Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the American League Central.
It was all going so well for the Cleveland Indians 3½ months ago.
They had won their first division title since 2001 (well ahead of the favored Detroit Tigers), whipped the New York Yankees in the division series (leading, eventually, to Joe Torre moving on), and had the Boston Red Sox down, three games to one, with a game still to be played at The Jake.
Well, of course, they lost the next three games (uh, 30-5). And, well, that's been about it since.
In the meanwhile, the Tigers rebooted with Miguel Cabrera at third base, Edgar Renteria at shortstop and Dontrelle Willis (for better or worse) in their rotation. The Chicago White Sox went heavy on the bullpen and acquired Orlando Cabrera for shortstop and Nick Swisher for their outfield.
Even an event that should have been beneficial to the Indians – Johan Santana leaving the division for New York – might have caused collateral damage, if it drives Sabathia out of their price range.
But, these Indians persist. Nothing has changed from what was statistically the best starting rotation in the American League. The offense, capable to begin with, has Travis Hafner's down year behind it. A bullpen with lock-down moments (many in October) added Japanese closer Masahide Kobayashi.
The Tigers made all the moves, but they had the ground to cover. The AL Central remains a two-team race.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
First impression: Just a year ago, GM Kenny Williams was in restock mode, defending the organization against the rising cost of (sometimes mediocre) pitching, advancing on a pitching-thin league with mostly young arms, paddling back from a disappointing third-place finish. In a few weeks' time, he brought in Gavin Floyd, Gio Gonzalez, Nick Masset, John Danks and Jacob Rasner. Today, he's paddling back from fourth place and 90 losses, and in doing so has traded away Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos, Jon Garland and an outfielder, Ryan Sweeney. The game can be a moving target, particularly in a division that in two seasons sent the Tigers to the World Series and the Indians to the verge of it. So, Williams readjusted, brought in Orlando Cabrera to play shortstop, Swisher to play center or left, Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink to save the bullpen, and still has Joe Crede to move. Not only did the bottom fall out on the pitching staff – the bullpen, in particular – in 2007, but the White Sox scored 175 fewer runs than they did in 2006. The good news is, no matter where Williams decided to upgrade, he wouldn't have been wrong.
Competition: It's thick at second base, where Danny Richar, Juan Uribe, Pablo Ozuna and Alexei Ramirez will vie for the job Tadahito Iguchi held for 2½ seasons. Richar got most of the playing time in the second half last season, but he hit .230, keeping the job open at least through spring. Ramirez, who defected from Cuba and in December signed a four-year, $4.75 million contract, is in play at second base and in center field. His best position could be shortstop, which insures the White Sox against Cabrera becoming a free agent after the season. Swisher could end up in center or left, depending on whether Carlos Quentin or Jerry Owens (or, perhaps, Josh Fields) wins the third outfield spot.
Healing: A lot turns on Joe Crede and his surgically repaired lower back. In Williams' best scenario, Crede is healthy and starts looking in spring like the 30-homer guy he was in 2006. That would allow the White Sox to get value back in a trade (a young arm or two, presumably) with, say, the San Francisco Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers and to put Fields at third base, his most comfortable position.
Next: They're not new names, necessarily, but the White Sox need capable seasons from two of John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Lance Broadway if they are to stay with the Indians and Tigers. The rotation is fine at the top with Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez, and Jose Contreras showed signs in August and September he'd gotten most of his confidence and some of his velocity back. The right-handed Broadway, a first-rounder in 2005, looked good in four September appearances, including one start.
First impression: If the Indians are to become the next small-market club to lose a Cy Young-type left-hander to the economic polarities of the game, then it looks like they'll go down fighting. Unless the Indians tank early, which is unlikely, GM Mark Shapiro apparently has no designs on trading Sabathia, who, at 27, just pitched his best and most durable season. Still, Sabathia's coming free agency could put a clock on the Indians' revival, at least as far as standing among the AL elite. If his arm holds up and he backs up last season's 19 wins with anything like it, Sabathia could approach the $23 million or so average annual value the New York Mets gave Johan Santana. That would amount to about a quarter of the Indians' payroll. So, in the face of the Tigers' offseason reload and plenty of resistance in the stacked AL, the Indians stayed the course that once seemed to have them hours from the World Series. Shapiro did visit the notions of adding another starting pitcher (Dan Haren, who went to the Arizona Diamondbacks instead) and a corner outfielder (Jason Bay, among others), but found the costs detrimental to the course. Presumably, he'll continue to consider upgrades in both corner outfield spots, though a healthy David Dellucci is capable of corner-outfield pop. Shapiro has the likes of Cliff Lee, Andy Marte and Josh Barfield to offer in return.
