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Monsters of the Midwest

Quickly, class.

Can you name the most dominant regular-season team in the American League?

From April through September, dominance comes in the form of divisional control. And no team, not the Yankees, not the Oakland Athletics, has controlled its own division any better in recent years than the Minnesota Twins.

That's right, the Twins, who had to survive a close encounter with contraction just to keep passing out uniforms every February in Fort Myers.

Over the last three years, the Twins have been 26½ games better than the next-best team in the American League Central, the White Sox. This compares to a 22-game edge for Oakland over Anaheim and a margin of 19½ games for the Yankees over Boston.

And, measured in the same time frame, the gap between the second-place White Sox and the rest of the Central is even greater than the distance between Minnesota and Chicago.

Here's the Central, 2002-04:

1. Minnesota, 276-209.
2. White Sox, 250-236, 26½ GB.
3. Cleveland, 222-264, 54½ GB.
4. Kansas City, 203-283, 73½ GB.
5. Detroit, 170-315, 106 GM.

Now that's dominance. And no matter the rhetoric coming from teams like Detroit and the division's Wile E. Coyote, the White Sox, the reality is that this dominance could go on quite a bit longer.

While the Twins are in danger of losing pitching cornerstone Brad Radke along with the left side of their infield (Cristian Guzman, who has signed with Washington, and third baseman Corey Koskie), no one has filled more holes for less money in recent years than Minnesota GM Terry Ryan. And Detroit is the only team in the Central likely to improve significantly on paper from 2004 to '05; the Tigers' reasonable goal remains a winning season, not a title.

Detroit has come a huge distance since it was a 119-loss laughingstock in 2003. But the 29-win improvement that followed the addition of Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Rondell White, Fernando Vina and Ugueth Urbina got the Tigers only to 72-90.

It was enough encouragement for owner Mike Ilitch to order GM Dave Dombrowski to keep the pedal to the metal, and Dombrowski scored early offseason points with his signing of Troy Percival. That puts the Tigers in position to deal Urbina, whose career was interrupted by the kidnapping of his mother last summer in Venezuela, and step up efforts to improve a starting rotation that is headed by Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth.

The Tigers figure to sign one solid free-agent starter, with Carl Pavano visiting Comerica last week. Derek Lowe and Matt Clement are other possibilities if they fail in a bidding war for Pavano, which is expected to be protracted and could include the Yankees.

Detroit could use help in middle relief, too. It is sure to add a few more surplus-bin arms before spring training.

It's great to see competitive baseball return to a town where the Tigers were once the team that mattered most. But while optimists will point to Florida's World Series victories in 2003 and 1997, both after losing seasons the previous years, realists know it's probably too early to speak about Detroit as a serious factor.

Percival said he wouldn't have gone to Detroit if he didn't think the Tigers could win immediately. He chooses to ignore a telling bit of history.

The 2004 Tigers became the 19th team since 1990 to improve by at least 20 games from one season to the next, not counting strike seasons. Those teams have declined by 13 victories the following season.

Kansas City's dive from 83 wins in 2003 to 58 last year is the latest example that it's tougher to win after getting close than it is to get better after you've been awful.

No team in the Central better understands the difficulty of winning than the White Sox. They seemed poised to replace Cleveland as the division power after winning 95 games in 2000, but haven't won more than 86 games since.

Trying to generate an increased fan base in a city that is swinging to the Cubs in record numbers, the Sox have been consistently aggressive in terms of acquiring veterans.

In his time as general manager, Kenny Williams has lost 17 prospects who at one time were ranked in the organization's top 30 by Baseball America, most in today-for-tomorrow deals like the one that brought Freddy Garcia from Seattle for catcher Miguel Olivo, outfielder Jeremy Reed and shortstop Mike Morse. He traded five minor-leaguers in separate deals for Carl Everett in 2003 and '04 and now faces the prospect of having two designated hitters (Frank Thomas and Everett) on his roster next season.

Williams has added the likes of Bartolo Colon, David Wells and Roberto Alomar without ever getting the White Sox into the last week of the season with a shot at a playoff spot. He's currently trying to win on the strength of a starting rotation that includes Garcia (signed to a three-year extension after being acquired), Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras and Jon Garland, who has been the organization's big tease.

The Sox won't re-sign shortstop Jose Valentin, which could allow them to improve somewhat defensively (although not as much as if San Francisco had not swiped Omar Vizquel out of their grasp) and intend to add a starting pitcher through free agency (Jaret Wright, Clement) or a trade. But their pitching staff is going to have to be dramatically improved to offset the loss of Magglio Ordonez, who had averaged 32 homers and 118 RBI in a five-year run before losing half of last season to a knee injury after a collision with second baseman Willie Harris.

The White Sox worked hard to sign Ordonez to an extension last season but are so concerned about his health that they probably won't offer him salary arbitration, thus losing the best player they've developed since Thomas. The flop of once top prospect Joe Borchard -- recently released from the Mexican winter league because of his inability to make contact -- means they will probably have to go outside the organization to replace Ordonez. The trouble with that is they have a huge hole at catcher, need a right-handed set-up man in front of closer Shingo Takatsu and started the winter hoping to upgrade the middle-infield combo of Juan Uribe and Harris.

It's safe to say these Sox have scared the Twins more at other times than they do right now.

Cleveland might pose as strong of a threat in 2005 as Detroit or Chicago. The Indians went 80-82 under highly respected manager Eric Wedge a year ago.

It was an impressive developmental season, as Travis Hafner emerged as a middle-of-the-order force and catcher Victor Martinez worked well with a rotation that saw Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee join C.C. Sabathia in going a combined 39-27. General manager Mark Shapiro has done a good job building a bullpen that lacks only a quality left-hander.

Aaron Boone, signed after being dropped by the Yankees last season, should be productive in 2005, giving Shapiro the luxury to potentially trade second baseman Ron Belliard or underrated third baseman Casey Blake. The outfield has Grady Sizemore joining a mix that includes Coco Crisp, Jody Gerut and Matt Lawton (another potentially expendable veteran coming off a good year).

But the Indians risk delaying their arrival as contenders by not retaining Vizquel. A groundball-eating monster for 11 seasons in Cleveland, Vizquel was pushed aside for the potential of 22-year-old Jhonny Peralta, who hit .326 with 15 homers to earn MVP honors in the International League.

It could help Peralta greatly to play alongside a veteran like Boone next season. But the Vizquel-to-Peralta switch at shortstop is like handing the reins of an NFL contender to a rookie quarterback. He would have benefited from carrying Vizquel's clipboard for a little while.

Life after Carlos Beltran figures to be ugly for Kansas City. With Mike Sweeney out for extended stretches, they didn't have anyone drive in 80 runs last season. Terrence Long, just added in a trade with San Diego, could be a valuable part.

The Royals are counting on way too many kids. They've got David DeJesus in center, Mark Teahen at third base and John Buck (along with what's left of Benito Santiago) at catcher. The pitching staff has Brian Anderson and Scott Sullivan as its only true veterans.

Giddy about a chance to compete at this time last year, a harsh reality has returned in Kansas City. The goal is to avoid fifth place, not catch Minnesota.

The Twins might not scare baseball's best teams, but who is going to catch them in the Central?

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.