There were no fans screaming at players dancing in the middle of a diamond, no champagne bottles, no commemorative hats or T-shirts being handed out. That's because the Tigers did not actually clinch their second consecutive AL Central title on Jan. 25, the day they handed a king's ransom to a Prince. But it sure did feel that way.
Until mid-January the off-season following Detroit's first division crown in 24 years had been mostly quiet. "We had filled roles of minor impact," G.M. Dave Dombrowski says. "We didn't have anything we had to do." That all changed on Jan. 16, when designated hitter--catcher Victor Martinez tore his left ACL while working out at home in Orlando. The injury, which will force Martinez to miss the entire season, ripped a 103-RBI hole in a lineup that scored the fourth-most runs in the AL (4.86 per game) in 2011.
Five days after Martinez went down, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave Dombrowski and John Westhoff, the team's lead counsel, the go-ahead to pursue slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, who was still searching for a megadeal on the free-agent market. Three days of negotiations later—"It was a very busy weekend," says Dombrowski—Fielder was a Tiger, having signed a nine-year, $214 million contract. In a matter of hours Detroit had not only solidified its position as the team to beat in the AL Central in 2012—it had also extended the gap between itself and the rest of a division that it won by 15 games last year, the largest margin in baseball.
Given the weakened state of the Central, even the Fielder-less Tigers stood an excellent chance of making consecutive trips to the postseason for the first time since 1934 and '35. They have the AL's reigning Cy Young winner and MVP (Justin Verlander), a perennial MVP candidate (Miguel Cabrera) and a shut-down bullpen (anchored by Jose Valverde, who converted all 49 of his save chances in 2011). They play in the only division that didn't have at least two teams finish with a winning record and, even before signing Fielder, were projected to have the division's highest payroll. So it's no wonder that in spring training, with Fielder getting settled in Lakeland, Fla., one competing AL Central executive, asked to assess the division, said, "I thought that had already been decided."
March 26, 2012
It hasn't, of course, but the Tigers, who lost to the Rangers in six games in the ALCS, nonetheless have their eyes on bigger prizes. "There's only one true winner," says Verlander, "and if we don't win the World Series, it's a disappointment." While there is room for improvement as a team, Verlander will have a hard time topping his own performance in 2011, when he won the pitching Triple Crown with 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. He was the first pitcher since 1992 to win the MVP and the Cy Young, which may explain why, when asked to name his most pressing concerns for this season, he replied, "Field my position better."
Cabrera has the same goal: With Fielder taking over at first base, Detroit's other stout slugger (Cabrera weighed 265 pounds in camp) has shifted across the diamond to play third. Cabrera was a third baseman as a young player with the Marlins, but the Tigers, less than impressed with his mobility and quickness, immediately moved him when they acquired him before the 2008 season. Cabrera became a passable, if below average, defender across the diamond, but, says infield coach Rafael Belliard, "I think he got bored playing first base." Last year, long before Fielder's arrival, Cabrera even broached the idea of playing up to 40 games this season at third, and Dombrowksi says that's where Cabrera would have played on the road had the Tigers advanced to the World Series.
The Tigers have no illusions that Cabrera will morph into Brooks Robinson—asked how Cabrera looked early in camp, manager Jim Leyland smiled, then snapped, "Next question"—but they have an offense to make up for any defensive shortcomings. Last year Cabrera led the AL in batting (.344), OBP (.448) and doubles (48); was second in slugging (.586); and reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for the seventh time in his eight full big league seasons. And with Fielder, who was second in the NL last year in homers (38) and third in OPS (.981), hitting behind him, Cabrera figures to see more hittable pitches than he did a year ago, when he had the second-most intentional walks (22) in the league.
With outfielder Delmon Young, catcher Alex Avila and shortstop Jhonny Peralta—each of whom had an above-average OPS last year—the Tigers are deep as well. Says Dombrowski, "This club has a lot of guys in the prime of their careers and young guys—Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch—with room for growth."
No team in baseball has as many players in the latter category as the Royals. Despite 17 losing seasons in the last 18 years, Kansas City is brimming with optimism thanks to the game's best crop of young players. Last year the Royals had five of the game's top 19 prospects, according to Baseball America. Two of them—first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas—debuted last year. Three others—outfielder Wil Myers and pitchers John Lamb and Mike Montgomery—should form another bumper crop that also includes 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez, whom the club signed to a five-year, $7 million contract in February; second baseman Johnny Giavotella, 24, the likely starting second baseman; and Lorenzo Cain, a 25-year-old with 49 games of big league experience who is expected to start in centerfield.
