Questions mute spring hopes for Tigers team

The annual start of the Major League Baseball season – spring training – typically brings along with it a new reason to hope for every one of MLB’s 30 clubs.

It also gives me and others a chance to get out of the funk – not the good kind that Bruno Mars sings about in his groovy new single – caused by the frigid cold of a Midwestern winter.

As for the Tigers, it marks the start of the doubters’ questions about the team’s rotation and bullpen depth, as well as the injuries to the key clogs in the middle of Detroit's lineup, first baseman Miguel Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez.

The Tigers’ rotational depth has taken a hit due to the losses of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, both of whom performed at ace-caliber levels in 2014.

Then, there’s the bullpen, which continues to appear to be in disarray with question marks aplenty, such as whether or not Joe Nathan, commonly referred to as “Sloppy Joe” last season due to his proneness for blowing saves, will return to his reliable ways that were second nature to him with the Minnesota Twins.

And when it wasn’t Nathan blowing games for the Tigers out of the pen, it was 2014 trade-deadline acquisition Joakim Soria, who was expected to be an adequate replacement for Nathan if he continued to struggle in the ninth inning.

Soria turned out to be just as unreliable in his eighth-inning role after coming over to Detroit from the Texas Rangers in the second half of the season.

What doesn’t help the glaring issues of the pen is the fact that flame-throwing 24-year-old right hander Bruce Rondon is coming off Tommy John surgery and subsequently might not be fully healthy for Opening Day.

Speaking of medical red flags, they don’t get any bigger than Cabrera and Martinez, who both had offseason operations, the ankle for Cabby, the left meniscus for V-Mart.

With both of the Tigers’ All-Star sluggers being past the age of 30, many people are beginning to question whether their bodies are breaking down.

If such occurs, the Tigers will have to fill huge voids in their lineup with J.D. Martinez, a career minor leaguer prior to last year, and offseason acquisition Yoenis Cespedes, who got on base at a dismal clip of .301 in time spent with both Oakland and Boston in 2014.

Not many baseball pundits, including myself, would like the Tigers’ chances in a deeper American League Central with a deteriorating former two-time AL MVP and a deteriorating 36-year-old DH, who was the best offensive performer for Detroit on a consistent basis in skipper Brad Ausmus’ first year on the job in Motown.

Ausmus is the next factor to take into account when it comes to the flaws of Mike Ilitch’s MLB franchise.

With no prior coaching experience in the majors or minors, Ausmus gained the keys to the franchise from veteran clubhouse boss Jim Leyland, who stepped aside after leading the Tigers to a third-straight AL Central crown and a third-straight American League Championship Series appearance.

As expected, the former big league catcher encountered first-year managerial challenges, such as being unable to properly manage the back-end of Detroit’s pen toward the end of the season (i.e., when he kept inserting Joba Chamberlain into high-leverage situations, although Soria, a highly efficient late-inning relief option in the first half for Texas, had been acquired to pitch in such spots and Chamberlain continued to struggle in his role as the set-up man).

It’s a problem that was exposed to even a greater magnitude during the first round of the playoffs when the Tigers faced off against the Baltimore Orioles.

He continued to use the struggling Chamberlain in difficult late-game spots instead of Al Alburquerque, a much more reliable relief arm during the second half.

I don’t expect Ausmus to fare well in being able to tread water without either Cabrera or Martinez for an extended period of time.

If such a scenario presented itself, you could all but say goodbye to a fifth-straight Central crown, which would match the Cleveland Indians’ record for the longest streak of sustained success within the division.

So, the next time you hear that the dawn of spring breeds eternal optimism, take a deeper look into the current state of the team that last won a World Series title in 1984 and then reconsider your stance.

Chirco is VN sports editor