No team is expected to cruise to a division title and reach the playoffs any easier than the Detroit Tigers.  Jim Leyland's crew raced to the AL Central crown by a 15-game margin in 2011, and begin this campaign as prohibitive -650 chalk to successfully defend that flag.

No team enters the 2012 campaign with more to prove than the Boston Red Sox after their disastrous collapse a year ago.  New manager Bobby Valentine will be under pressure to get the BoSox back to the postseason immediately.

The two teams meet in Motown on Thursday when Major League Baseball continues its shotgun start to the 2012 season.  Boston and Detroit are scheduled to get underway at 1 PM (ET) with ESPN2 providing the broadcast of the 1,980th regular season meeting between the old foes.  Lefty Jon Lester gets the ball for the Red Sox opposite reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander for the Tigers. 

To nobody's surprise, Verlander and the Tigers are carrying 137-148 chalk in the early baseball odds.  SBRodds is listing 7 runs for the game total and heavy to the UNDER. 

 

Boston's implosion last September led to changes at the top of the organization as well as in the dugout.  Ben Cherington has assumed GM duties after former front office wunderkind Theo Epstein left for Chicago's North Side. The often mercurial and abrasive Valentine replaces Terry Francona as field boss, and the former manager and ESPN analyst likely enters the season already on the hot seat with many wondering if Bobby V's act will play in Beantown.

Justin VerlanderThe season is already off to an inauspicious start for Valentine and the Red Sox after a late shake-up to the rotation and bullpen.  Andrew Bailey, acquired from Oakland in the offseason to take over closer duties for Jonathon Papelbon who went to the Phils via free agency, injured his right thumb a couple of weeks ago in a spring training game.  The right-hander will require surgery and isn't expected to be ready to pitch again until midseason.  Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon, picked up in a winter deal from Houston, are the two candidates to step in for Bailey, as is hard-throwing Daniel Bard who was originally supposed to be part of the starting rotation. 

That rotation has a few question marks of its own with Josh Beckett also experiencing a bum right thumb this spring, Clay Buchholz working his way back from an injury-marred 2011 schedule and young lefty Felix Doubront expected to be part of the mix after just 23 MLB games and three starts on his resume.  Thursday's starter Jon Lester is seemingly the only sure thing Valentine and Boston have for the rotation to begin the year. 

Lester has answered the call for at least 31 starts each of the past four seasons, posting a 3.33 ERA in those 813.1 innings of work.  Boston is 80-48 when their top southpaw starts, with Lester 65-32 on his personal ledger.  One bugaboo in that span is the Red Sox losing all three of his outings vs. Detroit while Lester owns a 5.89 ERA in those games.  Boston was 10-8 in his 18 road starts last year. 

Verlander was money everywhere he pitched in 2011.  Detroit backers posted a modest profit of 1.75 units when their ace hurled at home.  The Tigers lost three of his first four starts at Comerica before that turned around with an 11-5 mark for the season.  Verlander was -180 to -265 chalk in 12 of those games.  Interesting enough, the lone home start that he wasn't a decided favorite came against these Red Sox on May 29 in the nightcap of a doubleheader forced by a rainout a day earlier.  Boston closed at -110 to -115 with Beckett on the hill, and Verlander pitched into the eighth of a 3-0 Tigers victory.

Despite Verlander's award-filled 2011 campaign, he's really not the biggest story for the Tigers entering 2012.  The signing of Prince Fielder to a mega-contract during the winter helped fill the void left by the offseason injury to C/DH Victor Martinez.  The beefy first sacker clocked 230 round-trippers during his 6+ seasons in Milwaukee, and should create a devastating back-to-back punch in the lineup with Miguel Cabrera. 

The downside is Cabrera will have to play third a lot in order to keep both him and Fielder in the lineup at the same time, and that will be a concern defensively. 

Boston took five of the six games from Detroit a year ago, is 19-6 vs. the Tigers since the start of the 2008 season, and has won 10 of its last 14 trips to Comerica Park.  The lone win for Detroit in 2011 came in that May 29 start by Verlander. 

All signs point to a sunny but chilly afternoon in the Motor City, with temps in the upper 40s for the start and a 10-12 MPH breeze out to right.  Both teams have Friday off before resuming their series Saturday afternoon when it should be a little warmer. 

Taking a Chance: At first glance, the Tigers around -140 are very tempting with Verlander on the mound.  This could wind up being the cheapest price we see on Verlander this season at home; there certainly won't be many moneylines lower than -140.  The concern, however, is Verlander's propensity for getting off to slow starts.  Since the start of the '08 season, Verlander has made 22 starts in March-April, and the Tigers have won just eight of them while their big righty has posted a 5.45 ERA in those 133+ innings.  The flip side is there aren't many Red Sox hitters who have had a lot of success facing Verlander, and the current state of Boston's bullpen also concerns me.  My MLB pick is OVER 7 (+100).