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Why the Tigers will win the AL Central in 2012

DETROIT - SEPTEMBER 22: Detroit Tigers mascot "PAWS" warms up the fans between innings during the game in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
DETROIT - SEPTEMBER 22: Detroit Tigers mascot "PAWS" warms up the fans between innings during the game in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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I picked the Tigers to win the AL Central last year, and repeated the prediction at the end of June, when the Indians were still in the race. The result was that posters with my photo started appearing in post offices across northern Ohio. As it turns out, the Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games last year. Not to diss the other teams, nor diminish the Tigers achievements in 2011, but the magnitude of the victory had much to do with the makeup of their division.

I’m now returning back with a train load of believers aboard the Tiger bandwagon and making the same prediction for 2012. The believers now include all of the national media, with the exception of maybe a shock jock or two that is just looking for attention. In fact, I’ll take the Tigers to win, even up, and give any takers all four of the other teams in the AL Central. Normally, that’s a sucker’s bet, but it’s also "conventional wisdom" at this point to say that the Tigers are prohibitive favorites to win their division in 2012.

Why are the Tigers favored? Well, they have the best lineup, the best rotation, the best bullpen, the best manager, the best GM, the best owner, the best first baseman, third baseman, catcher, starting pitcher, closer, fans and mascot in the division. Now, I’m not trying to agitate fans of the other AL Central clubs, any more than I was trying to agitate them last June. But I have to say that I wouldn’t necessarily be picking the Tigers if they were in the AL East or the AL West. My forecast is as much about the competition as it is about the Tigers.

So much for the preamble, but I think that those things had to be said. Rather than just spewing optimism for the Tigers, I’d like to break down the teams in the AL Central and look at their chances in 2012.

Minnesota: The Twins finished last in 2011, a whopping 32 games behind the Tigers. They were so far out of it last year that they basically gave Delmon Young to Detroit in August just to shed his salary. The Twins’ hopes for 2012 hinge on having three players rebound from injuries. Those three are former MVP’s Mauer and Morneau, plus Francisco Liriano.

That would be a start, but not nearly enough. Other than these possible comebacks, the Twins actually made themselves worse during the off season, rather than better. They lost Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer to free agency, as well as their closer, Joe Nathan. This, on top of letting the rest of their bullpen walk a season earlier. Instead, the Twins have stockpiled draft picks, and will have more money to spend under the new "slotting system" than any other MLB team. The Twins may improve, but not nearly enough this season.

Prediction: Fifth place

Chicago: The White Sox are also pinning their hopes for 2012 on comebacks, but their players need to bounce back from general lousiness rather than injuries. Adam Dunn was signed to a four year, $56 million contract, and was literally the worst hitter in the league last year. Alex Rios has a similar deal that began in 2008, and he wasn’t a whole lot better. These guys could rebound, but I wouldn’t bet on it, and at their best, they are no match for the power bats found in the middle of the lineups of other AL contenders.

Otherwise, Chicago also let their best pitcher, Mark Buehrle, leave through free agency, and they traded their closer, Sergio Santos and set up man Jason Frasor. They also unloaded Carlos Quentin, their only decent hitting outfielder. They also lost manager Ozzie Guillen to Florida. They did sign free agent Kosuke Fukudome for $1 million and extend John Danks, but it could be a long, hot summer on the south side in 2012.

Prediction: Fourth Place

Kansas City: The Royals haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, but there are finally some signs of life in KC. The Royals were sixth in the AL in run production last season, and in the top five in average, OBP, SLG, and OPS. Their young stars, led by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moutsakas, and Alex Gordon, figure to only get better.

Unfortunately, that’s where the cause for optimism ends. They traded Melky Cabrera, coming off a fine offensive season, to the Giants for hard throwing lefty Jonathan Sanchez. The Royals did nothing else to upgrade a rotation that includes Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, and probably Danny Duffy. The bullpen lost a premier closer when Joaquin Soria had season ending surgery, and the rest of the bullpen is very iffy. At least this is a franchise moving in the right direction.

Prediction: Third Place

Cleveland: The Tribe got off to a hot start in 2011, led the division for half a season, and were within 2.5 games of the Tigers as late as August 8th, but then the wheels came off the bandwagon. At the trade deadline, they traded the only blue chip prospects in their organization, Drew Pomerantz and Alex White, for Ubaldo Jiminez. Ubaldo went 4- 4 with a 5.10 ERA and a WHIP of 1.45 for Cleveland. Welcome to the American League. Pomerantz is now in some forecasts for the NL Rookie of the Year with the Rockies. Jiminez starts the season suspended for beaning a former teammate in a Cactus league exhibition game.

The Indians were also hoping for Grady Sizemore to rebound, and they signed him to an incentive laden contract, but he’s already out at least until June. They’re also hoping for comebacks from Travis Hafner and Shin Soo Choo. There are multiple holes in the lineup, but I pick the Tribe to finish second because Jiminez and Masterson are a decent one two punch atop the rotation, their bullpen is fairly good, Asdrubal Cabrera is a legit All Star, and there are a few other hitters that could drive home some runs.

Prediction: Second place

Detroit: The Tigers were having a rather dull off season, just signing Octavio Dotel as a free agent, losing Al Alburqerque to an injury for half the season, and swapping reliever Ryan Perry for Collin Balester. Then, Victor Martinez was lost for the season and the Tigers promptly replaced his bat in the lineup with Prince Fielder. The Tigers were already favorites to repeat as AL Central champions, but any doubts among the speculators ended right there and then.

The Tigers greatest weakness last year was the middle relief section of the bullpen. Despite leading the league in save percentage, they were 12th overall in bullpen ERA. What stands out to me as a cause for concern in 2012 is the fact that the win totals for all their starting pitchers were higher than one would expect, given their peripheral stats. Tiger starters will likely need better numbers in terms of allowing hits and runs in order to match the same win totals. Still, they have the deepest rotation in the division, and it would take a near total collapse for them to back up far enough to pass a division rival on the way down.

Prediction: First place