Tigers must prepare to scratch, claw to top of division
Weaker rotation, health concerns make AL Central virtually up for grabs
There was the assumption that the Tigers' deal to land lefty David Price at the July 31 Trade Deadline was a move designed not merely to win a fourth consecutive American League Central title, but to put Detroit in position to claim a World Series championship for the first time in 30 years.
Turned out the Tigers had to hold on to win the division by one game over the Royals, who claimed an AL Wild Card berth and advanced to the World Series, ending their 29-year postseason drought. The Tigers were swept by the Orioles in the AL Division Series.
And now, with the opening of spring camps less than two weeks away, the only thing that seems certain about the AL Central is that nothing is certain.
The cliché is that the best part about Spring Training is every team reports to camp feeling it has a chance to win a championship.
While it make take a bit of good fortune for a rebuilding Twins team to jump from worst to first, they do have a foundation in place, and have brought back Torii Hunter to provide production out of the right-field position as well as a veteran leadership for the young roster.
Solid arguments can be made for the four other teams in the division, in part because of the offseason hits the Tigers took to their rotation -- trading Rick Porcello to Boston and losing Max Scherzer to free agency -- along with the uncertainty of the health of their top two offensive forces, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
The Tigers have Price from the start of the season. They made offseason deals to add the promising arms of Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, who can slot into the backend of the rotation behind Justin Verlander, Price and Anibal Sanchez. An offense that ranked second in the AL last year added left fielder Yoenis Cespedes in a deal with the Red Sox.
A middle of the lineup with Cespedes, Martinez, Cabrera and J.D. Martinez in some alignment will reinforce the production of a year ago. The hope is Cabrera and Martinez are ready Opening Day, or shortly thereafter.
Cabrera, coming off surgery for a stress fracture in his foot, is expected to get clearance to begin baseball activities next week. Barring a setback, he should be ready Opening Day. Martinez, meanwhile, will undergo Tuesday surgery for a tear in the medial meniscus in his left knee with a best-case scenario of being ready to play in six to eight weeks.
It is difficult to downplay the impact that Scherzer (82-35 in five years with the Tigers and 39 wins the last two years) and Porcello (76-63 in six years) had in Detroit's success. A bullpen that was a concern last year lost Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain to free agency and did not add veteran help.
The Royals' success was built around a young nucleus that remains in place. That, however, is part of the concern -- keeping the focus and making sure the young players realize the challenge of repeating as a pennant winner is huge.
They suffered a series of offseason losses, and will have to replace the leadership as well as innings of No. 1 starter James Shields, who left as a free agent, and DH Billy Butler, who was dealt to Oakland.
General manager Dayton Moore was not oblivious to those holes, and has worked to address needs with the free-agent signings of right-hander Edinson Volquez, outfielder Alex Rios and DH/first baseman Kendrys Morales, who bring a veteran influence to the clubhouse.
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn had a vision last fall that there would be an opportunity to make a statement in the AL Central, and he did not hesitate remaking the team's roster with eight moves that gives the South Siders reason to think they have a legitimate shot at what would be only their fourth season appearance since the Wild Card debuted in 1995.
Paul Konerko, who retired, was the only key loss from a year ago. There were plenty of additions.
Jeff Samardzija was acquired from Oakland to strengthen the rotation. The bullpen was rebuilt with the signing of free agent David Robertson as the closer, and with the signing of Zach Duke and acquisition of Dan Jennings from the Marlins for left-handed depth. The White Sox beefed up the lineup with the addition of 1B/DH Adam LaRoche and left fielder Melky Cabrera, and provided depth by signing second basemen Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham.
The Indians are a warning sign for the Royals of that post-postseason setback. After claiming an AL Wild Card spot and winning 92 games in 2013, they slipped to 85 wins and third place last year. The front office, however, didn't overreact.
Cleveland kept the nucleus in place. It signed Gavin Floyd, feeling he should be ready to bounce back from elbow surgery, and can provide veteran depth at the back of the rotation, and acquired first baseman Brandon Moss to provide a left-handed power bat who can step in at first base, in the outfield or as a DH.
That sends the Indians to Goodyear, Ariz., for the spring with -- health permitting -- little more than the final bullpen spot to be decided.