The most surprising quote of the spring came from Blue Jay pitcher Dave Stewart, who, when asked how Toronto's competition stacked up, said, "The most improved team in this division is Detroit. They're the team to watch."
Stunned, we went looking for reasons to think the Tigers could win the AL East.
1) This team can hit—so much so that shortstop Alan Trammell (.329 last year) will bat seventh in the order. Last season the Tigers led the league in runs, with 899.
2) Five starters won 10 or more games last year; theirs was the only major league rotation to do that. Detroit will have the best fifth starter in the league—whether it's Mike Moore, Bill Gullickson, David Wells, John Doherty or newcomer Tim Belcher. (But who among them is the stall's No. 1 pitcher? None of the five qualifies as an ace.)
3) There is a professional atmosphere in the clubhouse. These guys know how to play, they care only about winning, and you never hear them complaining.
4) With Tony Phillips in left and Eric Davis in center, the outfield defense is improved. "We were awful out there last year," says manager Sparky Anderson. "We're 50 percent better now."
5) Middle relievers Joe Boever and Storm Davis, both of whom joined the Tigers after the All-Star break last season, are veterans who should lighten the load on closer Mike Henneman. "We've never treated Henneman right, like other closers get treated," says Anderson. "The last three years he's had more two-inning saves than anyone." (Then again, should this bullpen be counting so heavily on Boever, a guy who's pitching for his fifth team of the '90s?)
6) Trammell, 36, will he at shortstop from season's start. This time last year he was coming off an injury-wrecked 1992 season that reduced him to utility status, including some work in the outfield. "They couldn't depend on me, and I didn't know if I could come back," he says. "I thought my career was going to end as a role player." But after Trammell was installed as the starting shortstop on July 15 (with Travis Fryman moving back to third base), he made just three errors the rest of the season and greatly improved his chances of one day landing in Cooperstown. He's already talking about being back with the Tigers in 1995.
7) A refreshed Cecil Fielder. The big first baseman has won three RBI titles and two home run crowns in four years with Detroit, but that doesn't mean anything to him as he looks to the upcoming season. "It's time to do something," he says, and that means win the division. The reason he slumped down the stretch last year (two homers, 22 RBIs after Aug. 8) was not because of pressure to win his fourth straight RBI title. He says he was pressing because the team was losing.
8) Sparky's still in the dugout. Anderson, 60, can manage a game with the best of them, but more important, his players play hard for him because they appreciate being treated like men. As is the case with just about everyone who joins this team, Davis fit in nicely when he arrived last Aug. 31 in a trade with the Dodgers, quickly leaving his troubles behind.
That's eight reasons why Detroit has a chance to win the AL East. Eight is not enough.
Like the other Tigers in this aceless rotation, Belcher could be No. 1 or No. 5.