AL Central up for grabs
During the past three seasons, the American League Central produced three different division winners, and a fourth team, the Tigers, went to the World Series. In two of those three seasons, the division was decided on the final day of play. The same could happen at the end of this season, only instead of two teams being tied for the division lead, there could be three teams or four.That, of course, will never happen, but the point still stands: The AL Central is a highly competitive division. Four teams, none of them great, have a legitimate chance to win the division in 2009. And a fifth team, the Royals, who didn't even finish fifth in 2008, "could have our best club since 1994 [their last season as a contender]," Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said. A close race in the AL Central is likely, if not guaranteed. That's in part because the White Sox, who won the division in 2008, appear to have taken a slight step backward, and the Twins, the team the White Sox beat in a one-game playoff last season, added no one of major significance. The three teams that finished below them -- the Indians, Royals and Tigers -- all got better. "It's a pretty good division," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Look at the end of last year. You know Detroit had injuries, and they struggled, but you know they have a good baseball team, and they've improved. Chicago and us went to the end. Kansas City was as good as anyone [in September]. Cleveland was probably the best of the group at the end. It's a pretty balanced division. There's going to be a good amount of head-knocking."
The Tigers have not done enough this offseason to fix their starting pitching, which last season compiled a 5.03 ERA, 26th-best in the major leagues. They did trade for Tampa Bay's Edwin Jackson, who last season showed signs of becoming the pitcher the Dodgers thought he would become years ago. A return to health of Jeremy Bonderman certainly will help, as will a return to form of ace Justin Verlander, who dropped to 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA last season and threw the most pitches per inning of any pitcher in the major leagues.An even bigger issue exists in the bullpen. Brandon Lyon was signed to a one-year deal and likely is the leading candidate to be the closer, a spot that was in flux most of last season. Lyon saved 26 games for the Diamondbacks in 2008 but allowed 75 hits in 59 1/3 innings. "He just puts the ball in play too much," one Diamondback said. After Lyon, Fernando Rodney would be next. As for other Tigers relievers, Joel Zumaya's injured shoulder appears to be healing. The White Sox have a very good closer in Bobby Jenks, but, in building up their farm system this offseason, they traded pitcher Javier Vazquez to Atlanta, sent outfielder Nick Swisher to the Yankees and let shortstop Orlando Cabrera and third baseman Joe Crede go to free agency.