Friday, February 8, 2008

Tigers are team to beat in A.L. Central

        The suddenly free-spending Tigers will make their big league exhibition season debut on Feb. 27 against the New York Mets _ a practice game that, on paper, looks like a preview of the 2008 World Series.
        But don’t start counting your pennants before they are hoisted up the flagpole.
        Just ask the Mets. They were the best team in the National League last year _ and they didn’t even make the playoffs.
        And there is no doubt in my mind that the Tigers, on paper, had the best team in the American League Central last summer. There is also no doubt that the Cleveland Indians were the best team on the ball field.
        OK, everybody knows the Tigers’ offense is going to be awesome this year. It will be runs, runs, runs galore.
        It is the Tigers’ pitching staff that has people, including manager Jim Leyland, concerned.
        Still, with that lineup, I’ll take my chances with the starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson _ a rotation that won 51 games last year.
        Cautiously conceding first-place in the rugged A.L. Central to the new and improved Tigers _ it will be their first division title since 1987 _ here’s how the rest of the division stacks up:
        2. Cleveland _ The Indians, who tied the Boston Red Sox for most regular-season wins last year, chose to rest on their laurels and continue to try to build from within, adding only reliever Masahide Kobayashi and infielder Jamey Carroll _ both of whom are unheralded and 33.
        Thanks to the addition of Kobayashi, the Indians will at least be the odds-on favorites in any hot-dog eating contests that may come up this summer.
        But can Fausto Carmona (19-8) and Joe Borowski (45 saves) do it again? I don’t think so.
        3. Chicago _ The Chisox added slugger Nick Swisher and shortstop Orlando Cabrera, improving what was baseball’s worst offense in terms of runs scored and on-base percentage last year. But in doing so they had to part with  proven pitcher Jon Garland, leaving them with just two solid starters  _ Mark Buehrle and Javier Vasquez.
        The Sox believe their bullpen will be better this year, thanks to the addition of Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink. They’ll need it.
        4. Minnesota _ While the Tigers have been busy swapping prize prospects (Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, Jair Jurrjens, Gorkys Hernandez) for pricey, proven stars  Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria, the budget-minded Twins were paring payroll (Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva).
        Any lineup that includes Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau is formidable _ more so now that the Twins have picked up Dmitri Young’s not-so-little brother, Delmon. But the Twins’ homefield edge in the noisy Metrodome won’t be enough to offset their losses elsewhere, not to mention the lack of experience in their starting rotation.
        5. Kansas City _ Leyland loves to expound about how the Royals are on the right track. But the Royals still have a long road ahead of them, especially in this division.


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