No sure thing, but Tigers are big cats in Central
Tribe will bank on pitching; Royals lurk with young, able defense
The following might read very much like a Detroit Tigers season preview.We promise, though, that the intention is to do an analysis of the season ahead, as it relates to the American League Central Division at large. Problem is, the Tigers are the clear front-runners in said division. And so, when we had our AL Central beat writers run through the lineups, rotations, bullpens and defenses, one team kept appearing at or near the top of their lists. Detroit. Detroit. Detroit. Well, OK, not when we got to the defenses ... But basically what we're saying is that the Tigers were tops. This could be a booby trap, of course. We've been duped before. Four years ago, the Tigers were obvious picks to click in the Central after landing Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins. They finished dead last.
The Tigers scored the fourth-most runs in the Majors last season, and a big part of their effectiveness was the fact that Victor Martinez arrived and thrived to finally give Cabrera adequate protection in the order. So, what do you do when Martinez blows out his knee? Why, you sign Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract, of course. The Tigers now have the most power-potent 3-4 combo in the game. They lack speed, and they need Austin Jackson to become a more reliable leadoff presence, but they're going to score a ton of runs once again.
As Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain develop, the Royals could wind up with the division's most balanced lineup, in terms of power and speed. The Indians figure to get a bounce-back season from Shin-Soo Choo and upside in the form of Jason Kipnis, but losing Grady Sizemore for as much as half a season hurts. The Twins will go as far as Morneau and Mauer take them, and the White Sox could have a dangerous 3-4 if Dunn can find his old form to assist Paul Konerko. But the Tigers are, far and away, the most dangerous lineup in the division. Our selection: Tigers
Two teams could reasonably qualify for this title at the moment -- the Tigers and the Indians. In reigning MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, the Tigers have one of the most intimidating pitchers in the game, and Doug Fister's 1.79 ERA post-trade last year deepened their rotation considerably. Beyond Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, the Tigers should have a decent amount of young depth in the likes of Andrew Oliver, Drew Smyly, Adam Wilk and top prospect Jacob Turner.
The Indians likely won't match the Tigers in panache or the strikeouts-per-nine-innings tally, but Justin Masterson took huge strides toward satisfying the "ace" need last year, and Jimenez is not far removed from true greatness. Veteran acquisition Derek Lowe should be a decent back-end innings-eater, and the Indians believe Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez and the recently acquired Kevin Slowey can all be effective, if not overpowering, starters for them. Again, though, any rotation in which Verlander takes the ball every fifth day is off to a great start. Our selection: Tigers
Jose Valverde hasn't blown a save since September 2010, and that creates a certain fear factor in the ninth inning for the Tigers that can't be disputed. Tigers relievers worked the sixth-fewest innings in the AL last season, and that number could go down again if a full season from Fister improves the rotation as much as people think it will. Joaquin Benoit and the newly acquired Octavio Dotel help bridge the gap to Valverde, though losing Al Alburquerque and his high strikeout ratio to elbow surgery for the first half hurts.
None of the arms in the Indians' bullpen are nearly as established as Valverde, Benoit and Dotel, but the Tribe does return all the prominent pieces of a 'pen that had the fifth-best relief ERA in the AL last season. Closer Chris Perez and setup man Rafael Perez have both battled injuries this spring, so those are situations worth monitoring.
The Royals had the makings of a dynamic bullpen, but they've lost closer Joakim Soria to Tommy John surgery. Jonathan Broxton, Aaron Crow (whose plans to shift to starting work were altered by the Soria injury) and Greg Holland will vie for the closing duties. The White Sox and Twins are both trying to rebuild their bullpens after the Sox traded Sergio Santos and the Twins lost Joe Nathan to free agency. Our selection: Tigers
This is the one area in which the Tigers weren't major factors in the conversation, and that's understandable, given that we don't yet know how well Cabrera's transition back to the hot corner will play out in games that count. The Royals, on the other hand, have one of the best defensive shortstops in the game in Escobar, a dynamic outfield featuring able defender Alex Gordon in left, the speedy Cain in center and the strong-armed Jeff Francoeur in right. One problem for K.C. is the loss of plus defender Salvador Perez behind the plate for the first half because of knee surgery.
The Indians should have strong infield defense to help their ground-ball-inducing starting staff. Jack Hannahan is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, and newly acquired Casey Kotchman is of similar standing at first. Choo, like Francoeur, has one of the best arms in baseball in right. The White Sox have a plus defensive shortstop in Alexei Ramirez, but otherwise aren't all that highly regarded defensively, and the Twins turned their defensive strength into a weakness in 2011. They the hope that the acquisition of 38-year-old shortstop Jamey Carroll improves the infield play in 2012. Our selection: Royals
Predicted order of finish
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.