AL Central Preview: Detroit Tigers

We’ve all been writing and talking and debating and complaining about virtually every aspect of the Twins off-season for months, so as the Spring Training gates prepare to swing open, there is very little more to be written concerning our guys’ prospects for 2012. I still suspect Terry Ryan may add another pitching arm from among what has to be a very nervous group of remaining free agents, but otherwise, the roster pretty much is what it is.

That being the case, what else is there to say, really? The fortunes of the 2012 will simply be determined by the health and productivity of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Scott Baker, et al., right?

Well, sort of… but then again, not entirely.

While it is pretty much a given that the Twins need their stars to have healthy, productive seasons to have any chance at being competitive, that’s only one set of variables. Their AL Central Division rivals have just about as many question marks as the Twins do. How the seasons shake out for Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Kansas City will play just as much of a role in determining the Twins’ fate as anything the Twins do on the field, themselves.

So, while we’ve been focusing all of our attention on what Terry Ryan has done (and hasn’t done) to reshape the Twins in to something with the potential to be more competitive in 2012, let’s turn our eyes toward what the competition has been doing, starting with the Detroit Tigers.

Why start with Detroit? Well, it appears that if there’s one thing virtually everyone with an opinion agrees on, it’s that the Tigers are the prohibitive favorite to repeat as winners of the AL Central title this season. It’s pretty easy to see why that’s the case. On paper, they are simply much better than anyone else in the Division.

Last Year:

Record: 95-67

Standings: 1st place AL Central by 15 games over Indians

Playoffs: Beat Yankees 3-2 in ALDS, Lost to Rangers 4-2 in ALCS

Players of Note Lost: P Joel Zumaya (FA), INF Wilson Betemit (FA),

Players of Note Added: 1B Prince Fielder, P Octavio Dotel, C Gerald Laird

M*A*S*H unit: 1B/DH/C Victor Martinez (ACL – potentially season ending), P Al Alburquerque (elbow fracture – out through AS break)

Outlook: If you believe what you read, there’s really no point in playing out the season. We should just give the Division Championship to the Tigers and let them rest up for six months to prepare for the playoffs.

There is no doubt that the addition of Prince Fielder is huge. Say what you will about his body-type and how unlikely it may be that he’ll be worth $24 million a year by the time his nine-year contract winds up, but for 2012, his presence in the middle of the Tiger batting order is a difference maker. At the same time, Victor Martinez won’t be in that batting order and that absence shouldn’t be minimized, either.

If Jim Leyland goes forward with stated plans to move Miguel Cabrera back over to 3B, he’ll be giving Division rivals a gift. The Tigers already weren’t a particularly good defensive team and with Cabrera and Fielder at the infield corners, they’d be worse.

The confounding thing is that there really isn’t a good reason to force that change this season. When Martinez returns, sure… then he’ll have three 1B/DH types and he’ll need to get creative. But this season, why not just let Fielder and Cabrera split time between 1B and DH? It’s so obvious that you have to figure Leyland will figure it out before Opening Day. So as much as I would love to watch teams lay down bunt after bunt on the Tigers, I’m not really expecting to see Cabrera at 3B once the games start counting.

The one benefit for the rest of the Division that comes from the Tigers signing Fielder is that it appears they won’t be using that money to strengthen their rotation.

Justin Verlander is a stud, no doubt about it. But I just find it hard to imagine that even he can put up another year comparable to the last couple. Three seasons in a row of that kind of productivity is almost unheard of. A lot of people like the young arms the Tigers use to fill out the rest of the rotation and Doug Fister was a huge addition last season, but I’ve been less impressed with Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer. Maybe this rotation will turn out to be as great as any in the league, but I’ll believe it when I see it… especially if Leyland does stick to the plan of playing Cabrera at 3B.

In the bullpen, others are more impressed with Octavio Dotel than I am, so I can’t say I feel they’ve improved their bullpen significantly. He may adequately replace Alburquerque, I guess.

The bottom line is that this team is built to win right now. They’re rolling the dice while they’ve got stars like Cabrera, Verlander and Avila in their primes, along with a future Hall of Fame manager at the controls. If their pitching can be good enough to overcome the defense playing behind them, the addition of Fielder should assure that they score enough runs to win the AL Central going away… again… and once again be a serious threat in the playoffs. That would mean that the Twins and the others in the Division are all playing for second place.

We’ll be continuing to take similar glances at the rest of the AL Central Division, but don’t expect a new team preview every day. You’ll get them as I do them, which is to say, when I’m damn good and ready to do the next one!

Next up: Cleveland Indians

–          JC