms. Saying that, remember that the other clubs have a lot of good arms. It's the guys who separate themselves, who grow and mature and eventually get over the hump.

"But our organization is good. We've got a lot of pitchers and players. And I think it's a never-ending process. You've got to keep going out and getting them. You can't think that you're home free, obviously. But we're pretty deep. You know, we're in a situation where we can't just say, 100 percent, that they're ready right this minute, but we certainly know that we've got them. We believe that somebody can step up here and do that job. We're pretty rich in talent right now."

And look at the top four members of the Detroit rotation. Max Scherzer is 27. Doug Fister is 28. Rick Porcello is 23. These pitchers have already displayed plenty of potential, and they still have room to grow in their craft. Even the ace of aces, Justin Verlander, coming off a season that defined dominant pitching, is just 29.

This is the kind of situation-talented starting pitching that is also young starting pitching, throughout the rotation -- that is the stuff of dreams for other clubs. But for the Tigers, it is a pleasant reality.

And while Leyland was on the subject of young talent, there was no stopping him with the pitching half of the equation.

"The other thing is, if you look at the Detroit Tigers, we're a young team," Leyland said. "Everybody thinks of the Detroit Tigers as some old veteran team and we're not that at all. Prince Fielder is young. Miguel Cabrera is young. [Brennan] Boesch is young. [Austin] Jackson is young. [Andy] Dirks is young. We're young. That's pretty good, you know. We're a long ways from being an old team. Delmon Young is young. That's pretty good."

As we speak, Fielder is 27. Cabrera is 28. Boesch is 26. Jackson is 25, Dirks is 26. Young is 26. And catcher Alex Avila is 25.

It could be that the general perception of the Tigers is locked into the 2008 roster, a team that was in fact loaded with veterans -- all of whom had terrific careers, but careers that were no longer ascending: Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez, etc.

Much was expected of that club, but not much was delivered. The 2012 Detroit club is something else, and something significantly younger. This could very well be a team with its best days in front of it. The breakthrough division championship of 2011, rather than being a culmination, was probably much more like the beginning; the beginning of something extraordinarily good for Detroit baseball.

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