By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

GRAND RAPIDS – It’s the job of baseball executives to put on happy faces in January, less than a month before spring training begins.

They want their fans to be excited about the upcoming season, not full of dread over what could go wrong.

Detroit Tigers President and General Manager Dave Dombrowski was full of optimism during a media stop at Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids Wednesday, prior to his appearance at the West Michigan Whitecaps’ winter baseball banquet.

Dombrowski faced local reporters who had a pile of questions about the many questions facing the 2015 Tigers.

And there are a lot of them, mostly having to do with the health of a lot of key players, and their ability to bounce back from injuries this year.

If they all do, the Tigers should be very competitive again. If not, there’s no telling where they could end up in the standings.

That worrisome list includes Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Anibel Sanchez, Jose Iglesias, Bruce Rondon and Joakim Soria.

Dombrowski reported that all of the question mark players are on target to be healthy and productive.

He addressed the condition of Cabrera, who had a sub-par season at the plate last year – at least by his standards – while feeling the effects of a surgery he had following the 2013 season.

Cabrera also had surgery after last season, to repair damage to his right foot.

“His last (examination) is February 15,” Dombrowski said. “Right now he’s been allowed to take off his (protective) boot sooner than expected. He’s walking around normally with gym shoes. He can’t run but he’s walking around.

“You’re always watching someone carefully in that situation, but he’s in a position where he’s made good progress. We’ll see what the doctors say at that point. Hopefully he’ll be released to go.”

Dombrowski acknowledged the importance of Verlander and Sanchez to this year’s starting pitching rotation, particularly with the loss of Max Scherzer to free agency and Rick Porcello in a trade.

Both pitchers had sub-part seasons last year while dealing with injuries. He said both are healthy and capable of having big seasons.

“When (Sanchez) is healthy he’s one of the best pitchers in the league,” Dombrowski said. “Two years ago he led the league in ERA. He’s healthy, he feels great and he’s ready to go.”

Dombrowski rejected widespread media speculation that Verlander is on the down side of his career. He said he couldn’t promise that Verlander’s velocity will fully return this season, but added that the Tiger ace is a fierce competitor who can adjust his pitching strategy and still be effective.

“Last year he had a very difficult time with surgery and coming back from that, but he’s worked very hard this winter and says his arm hasn’t felt this good in years,” Dombrowski said.

“We’ve never projected his velocity to stay at 98 or 99 (mph) consistently, but he has several other good pitches – a good changeup, curveball and slider. He’s feeling better and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a big year.”

Dombrowski was very upbeat about Iglesias, a young defensive whiz who missed all of last season with stress fractures in a foot. He said the shortstop has been “cleared, ready to go, he’s 100 percent the doctors said.”

The GM even sounded optimistic about the bullpen, which let the Tigers down so many times last season, particularly in the playoffs against Baltimore.

“I’m comfortable,” Dombrowski said. “People focus on our bullpen because of what happened last year. But Soria unfortunately got hurt when he came to us last year, but he’s an All-Star caliber pitcher. Joe Nathan, in the second half (of last season) did a good job for us.”

He said Rondon, another late inning reliever who missed all of last season with an arm injury, is on schedule to be return full strength this season.

“We’re being very careful with him, but he’s throwing very well.”

Dombrowski brushed aside all the media talk this winter about key Tigers starting to get old, and the “window closing” on their chance to finally win a World Series. He said he’s heard that kind of speculation every year since 2006.

He argued that players like Cabrera and Verlander are still in the prime of their careers. He also noted that the Tiger have their share of younger talent, like Iglesias, Rondon, third baseman Nick Castellanos, promising catcher James McCann, and outfielders J.D. Martinez, Stephen Moya and Tyler Collins.

He also said he team is also counting on two very talented young players who came via trade this winter – pitcher Shane Greene from the Yankees and outfielder Anthony Gose from the Blue Jays.

“We did trade some young players but we’ve also received some young players back at times,” Dombrowski said. “We could have traded Moya, but we didn’t want to trade Moya.

“This year we will have two No. 1 draft choices. Our farm system is probably not as strong as some teams that have been collecting young players, but we’re trying to win now. I think we’ll be fine.”

Dombrowski acknowledged the important of two All-Stars the Tigers recently traded for – pitcher David Price and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

He said the Tigers acquired Price last year partly in anticipation of Scherzer’s possible exit, and said he hoped Price would remain a Tiger for years to come.

Dombrowski declined to say whether the team is currently negotiating with those players, who are both eligible for free agency next winter.

“We really don’t get into any of our negotiations,” he said. “They are both very important players for us this year, and we’re very focused on this year. We’ll see what happens.”