Let me get this straight right off the bat—I'm not going to pick against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central this season. I'd be crazy to.
The Tigers have undoubtedly the division's best lineup, very likely (especially at the the top) the strongest rotation, one of the two best managers in the division and probably the second best bullpen.
The Tigers should run away with the AL Central in 2012. But I'm here to tell you that it ain't gonna be that way.
I love this Tigers team and other than defense and fifth starter, I have a hard time finding flaws on this team. I fully expect to see them in a slugfest come October with the Yankees, Rangers or Angels.
However, they've got a long journey before they get to that point. I'd be nearly as surprised if the Tigers won the division by 15 games again in 2012 as I would be if they lost the division outright.
The Tiger's AL Central brethren are a mixed bag this year. While none can claim to be nearly as well-rounded—hey, no Prince Fielder or Miguel Cabrera jokes—as the Tigers, each of the other teams offers something that will give the Tigers fits this season.
Well, except the White Sox. They'll be bad.
Which Team Is Most Likely to Challenge the Tigers in the AL Central
They're a broken franchise right now that inexplicably halted their rebuild mid-stream to resign John Danks long term. They appear to be an organization that was ready to take the plunge to full on rebuild then chickened out due to fan disgust.
The Twins are just a season removed from being the class of the AL Central. While they endured a nightmarish 2011, it in large part due to injuries suffered by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and just about every other worthwhile player on their roster.
The Twins added underrated Josh Willingham while shipping out overrated Michael Cuddyer. Sounds like a fair deal to me. The Twins are a sound health care plan away from giving the Tigers a scare this season.
In Kansas City, the Royals once again enter the season as a dark horse contender. Their lineup is scary, but the starters are just as frightening—in a bad way.
The Royals however, have a solid bullpen headlined by Joaquin Soria and the newly signed Jonathan Broxton, and were the AL Central team that matched up the best against the Tigers in 2011, going a division best 7-11 against them.
The Royals however, still have to shore up a shaky starting pitching rotation that's headlined by...well...headlined by someone I'm sure.
If you're looking for the team that will give the Tigers a run this season it's the Indians. The Indians had a quiet offseason that still saw them resign one time All-World outfielder Grady Sizemore, deal for the inning-eating Derek Lowe and make a late offseason grab for the underrated Casey Kotchman.
If the Indians can get continued growth from Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana, with healthy seasons from Sizemore, Shin Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, they have the ability to be an upper end offense in the American League.
Where the Indians will give the Tigers fits is with their pitching staff, however. Ubaldo Jiminez wasn't good in 2011, but he has a track record and was at one time an NL Cy Young candidate. Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin did have great 2011 seasons and will be back to anchor a staff that added Lowe.
The biggest strength of the Indians is their bullpen. Chris Perez is an exceptional closer that is surrounded by a ton of talented arms including Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp and Joe Smith.
It could often be that case that if the Tigers don't get the Indians early, they won't at all.
So while perhaps I'm trying to create a story where there isn't one, the AL Central appears to have tightened up this offseason.
Unfortunately for their opposing fans, any chance of an opponent overtaking the Tigers went out the window when they signed Prince Fielder from the Brewers.
That doesn't mean it won't be fun, just closer than we all think.
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