Tigers aim to be class of deep field
New stars have Leyland's crew poised to challenge Tribe
An old, widely accepted principle in baseball -- really, in all sports -- holds that jobs can't be lost on the disabled list, only on the field. The same should apply to championships and negotiating tables.As it is, the 2008 American League Central title, if not bigger prey, has been virtually conceded to the Detroit Tigers after their auspicious offseason. General manager Dave Dombrowski did go about it quite imperially, loading up with a new infield (third baseman Miguel Cabrera and shortstop Edgar Renteria) and a rotation stud (Dontrelle Willis). But, right now, Cleveland still has the flag Detroit covets. The Indians will show up. Compared to the Tigers' hustling, the Tribe essentially stood pat, but they count on considerable in-house improvement from a full season of Asdrubal Cabrera, Franklin Gutierrez and David Dellucci. The Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox, the division's prior two champs, also will make their presences felt. The Twins, in spite of two conspicuous cutbacks (Johan Santana and Torii Hunter), are hardly left with a bare cupboard -- they're regrouping, not rebuilding. And the Pale Hose plugged some holes (shortstop Orlando Cabrera, relievers Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink) which sprung an 18-game leak from 90 wins in 2006. Even the Royals, who kept adding pieces to further their gradual revival, have legitimate expectations of improvement. It's tough to dispute the observation of Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro that the AL Central "is going to be the most fun to watch in baseball." With three consecutive different champs, it has also been the most wide open. Therein lies a valuable reminder for those making concessions to the Tigers: Keep an open mind.
The favorite Tigers
Detroit hasn't been this excited since the first Mustangs rolled off the assembly line. Two seasons removed from averaging crowds of 24,992 at Comerica Park, the Tigers are preparing to cut off season-ticket sales at 25,000 to remain accessible to the city's working-force fans. Nothing like spiking an already solid team with a trio of All-Stars -- Cabrera, Willis and Renteria have 10 selections among them -- to whip folks into a frenzy. A potentially frightening team. Projected regular-season finish: AL Central champions Biggest ST challenge: Chilling in the face of superlatives that will be thrown at them all spring. Walking on eggshells around Brandon Inge, a terrific -- and outspoken -- teammate who is understandably moping over having been trumped by Cabrera. Best position battles: Keeping Joel Zumaya's hot seat warm, so to speak. After suffering a right shoulder injury while helping his dad salvage stuff during the California wildfires, Zumaya may be throwing by the time camp opens, but his return isn't expected until midseason. Flame-throwing Denny Bautista, Aquilino Lopez and Matt Mantei are some of the familiar names who'll get a crack at the important role. How important? Who's to say how critical to the Tigers' regress from '06 to '07 were Zumaya's 34 fewer appearances due to a finger injury? Wild card: The bullpen, which can be an albatross around even the best teams' necks. Zumaya's injury messed up the master plan, because he was expected to put out other kinds of fires this season. There is even speculation the Tigers grew serious about re-signing Todd Jones only after Zumaya's mishap. But now the setup crew still makes everyone a little nervous. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
The challenger Indians
Baby steps? Coming within a 3-to-1 ALCS lead of the World Series did more to energize the Indians than crush them. They seem poised to build on that success, fully aware that the road now cuts through the heart of Motown. Those who consider Boston-New York the AL's only juicy feud should know that this Central skirmish has the makings of another great one: The last two seasons, the Tigers lead 19-18, with the Indians holding a 178-174 edge in scoring. Projected regular-season finish: Second place
Biggest ST challenge: The C.C. Sabathia maelstrom. The media vultures will be all over him about the stalled talks on his contract extension. The Indians may dislocate a knee kicking themselves in the rear for not getting it done before Santana's deal with the Mets. Such are the diversions when a reigning Cy Young Award winner approaches his "walk" season. And this lefty would reach free agency 16 months younger and currently has seven more wins than Santana.Best position battles: Right field -- it's as close as a set lineup comes to an open position. Gutierrez has the inside track on replacing Trot Nixon, but he still has to show he rates over Ben Francisco, the International League batting champ. Rotation -- Cliff Lee's contract gets him a wide berth, but he's got to defend his turf against worthy contenders, led by Aaron Laffey. Wild card: Is there enough antacid for another season of Joe Borowski? The biggest difference between the disappointing Indians of 2006 and the '07 champs were his league-leading 45 saves. But the accompanying 5.07 ERA was the highest by someone with 45-plus saves (topping Antonio Alfonseca's 4.24 with the 2000 Marlins). Can he keep picking his spots for meltdowns? More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
The long shots Twins