During camp Cain scanned the clubhouse and was reminded of being with the franchise's top farm club. "Pretty much the entire Triple A team got called up last year," he says. That brings the Royals closer than ever to the goal set forth by G.M. Dayton Moore in the team's first organizational meeting after he took the job in 2006: to have the majority of the everyday lineup be homegrown by '13 or '14. Moore cautions that even players as talented as the ones the Royals have groomed need "two to four years to become consistent at this level." Still, he adds, "the development mode is over." In other words, says manager Ned Yost, "We're going for it this year."
The Indians went for it last year, when they traded four players, including two of their top pitching prospects, to the Rockies on July 30 to land righthander Ubaldo Jimenez for the stretch drive. At the time, Cleveland was 53--51 and just 1½ games behind the Tigers. But the team went 27--31 the rest of the year, a playoff push never materialized, and Jimenez went 4--4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts. In the off-season he returned home to the Dominican Republic to rediscover his fastball—which dropped from 96.1 mph in average velocity in 2010 to 93.5—and his confidence. He found both after committing to a workout routine focused on his core. "I never paid attention to stretching before," says Jimenez. "This time I had someone there to tell me what to do."
Jimenez isn't the only question mark in Cleveland. Designated hitter Travis Hafner hasn't played more than 118 games since 2007 and has hit just 13 homers each of the past two years while battling a shoulder injury. Outfielder Grady Sizemore is back on the disabled list, this time with a back problem that could keep the three-time All-Star out until June, making this the fourth straight season he's been out for significant time. Perhaps the only "known quantity," as All-Star closer Chris Perez puts it, is the bullpen, a tightly knit, effective group (it had the AL's fifth-best relief ERA) that calls itself the Bullpen Mafia and printed up T-shirts to look like the poster for The Godfather. Their capo is Scott Radinsky, who was promoted from bullpen coach to pitching coach to help fix a team ERA (4.23) that ranked 10th in the AL last season.
The Twins' pitching was even worse than Cleveland's—it ranked next to last in the AL in ERA, at 4.58. But the problems in Minnesota run deeper, which is why the Twins' biggest off-season move was to bring Terry Ryan back to the G.M. role he held from 1995 through 2007. Ryan, who had been a special adviser since handing the job to longtime assistant Bill Smith, came back after Minnesota plummeted to 99 losses a year after winning its sixth division title in nine seasons. "A lot of years you heard people say, We want to be like the Twins," says Ryan. "Last year you didn't."
It won't be heard much this year either. Minnesota had one of the league's worst offenses in 2011, ranking next to last in OPS and runs scored and last in home runs, and doesn't yet know what to expect from Justin Morneau, the former MVP who is still trying to regain his old form after a variety of ailments, most notably concussion symptoms, forced him to miss 174 games in the past two years. Morneau has not ruled out retirement if the concussion symptoms persist. Joe Mauer, another former MVP, says he's back to 100% health after he played just 82 games in 2011 because of bilateral leg weakness and hip and shoulder soreness.
Mauer and Morneau are two of the few remaining holdovers from the team's recent success. Minnesota lost mainstays Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan in free agency and, as Ryan says, "had to go against some of our philosophies" to replace them. A dearth of talent in the farm system forced Ryan to find affordable, temporary replacements on the open market. While outfielder Josh Willingham, catcher Ryan Doumit and infielder Jamey Carroll might provide marginal improvement, Ryan is focused on the players he can land on June 4—draft day, when Minnesota has five of the top 72 picks. "We've got an opportunity to replenish a system that has a default of talent," said Ryan. "That will go a long way toward re-charting our future."
The White Sox' future is now in the hands of 44-year-old rookie manager Robin Ventura, whose appointment as skipper surprised even him when G.M. Kenny Williams offered him the job in October. "It took me a minute to understand what he was asking me," says Ventura, who has never managed at any level. "I said, 'If I do this it's going to be because I want to do it, not because you're signing a bunch of free agents.'"
