AL Central may be competitive as ever
Division foes' offseason moves attempt to close gap with Tigers
The Detroit Tigers ultimately ran away with the American League Central division in 2011, comfortably claiming the crown by 15 games over the second-place Cleveland Indians.
Does that mean the division will once again belong to Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Co. in 2012? Well, the fact that the White Sox and Twins were both counted as contenders a year ago before finishing below .500 tells you all you need to know about the unpredictability of the AL Central.
That said, it was clear, going into the offseason, that the Tigers were by far the best of this bunch and were not in need of any major upgrades. And so it is that most of the Hot Stove noise made in the division this winter has come elsewhere.
What follows is a team-by-team look at where things stand in the AL Central going into 2012. Teams are listed in order of their 2011 finish.
Detroit Tigers:The only big move made by the defending champs thus far was the addition of veteran reliever Octavio Dotel, late of the World Series champion Cardinals, on a one-year, $3 million contract. Already, the relief depth provided by that signing has paid dividends, for the Tigers just recently found out they won't have Al Albuquerque at their disposal for the first half. Albuquerque battled several injury issues in an otherwise dominant rookie year in 2011. Losing Albuquerque to a stress fracture is a blow, but Dotel is capable of handing leads over to Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. It was the MVP and Cy Young worthy season of Justin Verlander that kept the Tigers afloat throughout an inconsistent first half in 2011, and it was the summer trade acquisition of Doug Fister that shored up the rotation and made the Tigers a legit contender. They are reportedly still in active pursuit of another veteran arm for the rotation. If that doesn't come to pass, prospect Jacob Turner will take a starring role.
That the Indians could be counted as division contenders as late as August came as a surprise, given the inexperience up and down their roster. Had a ridiculous run of injuries not intervened, they might have hung around even longer.
One of those injuries, of course, was to former franchise face Grady Sizemore, who has been limited to 210 games over the last three seasons because of an array of ailments, including microfracture surgery on his left knee and arthroscopic surgery on his right. The Tribe's two biggest offseason moves both involved Sizemore -- the decision to decline his $9 million option, followed by the decision to sign him to a one-year, $5 million deal loaded with incentives. If Sizemore gets back to his star-caliber performance of old, the Indians got a steal of a deal. If not, it's more of the same, and the Indians have attempted to line up backup plans for the outfield spots with the additions of Aaron Cunningham in a trade with the Padres and Felix Pie in a Minor League deal.
The Indians also traded for Braves veteran Derek Lowe to provide some experience and innings-eating dependability to the back end of their rotation. A glaring need for right-handed power remains, but the Tribe will have to fill it on a tight budget or else count on the options in-house.
Chicago White Sox:
This club will have a drastically different look in 2012 after an "all-in" season gone wrong in 2011.
That starts, of course, with the absence of colorful and candid skipper Ozzie Guillen, who is now a Miami Marlin, and the presence of first-year manager Robin Ventura. This will be Ventura's first professional coaching opportunity, let alone managerial gig, so he'll rely heavily on the input of veteran pitching coach Don Cooper and bench coach Mark Parent. As for the club Ventura inherits, it has been an odd offseason, to say the least. By and large, the club has made moves that signal a rebuilding effort, though the Sox did lock up trade bait John Danks to a long-term extension. But in watching Mark Buehrle follow Guillen to Miami and in trading closer Sergio Santos, outfielder Carlos Quentin and reliever Jason Frasor for prospects, it's clear the Sox are shifting their strategy and going as young as they can. Before winter's end, there is a distinct possibility the likes of Gavin Floyd and Matt Thornton could be traded, too. Captain Paul Konerko will still be aboard, and perhaps Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy can get back to their career norms after a historically awful 2011 for Dunn and another injury-riddled year for Peavy. But by and large, the Sox won't have anywhere near the expectations going into 2012 that they took into 2011.
Kansas City Royals:
The Royals' well-regarded farm system has begun pumping talent into the big league roster, and that provides legitimate reason to believe this is, at long last, a team on the rise.
But the Royals knew their in-house options wouldn't be enough to drastically improve on last year's 71-win season, which is why they were particularly aggressive early in the offseason. They dealt center fielder Melky Cabrera to the Giants for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who was a key figure in San Francisco's run to the 2010 World Series title but who battled command woes in 2011. He brings upside to a Royals rotation that needed it, and Kansas City also opted to bring back veteran Bruce Chen, who led them in wins this past year.
The Royals also bulked up their bullpen by taking a chance on Jonathan Broxton, a talented late-inning option whose 2011 was marred by injury. He'll serve as a setup man for Joakim Soria, and his presence affords the highly regarded Aaron Crow the opportunity to vie for a rotation spot. Jose Mijares was signed as a second lefty relief option, and Yuniesky Betancourt was brought back to the organization as a utility infielder.
It remains to be seen if the Royals will find another arm to upgrade their rotation, as they look to make the most out of the first full seasons of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez.
How the mighty fell. The Twins were once the class of the Central, but just about everything that could go wrong for them in 2011 did -- and that included the continuing frustration of trying to keep Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau on the field.
The Twins didn't take the trouble of a 99-loss season lightly. They dismissed general manager Bill Smith and reinstalled Terry Ryan in that role. This was a major makeover, as Ryan, the architect of some great Twins teams in the Metrodome, is one of the game's more respected minds. Now, he's entrusted with revamping the roster.
This winter, the Twins have waved goodbye to three big pieces in Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, all of whom left in free agency. They also traded Kevin Slowey to the Rockies.
The Twins have added a big bat in Josh Willingham, who was signed to a three-year, $21 million deal and is coming off a 29-homer season in Oakland. They also brought in veteran Jason Marquis on a one-year deal to add depth to the rotation, and re-signed Matt Capps to shore up the closer's spot. They'll continue to look for dependable options in the pitching department and a return to Central respectability in the New Year.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.