Lakeland, Fla. — While Milwaukee, New York, Baltimore, and Boston have been making most of the noise in the American League East the last few years, Sparky Anderson has been quietly putting together a solid young team in Detroit that looks ready to launch its own big push.
He has just about all the pieces in place now, and if the Tigers can only solve their bullpen problems, they should be a force even in this high-powered division.
''That's the main area of concern,'' Anderson acknowledged. ''We're working extra hard down here to find the right combinations of relievers. But I see some bright spots. We've got a lot of strong arms in camp. And if we're successful, September is going to be a very interesting month.''
During his heyday at Cincinnati in the 1970s, Anderson was known as Captain Hook because of his penchant for changing pitchers at the first sign of trouble. That's the way he prefers to operate, and his success with the Reds (five division championships, four pennants, and two World Series triumphs) speaks for itself.
Sparky can adjust to his personnel, though, as shown by last season's statistics. Saddled with an unreliable bullpen, he played it the other way - so much so that the Detroit starters led the American League in complete games. That's not the recommended method for winning titles in this age of relief specialists, though - as Anderson is well aware.
''We lost 27 games from the seventh inning on last year,'' he said. ''Win half of those, and we might have won the pennant.''
Most recent champions have had one dominant late-inning reliever (Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Rich Gossage, etc.) but other formulas can also work. And realistically, since there aren't many such super finishers around, the Tigers are hoping to come up with an effective all-around bullpen effort rather than depend too much on any one ace.
The biggest name is that of Aurelio Lopez, the hard-throwing Mexican right-hander who was the ace of the Tiger bullpen and one of the top relievers in the league in 1979 and 1980. Senor Smoke, as he was called in those halcyon days, tailed off in 1981 and had arm problems throughout much of last season, but has shown flashes of his earlier form this spring.
''He pitched well in winter ball, and he's throwing hard down here,'' Anderson said. ''We're counting on him to come back, and of course if he does it will make a big difference.''
Another key man could be Dave Rozema, the American League rookie pitcher of the year in 1977 as a starter, but more recently a reliever of great promise. Rozema, who has had arm trouble off and on since that 15-7 rookie season, was switched to the bullpen by Anderson in 1980. He was coming along well in that role until a knee injury last May sidelined him for the rest of 1982 and left him questionable for the start of this season. He appears to have come back more quickly than expected, however, and has looked surprisingly strong so far.
Lopez and Rozema are projected as the late men, and if both or even one should make it all the way back it would be a big plus. But after that even Anderson admits that ''it's a scramble'' to fill the early and middle relief slots.
So the bullpen remains a big question mark with opening day now just a week and a half away, but that's the only potential weak link in an otherwise formidable array of talent.
The starting staff headed by Jack Morris (17-16) and Dan Petry (15-9) is one of the best, while even the bullpen managed to hold up well enough last year that the mound corps as a whole led the league in earned run average.
As for the everyday lineup, the Tiger front office has done quite a bit of wheeling and dealing in the last couple of years - acquiring veterans like Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon, and Mike Ivie, while bringing up promising rookies like Glenn Wilson and Howard Johnson - and the end result at this point looks most promising.
It's a baseball axiom that strength up the middle is the key to a good club, and the Tigers certainly have that. Lance Parrish, who set an AL record for catchers with 32 home runs last year, is one of the few receivers around who could come close to reminding Sparky of the man who anchored all his Cincinnati powerhouses, Johnny Bench. The double play combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker is also among the best, while in center field the Tigers have not one, but two outstanding starting-type players in Lemon and Kirk Gibson.
With Herndon (.292, 23 homers) apparently a fixture in left field and last year's rookie sensation Wilson in right, it seems that there's an extra outfielder - but Anderson plans to rotate the quartet, frequently using the extra one as the designated hitter.
Johnson, who batted .316 in 54 games in his debut last year, is expected to develop eventually into a big star but will share third base this year with veteran Tom Brookens, who doesn't hit as much but provides steadier defense. Ivie, who hit 14 homers in just 80 games after being acquired last May, is the first baseman. But waiting in the wings is Mike Laga, who may still need some minor league seasoning, but who is the kind of left-handed slugger Detroit fans drool over (65 homers the last two seasons at Birmingham and Evansville) when they think about that short right-field porch in Tiger Stadium.
Put it all together and it's only those bullpen problems standing between the Tigers and a strong chance to go all the way - which of course is what Anderson was hired to accomplish.
Sparky arrived in Detroit in June of 1979 with a contract extending through 1984 and with the unbounded optimism which had been his trademark in Cincinnati. Since then the Tigers haven't really come along as quickly as some people (undoubtedly including Sparky himself) expected them to. They finished fifth in both '79 and '80, got as high as a tie for second in one-half of the split 1981 season, but then dropped back to fourth last year.
''Don't forget we had a lot of changes to make over these last few years,'' Anderson said when asked about the timetable. ''I'm not making any predictions this year, but this is now a solid ball club that can play with anyone.
''I felt when I came to Detroit that we'd be a contender by the end of my contract, and I don't think there's anything to worry about in that regard, because when this season starts people are going to see that we're already there.''