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The BYB 2008 Preview: The Tigers vs. the AL Central

I've been mulling over whether or not to write a season preview for this year's Detroit Tigers, but my brethren in the Tigersosphere have already done such good work with their respective previews:

(Big Al might get a kick out of this, since earlier today, he suggested to me that I just link to the other Tigers previews that have already been written. So as you suggest, Big Al, so shall it be done.)

Plus, and we're on the eve of Opening Day, so I've already cut it about as close as I can. I might end up doing something more team-focused, but I doubt it'll be a position-by-position analysis. Besides, if I couldn't even get the 25-man roster right, who knows what else I could mess up?

But you guys know who your 2008 Detroit Tigers are. You've been anticipating this lineup since early December. And you've probably been fretting over the pitching staff since at least mid-February. Or maybe I'm just being lazy and procrastination has caught up with me.

I would, however, like to take a look at how the Tigers stack up against their AL Central rivals. When Sam Mellinger asked me to predict the final division standings, I picked the Tigers to finish in first place. But over the past week, I've been having second thoughts on that. (You can hear some of them here.) Maybe I'm letting the Tim Kurkjians and Tyler Kepners of the world get into my head. Or maybe it's like that two-week break before the Super Bowl. After the conference championship games, you're pretty confident about who's going to win. But give yourself a week to learn all you can about the so-called underdog, and you become convinced the other team can pull off the upset. Once the game is over, you realize you should've trusted that first instinct.

(Obviously, this scenario doesn't really apply to what happened in Super Bowl XLII. And before you stand up and point, Cleveland fans, this does not mean I'm comparing the Indians to the New York Giants in terms of expectations.)

Could the Indians be better than they were last year? They seem to think they will be. Or perhaps more specifically, they think Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore will improve on the numbers they posted in 2007. And going into last season, I thought Sizemore was the best everyday player in the AL Central and Hafner was its most fearsome hitter. But is a turnaround for both players such a sure thing? Maybe for Sizemore, given his age and an increase in some categories like stolen bases and on-base percentage. What about Hafner, though? Is he coming off a bad year, in which he may not have been getting as many pitches to hit (drawing a career-high 102 walks)? Or was that the beginning of a downslide?

But Cleveland won the division last year because of its pitching, and looks to be just as strong in their starting staff and bullpen this year. Or do they? We saw with the Tigers last year that pitching into a long playoff run took a toll on those arms the following season. And the Indians' had two guys surpass 200 innings, with a third (Paul Byrd) who wasn't that far off, with 192.

Actually, saying C.C. Sabathia pitched 200 innings is kind of an understatement. He threw 256, including the postseason, which is 64 more than in 2007, and 46 more than he's ever thrown in his career. That's going to catch up with him in a year he'll be playing for a new contract. A big jump in innings (102 to 215) could also affect Fausto Carmona, and Rafael Betancourt saw his workload increase, too. The Tigers couldn't hold up when their pitching broke down last season. If the same thing happens to the Indians, they could buckle, as well.

As for the other teams in the AL Central, I didn't want to pick the Chicago White Sox for third place, but I think they recovered from a slow start to the offseason and filled some crying needs on their team. Dave Dombrowski drank Kenny Williams' milkshake in beating him for players like Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cabrera, but WIlliams has a better-looking outfield than he did last season. (And he did get Octavio Dotel for his bullpen.) At least Nick Swisher is an upgrade, though I'm not sure how well he plays center field. And he hit just .188/.341/.219 against Detroit in 2007. I suppose we'll have to wait and see on Carlos Quentin.

I wanted to be daring and pick the Kansas City Royals for third place, but that might be too big a jump for them to make in one season. I really like their starting pitching, however, and Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen should both improve their numbers. Jose Guillen also provides some corner outfield punch, and maybe brings some edge to a team that could use some. That bullpen looks kind of scary, though.

Speaking of scary, how about the Minnesota Twins' starting rotation? Livan Hernandez is their Opening Day, and thus presumed #1, starter. This underscores, by the way, the poor return the Twins received in the Johan Santana trade. How do you not get at least one major league-ready guy who can fill a vacancy and develop at the bottom of the rotation? Getting Delmon Young was a nice move, and gives them some much needed left field pop. And maybe, combined with Mike Lamb at third base, Minnesota can make up Torii Hunter's lost production. The Twins might also have the best bullpen in the division, which could keep them out of fourth place.

So how does it shake out? I think both the Tigers and Indians will make the playoffs, though I'm swaying back and forth on who wins the division and who gets the wild card. Since I already picked the Tigers elsewhere, however, I'll stick with that pick. And you know what? I shouldn't be so sheepish about it.

1. Detroit: 94-68
2. Cleveland: 91-71
3. Chicago: 83-79
4. Kansas City: 74-88
5. Minnesota: 66-96

I thought Detroit would win the AL Central last year, and they have a better team this year. I don't know how writers like Buster Olney can say offense will carry the New York Yankees to the playoffs, yet a killer lineup somehow won't be enough for the Tigers to make the postseason. Explain that to me, when the Yanks' #2 starter is a guy who was demoted to the bullpen last year.

Pardon the digression.