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Spring Training Preview: AL Central

The AL Central once again is loaded with the Tigers and Indians ranking among the elite clubs in baseball and the White Sox coming off a banner offseason as well.

Where: Winter Haven, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 96-66 (1st, AL Central)

New guys:Jamey Carroll, Masahide Kobayashi

Gone guys:Fernando Cabrera, Chris Gomez, Kenny Lofton, Mike Rouse

Wow, he's still here? After losing most his playing time down the stretch, Josh Barfield was not expected to be brought back. However, the Indians still have him in camp, although Asdrubal Cabrera is the incumbent.

Winter grade: W (withdrawal). Same as the Red Sox, but without the half-hearted attempts to trade for Johan Santana. The Tribe's Opening Day roster could feature 23 of the 25 guys who played for them in the ALCS. The top 11 guys in both at-bats and innings pitched return, and the big off-season pickups were a Japanese reliever and a middling utility infielder.

NRI (Non-Roster Invite) to watch: Center fielder Trevor Crowe stalled out at Double-A last season and is now a marginal prospect. The Indians, however, have enough question marks on the outfield corners -- populated largely by veteran fourth outfielders -- that a big spring could get the switch-hitting Crowe into the discussion.

Job battle to track: Cabrera is a plus defensive shortstop who may have to beat out Barfield again just to play second base. The Indians seem comfortable with Jhonny Peralta at shortstop for now, and while flipping Peralta and Cabrera across the keystone makes all kinds of sense, "originality" isn't high on the list of the traits of an otherwise solid management team.

One move to make: Any, given how they spent the last four months. The pitching staff is fairly set. However, the Indians have an unimpressive set of corners, outside of first base, for a team with designs on October. A middle-of-the-order bat who can play third base or either outfield corner would make a big difference to a team whose lineup falls off considerably after the top five.

More and more, the AL's "Big Four" looks like a "Big Three." The Indians return virtually everyone from last year's division titlist, a team that was one win from a World Series. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of moves to address the team's poor corner outfield options and a relatively top-heavy lineup are worrisome. The Tigers got a lot better, while the Indians seem to be hoping that posting a .260 EqA again will be enough. Whether internally or externally, they have to upgrade the outfield this spring to maintain their status.

Where: Tucson, Arizona (Cactus League)

2007 record: 72-90 (4th, AL Central)

New guys:Orlando Cabrera, Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink, Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez, Nick Swisher

Gone guys:David Aardsma, Ryan Bukvich, Alex Cintron, Darin Erstad, Jon Garland, Scott Podsednik, Luis Terrero

Wow, he's still here?Josh Fields' moderately impressive rookie season, coupled with his inability to play left field, was supposed to mean the departure of Joe Crede. Teams have not been willing to deal for Crede without seeing him play, however.

Winter grade: B+

If you knew nothing else but the lists of players coming and going, you'd have to conclude it was a good winter on the South Side. The Sox upgraded a terrible bullpen and outfield, and got better at shortstop while dealing just one player, in Garland, who meant anything to them.

NRI to watch: A weak list is headed by former Blue Jays' first-round pick Miguel Negron, who has washed out of four organizations in the last three years. With last year's collection of lousy fourth outfielders mostly gone, there's an opening for a speedy glove man to make the team.

Job battle to track: Jerry Owens vs. Quentin, with Swisher playing left or center depending on who wins. Quentin is the favorite, and could be the steal of the offseason for GM Kenny Williams. However, if Quentin's surgically-repaired shoulder doesn't allow him to hit, Owens' speed in center is going to be attractive to manager Ozzie Guillen. Owens' overall numbers were lousy, but he played better in the second half, well enough to make him a viable option.

One move to make: This improved roster remains one top-tier starting pitcher shy of hanging with the top two teams in the division. They likely don't have the prospects left to trade for that guy, but it's the one move they could make that would change the discussion.

The Garland-for-Cabrera trade was the signature move in an offseason that saw the Sox dump a whole bunch of the dead weight from the '07 team. That deal helps them a lot; you don't often get to upgrade by 50 points of OBP in the infield, and Cabrera is also a good defensive shortstop. There's a lot of variance here; guys like Quentin, Cuban signee Ramirez, and Jose Contreras could be six-win players, or they could bounce around replacement level. The Sox have correctly played for the present, and no matter what happens, Williams can be commended for choosing the right course of action.

Where: Lakeland, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 88-74 (2nd, AL East)

New guys:Denny Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Francisco Cruceta, Freddy Guzman, Jacque Jones, Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis

Gone guys:Sean Casey, Chad Durbin, Omar Infante, Jair Jurrjens, Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo, Timo Perez (still here as a NRI)

Wow, he's still here? ...and he's not happy about it. Brandon Inge was left without a position by the trade for Cabrera, and is slated to return to the utility role he handled so well in 2004. While he wishes to be traded, and there's an argument for not having an unhappy guy in the room, Inge has enough value to the Tigers as a bench player that they should keep him if at all possible.

Winter grade: A. They made the biggest and best moves of any team this offseason, and should be praised early and often for it. This is what you do when you're trying to win, rather than trying to squeeze out the last dollar.

