Verlander takes the hill for defending AL champs against Minnesota

Now that the Detroit Tigers no longer have to worry about an ace for the foreseeable, they turn their attention towards winning a World Series title.

The defending American League champions begin their quest for their first championship since 1984 on Monday against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.

Detroit entered the 2012 campaign as huge favorites to win an American League Central title. While it may not have been easy, as the team sat below .500 for most of the first half of the season, and never actually clinched a division title until the final week of the regular season, the end result was the same.

The Tigers then outlasted the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS before sweeping the New York Yankees in the ALCS. But that offense that carried them for much of the second half of the year and through the first two rounds of the playoffs disappeared in the World Series and they were swept by the San Francisco Giants in four games.

As good as the Tigers were a year ago, they may be even better this season with the additions of outfielder Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury.

Of course, the Tigers are led by Triple Crown winner and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, who had a season for the ages in 2012, leading the league with a .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. His partner in crime, Prince Fielder, enjoyed his first year in Motown, as he hit .313 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI.

While Cabrera and Fielder hold down the fort from the offensive side, it doesn't get much better on the mound than Justin Verlander, who followed up his MVP and Cy Young seasons with another typical great year in 2012.

Verlander, who will make his sixth straight Opening Day start, agreed to a five-year contract extension on Friday worth a reported $140 million. The new deal runs through the 2019 season and includes a vesting option for 2020.

"I love this city & the fans - couldn't be more excited to spend my career here!" Verlander wrote on his Twitter account. "We're going to bring a World Series to Detroit!!!"

Oddly enough, Verlander has never won on Opening Day.

Minnesota, meanwhile, endured another nightmare season, as it went 66-96, stumbling their way to another last place finish in the AL Central.

It wasn't all bad in the Twin Cities, though.

The team actually improved three games from its 2011 finish and scored 80 more runs than it did that year, with outstanding offensive seasons from free agent left fielder Josh Willingham (.260, 35 HR, 110 RBI) and Joe Mauer (.319, 85 RBI, 90 Walks) plus an encouraging return to action from 2010 MVP Justin Morneau (.267, 19 HR, 77 RBI).

But, the successful Twins teams of the past decade were built on pitching and defense. Last year's club posted a team ERA of 4.77, the third worst in the league. They allowed 832 runs, the third most. And they committed 107 errors, 10th most in the majors.

This year's club may have the same problems, as Vance Worley, who was acquired in a deal for speedy outfielder Ben Revere, gets the call on Opening Day.

Also gone from last year's club is outfielder Denard Span, who was shipped to Washington for a bevy of prospects.

The Tigers won the season series with the Twins last year, 10-8.