It had to be one of the franchise's most screwy weeks, full of mixed messages. Within days, the Twins committed $104 million in long-term extensions to two players (Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer), observed more milestones in the construction of their new ballpark -- and shed their pitching icon, Santana. This is hardly an emaciated team, just one regrouping in a style it has before. Bottom line, don't be shocked if, come trading-deadline time, they're buyers for pitching help to make a run at it. Projected regular-season finish: Third place Biggest ST challenge: Getting a read on Francisco Liriano's comeback from Tommy John elbow surgery in November 2006. That could determine the Twins' immediate direction -- take a shot at contention, which would mean holding on to closer Joe Nathan rather than continuing to shop him, or go full bore on the rebuilding. If you need a reminder, Liriano, only 24, was the dominant lefty in Minnesota's 2006 rotation until his injury in early August; he was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA up to that point compared to Santana's 12-5 and 3.04. Best position battles: Center field -- not so much a battle as an experiment. Can Delmon Young handle it so Cuddyer can remain in his comfort zone in right, or will they have to swap fields? Second base -- the Twins would like to keep Nick Punto, one of manager Ron Gardenhire's lead piranhas, in the mix, but he'll have to find his bat to play ahead of newcomer Brendan Harris. Wild card: Don't underestimate the Twins' bunker mentality. Plenty of them were a little put off that Santana thumbed his nose at a very healthy offer (four years for $80 million) to stay. They're very enthusiastic about their chances if Nathan -- one of the loudest cheerleaders -- hangs around. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets White Sox
No surprise that the White Sox would want to beef up their lineup, even at the expense of one of their rotation anchors (Jon Garland, for Orlando Cabrera) and some of their top prospects (for Nick Swisher). The South Siders' offense went south in 2007, scoring 175 fewer runs and hitting 46 fewer homers than the season before -- amazing 20 percent dropoffs. GM Ken Williams knew he didn't have enough to tame the Tigers. Did he keep pace with Detroit's own upgrades? Tough call. Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place Biggest ST challenge: Getting everyone on the same page. There seems to be a lot of in-house dismay over Williams' offseason report card -- he missed on a lot of his targets, potentially most hauntingly on outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who signed with the Cubs. It could be a testy camp, with players having to be reminded that they're accountable to the GM -- not the other way around. Best position battles: Third base -- the showcase actually features Joe Crede and his surgically repaired back; if he proves healthy, a deal to open up the position for Josh Fields appears likely. Juan Uribe vs. Ozzie Guillen -- Uribe's position is that Cabrera should not have been imported to take his job, and Guillen's position is that Uribe should adjust his attitude. Wild card: This is a fragile team. A starting rotation headlined by Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez and a lineup featuring Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye makes any club competitive. But patience seems thin off last season, and Williams and Guillen are both too fiery to take another slow start in stride. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
Maybe next year Royals
The Royals are one of only two AL teams (Seattle being the other) to have improved each of the last two seasons, going from 56 wins to 62 to 69. Gradual progress, to be sure, but they're well positioned to remain on the upswing, with a maturing young core and more veterans added to the mix to chaperone their development. They've also enlisted a highly-regarded manager to take them to the next level, with the hiring of Trey Hillman from Japan drawing raves from everyone. Projected regular-season finish: Last place Biggest ST challenge: Hillman has to start off by defusing a postential hubbub with -- surprise -- new outfielder Jose Guillen, who was signed to play left field but quickly voiced a preference for right. Will incumbent Mark Teahen go to left quietly, or balk? Considering he has become one of the Royals' senior players with the departure of Mike Sweeney, Teahen would be asked to try his fifth different position in four years. Best position battles: First base -- either Ryan Shealy, Ross Gload or Billy Butler will have to step up to pull the plug on the merry-go-round that saw seven different players share the post last season. Center field -- the Royals love David DeJesus' bat and Joey Gathright's speed, so each brings a key weapon to the skirmish. Wild card: Guillen, who can be as wild as they come. But the well-traveled outfielder, on his best behavior, can have a huge impact on a lineup which last season scored two runs or less in 50 games. His 23 homers and 99 RBIs for Seattle last year haven't been reached in Kansas City since the days of Carlos Beltran (23 and 100, in 2003). John Buck led the 2007 Royals with 18 homers, and Alex Gordon's and Teahen's 60 RBIs are tops among returning players. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
You read it here first ... 1) Still not satisfied with their pop as the season turns into May, not to mention the chance to put a little dent in the crosstown Cubs' hype, the White Sox will bring in free agent Sammy Sosa to occasionally spell DH Jim Thome. 2) Willis will turn on Detroit as no one has since Mark Fidrych, not only leading the Tigers in wins but coming through as a frequent pinch-hitter for manager Jim Leyland. 3) Neither Young nor Cuddyer, but Carlos Gomez -- a huge talent -- will emerge as the Twins' new center fielder, immediately making all of Minnesota feel better about the Santana trade.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.