Read The Detroit Tigers vs. the AL Central here.
So where does that leave the home team? Well, you can probably guess where I'm going with this. But even if it prompts cries of "Homer!" and sends rotten vegetables thrown my way, I think the Detroit Tigers are the best team in the AL Central. Yes, even without Kenny Rogers for three months (or more).
Dave Dombrowski has spent the past few years bolstering the depth of starting pitching in the organization, and this is yet another example of how that philosophy will pay off. Instead of having a (possibly) rock-solid starting five, the Tigers could struggle to fill that fifth spot all season long, and that will keep the competition in the AL Central rough and rugged. But I still like Detroit's starting four over any other team in the division, with the possible exception of the White Sox. I think the Cy Young Award talk with Jeremy Bonderman is a bit premature, but I agree that he's ready to seize the role of staff ace. Between his improvement and Mike Maroth's recovery, the Tigers just might be able to cover the wins they'll miss from Rogers. And if Andrew Miller is as close to ready as the organization seems to think he is, Chad Durbin proves he didn't just make the team because he was out of minor league options, or Zach Miner escapes whatever sort of purgatory he seems to have worked himself into, that fifth spot might not be as much of a hole as it appears to be right now.
In the bullpen, the move that raised the collective eyebrows of Tigers fans this off-season was the signing of Jose Mesa. What? Why? He's not left-handed. But two years ago, he was still good enough to be the Pirates' closer and a trading deadline target for any team that needed saves. On most nights, he won't have to be the man in the seventh, eighth, or ninth innings. So why not? How many teams can bring in Jose Mesa for the sixth?
(I also have another theory about Mesa's role on the roster that I have nothing but a hunch to back up. The Tigers are worried about Justin Verlander's workload this season, and want to keep his innings down - especially early in the season. Right? I'm guessing that's one place where Mesa comes in. Verlander might not have to pitch more than five innings when he starts. Mesa will be available in the sixth. And then so on down the bullpen - Zumaya, Rodney, and Jones. Save something for the playoffs, kid. Besides insurance for Zumaya getting hurt again or Jones suddenly losing his taste for closing, it's the best possible explanation I can think of for signing Mesa.)
I do have one huge concern about the bullpen, however: the left-handed reliever role. I completely understand why Detroit let Jamie Walker go to Baltimore in the off-season. $4 million per season is surely much more than the Tigers had budgeted for that role on the team, and you could probably question whether it was a smart move by the Orioles. (Never underestimate the financial value of coming from a winning team.) Yet he's really going to be missed.
Maybe you remember a game in early August against the Indians, in which the Tigers had a 1-0 lead with one out in the seventh inning. The bases were loaded, with Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez coming to the plate. Walker then comes in to strike out Hafner looking, and gets Martinez to ground out. Inning over. The Tigers eventually go on to win the game by that same 1-0 score. Can Wil Ledezma or Bobby Seay face such a situation and escape so successfully?
Some of the most dangerous hitters in the AL Central bat from the left side. Cleveland has Grady Sizemore, to go along with the aforementioned Hafner and Martinez. Minnesota has last season's Most Valuable Player, Justin Morneau, and Joe Mauer. Chicago has Jim Thome. Even two of Kansas City's biggest bats - Mark Teahen and Alex Gordon - are left-handed. That role is crucial.
What about the Tigers' hitters? Well, if the Tigers had managed to snag Gary Sheffield at the trading deadline last year, how would you have felt about that? (Excepting the wrist injury, of course.) Would you not have been thrilled? So why should this be any different? The Tigers brought back essentially the same lineup as last season, and have no reason not to expect virtually the same production from every position. But now they have that one big bat that scares the opposition.
Sure, Sheffield's going to turn 40 this year, and he's coming off that wrist injury. But the wrist didn't seem to bother him much in Spring Training. And with modern fitness training (and, yes, supplements - even the legal ones), 40 isn't as old as it used to be. Along with Pudge Rodriguez, Sheffield looks like a guy for whom age is just a number. Look at his career numbers. 30 home runs and 120 RBI is automatic for the man. And if you say he can't do it anymore, Sheffield strikes me as the kind of guy who burns to prove you wrong.
So how will the Tigers stack up against the AL Central? I think the final standings will look something like this:
5. Kansas City
The Indians should fight the Tigers all season long for the division lead, but if Cleveland's pitching falters - and I think it will - that should give Detroit the edge it needs to finish on top. The real dogfight in the AL Central could be for third place. I want to think that the White Sox have one last run left in them, but if Minnesota's starting pitching comes together (and they already have The Almighty Johan), and Chicago can't fix their broken outfield, the Twins might have enough to overtake them in the standings. And a fourth place finish could also mean the end of Ozzie Guillen in Chicago.
Last year, I thought Detroit would get 85 wins, and they ended up with 95. I doubt they'll exceed my prediction by 10 this time, but they will surpass last season's total by one. I'm saying Detroit will win 96 games - the same number the Twins needed to finish on top - and that will give them the division title. The AL Central will be competitive, but collectively, the top three teams in the AL East might be better. Second place in that division should get the Wild Card, so the Tigers won't have that safety net this year. And I think that's exactly how Jim Leyland wants it.
He can remind them of what they didn't win last year, and how everything slipped away once they sat back and enjoyed their achievements. First, they lost the division title after clinching a playoff spot. And then, with a week of hearing how good they were after beating Oakland in the ALCS, Detroit went into the World Series content rather than hungry. Leyland has plenty of buttons to push, and he'll use them to keep the Tigers sharp and supply the edge they'll need.