In 2011, the Tigers were the only team in the American League Central to post a winning record, they won the division by 15 games -- the largest margin by any first-place club in baseball -- boasted the league's dual MVP and Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander, and added to their division-leading payroll by making the division's most prominent offseason acquisition in free-agent slugger Prince Fielder. Perhaps that's why, when he was asked this spring if he was in favor of MLB adding a second wild-card team to each league, White Sox general manager Ken Williams said, "Hell yeah I want it."
Like all of Detroit's AL Central rivals, Williams' primary goal will be to win the division, but with that task looking rather daunting as the season begins, there's no shame in the White Sox, Indians, Royals and Twins being happy that there is suddenly an extra postseason berth available.
Besides, as Williams knows, nothing is guaranteed. "Out of my previous 11 years here, I don't know how many times we were picked as the favorite and somebody else won," says the 12th-year GM, whose club has won the Central twice in his tenure. "But," he adds, "I will agree with everyone else that the Detroit Tigers are the team to beat."
WINTER GRADE: D
If applicable, the better letter here might be 'R,' as in rebuilding. That's the word dropped by general manager Ken Williams after he traded closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for minor leaguer Nestor Molina back in December, which came around the same time longtime staff ace Mark Buehrle left as a free agent and signed with the Marlins. Just a few days later, however, Williams said a full-blown rebuilding was never the plan, although before that month was over he had dealt outfielder Carlos Quentin to the Padres for two more minor leaguers.
By spring training, Williams was shrugging off talk of a complete overhaul."We haven't done anything different this offseason than in any other," he said. Part of that is because he's banking on struggling veterans like Adam Dunn, Gordon Beckham, Alex Rios and pitcher Jake Peavy playing to their capabilities. If that happens, the White Sox will essentially have made major upgrades at four positions without spending a penny or giving away a single player.
KEY QUESTION: Is Robin Ventura ready to be a major league manager?
Ventura's hiring as White Sox skipper last October was so unexpected it even took him by surprise. "It took me a minute to understand what [Williams] was asking me," said Ventura when the prospect of him replacing the departed Ozzie Guillen was broached. Ventura, who spent 16 years as a major leaguer, had never coached or managed professionally and by his own admission knows next to nothing about certain aspects of the job, such as how pitchers go about their business. To that end, he can rely on noted pitching coach Don Cooper, a holdover from the Guillen regime, though he noted that his one rule when he goes to take a pitcher out will be "I get to stand on top of the mound and they have to walk down."
The White Sox are longshots to contend this year but Ventura will nevertheless have to command the respect of his players and be able to help guide and teach the young players who may not remember him as a player.
X-FACTOR: Adam Dunn
Last year, his first in Chicago after signing a four-year, $56 million contract, Dunn set a major league record for lowest batting average by a hitter with at least 425 plate appearances: .159. That would be bad enough, but the man who averaged 37 home runs a year for the previous nine years also didn't produce any power, hitting just 11 homers and compiling a .569 OPS, more than 300 points below his average from 2002-2010. "Poor Adam just couldn't get out of his own way last year," said Williams.
Dunn will be counted on to return to form this season and will be in the middle of a White Sox lineup that last year ranked 11th in the league in runs scored. It's critical that he perform like the player he was before he got to the Windy City if Chicago is to have any hope at contending. "I don't know what happened last year," he said, "[But] I'm damn sure not going to have a year like that again."
"It's going to be a long year for the White Sox. They've got to retool and now's a time to do it. ... Robin Ventura might be a good manager for them. He's a good leader and he's very even-tempered. ... Adam Dunn should have gone down to the minnors last year. If he just makes contact he hits 35, 40 home runs. ... Jake Peavy is not nearly what he used to be. He used to throw 95 with great movement and now it's 90-91."
WINTER GRADE: C+
Last year the Indians were extremely young -- perhaps too young in fact. So in the offseason, general manager Chris Antonetti acquired a handful of veteran players to provide, in his words, "quality major league depth" rather than to rely solely on minor leaguers and replacement-level players to compensate for the inevitable run of injuries any team faces. To that end, the Indians traded for Derek Lowe, late of the Braves, and ex-Twin Kevin Slowey to enhance the starting rotation, added Casey Kotchman (coming off a career year in Tampa Bay) to take over at first base, and signed veterans like Ryan Spillborghs and Aaron Cunningham to provide depth elsewhere.
None of those moves alone will vault Cleveland into playoff contention but in a division that is wide open behind the Tigers, they won't hurt.
KEY QUESTION: How healthy is Grady Sizemore?
