With two premium power pitchers—ace Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who was one of the AL's top pitchers during the second half (2.47 ERA and 96 K's in 102 innings)—in the rotation, the Tigers, too, appear to be built for the playoffs. Whether they can get there will depend, in part, on whether their gamble on Benoit pays off. Relief pitching is the most volatile commodity in baseball, but the Tigers deemed the 33-year-old righthander (a 1.34 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 60 innings for the Rays last season, but a 4.79 career ERA before that) worthy of a deal that makes him one of baseball's highest-paid setup men. "Teams that have success are teams with strong bullpens," says Detroit G.M. Dave Dombrowski. "We've got a chance to have a one with Benoit and [closer Jose] Valverde at the back end."
The off-season spending by the Central's big three widened the gap between the division's haves and have-nots. The Royals, who have finished fourth or fifth for seven straight years, made a flurry of low-profile off-season signings—outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur and lefthander Jeff Francis among them—that will do little to move the needle in terms of short-term results or fan excitement. But with a minor league system that's widely regarded as the best in baseball, Kansas City isn't thinking about 2011. It has its eye on contending in 2012 or '13, when such top prospects as first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are ready to arrive. "We finally have the group of players that we can envision building around here," says Moore. "We want the majority of our team to reflect homegrown talent by 2012 and 2013."
The Indians, who have the third-lowest payroll in the AL, believe they can win now—and given the talent they have returning to the lineup from injuries, that might not be as ludicrous as it sounds. Centerfielder Grady Sizemore, catcher Carlos Santana and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera all missed at least 56 games last year. If those players produce, Cleveland could be a division sleeper.
That would require its pitchers to exceed expectations. The young rotation—righthander Fausto Carmona, 27, is the most experienced starter—had the league's fifth-lowest ERA after the All-Star break (3.89), while 25-year-old Chris Perez emerged as one of the league's top closers. "In Grady, Carlos and Asdrubal, we're bringing back three players that are as talented as any other out there at their position," says G.M. Chris Antonetti. "We had the youngest team in baseball last year, but this is a group that's either entering their prime or in their prime. We're looking for those guys to take appreciable steps forward."
The Indians, who have not had a winning season since reaching the ALCS in 2007, are the last team from the division to win a playoff series. Only two Central teams have won the AL pennant since 1997. This year, though, the Twins, Tigers and White Sox all have reason to believe they can make a run deep into October. One morning during spring training, Nathan stood outside Minnesota's batting cages in Fort Myers, Fla., and sized up his team's chances for a third straight division title. "You look at the Central, and all three teams at the top got better," he said. "I feel like we're as complete as we've ever been as a team. This could be a special team." He added, "But at the same time, I feel like it's going to be tougher than ever to win this division."