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AL Central Hot Stove Preview

2007 Record: 96-66, first place2007 Attendance: 2.2 million, 10th in the AL2007 Payroll: $62 million, 23rd in baseballKey Free Agents (2007)RF-L Trot NixonOF-L Kenny LoftonRHP Joe Borowski (club option)RHP Paul Byrd (club option)Key Free Agents (2008)LHP C.C. Sabathia4C-R Casey BlakeKey Long-Term CommitmentsDH-L Travis Hafner, $14.25M/year through 2012, plus 2013 club optionCF-L Grady Sizemore, $5.2M/year through 2011 plus 2012 club optionSS-R Jhonny Peralta, $3.4M/year through 2010 plus 2011 club optionC-S Victor Martinez, $5.0M year through 2009, plus 2010 club optionRHP Jake Westbrook, $11M year through 2010LHP Cliff Lee, $4.75M through 2009, plus 2010 club optionOF-L David Dellucci, $3.9M year through 2009Key Ready-Now YoungstersMI-S Asdrubal CabreraRHP Adam MillerLHP Aaron LaffeyLHP Chuck LofgrenOF-R Franklin Gutierrez3B-R Andy MarteOF-L Shin-Soo ChooNeeds: 1. LF; 2. probably 3B

What They Should Do:Hold. This team is loaded. With all the young talent either in stock or on the way, the Indians could not spend a dollar in the free-agent market and PECOTA out at 96-98 wins next spring. The key decision is really whether to re-sign Sabathia now or wait until next winter to make a choice, which mostly boils down to just what his asking price is. Now, the one worry is that attendance has been a little sluggish, and you could argue for one strike into the free-agent market to put the proverbial ornament on the Christmas tree. But the Indians might be good enough that they don't need to do that, and attendance should pick up anyway after their deep postseason run this year. The options for Byrd and Borowski should probably be exercised, however, given how expensive pitching will be this winter.

What They Will Do:Hold. It wouldn't surprise me if the Indians sign a left-fielder if something relatively cheap falls into their laps, but otherwise Mark Shapiro should be able to catch up on his sleep this winter.

2007 Record: 88-74, second place2007 Attendance: 3.0 million, third in the AL2007 Payroll: $95 million, ninth in baseballKey Free Agents (2007): LHP Kenny Rogers, RHP Todd Jones, 1B-L Sean Casey, C-R Ivan Rodriguez (club option was exercised)Key Free Agents (2008): NoneKey Long-Term CommitmentsRF-R Magglio Ordonez, $16.5M/year through 2009, plus 2010/2011 club optionsDH-R Gary Sheffield, $14M/year through 2009SS/1B-S Carlos Guillen, $12M/year through 2011RHP Jeremy Bonderman, $11.2M/year through 20103B-R Brandon Inge, $6.4M/year through 20102B-R Placido Polanco, $4.6M/year through 2009Key Ready-Now YoungersOF-R Cameron MaybinLHP Andrew MillerUT-R Ryan RaburnNeeds: 1. Bullpen Depth; 2. No. 4 starter; 3. LF

What They Should Do:Weak Buy. The Tigers actually have quite a few moving parts, which explains why they have worked quickly this off-season. The first decision was whether to pick up Ivan Rodriguez' option at a marginal cost of $10 million ($13 million in salary versus the $3 million buyout). The Tigers did so, though on paper this was a tough call; Rodriguez delivered a .294 OBP last season, and the market for free-agent catchers is relatively robust. But certainty counts for something; it's hard to fight a multi-front war under the pressure of the free agency cycle. Carlos Guillen will be moving to first base, which left the Tigers with either a choice of Ramon Santiago and possibly Omar Infante at shortstop, or a decision to pay something for an external hire. The problem is that there isn't too much in the way of middle-tier shortstops; you have guys like David Eckstein and Omar Vizquel who will probably wind up being overcompensated, and then you have Alex Rodriguez, who wouldn't have been the worst fit here but is probably a stretch financially. The Oct. 29 acquisition of Edgar Renteria from the Braves for pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez was probably the best alternative for Detroit.

But the Tigers' choices did not end there. Is Cameron Maybin ready? You could do worse than to go into spring training with Maybin, Marcus Thames, and Ryan Raburn as your options in left field, but a one-year, $4 million commitment to a Cliff Floyd type would not kill anyone. And what about the pitching staff? If this is my team, what I probably do is as follows from here on:

Hold in left field, and, hope Maybin is ready by June 15

Sign Eric Gagne

Sign a Paul Byrd type who can pitch to a good defense, or find a suitable freely-available talent alternative

Take a flier on an injury-discounted swingman like Kerry Wood.

What They Will Do:Weak Buy. In contrast to the Indians, Dave Dombrowski has one of the more difficult jobs of GMing this winter. This team looks to me like an 85-86 win team if it just treads water, and any team in that position that's drawing 3 million fans or more per season is usually going to be a net acquirer of talent. The problem is that there aren't that many ready-made free-agent solutions at the positions where the Tigers need them, so some creativity is going to be required. When all is said and done, I think the Tigers will look at the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees, decide that they have to improve to catch up to that group, and make some or another kind of move. But I have no idea what it will be.