NRI to watch: Thirty-four-year-old Matt Mantei is attempting a comeback, two years removed from his last professional outing and three years past his last major league pitch. It's a long shot, but the absence of Joel Zumaya creates an opening in a bullpen that remains the team's weak spot.

Job battle to track: This is as set a lineup as you'll find in baseball. The closest thing to a battle is whether Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago both make the team, or they go with 12 pitchers.

One move to make: As has been the case since Zumaya got hurt late in 2006, the Tigers could use another power arm in the bullpen. That's fairly easy to find, and can comfortably be address during the season. If there's one other thing they could do, it would be to allow Raburn to take 25 starts away from Curtis Granderson against southpaws.

There are things that can go wrong here. The Tigers have given up a lot of their pitching depth, so injuries to the rotation could set a fairly ugly cycle in motion. They have an old lineup, and a collective significant drop in performance by the group of Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield (whose second half last year was awful), Rodriguez, Jones, and Polanco isn't out of the question. They're the best team in a tough division, so unlike the Angels, they'll need to win 90-93 games to assure themselves of making it to the postseason. Overall, though, you're looking at one of the best teams in baseball, one that should play into October.

Where: Surprise, Arizona, (Cactus League)

2007 record: 69-93 (5th, AL Central)

New guys:Alberto Callaspo, Jose Guillen, Ron Mahay, Miguel Olivo, Brett Tomko, Yasuhiko Yabuta

Gone guys:Emil Brown, Billy Buckner, Scott Elarton, Jason LaRue, Odalis Perez, David Riske, Mike Sweeney; Brandon Duckworth and Jason Smith are back only a NRIs

Wow, he's still here? There's no one about whom you can say this; only David DeJesus and Jimmy Gobble were even here in 2003. I guess it might come as a surprise that Angel Berroa got an invite to camp after being DFA'd over the winter.

Winter grade: C. The Guillen signing is one of those moves that, like the Gil Meche pickup last year, comes without much upside. The attempts to shore up the pitching staff on the cheap will have more impact, collectively.

NRI to watch: You have to be just a little curious about what Hideo Nomo has left in the tank. Did two years off following ERAs of 8.25 and 7.24 help at all? It's probably just an attempt to help Yabuta acclimate, but I know I'd like to see the guy pitch one more time.

Job battle to track: The back of the rotation is a mess, with a bunch of guys who got hammered last year fighting imports such as Brett Tomko and a mess of non-roster invitees like Duckworth, Chin-Hui Tsao, and Brian Lawrence. Almost anyone could emerge in six weeks' worth of games in Arizona.

One move to make: There is no one move. Set a lineup, a rotation and a bullpen, and let everyone play for a year. Don't worry about bad weeks; be patient and see what you have.

The Royals need a couple more good drafts before we can start to look at them as a baseball team and not an afterthought. They are becoming more enjoyable to watch, as Zack Greinke, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler form the core of a contender. The other 22 roster spots are a mixed bag, and GM Dayton Moore will continue to work on them. For now, catch Greinke when you can -- he's going to be very good this year.

Where: Fort Myers, Florida (Grapefruit League)

2007 record: 80-82 (3rd, AL Central)

New guys:Adam Everett, Carlos Gomez, Brendan Harris, Philip Humber, Mike Lamb, Craig Monroe, Jason Pridie, Delmon Young

Gone guys:Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Lew Ford, Torii Hunter, Luis Rodriguez, Johan Santana, Carlos Silva, Jason Tyner, Rondell White

Wow, he's still here?Joe Nathan is the last big-money veteran on the roster. For now.

Winter grade: C+. The Garza-for-Young trade was an aggressive attempt to shape the Twins' unbalanced talent pool and pick up a high-upside hitter. Their hand was forced on that other big trade, which has to be judged in that context. The additions of ex-Astros Everett and Lamb to man their left side of the infield were good ones.

NRI to watch: Prospect Brian Duensing isn't likely to pick up a rotation job in March. However, a good spring would position him as the first man in should anyone falter or be injured.

Job battle to track: At the moment, the Twins do not have a major league center fielder. Gomez, Pridie, and Denard Span all enter camp with designs on being the guy. If the Twins are to eventually get something out of Gomez, he should start the year, and in fact play most of it, at Rochester. Span is barely a prospect, more a fifth outfielder than a regular. That leaves Pridie, who's had a rocky minor league career, but he put together a good season last year at 23. He's the best answer.

One move to make: Trading Nathan. There's no need to retain him now that they've dealt Santana and allowed the other free agents to leave. Signing him would have been a questionable decision with the full roster in place; now it would be a huge mistake. If they can turn Nathan into just one third-base, second-base, or outfield prospect who can hit, they'll be doing the right thing.

It's a new team in Minnesota, but it's not necessarily a bad one. Lost in the gnashing of teeth over the Santana deal is that they won't miss him all that much on the mound. The Twins are loaded with starting pitching, from holdovers Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey to rehabbing Francisco Liriano to prospects Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak, and Glen Perkins. They'll still be a pretty good run-prevention team, and are unlikely to fall much below last year's 80-82 mark.

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