Reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander takes the hill for the Detroit Tigers this afternoon as they kick off their 2012 campaign against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park.
With Verlander leading the way the Tigers cruised to their first division title in 24 years last season, winning the American League Central by a whopping 15 games.
The 28-year-old flamethrower became the 12th pitcher in the last 50 years to win pitching's Triple Crown a year ago, as he led the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250).
His 24 wins were the most in the league since Bob Welch won 27 for the 1990 Athletics. He also led AL pitchers with 251 innings, a .192 opposing batting average and a 0.92 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) ratio.
Verlander won his final 12 starts and was 14-1 within the division, while also tossing a no-hitter and coming close on several other occasions. As great as Verlander is, though, he has never won on Opening Day and is just 9-14 with a 4.75 ERA in March and April.
So, with Verlander, the league's leading hitter in Miguel Cabrera and the Delivery Man of the Year in Jose Valverde, the Tigers' plan this offseason was to stand pat, content that they were still the best team by far in a very underwhelming division and one of the best teams in the AL after missing out on a pennant by two games.
Then disaster struck and designated hitter Victor Martinez went down with a knee injury that would cost him the entire season. But the Tigers weren't left scrambling for long, as they lured Prince Fielder to Motown with a monster nine-year, $214 million deal, reassuring everyone that they are not only the favorites to repeat as division champions, but are on the short list of teams who should be able to contend for a World Series this season.
Now the Fielder signing does bring some concerns. Cabrera shifts back over to third base, where in 2008 with the Tigers he committed five errors in a 14- game stint. Offensively, though, there are no questions, as the Tigers now may have the best middle of the order in baseball.
Boston, meanwhile, will be trying to erase the memory of one of the worst September collapses in baseball history a year ago. The Red Sox missed out on the postseason for a second straight year, going a mere 7-20 down the stretch to become the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to blow a nine-game lead in September and fail to make the playoffs.
In the wake of that late-season meltdown, Boston's offseason was a whirlwind. The team parted ways with manager Terry Francona amid some controversy about pitchers drinking beer in the clubhouse and playing video games during games when they were not pitching. In addition, general manager Theo Epstein left to become the GM of the Chicago Cubs. Epstein's right-hand man Ben Cherington stepped into the open GM gig, and former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine was lured away from his TV analyst job to replace Francona.
Valentine already has his work cut out for him. Outfielder Carl Crawford, who struggled mightily last season in his first year with the Red Sox, will start the season on the disabled list and just this week the team learned that they would be without closer Andrew Bailey until at least the All-Star break as he recovers from thumb surgery.
Getting the ball today, though, will be left-hander Jon Lester, who was 15-9 last season with a 3.47 ERA and 182 strikeouts over 191 2/3 innings. However, he lost his last three decisions and pitched to a 5.40 ERA in six September starts.
This is the second straight year Lester will open the season for the Red Sox, making him just the fourth southpaw to serve as Boston's Opening Day starter in back-to-back seasons and the first since Mel Parnell did in three straight years from 1952-54.
Boston won five of its six matchups with the Tigers last season.