That's good: Not only did the White Sox not go shopping this winter, they also traded closer Sergio Santos and outfielder Carlos Quentin and began dropping the r-word: rebuilding. The White Sox are hoping for something close to career-norm seasons from DH Adam Dunn (he hit .159 in 2011 with a career-low 11 home runs), outfielder Alex Rios (a career-low .227 average and .265 OBP) and righthander Jake Peavy (4.92 ERA in only 19 appearances). Getting those, Ventura notes, would be "like adding three impact free agents."
Dunn, who had seven straight seasons of at least 38 homers before signing a four-year, $56 million contract with Chicago before last year, says he's "damn sure not going to have a year like  again."
Verlander too is fueled by past disappointments. In 2008, just as they are this year, the Tigers were considered heavy favorites to win the division after making several splashy moves (trading for shortstop Edgar Renteria, Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis). But Detroit lost 88 games and placed last in the Central. That finish, empty and October-less, drives the Tigers and their best player as much as the ALCS loss last October. "I draw on those memories," says Verlander. "It really left a sour taste in our mouths. It won't happen again—I won't let it."
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
PRINCE FIELDER, TIGERS
As he begins his Tigers career, Fielder is in his prime and surrounded by a deep lineup that should ensure he gets plenty of pitches to hit. He finished in the top five in NL MVP voting twice in the last three years. He's about to make the AL race a lot more interesting.
JUSTIN VERLANDER, TIGERS
The flamethrowing righthander is unquestionably the best hurler in the American League. Now Detroit's ace tries to become only the fifth AL pitcher, and first since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000, to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards.
PAUL KONERKO, WHITE SOX
The one thing Chicago can count on is the perennially overlooked Konerko, who last year, at age 35, hit .300 for the fourth time, 30 home runs for the seventh time and drove in at least 100 runs for the sixth time. To have a prayer of contending, the White Sox can't afford to have their most reliable threat act his age.
ROOKIE TO WATCH
SALVADOR PEREZ, ROYALS
He's technically not a rookie—his 148 at bats in '11 left him 18 over the threshhold to qualify—but he is only 21. Perez drew raves for his bat (.331/.361/.473) and his work behind the plate. When he returns in the summer after undergoing knee surgery this month, he'll start for K.C.
STAR ON THE RISE
CARLOS SANTANA, INDIANS
In his first year back after suffering a gruesome knee injury in 2010, the Cleveland catcher played 155 games and had a .351 OBP and a team-high 27 homers. As a disciplined switch-hitter with power to all fields who is still just 25, he has plenty of room to become a supernatural star.
STAR IN DECLINE
JUSTIN MORNEAU, TWINS
Morneau said this spring that if the concussion symptoms that have limited him the past two years don't subside, he may retire. The ex-MVP, who was also beset by a wrist injury and shoulder soreness last season, is still only 30, but he looks like a shell of his former self.
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch boost their OBPs and are premier table setters for Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. Justin Verlander and Jose Valverde dominate, and Detroit cruises to the World Series.
Cabrera's third base experiment is a disaster, leading to friction between him and Fielder when one is moved to DH. Rick Porcello's development stalls, and Detroit stays home in October.
Eric Hosmer becomes an All-Star, and the other young players—especially pitchers Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino—display enough consistency to help them challenge for a playoff spot.
The young players already on the roster are overmatched and the ones on their way don't progress as planned. Another losing season blunts the franchise's momentum.
Carlos Santana continues to emerge as one of the best young players in the game, and Ubaldo Jimenez recaptures his 2010 form. He and Justin Masterson help Cleveland compete for the wild card.
Grady Sizemore's injury problems keep piling up. The young players (Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley) aren't ready, and Cleveland looks like the second-half team of 2011.
The team again becomes fundamentally sound—a focal point of spring training—and Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer stay healthy. A starter emerges to help Carl Pavano and ease the load on an overtaxed bullpen.
Morneau can't play, Mauer's power never returns, and Francisco Liriano isn't good enough to be traded for prospects at the deadline. It's another lost season, and the future is bleak.
Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham return to form, Alexei Ramirez blossoms into a star, and John Danks pitches like the ace he's being paid to be. The White Sox make a surprise run at the Tigers.
Robin Ventura is overmatched as manager, Dunn can't turn his career around, and the closer's role remains a mystery all year long. Kenny Williams's rebuilding plan can't get off the ground.