2007 Record: 79-83, third place2007 Attendance: 2.3 million, ninth in the AL2007 Payroll: $71 million, 18th in baseballKey Free Agents (2007)CF-R Torii HunterRHP Carlos Silva Key Free Agents (2008)LHP Johan SantanaRHP Joe Nathan (club option was exercised)Key Long-Term CommitmentsC-L Joe Mauer, $9.75M/year through 2010Key Ready-Now YoungstersRHPs Matt Garza, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker2B-S Alexi CasillaNeeds: 1. CF, assuming that Hunter departs; 2. 3B; 3. A premium bat for DH/LF/RF, and maybe two

What They Should Do:Strong Sell. Is this team strong enough to compete if it re-signs Hunter and treads water elsewhere? Possibly, depending on the performance of the young pitchers. More likely, however, it would be about the sixth-best team in a league where four teams make the playoffs, and the revenues probably are not elastic enough in the old ballpark to warrant the risk. Once you let Hunter go, the cascade begins. Trade Santana, whose value is absolutely huge right now and who could potentially fetch two long-term cornerstones. And trade Joe Nathan too, who probably gets you another key long-term asset. That gives you a core of Mauer, Justin Morneau, Garza, Slowey, plus at least three other very attractive young assets for your honeymoon season in the new ballpark in 2010, and also your bachelor party season in the HumpDome in 2009. This is not a five-year rebuild, it's a two-year retrenching job.

What They Will Do:Strong Sell. This is a pretty obvious plan.

2007 Record: 72-90, fourth place2007 Attendance: 2.7 million, fifth in the AL2007 Payroll: $109 million, fifth in baseballKey Free Agents (2007)SS-R Juan Uribe (club option)Key Free Agents (2008)DH-L Jim Thome3B-R Joe CredeRHP Jon GarlandKey Long-Term CommitmentsLHP Mark Buehrle, $14M/year through 20101B-R Paul Konerko, $12M/year through 2010RHP Javier Vazquez, $11.5M/year through 2010RF-R Jermaine Dye, $11M/year through 2009, plus 2010 mutual optionC-L A.J. Pierzynski, $6.25M/year through 2010Key Ready-Now Youngsters3B/LF-R Josh FieldsOF-L Ryan SweeneyLHP Gio GonzalezNeeds: 1. At least one big bat for LF/CF; 2. 2B; 3. SS

What They Should Do:Strong Buy. The White Sox picked their direction during the season when they re-signed both Mark Buehrle and Jermaine Dye to long-term contracts rather than trading them for prospects. Having done so, they have little choice but to complete the cycle and field a team that should have a median expectation somewhere in the 88-win range. That scenario will probably require signing at least two "name" free agents. The alternative is being stuck in the middle, and spending a lot of money while undermining the reservoir of support they built up in 2005.

What They Will Do:Weak Buy. When you combine Jerry Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams, no direction would be entirely surprising, but this is one of those cases where going 72-90 might ultimately have been better than 80-82, because it underscores the fact that the team must spend money to improve. The guess here is that the White Sox go far but not quite far enough, trading Jon Garland for an offensive piece, and signing one mid-tier free agent.

2007 Record: 69-93, fifth place2007 Attendance: 1.6 million, 13th in American League2007 Payroll: $67 million, 22nd in baseball Key Free Agents (2007)DH-R Mike SweeneyLHP Odalis Perez (club option declined)RHP David Riske (player option declined)Key Free Agents (2008)2B-R Mark GrudzielanekOF-R Emil Brown Key Long-Term CommitmentsRHP Gil Meche, $11.5M/year through 2011OF-L David DeJesus, $3.6M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club optionKey Ready-Now YoungstersDH-R Billy ButlerOF-L Joey GathrightRHP Kyle Davies RHP Luke Hochevar1B/OF-R Justin HuberNeeds: 1. two or more high-quality starting pitchers; 2. 1B; 3. SS

What They Should Do:Strong Sell. I don't think there's quite enough long-term talent here to make the Royals a legitimate contender in 2009 through 2011. Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar had disappointing seasons, and a team centered around those two plus Mark Teahen, Billy Butler, Brian Bannister, David DeJesus, Gil Meche, and Joakim Soria is probably going to peak at about 78 wins. So what do you do? You flip Meche, whose contract will now look like an asset to at least 15 or 20 teams, to the losers in the Johan Santana derby (although Meche does have a no-trade clause, unfortunately). You trade Bannister, who isn't all that young and whose low ERA was a DIPS-induced fluke. And you see what you can get for Grudzielanek in a middle infield market that should be fairly fluid this winter.

What They Will Do:Hold. Teams that exceed expectations like the Royals just did tend to be holders, whereas teams that fail to meet expectations are usually either buyers or sellers. I suspect that Dayton Moore fails to see the opportunity he has on his hands with Meche and Bannister.

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