Unlike last year, not a lot is expected of the Detroit Tigers this season. And while the fan in me likes that they'll be prowling under the radar, instead of quivering under expectations, I just can't manage the same sort of bluster I may have a month or so ago.
Will the Tigers be better this year? My automatic response is, can they be any worse? Well, of course they can. But virtually everything that could've gone wrong last year did go wrong. Perhaps you could say much of the same for Spring Training, with guys getting hurt and others not working out, but I do still think this team is fully aware of how disappointing last season was and don't want to repeat that.
The question is whether or not that drive will push them toward an AL Central division title. Virtually all winter long, I said the Tigers would win 88 games and finish just behind the Indians. But that was presuming that virtually everything went right for the Tigers. Instead, neither Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, or Zach Miner could win the fifth starter's job. Neither Jeremy Bonderman or Joel Zumaya are beginning the season healthy. The closer's position still looks unsettled.
Yet maybe the infusion of youth will make up the difference. Rick Porcello outperformed the three veteran fifth starter candidates. Ryan Perry was arguably the team's best reliever this spring. Both pitchers give the Tigers something they didn't have last season. Josh Anderson and Jeff Larish give the lineup a chance to give older players a rest, put a better defense on the field, and perhaps improve the overall athleticism (a trend that is occurring throughout baseball).
But I'm not so sure the Tigers improved themselves the way the Indians did with Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa. Nor do I feel like they have the same upside as the Twins with young pitchers (Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker) and position players (Denard Span, Delmon Young) that should all improve upon their performance last season.
I like what Cleveland did with their bullpen, and it's probably the best in the division. But their starting rotation after Cliff Lee looks surprisingly weak. Sorry, Carl Pavano. (And can Lee possibly come close to repeating last year?) Their lineup doesn't look as fearsome unless Travis Hafner undergoes a revival, but two or three players might be able to combine to match that production.
Ultimately, I think the Twins' pitching will push them to the top. And if they pick up a decent middle reliever (if they'd have signed Juan Cruz, I may have put up the white flag), Minnesota looks really strong to me.
I don't want to dismiss the Royals in one sentence, since they're a chic pick for the AL Central, but the idea that some team will rebound after losing 85+ games because the Rays and Rockies did it over the last two years seems like pretty hokey logic to me. And I might be underselling the White Sox if they can squeeze one last run out of what looks like an increasingly creaky lineup and pitching staff.
But this is how I see it finally shaking out.
1. Minnesota: 90-72
2. Cleveland: 86-76
3. Detroit: 84-78
4. Kansas City: 80-82
5. Chicago: 78-84
So did I get this one wrong, too? Chime in with your thoughts. Who's the best team in the AL Central? Are the experts overrating the Royals? Or, for that matter, the Twins? How many wins will win the division?