MLB Offseason: Ranking the Detroit Tigers' 2012 Competition in the AL Central

Christopher Czar@@detsportsczarContributor IJanuary 11, 2012

MLB Offseason: Ranking the Detroit Tigers' 2012 Competition in the AL Central

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    Like no other team in baseball, the Detroit Tigers dominated their divisional foes in 2011.

    While the Tigers merely played .500 baseball against the rest for the league, they went an outstanding 50-22 against the Indians, White Sox, Royals and Twins.

    This year will be the first time since 2008 that the Tigers will be the favorites to win the AL Central Division, which featured a very "Marlin-esque" offseason.

    But, it didn't end well in 2008.

    A mish-mash of developing young players and overrated veterans led that team to a last-place finish in the AL Central and was, perhaps, the most disappointing Tigers squad ever.

    The 2012 Tigers appear to be a more solidly built team than that version, thanks to a core that is highlighted by Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera—two of the games biggest superstars who are just entering their prime. 

    A letdown seems unlikely in 2012.

    But with injuries and player regression, nothing is certain. Barring a superstar-laden mega-deal among one of their AL Central division mates, the Detroit Tigers will once again be nearly every experts' pick to repeat as division champs.

    It isn't going to be easy, though, and here's how their opponents in the AL Central size up heading toward spring training.

4. Chicago White Sox

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    No team was more disappointing in the American League than the Chicago White Sox, and their recent offseason fire sale suggests another down year for the Sox.

    While the Twins had massive injuries to blame for their downfall, the White Sox had a couple of massive busts at the root of their unspectacular season.

    Originally thought to be a Tigers free-agent target, Adam Dunn opted for a monster deal with the White Sox—which is probably lucky for Detroit.

    His season was epically horrible, to the point where Ozzie Guillen mercifully sat him late in the year to prevent him from qualifying for the single worst season ever for a hitter.

    It wasn't just Dunn that disappointed. 

    Early in 2011, the fans from Chicago's South Side had to endure another snake oil sales job from Guillen and Kenny Williams on how good Jake Peavy was going to pitch.  He didn't, as he had an unspectacular 7-7 record, with a 4.92 ERA before, once again, being shut down for the season in early September.

    Losing their most consistent starter, Mark Buerhle, hurts a lot, but the rest of the pitching staff is adequate, including John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Phil Humber.

    Despite the trade of closer Sergio Santos, the White Sox' bullpen might still be OK with Matt Thornton, Jesse Craine and former top prospect Chris Sale.

    All-Star Paul Konerko is going to need a ton of help. 

    Breakout years from youngsters Dayan Viciendo, Brent Morel and Eduardo Escobar and bounce-back seasons from Dunn and Alex Rios are vital for any hope of contending.

    Rookie manager Robin Ventura being the reincarnation of Casey Stengal wouldn't hurt, either.

    Key Additions: None

    Key Losses: Buerhle, Santos, Carlos Quentin, Jason Frasor, (very likely) Juan Pierre

3. Kansas City Royals

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    Despite a meticulous build toward a contender, the future in not quite now for the Royals.

    While superstar rookie Eric Hosmer, reborn Alex Gordon, hanging-on Billy Butler and the pleasantly surprising Jeff Francoeur give the Royals some tremendous building blocks, it looks to be same as it ever was with the Royals weak rotation—meaning a ton of 10-7 games for the team that ranked 29th in ERA in the majors last season.

    Despite being a middling prospect, rookie catcher Salvator Perez was excellent after an August call-up that saw him hit .331 with 3 home runs and 21 RBIs.

    In a highly questionable move, the Royals traded overachieving centerfielder Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants for the injury concerns of starter Jonathan Sanchez.

    Like several other of the Royals off-season moves, trading for Sanchez is a high-risk, high-reward move.  If he's right, Sanchez would give the Royals rotation a jolt. However, even when healthy he's far from an ace, with a career 4.26 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.

    In addition to Sanchez, the Royals resigned crafty lefty Bruce Chen and are moving Aaron Crow from the bullpen to the rotation, with hopes of having better luck with that move than the Tigers did with Phil Cokes abbreviated rotation visit.

    Feel free to skip this sentence—the other two spots will be manned by Luke Hochever, Felipe Paulino or Danny Duffy. 

    Zzz...

    The Royals best rotation hope lies in massive improvements from top prospect Mike Montgomery, who had a terrible 2011 season at Triple-A Omaha.

    While they only finished 18th in bullpen ERA in 2011, there is a lot to like about the Royals' relievers this season. 

