- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The American League Central teams are all over the map, approach-wise. Detroit and Chicago spent enough money this winter to leave no doubt that they're in serious "win now" mode. The Minnesota Twins, who have a projected payroll of more than $110 million, need to work hard to maintain the status quo. Kansas City took a short-term step backward in anticipation of a big move forward with youth. And Cleveland experienced an almost transaction-free winter -- not exactly an enthusiasm stoker for a club that ranked last in the majors in attendance with 1.39 million fans.
Did the five clubs meet their goals this offseason and advance their organizational agendas? We take a look with our AL Central report cards:
Owner Mike Ilitch is never afraid to spend money to upgrade the roster, and manager Jim Leyland is no stranger to plain talk. Leyland began the Tigers' winter caravan by acknowledging that "my tail's on the line." For good measure, Leyland observed that general manager David Dombrowski's tail is somewhere in the same vicinity.
The Tigers spent $50 million over four years to outbid the Orioles and Red Sox for Victor Martinez, a terrific hitter, great teammate and positive addition to any clubhouse. But Miguel Cabrera's presence ensures that Martinez won't be playing much first base, so Martinez will spend the bulk of his time DHing or sharing at-bats at catcher with Alex Avila. Leyland will have to make sure to reserve a decent number of DH at-bats for Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez to rest their weary bones.
Benoit fills a big void in the bullpen, and his 2010 numbers were astonishing. But we're talking about a guy who has six career disabled list visits and enjoyed far and away his best career year at age 33. What are the chances of him staying productive throughout his three-year, $16.5 million deal? Not great, but he should still help a lot this season if healthy.
The Tigers have talked quite a bit about how Brad Penny "takes the ball" and gives the team a veteran "horse" in the rotation. But Penny has been around since 2000 and has a total of two 200-inning seasons on his résumé -- the same as Rodrigo Lopez. Amid questions about his conditioning and dedication, Penny's tail is on the line, too.
The Tigers brought back Ordonez for one year at $10 million and re-signed Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta to reasonable deals. Peralta's range at shortstop was suspect two or three years ago, and it isn't getting any better.
Chicago's designated hitters ranked ninth in the AL with a .396 slugging percentage and contributed 18 homers and 65 RBIs. Those numbers are about to spike with the arrival of Dunn, who ranks second to Albert Pujols with 282 home runs since 2004. The Big Donkey didn't come cheaply at four years and $56 million, but he's only 31 years old and he's appeared in 150-plus games in eight of the past nine seasons. He brings some plate discipline to a team that ranked 11th in the league with 467 walks.
Paul Konerko turns 35 in March, and that's a concern, but his three-year, $37.5 million deal was a necessary investment for the White Sox given his leadership and right-handed power. The return of Konerko and catcher A.J. Pierzynski leaves the Chicago clubhouse core intact, no small thing in light of the Ozzie Guillen-Kenny Williams-related volatility that so routinely swirls around this team.
The back end of the bullpen is in flux now that Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz are gone. But lefty Matt Thornton struck out 81 batters in 60 2/3 innings and held righties to a .203 average, so he has the credentials to close. Jesse Crain, who signed another one of those pricey middle relief deals at three years and $13 million, is now four years removed from shoulder surgery and knows the division well after seven seasons in Minnesota. On a negative note, the division also knows him.
Lastings Milledge was an intriguing late pickup on a minor league deal. At age 25, he was worth a shot.
The most aggressive rule of rebuilding states that a team has to be willing to get really bad before it can finally get good. After losing 95 games last season, the Royals embody the "darkest before the dawn" theory. The lack of talent on the big league roster makes them a prime 100-loss candidate, but they've cleared the decks to begin working third baseman Mike Moustakas and their other top prospects into the mix very soon.
General manager Dayton Moore did what needed to be done and traded Zack Greinke, who had checked out emotionally on the Royals and was going to have to be moved eventually. Could Moore have done better than the package he received from Milwaukee? Perhaps. But Escobar has lots of range and room to grow at age 24, and Cain has the ability to be a solid .280 hitter with 25 steals in center field. Throw in an athletic young starter (Jake Odorizzi) and a potential back-end bullpen guy (Jeremy Jeffress) and the Royals have the potential for a decent haul. It's all guesswork with these established star-for-prospects deals, anyway.
Moore's other moves this winter were suitably modest and financially restrained. Jeff Francis was worth a flyer for a guaranteed $2 million plus incentives, and the Royals brought back 12-game winner Bruce Chen for a base salary of $2 million. The Royals also signed Billy Butler, their best player, to a four-year, $30 million contract extension in January.
Kansas City's team grade improved drastically two weeks ago when Gil Meche followed his conscience and retired because of shoulder problems, paring the Royals' payroll by $12 million overnight. As one National League executive observed, "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good."
BIGGEST ADDITIONS: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Jim Hoey
If you proceed under the assumption that the Twins have the most talent in the division and had the least work to do this winter, they fared OK. They brought back Carl Pavano for a guaranteed two years and $16.5 million -- a reasonable investment for a guy who pitched 217 innings. They also fended off a challenge from the Texas Rangers to re-sign Jim Thome. He's beloved in the clubhouse, and will help sell a few tickets and generate some feel-good vibes on his journey from 589 to 600 home runs.
There's some upheaval up the middle, where the double-play combination of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy gives way to Alexi Casilla at shortstop and Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second base. Or will Nishioka play short with Casilla at second? That question will play out in spring training in Florida.
Joe Nathan's return as closer will help enormously, and Matt Capps is a capable setup man. But Minnesota's relief contingent ranked fourth in the league with a 3.49 ERA, and the bullpen took a hit with the departure of Guerrier, Crain, Rauch and Fuentes.
Finally, the Twins go to spring training with first baseman Justin Morneau's concussion issues lingering over the team. Michael Cuddyer is available to shift to first and Jason Kubel can slot into right field. But how much does manager Ron Gardenhire want to be leaning a lot on a 40-year-old Thome at DH?
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Andy Marte
The Tribe won 69 games, and they've done nothing this offseason to upgrade the team through free agency or trades. Chris Antonetti, in his first year as general manager, is on a tight leash from the Dolan family, and Austin Kearns' $1.3 million contract is the only major league deal given out by the team this winter.
The Indians are betting on injury comebacks by Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, progress from Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and the young big leaguers and the eventual arrival of third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, second baseman Jason Kipnis and the franchise's other top prospects in the minors.
If the plan fails to work, Cleveland might become more active in trying to move Fausto Carmona or even Shin-Soo Choo, valuable commodities who are about to get more expensive. Some competing executives are wondering why the Indians didn't act more boldly and shop those players more actively this winter.