Competition: Behind Sabathia, Carmona, Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd, Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge will choose from Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers and Lee for the fifth spot in the rotation. The left-handed Lee won 18 games in 2005 and 14 more in 2006 and threw more than 200 innings in both seasons, but he bottomed out last season, was sent to the minors, returned a middle reliever and wasn't even on the postseason roster. If Byrd lands on Bud Selig's suspended list for a couple weeks, the Indians will have to cover those games, as well. Marte, once a can't-miss prospect, could make the roster as a corner-infield utility player, in part because he's out of options. With Trot Nixon gone, Franklin Gutierrez will be given every opportunity to win the right-field job.
Healing: Dellucci, the left-handed side of the Dellucci-Jason Michaels platoon, blew out his hamstring in June, underwent surgery and didn't return until the final days of the season. He is expected to be healthy for camp.
Next: Laffey, 22 and left-handed, made nine starts for the Indians last season and was OK. He is the slight favorite to be the fifth starter coming out of camp.
First impression: Imagine, the Detroit Tigers. From 19 seasons without a division title to the World Series. From 119 losses to a season-ticket waiting list, and notions of bleachers expansion. From a payroll of $55 million five years ago, to more than $130 million. From just another franchise straining to become relevant, to this, massive stars and bigger plans and a manager in his long johns, making certain the baseball doesn't get lost in the occasionally dippy euphoria. Yes, it's true; jacked by the lightning-bolt World Series in 2006 and management's fighting spirit following the disappointing fall-off in 2007, there's hardly a good seat left at Comerica Park. In five years time, the Tigers have taken the worst offense in the game and made it, potentially, the best. There are better pitching staffs out there, but, perhaps, nothing a Granderson-Polanco-Ordonez-Cabrera-Sheffield-Guillen-Renteria lineup can't handle. Generally, the Tigers are leaning on power arms and power bats, the preference everywhere, but more reality in the AL. And while the knee-jerk analysis says this was a win-now winter for Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers (and it was), much of the roster is locked in through 2009 or beyond. So, even by handing over five top-end prospects in trades for Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Dontrelle Willis – Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Gorkys Hernandez, Jair Jurrjens, et al – the system damage could be minimal.
Competition: Not much. Somewhere before closer Todd Jones and setup man Fernando Rodney, after middle men Jason Grilli and Zach Miner, and around left-handers Tim Byrdak and Bobby Seay, Jim Leyland could use maybe a seventh-inning guy. Francisco Cruceta and Denny Bautista have a shot at that. And Brandon Inge will show up in a lot of drill lines. Moved off third base by the Cabrera trade, Inge will report to Lakeland with pitchers and catchers, and could serve as Pudge Rodriguez's primary backup if Vance Wilson (elbow) isn't ready to start the season. Inge, who could be traded by opening day, could also see time in the middle infield and center field.
Healing: If there is a potential problem area for the Tigers, it is in the bullpen, where Jones and Rodney both struggled in the first half last season. The Tigers will be waiting on Joel Zumaya and his raging fastball. Zumaya missed more than half of last season after tearing a finger tendon. He returned in late August, then injured his shoulder moving boxes during the San Diego wildfires this offseason. He had surgery and is not expected to pitch until mid-season.
Next: The Tigers traded many of their "nexts" for "nows." So, maybe it'll come all the way around again for Jacques Jones, who didn't look like he was having a lot of fun during two seasons in Chicago. He'll be 33 in April, is in a contract year and will hit in a lineup that won't allow pitchers a breath.