    They signed former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton to be the set-up man for their talented closer Joakim Soria and will also get a ton of help from Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Tim Cook.

    The Royals went 7-11 against the Tigers in 2011, by far the best record of any of the AL Central teams.  If all of their moves pan out and some talented prospects continue to improve, they are the team most likely to give the Tigers a serious run at the division.

    That's a lot of "ifs," though.

    Key Additions: Sanchez, Broxton, Yuniesky Betancourt

    Key Losses: Cabrera

2. Minnesota Twins

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    What will be interesting to watch with the 2012 Minnesota Twins is whether their 2011 season was a one-year aberration or a sign that the division domination has officially come to an end.

    The Twins superstar tandem of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer has had a hard time staying on the field consistently the last couple of seasons, and the results have show it.

    After four straight MVP-contending seasons, Morneau has hit only 22 home runs in 560 at-bats over the last two season.

    Mauer, meanwhile has hit just 1 home run at Target Field since it opened two seasons ago.  He's quickly been replaced by Alex Avila of the Tigers as the AL's top young backstop.

    The Twins lost stalwarts Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer to free agency, but might have found better replacements in underrated Josh Willingham, formerly of the A's, and Ryan Doumit, from the Pirates.

    The rest of the notables in the Twins lineup include Denard Span and former top prospects Ben Revere and Danny Valencia. Both received valuable experience in last year's throw-away season.

    The Twins are hoping for—but not holding their breath for—a return to form by former ace Francisco Liriano.  If he does return, the rotation will be more than adequate with the crafty Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and the recently signed Jason Marquis rounding out the five.

    The bullpen doesn't look as good thanks to the loss of former shutdown closer Joe Nathan to the Texas Rangers and Jose Mijares' defection to Kansas City, which actually might not be that bad of a thing.

    Matt Capps looks to be the division's worst closer, while Glen Perkins and former starter Brian Duensing are about it for depth worth mentioning.

    On talent alone, the Royals should probably be ranked #2, but the Twin's rotation and their excellent manager, Ron Gardenhire, lead me to give them the benefit of the doubt—for at least one more season.

    Key Additions: Willingham, Doumit, Marquis

    Key Losses: Cuddyer, Kubel, Nathan

1. Cleveland Indians

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    The Cleveland Indians started out 2011 as the surprise underdog story of the season. 

    However, their thin lineup and inexperienced pitching staff were soon exposed, and the Indians finished a distant second place to the Tigers.

    Not content with another second-place season, the Indians have tried desperately to improve their standing. 

    They may have succeeded.

    Asdrubal Cabrera is the centerpiece of the lineup, which kept a lot of attention away from Johnny Peralta's season.  Despite seeing his average dip to .273 after a hot start, Cabrera hit 25 home runs and had 93 RBI.

    Carlos Santana began to develop as one of the game's top young hitters.  With a modest .239 average, he hit 27 home runs.

    Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner are still around. 

    Sizemore was, once again, injured in 2011 and needs to remain healthy after the Indians chose to stick with him this offseason.  Hafner was also hurt, but seemed to return to his former self when healthy.  Choo had a nightmare season marred by injuries and a DUI arrest.

    The rest of the lineup includes some young players that have a lot to prove, such as Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta and Jason Kipnis.  If a couple of these guys develop, and Sizemore, Choo and Hafner stay healthy, the lineup will show big improvements.

    The real strength of the Indians lies in the pitching staff.

    With no offence to Doug Fister, Justin Masterson is the second best starter in the division.  Masterson can dominate at times, and he finally lived up to his potential in 2011.

    Josh Tomlin was a solid number two for the Indians last year, and Derek Lowe was a smart addition this offseason because he gives the team a dependable veteran.  Fausto Carmona was bad, but the former 19-game winner's pedigree has earned another chance.

    The wildcard remains Ubaldo Jimenez, who was highly disappointing after his trade deadline acquisition.  Jimenez was dominating at times with the Rockies, but failed miserably against the American League. 

    After allowing no earned runs in eight innings in his first game against the Tigers after his trade, Jimenez went 0-3, allowing 17 earned runs in 15.1 innings against Detroit the rest of the way.

    The bullpen is excellent, with Chris Perez closing and heavy contributions for Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano.

    If Jimenez and Carmona return to form, and the lineup gets a couple of unexpected contributions, the Indians will be much improved in 2012.

    Key Additions: Lowe, Andy LaRoche, Felix Pie, Jose Lopez.

    Key Loses: None

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