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Spring Training Preview: AL Central

Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor

Chris Ruddick Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The American League Central was one of the best divisions in baseball last season. This year it has the potential to be even better.

The Detroit Tigers shocked the baseball world a year ago, as it represented the AL as a wild card in the World Series, only to fall in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Tigers were one of three teams in the division to win at least 90 games, but were by far the most surprising.

With help from AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander, first-year manager Jim Leyland transformed the Tigers into an instant contender after they had been a doormat for the better part of the last decade.

Minnesota is the defending division champion and boasts the reigning Cy Young and MVP award winners, but this year the Twins could have their work cut out for them. With phenom Francisco Liriano done for the season with an elbow injury and Brad Radke lost to retirement, the Twins have two mighty big holes to fill in their rotation.

Chicago curiously overhauled its starting rotation this offseason, shipping Freddy Garcia to Philadelphia and dealing Brandon McCarthy to Texas. While the White Sox got a lot younger for the future, they may have taken a step back in the present.

Cleveland could be the wild card of this division. Picked by many to win the Central or at least compete for a postseason spot in 2006, the Indians were one of the biggest disappointments in the league. Injuries, as well as a horrific bullpen, sealed the Tribe's fate early on, but the team still had one of the best offenses in the league.

If some of his young pitchers pan out and the bullpen holds up, Eric Wedge's Indians could be the surprise team in the division this season.

Kansas City is still Kansas City. However, there is some excitement swirling around Royals' camp, as rookie third baseman Alex Gordon has all the makings of a special player.

MINNESOTA TWINS: Hammond Stadium -- Ft Myers, FL

The Twins' hopes for 2007 probably went up in smoke on September 13, when Liriano left after two innings with elbow pain. Not too long after, it was determined that he would need the dreaded Tommy John surgery and would be lost for all of the coming season. Add in Radke's retirement, and the Twins have some holes to fill. So instead of one of the most lethal 1-2 punches in the game, the great Johan Santana will now be followed by a cast of characters that will/could include Ramon Ortiz, Boof Bonser, Carlos Silva, Scott Baker or Sidney Ponson. I am sure manager Ron Gardenhire would love to pencil in youngsters Matt Garza and Glen Perkins, but they will likely not come north with the team. Luckily the bullpen is one of the best in baseball.

Offensively, there are not many teams better than the Twins. Led by MVP Justin Morneau and batting champion Joe Mauer, Minnesota has perhaps its best lineup since the glory days of Kent Hrbek-Gary Gaetti-Kirby Puckett. Every single position player will be back, and that is what will keep Minnesota afloat this season.

DETROIT TIGERS: Joker Marchant Stadium -- Lakeland, FL

Leyland's Tigers were one of the true feel-good stories of the 2006 campaign. This year they will not be sneaking up on anyone, though. Just three years removed from losing an AL-record 119 games, Detroit won 95 games last year and stayed in first place for the better part of the regular season before giving way to Minnesota on the final day.

This year the Tigers should be even better. If there was one hole in their lineup, you could make the argument that it was missing a true bopper. Well, they addressed that need right after the end of the season by acquiring Gary Sheffield from the New York Yankees for a handful of prospects. Sheff comes with some baggage, but he will be a monster in the middle of that lineup.

Pitching wise, it does not get much better than Verlander-Jeremy Bonderman- Kenny Rogers at the top. Bonderman is poised to have a breakout season like Verlander did a year ago and having Rogers there to lean on has done wonders for the young arms. Mike Maroth is also healthy heading into the year. The bullpen should again be solid, but maybe not quite as strong as last season with the departure of lefty Jamie Walker. Detroit hopes that Wilfredo Ledezma will fill Walker's role.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX: Tucson Electric Park -- Tucson, AZ

Chicago dealt Freddy Garcia at the Winter Meetings, seemingly to make room in the rotation for young Brandon McCarthy. Then Kenny Williams curiously shipped McCarthy to Texas for a handful of prospects. Chicago is trying to rebuild, while at the same time keep on winning. Not an easy task, but its farm system is now stacked enough where it can go out and make another deal if need be in July. In Williams' defense, the White Sox are still going to be throwing Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez out there. Gavin Floyd, who was acquired from Philly in the Garcia deal, will likely start the year as the team's fifth starter. If he falters early, manager Ozzie Guillen has a plethora of young arms (John Danks, Nick Masset, Gio Gonzalez) to choose from at the minor league level.

Another intriguing storyline to watch in White Sox camp will be what transpires with shortstop Juan Uribe, who was involved in some sort of shooting in the Dominican Republic in the offseason. Uribe initially stated he will sit out the season, then has said he will be around and fly back-and- forth to the DR. Stay tuned. If Uribe goes missing or is incarcerated, Alex Cintron will step into his spot.

CLEVELAND INDIANS: Chain of Lakes Park -- Winter Haven, FL

The Indians competed for a division title as well as the wild card in 2005. So when the predictions for 2006 came out, they were at the top of everyone's list. Cleveland, though, stumbled out of the gate and never really got it going, as it finished 18 games behind the Twins.

Injuries played a big part in Cleveland's demise, but a faulty bullpen was probably more to blame. Bob Wickman was anything but reliable, and after he was dealt to Atlanta, Fausto Carmona was simply atrocious. So this offseason GM Mark Shapiro made it priority No. 1 to bolster his relief corps, and that is exactly what he did. The Tribe signed Joe Borowski, Aaron Fultz and Roberto Hernandez. Keith Foulke also agreed to a deal, but retired after just one day of camp, leaving Borowski as the team's closer.

With a solid lineup and plenty of depth in not only the rotation, but now the bullpen, there is no reason why the Indians should not be competing for at the very least a wild card spot this offseason.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS: Surprise Stadium -- Surprise, AZ

For the first time in recent memory, there is some excitement swirling around Royals camp. However, the buzz is not on the Royals putting a championship- caliber team on the field, but on a pair of uber-prospects, starting with third baseman Alex Gordon.

Gordon has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer George Brett, but has yet to play at the Triple-A level. He was sensational at Double-A Wichita last year, but GM Dayton Moore would prefer to get him some time in Triple-A. Gordon, though, could just overwhelm the team this spring and force their hand. If that happens, look for Mark Teahen to move to the outfield.

KC also has another youngster on the rise in outfielder Billy Butler, but he is apparently not as close to joining the big league club as Gordon is.

Oh by the way, the Royals spent some money this offseason, as they gave a ridiculous $55 million deal to starter Gil Meche. The team also inked closer Octavio Dotel to a deal and traded for starter Brian Bannister.

The pitching staff should be better, but this Royals season will be all about the arrival of Gordon and possibly Butler in Kansas City.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.
Chris Ruddick