I really did mean to post a Detroit Tigers season preview before Opening Day. But given all the news that broke on Friday, maybe it was a good thing I procrastinated. Not that it would've mattered, because I don't think Kenny Rogers' injury - and subsequent three-month hiatus - changes my opinion very much. Although it probably should. Anyway, we still have a few hours before Jeremy Bonderman's first pitch, so technically, there's still a season to be previewed.
Through most of the off-season, I bought into what seemed to be the conventional wisdom. The AL Central is going to be extremely competitive, and the Tigers could find themselves finishing anywhere between first and fourth in the division. But as Spring Training progressed, I began to take a hard look at the Tigers competition, and I'm not sure it's quite as formidable as originally believed. To me, every other team in the AL Central has a glaring flaw.
Let's begin with Cleveland, since the Indians seem to be a popular pick to win the division. Grady Sizemore might be the best everyday player in the AL Central, and Travis Hafner might be its most fearsome hitter. Josh Barfield and David Dellucci were nice pick-ups, too. But is their starting rotation really good enough to take first place? After C.C. Sabathia, I see a lot of question marks. Jake Westbrook is a good enough #2, I suppose, but I think he'd be the third or fourth guy in the Tigers' rotation, before Kenny Rogers' injury. I thought Jeremy Sowers was pretty impressive after he was called up last season, but will he do quite so well now that teams know he can't blow you away with his stuff? How much can be expected out of Paul Byrd at this point? And that fifth spot could be a revolving door until Cliff Lee recovers from his injury or the Indians decide to call up Adam Miller.
But it was the bullpen that gave Cleveland most of its headaches last season, and the Indians worked hard to upgrade their late-inning relief. Unfortunately, a big part of that renovation was Keith Foulke, and when his elbow became more trouble than he thought it was worth, that revamp didn't look so good. But the Indians didn't attach all their hopes to one guy, and their foresight in accumulating some depth might pay off. Will Joe Borowski continue the career rebound he experienced last year in Florida, much like Todd Jones did with Detroit? Or will the American League give him some problems? And if you're going to ask how much the Tigers' 40-year-old players have left, then you certainly have to raise the same question with Roberto Hernandez.
How about the team that won the division last year, the Minnesota Twins? Can they possibly be expected to perform as well as last season, with Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz replacing Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke in the starting rotation? Maybe it won't matter once Matt Garza and Scott Baker are called back up from the minors. Holding down spots with past-their-prime veterans until the young guys were ready worked for the Twins last season, so maybe that strategy will pay off again in 2007. As of right now, however, it looks like a lot to overcome. But Minnesota could still have the best bullpen in the division, and maybe all of baseball. And if the lineup can repeat or improve its production from last year, that could be enough to keep them fighting for the division title.
Last year, I thought the White Sox would repeat as World Series champions, after adding Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez to an already impressive roster. And for much of the season, they fiercely battled with the Tigers for the AL Central lead. But that starting pitching finally gave out on them, and I'm not sure it'll be much better this year. Mark Buerhle has to be better, right? Could he be any worse? And Jon Garland got it together after struggling through the beginning of 2006. But Brandon McCarthy was often touted as the pitching star of the future, and as soon as the Sox could deal Freddy Garcia to free up a spot in the rotation, he'd get a chance to live up to that hope. So why did Chicago then trade him to Texas? Maybe that deal will work out for the White Sox, as John Danks made the team as the fifth starter. And maybe Nick Masset will come in handy if Bobby Jenks' shoulder is still bothering him. But I didn't understand that trade at all, and I still don't.
Oh, one more thought on the White Sox: Worst outfield in the division? Even if Jermaine Dye comes close to his 2006 numbers (and I'm still kicking myself for cutting him from my fantasy team early last season), I say yes.
That brings us to the team that replaced Detroit as the AL Central's punching bag, the Kansas City Royals. Last year, "KC" on the schedule usually equaled "automatic win" - unless you're talking about the last three games of the 2006 regular season. (ARGH!!! How the $#@% did that happen?!? Has anyone come up with an explanation for that? The Tigers just had to win one game! One game - against the frickin' Royals! What the #@$%?!?) But the Royals shouldn't be so much of a pushover this season. Maybe it's too much to expect Alex Gordon to make a difference right away, but if he has the Rookie of the Year season many people expect, that's an impressive addition to what should already be a much improved lineup. And Gil Meche was the favorite punchline of the off-season, but when healthy, he's a very good pitcher that can strike out a bunch of batters. Whether he deserved $55 million or not, he definitely improves the Royals' starting rotation. (Plus, as Billfer points out, he's given the Tigers many problems throughout his career.)
So where does that leave the home team?