First impression: You know, there were times last season when if you stood back and tilted your head against the sun and held your left hand over one eye, it looked like the Royals were starting to happen, Dayton Moore's vision right there on the ball field. All right, so last place was theirs for a fourth consecutive season. But, they've crested 60 wins in the last two of them. And they scared the White Sox for a while there. Yes sir, they spent the better part of a month – mid-August to mid-September – in fourth place, were nearly even (21-22) in one-run games, went 10-8 in interleague play (AL vs. NL argument over), and beat the AL West champion Angels five times in seven games. Only a 9-19 September (the 8-18 April didn't help, either) killed a season that otherwise qualified as progress. What we learned was the Gil Meche signing wasn't nearly as ridiculous as many people thought, you didn't need to see Alex Gordon very often to understand he's going to be a complete stud, the Royals stole Brian Bannister from the Mets, and they're going to need a scale to determine which is heavier, Billy Butler's bat or Billy Butler's glove. All that said, all the decent-to-remarkable talent the Royals have been gathering and talking about – David DeJesus, Mark Teahen, Ryan Shealy, Zack Greinke, John Buck, Gordon – needs to produce.
Competition: The Royals go three deep in the rotation with Meche, Bannister and Greinke, and then it gets a little muddy. Kyle Davies, Brett Tomko, Jorge De La Rosa, Brian Lawrence, Luke Hochevar, Luke Hudson, Hideo Nomo and John Bale go in, two come out. Hudson is coming off shoulder surgery, Bale is making the transition to starter, Hochevar is being asked to pitch to the outside corner (The Atlanta Braves Way), and most of the others just weren't very good. The Royals did make plays on Carlos Silva and Hiroki Kuroda, but couldn't make the Meche strategy work two winters in a row.
Healing: The Royals punched up their offense by signing Jose Guillen to a three-year, $36 million deal. He's healthy, but, pending appeal, will start the season on the suspended list for violating the substance-abuse program. He's to serve 15 days. Shealy is coming off a season slowed by a hamstring and foot injuries. He's believed to be recovered and he could be a big part of any steps forward taken by the Royals.
Next: Pick one or all: Gordon, Teahen, Tony Pena, DeJesus, Hochevar. The Royals need them to mature, and fast.
First impression: This isn't going over well in Minnesota, it doesn't seem. First, Torii Hunter. Then, Johan Santana. Followed by contender status in the AL Central. All gone. And, you know, just as people in the Twin Cities were getting over Kent Hrbek's retirement. It stinks. It's unfair. And Twins fans have a right to be discouraged. An obligation, even. Granted, the Twins weren't all that good last season, when Hunter was getting four at-bats a night and Santana was pitching every fifth day. And maybe the Tigers just blew everybody out of the division, or everybody but the Indians. But, what would be wrong with a team that had Hunter in center, Delmon Young in right and Michael Cuddyer in left? Santana followed by Francisco Liriano in the rotation, then by whatever combination of Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker? Justin Morneau at first and Joe Mauer at catcher? Joe Nathan at the back end? There's Cy Youngs in there. An MVP in there. A batting champion. Patch up the rest. That hangs in there. With a little luck and a few sturdy elbow ligaments, that contends. The back story now is that GM Bill Smith had almost no leverage while shopping Santana to a handful of teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers and the team that got him and is now a World Series threat, the Mets. The no-trade clause. The $140 million contract. In another time, the solution is simple: You pay Santana what he wants or he walks. Either way, you play to win in 2008. Or, how about this: You trade him for at least one guy – one – you absolutely know is a top-end big-league player, one who's done it. But, the Twins apparently couldn't afford that, either. So, 2008 isn't going to be what it could have been.
Competition: Here's good news: Philip Humber, the furthest along of the three pitchers the Twins received in the Santana deal, has a reasonable shot to make the Twins rotation out of training camp. That is, if the Twins don't sign Josh Fogg, Kyle Lohse or John Thomson. Mike Lamb probably gets the third-base job over Nick Punto, or minimally against right-handed pitchers in a platoon. Brendan Harris, who came to the Twins in the Delmon Young trade, could fill in at third, short and second, and potentially win an everyday job.
Healing: Liriano is, apparently, good to go. For anyone who has forgotten, the left-hander was maybe the best pitcher in baseball for four months in 2006, the year his teammate, guy named Santana, won the AL Cy Young. In the middle of that season, he experienced some elbow soreness, sat out a start or two, then sat out five weeks, then blew out his elbow in September. He's back from Tommy John surgery and sounding like he's ready to pitch again. He's 24 years old.
Next: Maybe it's Humber. Maybe it's Kevin Mulvey. Maybe it's Carlos Gomez. Bill Smith will be living right if it is.