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March 26, 2012
The Tigers already had a stranglehold on their weakened division—and then they added Prince Fielder. While Detroit plans for October, the rest of the Central races for second
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March 26, 2012

Al Central

The Tigers already had a stranglehold on their weakened division—and then they added Prince Fielder. While Detroit plans for October, the rest of the Central races for second

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The Indians went for it last year, when they traded four players, including two of their top pitching prospects, to the Rockies on July 30 to land righthander Ubaldo Jimenez for the stretch drive. At the time, Cleveland was 53--51 and just 1½ games behind the Tigers. But the team went 27--31 the rest of the year, a playoff push never materialized, and Jimenez went 4--4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts. In the off-season he returned home to the Dominican Republic to rediscover his fastball—which dropped from 96.1 mph in average velocity in 2010 to 93.5—and his confidence. He found both after committing to a workout routine focused on his core. "I never paid attention to stretching before," says Jimenez. "This time I had someone there to tell me what to do."

Jimenez isn't the only question mark in Cleveland. Designated hitter Travis Hafner hasn't played more than 118 games since 2007 and has hit just 13 homers each of the past two years while battling a shoulder injury. Outfielder Grady Sizemore is back on the disabled list, this time with a back problem that could keep the three-time All-Star out until June, making this the fourth straight season he's been out for significant time. Perhaps the only "known quantity," as All-Star closer Chris Perez puts it, is the bullpen, a tightly knit, effective group (it had the AL's fifth-best relief ERA) that calls itself the Bullpen Mafia and printed up T-shirts to look like the poster for The Godfather. Their capo is Scott Radinsky, who was promoted from bullpen coach to pitching coach to help fix a team ERA (4.23) that ranked 10th in the AL last season.

The Twins' pitching was even worse than Cleveland's—it ranked next to last in the AL in ERA, at 4.58. But the problems in Minnesota run deeper, which is why the Twins' biggest off-season move was to bring Terry Ryan back to the G.M. role he held from 1995 through 2007. Ryan, who had been a special adviser since handing the job to longtime assistant Bill Smith, came back after Minnesota plummeted to 99 losses a year after winning its sixth division title in nine seasons. "A lot of years you heard people say, We want to be like the Twins," says Ryan. "Last year you didn't."

It won't be heard much this year either. Minnesota had one of the league's worst offenses in 2011, ranking next to last in OPS and runs scored and last in home runs, and doesn't yet know what to expect from Justin Morneau, the former MVP who is still trying to regain his old form after a variety of ailments, most notably concussion symptoms, forced him to miss 174 games in the past two years. Morneau has not ruled out retirement if the concussion symptoms persist. Joe Mauer, another former MVP, says he's back to 100% health after he played just 82 games in 2011 because of bilateral leg weakness and hip and shoulder soreness.

Mauer and Morneau are two of the few remaining holdovers from the team's recent success. Minnesota lost mainstays Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan in free agency and, as Ryan says, "had to go against some of our philosophies" to replace them. A dearth of talent in the farm system forced Ryan to find affordable, temporary replacements on the open market. While outfielder Josh Willingham, catcher Ryan Doumit and infielder Jamey Carroll might provide marginal improvement, Ryan is focused on the players he can land on June 4—draft day, when Minnesota has five of the top 72 picks. "We've got an opportunity to replenish a system that has a default of talent," said Ryan. "That will go a long way toward re-charting our future."

The White Sox' future is now in the hands of 44-year-old rookie manager Robin Ventura, whose appointment as skipper surprised even him when G.M. Kenny Williams offered him the job in October. "It took me a minute to understand what he was asking me," says Ventura, who has never managed at any level. "I said, 'If I do this it's going to be because I want to do it, not because you're signing a bunch of free agents.'"

That's good: Not only did the White Sox not go shopping this winter, they also traded closer Sergio Santos and outfielder Carlos Quentin and began dropping the r-word: rebuilding. The White Sox are hoping for something close to career-norm seasons from DH Adam Dunn (he hit .159 in 2011 with a career-low 11 home runs), outfielder Alex Rios (a career-low .227 average and .265 OBP) and righthander Jake Peavy (4.92 ERA in only 19 appearances). Getting those, Ventura notes, would be "like adding three impact free agents."

Dunn, who had seven straight seasons of at least 38 homers before signing a four-year, $56 million contract with Chicago before last year, says he's "damn sure not going to have a year like [2011] again."

Verlander too is fueled by past disappointments. In 2008, just as they are this year, the Tigers were considered heavy favorites to win the division after making several splashy moves (trading for shortstop Edgar Renteria, Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis). But Detroit lost 88 games and placed last in the Central. That finish, empty and October-less, drives the Tigers and their best player as much as the ALCS loss last October. "I draw on those memories," says Verlander. "It really left a sour taste in our mouths. It won't happen again—I won't let it."


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