Sizemore made three AL All-Star teams before his 26th birthday but since 2008, the last of those seasons, he has never played in more than 106 games, has had major operations on both knees and went back on the DL this spring with a back injury that required surgery. There is no timetable yet for his return.
Without him, the Indians still have some decent offensive options, such as shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and catcher Carlos Santana, but those are the only two players to hit at least 14 home runs and no one stole more than 17 bases. At his best, Sizemore was a 30/30 player and a game-changing force in the lineup. Those days are probably over, but he is still young enough (just 29) that he could be an effective force if only he can get and stay injury-free.
X-FACTOR: Ubaldo Jimenez
Adding Lowe on the cheap -- it cost Cleveland just one minor leaguer and Atlanta will pay most of Lowe's $15 million salary for this season -- gives the Indians another proven major league starter but they have to be hoping for better results than the last previous All-Star they traded for.
That would be Jimenez, who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in 2010 but, after being shipped from Colorado to Cleveland at midseason last year, went just 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA. His diminishing fastball velocity has not returned in full force this spring, leading some to wonder if his fantastic '10 campaign was just a fluke. The cost of obtaining Jimenez was high -- two of Cleveland's top pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, went to the Rockies in the deal -- and the Indians needs to see some return on its investment. Along with Justin Masterson, Jimenez is being counted on to anchor Cleveland's rotation.
"They might have overachieved a little bit last year. But you know what? They've got some young talent that's coming on... I think Shin-Soo Choo's going to have a big year, because he's a real good player and have everything go wrong last year... They sent Matt LaPorta down, and I don't think he's in their future plans that much. He's had some chances, but in my understanding he just doesn't adjust to what he needs to do as far as being a big league hitter. There's so many holes in his game, and the swing's kind of long. That's why they signed Casey Kotchman -- he'll be a solid guy at first and a tough out... Ubaldo Jimenez's mechanics break down. His front side would fly open last year, and then you throw less hard. I imagine he'll be back -- everything I hear about the guy is he's a wonderful young man, and bright... Maybe they can get Carlos Santana out after 6 or 7 innings, save his legs -- replace him with Lou Marson, who's a real good defender. Santana's really a premium hitter."
WINTER GRADE: A
As late as January, even GM Dave Dombrowski concedes he hadn't done very much, not that he had to after his team ran away with the division last year and returned all its key players. But then Victor Martinez got hurt and the Tigers suddenly needed a bat. They went out and got by far the best, and most expensive, hitter still available, free agent slugger Prince Fielder, at the cost of $214 million over nine years. Not only should Fielder more than make up for the loss of Martinez, he will combine with perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera to give the Tigers one of the game's most potent 1-2 punches in the middle of the lineup.
KEY QUESTION: Can Miguel Cabrera play third base?
As a consequence of Fielder's signing, Cabrera is being moved from first base to third, where he hasn't played at all since 2008 and was so mediocre that Detroit shifted him off the position. Cabrera earned raves in camp for his work ethic from everyone, especially coach Rafael Belliard, who has been his instructor, but if the Tigers were looking for a bad omen, they got one on March 19 when Cabrera was hit just beneath the eye by a scorching ground ball from the Phillies' Hunter Pence.
It was a play that would have been difficult for even a Gold Glover to make but it nonetheless showed just how precarious it can be. Cabrera sat out more than a week and manager Jim Leyland insists Cabrera will be back at third base during the season. Still, he is far too valuable -- last year he led the majors in hitting (.344), and OBP (.448) while hitting at least 30 home runs for the seventh time in eight years -- and far too expensive (owed $86 million through 2015) to stay there for long if something like that happens again. In the meantime, they'll live with his limited range and hope that he simply catches the balls he gets to and doesn't make any egregious errors.
X-FACTOR: Austin Jackson
Jackson has the speed -- 22 stolen bases in 27 attempts, an AL-high 11 triples -- to be a strong leadoff candidate but he strikes out way too much (178 times, by far the most among MLB leadoff hitters) and struggles to get on base (.317, 38th among leadoff men). In a lineup that as deep as Detroit's, Jackson's role is simply, as Leyland noted, be a tablesetter for hitters like Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young.
"In my eyes it's tough to call Austin Jackson a leadoff hitter, but he's there by default. . . . Miguel Cabrerea has looked fine at third. He's made all the plays. . . . They've got so many good offensive players, they can't all go in a slump together."
WINTER GRADE: B
The Royals are never going to be major players in free agency but for once they didn't have to worry as much about that. Their core of young, homegrown players is ready to take over, leaving them with fewer holes than usual.
