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Roster continuity affords Tigers rare spring luxury

New skipper Ausmus able to focus on big picture of preparing club for title run

LAKELAND, Fla. -- There is nothing like coming to Spring Training with a minimum number of issues, questions and problems.

Welcome to the camp of the Detroit Tigers. Certainly, there are questions that have to be answered. But relative to the competition, the Tigers are an established team with few roster spots in question this spring.

After all, this the only American League club to have been in the postseason each of the past three years. Over that time, Detroit has won everything but a World Series. This spring, the Tigers can proceed directly to the task at hand: preparing to win.

New manager Brad Ausmus replaces a legendary figure, Jim Leyland. That sort of thing is never an easy task, but Ausmus is an intelligent fellow, well-respected throughout the game. He understands the job, as well as the expectations.

"I haven't put a number on, 'We should win this many games,'" Ausmus said. "But I expect this team to be successful. I've been on teams where you go into Spring Training, and hope that you tread water. That's not the case here. We expect the team to be successful.

"Ideally, you'd win a World Series championship. That would be the ultimate success. And I think that's what we're shooting for. And again, not every team can come to Spring Training with that idea."

The nature of this club, with few roster decisions to be made, will give Ausmus a chance to manage, rather than spend the spring evaluating talent and making personnel decisions at numerous positions.

"There's not a ton of openings to fill," Ausmus said Monday at Joker Marchant Field. "I do think Spring Training is a tough spot, a tough place to make assessments on players. So in that sense, it's probably beneficial for me. I don't have to make assessments on a bunch of players and fill spots all at once in a situation that probably isn't ideal for making assessments.

"Usually, between guys running out of options and open spots on the roster, it's a bit of juggling act as you wind down Spring Training. We're fortunate in the sense that we don't have that. I think that pairs up well with the fact that you have a first-year manager. It makes decisions a little bit easier."

The unanswered questions include one lineup vacancy created when Prince Fielder was traded to Texas. Fielder offered protection, batting fourth, behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, Fielder hit behind MVPs three seasons in a row; Ryan Braun in the Nationals League in 2011, and Cabrera in the AL the last two seasons.

Ausmus believes that this will not represent a diminished situation for the middle of Detroit's order. Batting cleanup and hitting directly behind Cabrera will become the job of designated hitter Victor Martinez this season.

"You know, Victor's a pretty good hitter," Ausmus said. "He gives you the added benefit of being a switch-hitter, so you might force them to make a pitching change. Victor is not a pushover. He's a good hitter."

A supporting role or two in the bullpen may also be at stake this spring. Bullpen depth has been the Achilles' heel of this operation in recent seasons, but the Tigers have taken direct action to correct the situation.

They signed the best closer on the market this winter in Joe Nathan. Nathan may be 39 and he may have lost some velocity, but he had one of the very best seasons of an outstanding career in 2013 with Texas.

Flame-throwing Bruce Rondon is only 23, but with his stuff, he could be an ideal candidate for a setup role. The Tigers hope that Joba Chamberlain can deliver on at least a portion of his vast potential after a disappointing end to his career with the Yankees.

With Fielder gone, Miguel Cabrera will move back to first from third. Plan A at third is now Nick Castellanos. He's a rookie and turning 22 in March, but the Tigers believe he is ready, and he'll be given a real opportunity.

Apart from that, the solutions are leading the problems by a large margin in Detroit's camp. A marvelous starting rotation features two AL Cy Young Award winners. Doug Fister was traded to Washington, but a suitable replacement is on hand with lefty Drew Smyly.

Fielder is gone, but the Tigers did not come away empty-handed in the deal with the Rangers. Second baseman Ian Kinsler does not have Fielder's power, but he is a player of many more dimensions than Fielder, and he should be a very useful performer for Detroit.

No, the Tigers don't have to make a lot of decisions this spring. They can focus instead on getting ready for another run at the World Series.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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