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AL CENTRAL
TED KEITH
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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  TEAM W--L GB
1 TIGERS 93--69 --
2 ROYALS 82--80 11
3 INDIANS 80--82 13
4 TWINS 72--90 21
5 WHITE SOX 67--95 26

There were no fans screaming at players dancing in the middle of a diamond, no champagne bottles, no commemorative hats or T-shirts being handed out. That's because the Tigers did not actually clinch their second consecutive AL Central title on Jan. 25, the day they handed a king's ransom to a Prince. But it sure did feel that way.

Until mid-January the off-season following Detroit's first division crown in 24 years had been mostly quiet. "We had filled roles of minor impact," G.M. Dave Dombrowski says. "We didn't have anything we had to do." That all changed on Jan. 16, when designated hitter--catcher Victor Martinez tore his left ACL while working out at home in Orlando. The injury, which will force Martinez to miss the entire season, ripped a 103-RBI hole in a lineup that scored the fourth-most runs in the AL (4.86 per game) in 2011.

Five days after Martinez went down, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave Dombrowski and John Westhoff, the team's lead counsel, the go-ahead to pursue slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, who was still searching for a megadeal on the free-agent market. Three days of negotiations later—"It was a very busy weekend," says Dombrowski—Fielder was a Tiger, having signed a nine-year, $214 million contract. In a matter of hours Detroit had not only solidified its position as the team to beat in the AL Central in 2012—it had also extended the gap between itself and the rest of a division that it won by 15 games last year, the largest margin in baseball.

Given the weakened state of the Central, even the Fielder-less Tigers stood an excellent chance of making consecutive trips to the postseason for the first time since 1934 and '35. They have the AL's reigning Cy Young winner and MVP (Justin Verlander), a perennial MVP candidate (Miguel Cabrera) and a shut-down bullpen (anchored by Jose Valverde, who converted all 49 of his save chances in 2011). They play in the only division that didn't have at least two teams finish with a winning record and, even before signing Fielder, were projected to have the division's highest payroll. So it's no wonder that in spring training, with Fielder getting settled in Lakeland, Fla., one competing AL Central executive, asked to assess the division, said, "I thought that had already been decided."

It hasn't, of course, but the Tigers, who lost to the Rangers in six games in the ALCS, nonetheless have their eyes on bigger prizes. "There's only one true winner," says Verlander, "and if we don't win the World Series, it's a disappointment." While there is room for improvement as a team, Verlander will have a hard time topping his own performance in 2011, when he won the pitching Triple Crown with 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. He was the first pitcher since 1992 to win the MVP and the Cy Young, which may explain why, when asked to name his most pressing concerns for this season, he replied, "Field my position better."

Cabrera has the same goal: With Fielder taking over at first base, Detroit's other stout slugger (Cabrera weighed 265 pounds in camp) has shifted across the diamond to play third. Cabrera was a third baseman as a young player with the Marlins, but the Tigers, less than impressed with his mobility and quickness, immediately moved him when they acquired him before the 2008 season. Cabrera became a passable, if below average, defender across the diamond, but, says infield coach Rafael Belliard, "I think he got bored playing first base." Last year, long before Fielder's arrival, Cabrera even broached the idea of playing up to 40 games this season at third, and Dombrowksi says that's where Cabrera would have played on the road had the Tigers advanced to the World Series.

The Tigers have no illusions that Cabrera will morph into Brooks Robinson—asked how Cabrera looked early in camp, manager Jim Leyland smiled, then snapped, "Next question"—but they have an offense to make up for any defensive shortcomings. Last year Cabrera led the AL in batting (.344), OBP (.448) and doubles (48); was second in slugging (.586); and reached 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for the seventh time in his eight full big league seasons. And with Fielder, who was second in the NL last year in homers (38) and third in OPS (.981), hitting behind him, Cabrera figures to see more hittable pitches than he did a year ago, when he had the second-most intentional walks (22) in the league.

With outfielder Delmon Young, catcher Alex Avila and shortstop Jhonny Peralta—each of whom had an above-average OPS last year—the Tigers are deep as well. Says Dombrowski, "This club has a lot of guys in the prime of their careers and young guys—Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch—with room for growth."

No team in baseball has as many players in the latter category as the Royals. Despite 17 losing seasons in the last 18 years, Kansas City is brimming with optimism thanks to the game's best crop of young players. Last year the Royals had five of the game's top 19 prospects, according to Baseball America. Two of them—first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas—debuted last year. Three others—outfielder Wil Myers and pitchers John Lamb and Mike Montgomery—should form another bumper crop that also includes 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez, whom the club signed to a five-year, $7 million contract in February; second baseman Johnny Giavotella, 24, the likely starting second baseman; and Lorenzo Cain, a 25-year-old with 49 games of big league experience who is expected to start in centerfield.

During camp Cain scanned the clubhouse and was reminded of being with the franchise's top farm club. "Pretty much the entire Triple A team got called up last year," he says. That brings the Royals closer than ever to the goal set forth by G.M. Dayton Moore in the team's first organizational meeting after he took the job in 2006: to have the majority of the everyday lineup be homegrown by '13 or '14. Moore cautions that even players as talented as the ones the Royals have groomed need "two to four years to become consistent at this level." Still, he adds, "the development mode is over." In other words, says manager Ned Yost, "We're going for it this year."

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