In fact, Kansas City was even able to trade one of its most productive players not for salary relief but because it has yet another young player ready to take over. That was the motive behind dealing center fielder Melky Cabrera, coming off a season that included career highs in batting average, home runs, RBIs, hits and runs at age 27, to the Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. The move not only improves the starting rotation, it opens up a spot for Lorenzo Cain to take over in center.
The Royals also got former All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton in free agency. It seemed like Broxton would be a good set-up option but he'll likely have to take over ninth-inning duties now that closer Joakim Soria has been lost for the year with an elbow injury.
KEY QUESTION: Which young pitcher will take a step forward?
For all the talk about the promising nucleus in Kansas City, most of those are position players. The rotation that will start the season, on the other hand, includes 34-year-old Bruce Chen, the 29-year-old Sanchez and 28-year-old Luke Hochevar, a former No. 1 overall pick who has not lived up to expectations. For the Royals to contend, one of their young pitchers will have to prove to be a reliable big league starter. Options include 23-year-old lefty Danny Duffy, 22-year-old prospect Mike Montgomery, who should start the year in the minors but could be called up during the season, and 25-year-old Aaron Crow, who made the All-Star team as a middle reliever last year and will be in the bullpen at the start of this season but could join the rotation at some point in 2012.
Crow spent most of the offseason and spring training expanding his repertoire of pitches for just such a possibility, especially his circle changeup. He didn't have much use for the pitch as a reliever but would still throw it in the bullpen to keep it sharp.
X-FACTOR: Mike Moustakas
The No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft, Moustakas debuted with the Royals last season amid much fanfare but struggled for much of his 89-game stint in the bigs. He hit .263 but had only five home runs and a .309 OBP. He hasn't been all that impressive in camp, either, batting only .224 with one home run and a .274 OBP. He has prodigious power, as evidenced by his 36 home runs across two levels in 2010, but he'll need to harness some of that ability at the major league level if he is to become a reliable everyday middle-of-the-order threat the Royals so desperately need.
"They're continuing, in my opinion, their rebuilding mode. I think they're still a year away, specifically from a starting pitching standpoint. I think .500 would be a good goal for them this year, and I realistically see them coming up a bit short of that.... Eric Hosmer's got superstar written all over him. He's just a very advanced hitter, and I think he's only going to grow more into his power. He's special... Mike Moustakas, he's going to be a good player in time, but not as quickly as Hosmer. Still, I think he's capable of hitting .270 this year, with 20 homers and 80 RBI's... The future will hinge on their young pitching, and a couple of them took a step backwards last year, specifically Mike Montgomery, their top prospect. I thought he might have been pushed just a little bit too fast -- it's not stuff, it's command and confidence. He has a plus fastball and a plus breaking ball, but the change is still a work in progress."
WINTER GRADE: C
Three more mainstays from the Twins glory days -- closer Joe Nathan and outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel -- departed. In a break from organizational philosophy, the Twins turned not to their mostly barren farm system but to free agency to replace them. Hence the signings of, among others, outfielder Josh Willingham, DH/C/1B Ryan Doumit and infielder Jamey Carroll. They also brought in former Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, but released him this spring after he had yet another injury to his pitching elbow.
KEY QUESTION: Will Justin Morneau play?
Morneau, a former MVP, has been injury plagued throughout his career and the last two years have been no different, as he's been limited him to just 150 games combined due to a concussion and the resulting symptoms. When healthy, Morneau remains a critical run producer -- he had 18 home runs and 56 RBIs before being lost for the year in July 2010 -- but his symptoms remain such a worry that doctors think if he gets worn down too much they could come back.
To prevent that from happening, the Twins will likely use Morneau primarily as the designated hitter and hope for the best case: that he can stay in the lineup and contribute and that Joe Mauer, another former MVP coming off an injury-ravaged year, can stay healthy enough himself to be an everyday catcher without compromising his own offensive production. The worst case scenario? Morneau himself hinted at that in camp, when he said that he would consider retiring if his concussion symptoms persist.
X-FACTOR: Ryan Doumit
If Mauer can catch, Morneau can DH and Chris Parmalee, a revelation in camp who looks to have won a starting job, can play first base, that would seem to limit the options for Doumit, who was signed to a one-year, $3 million deal in the offseason. But Doumit can, and has, played all three of those positions before, and has also played 60 games in right field during his seven years with the Pirates. It is that latter position where he might get the most action in 2012, but one way or another, the Twins will want to get his bat in the lineup as much as possible. That could even mean time at a position Doumit has never played before: left field.
"If the Twins are going to do anything, Joe Mauer has to be Joe Mauer again -- and I just don't see it happening. . . . If Justin Morneau is not going to be a scary middle-of-the-order hitter again, they need to consider trading him. . . .If this team goes .500 I'll be surprised."