Posted: Thursday November 3, 2011 11:53AM ; Updated: Friday November 4, 2011 12:14PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

AL Central Hot Stove preview: Tigers look to strengthen grip

Story Highlights

Detroit has its core of high-level talent back to defend its division title

The Indians may be done making moves after trading for pitcher Derek Lowe

The White Sox' best hope will be to get their current players to perform better

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Aramis Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez could be a perfect solution for the Tigers' third base problem.
AP

This week, SI.com will analyze the offseason plans for each team in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed in order of finish in 2011.

Detroit Tigers

2011 Results: 95-67, first place in AL Central, lost in ALCS to Rangers

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 787/711

Pythagorean Record: 89-73

Pending Free Agents: OF Magglio Ordoņez, 3B Wilson Betemit, RP Joel Zumaya, 2B Carlos Guillen, 2B/SS Ramon Santiago, SP Brad Penny

Prospects on the Verge: SP Jacob Turner

Building For: Repeat as division champs, return to World Series for first time since 2006

Strengths: True superstar talent; elite eighth- and ninth-inning relievers; strong top of the rotation

Biggest Holes: Depth in lineup, rotation and bullpen

Targets: 3B Aramis Ramirez, 2B Aaron Hill, 2B Kelly Johnson, 2B Jamey Carroll, back-of-the-rotation starter

The Plan

The Tigers were two ALCS extra-inning losses away from a trip to the World Series this year and won't lose any major pieces from the nucleus of the 2011 club. Thus, they should to be back in the mix just by bolstering their depth to go along with superstars in first baseman Miguel Cabrera and ace starter Justin Verlander and fellow All-Stars like catcher Alex Avila, closer Jose Valverde and shortstop Jhonny Peralta. That list doesn't even include Victor Martinez, a four-time All-Star who will be the Tigers' full-time designated hitter next season.

So what's missing? Detroit could use one more starter to finish the rotation alongside Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello and another strong relieving arm or two to slot in front of Joaquin Benoit and Valverde, especially if Al Alburquerque, who showed signs of fatigue in the postseason, can't replicate last year's 1.87 ERA.

With the Tigers likely to bring Delmon Young back to join Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch as the starting outfield trio, two lineup spots in definite need of improvement are second base and third base. At third base, in particular, Detroit had a .617 team OPS, which ranked 27th out of 30 MLB teams. Brandon Inge has one year and $6 million remaining on his contract but could be supplanted in the starting lineup as the team did with free-agent-to-be Wilson Betemit.

Because there are more available second baseman in free agency -- Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson are the headliners, with Jamey Carroll and Mark Ellis as other viable options -- Detroit would do well to target one of them, which would allow infielders Ryan Raburn and Santiago to support Inge at third.

That all could change, of course, if the Tigers make a run at the undisputed top available third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The exits of Guillen and Ordoņez do free up $23 million in payroll flexibility, which is more than enough to ink Ramirez, provided he doesn't demand too many years, with 19-year-old prospect Nick Castellanos tearing up the minors.

Cleveland Indians

2011 Results: 80-82, second place in AL Central

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 704/760

Pythagorean Record: 75-87

Pending Free Agents: OF Grady Sizemore, OF Kosuke Fukudome, DH Jim Thome, RP Chad Durbin

Prospects on the Verge: 2B Cord Phelps, OF Nick Weglarz

Building For: Annual AL Central contention for the next few years

Strengths: Strong bullpen; promising young offensive-minded infield; high-upside rotation

Biggest Holes: Lack of power; uncertain outfield; need for bounceback seasons from key starters

Targets: Outfielders such as Josh Willingham, Cody Ross, Ryan Ludwick; a first baseman

The Plan

Could the Indians have been halfway done with their offseason before it really began? Cleveland already traded a minor league pitcher to the Braves for veteran starter Derek Lowe, adding a third sinkerballer to the rotation, alongside Justin Masterson and Fausto Carmona, whose option the club exercised for $7 million. Former Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez headlines the starting staff that is completed by rising third-year starter Josh Tomlin, meaning the Tribe already had their five-man rotation before free agency commenced.

The one remaining area of need for the Indians is a power bat. Thus far first baseman Matt LaPorta has not come close to meeting expectations and, save for a September power surge from Shelley Duncan, the club has also lacked pop in leftfield. The team declined the 2012 option on Grady Sizemore, opening the door for Michael Brantley to become the full-ltime centerfielder, which leaves leftfield wide open for a player not prohibitively expensive and who can hit for power. In other words, Josh Willingham ought to expect a phone call from a 216 area code.

Cleveland's front office has long been creative in making trades -- who saw them landing Jimenez, for instance -- so don't put it past them to conjure a move out of nothing, but with a good bullpen and a young core of position players led by catcher Carlos Santana and infielders Asdruba Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, few moves appear imminent, unless the team decides to pull the plug on the LaPorta experiment at first base.

Chicago White Sox

2011 Results: 79-83, third place in AL Central

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 654/706

Pythagorean Record: 75-87

Pending Free Agents: SP Mark Buehrle, OF Juan Pierre C Ramon Castro, SS/2B Omar Vizquel

Prospects on the Verge: RP Addison Reed

Building For: Annual AL Central contention for the next few years

Strengths: Tradeable commodities; strike-throwing pitching staff; latent power

Biggest Holes: Underperforming stars; poor plate discipline; rotation took step back; farm system not ready to plug holes; team defense

Targets: Buehrle, prospects through trade

The Plan

On the day the White Sox announced new manager Robin Ventura, general manager Kenny Williams acknowledged that the club needed to "retool," a more PR-friendly version of the standard sports verb, "rebuild." With the creative and aggressive Williams at the helm, this offseason on Chicago's South Side could be anything from dull to hectic.

The more likely scenario is on the lower end of activity. If Alexis Rios and Adam Dunn live up to their contracts Gordon Beckham plays up to his high draft status (Beckham), then the White Sox will already have turned around an offense that scored its fewest runs in a full season since 1988 and that ranked 11th in the AL. With manager Ozzie Guillen having left for Florida and hitting coach Greg Walker having departed for Atlanta, the White Sox will have a pair of new voices working with their struggling offensive players.

The rotation, meanwhile, may lose mainstay Mark Buehrle to free agency but still has Philip Humber, who had a breakthrough season, as well as Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd and John Danks, all three of whom had ERAs higher than 4.30 last season. Each member of that trio had strong strikeout-to-walk ratios -- in fact, the club's 2.78 K/BB was the best in AL by a wide margin -- suggesting future success if the defense behind them can improve on its ranking of fourth-worst in the majors, according to Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted defensive efficiency.

Chicago spent $128 million in 2011, the fifth-most in baseball, and isn't likely to make any big splashes in free agency this offseason, but it's in the trade market where things could get interesting. With no club projecting to be a prohibitive favorite in 2012, Williams may choose to stand pat and try to make a run at a division crown, but if his confidence falters at all -- and many have noted that hiring a rookie manager suggests a longer-term approach -- then he could easily re-stock the deck with young talent by trading his in-their-prime arbitration-eligible players, Danks and rightfielder Carlos Quentin, or Floyd, who is signed through 2012 with a club option for '13.

 
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