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By Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor - Archive - Email
AL Outlook - Dynamic duo could bring title to Motown
The Detroit Tigers won the American League Central by a whopping 15 games last season.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - And with Seattle's extra-inning win over Oakland in Japan, the focus of the sports world left the Tim Tebow media circus for a brief moment and centered on Major League Baseball.

Well, as much as it could that early in the morning. And let's be honest, baseball's window here is kind of small before the sports world converges on the Final Four in New Orleans over the weekend.

But baseball's back - for a couple days anyway - and now it's time to start the painstaking task of predicting what's going to happen between now and the end of October.

If you would have told me last season that the St. Louis Cardinals were going to win a World Series, I would have said you were crazy. Especially since they lost right-hander Adam Wainwright early on to season-ending Tommy John surgery and then found themselves 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot as late as Aug. 25.

But, as they say, that is why they play the games.

So here we go.

The Detroit Tigers won the American League Central by a whopping 15 games last season and of any team they are probably the best suited to win a division title this season.

With reigning MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, the league's leading hitter in Miguel Cabrera and the Delivery Man of the Year in Jose Valverde, the Tigers were still the best team by far in a very underwhelming division and one of the best teams in the AL after missing out on a pennant by two games.

PREDICTIONS
 AL EAST - Boston
 AL CENTRAL - Detroit
 AL WEST - L.A. Angels
 WILD CARDS - Tampa Bay, Texas
 AL CHAMPION - Detroit
 AL MVP - Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
 AL CY YOUNG - Jered Weaver, L.A. Angels
 AL ROOKIE - Jesus Montero, Seattle
 AL COMEBACK - Andy Pettitte, N.Y. Yankees

Then disaster struck and designated hitter Victor Martinez went down with a knee injury in mid-January that would cost him the entire season. But the Tigers weren't left scrambling for long, as they lured Prince Fielder to Motown with a monster nine-year, $214 million deal, reassuring everyone that they are still on the short list of teams which should be able to contend for a World Series title this season.

By the way, is there a better middle of the lineup in baseball than Fielder and Cabrera?

Last season, Fielder finished third in the voting for the National League MVP after batting .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs. He was also second in the league in walks (107) and on-base percentage (.415), while being the only player in the majors to play in all 162 games. Cabrera, meanwhile, led the AL with a .344 average and had 111 runs, 197 hits, 48 doubles, 30 homers, 105 RBIs and a 1.033 OPS.

Plus they basically never miss a game. Fielder was the only player in the league to appear in every game last season, while Cabrera has missed just 31 games since becoming a regular in 2004. Cabrera, though, is nursing a fractured orbital bone he sustained after a bad hop at third, but says he will be ready by Opening Day.

Speaking of that, if you are looking for a flaw in the Tigers, it is Cabrera moving over to third base, a position he was so bad at in 2007 that the team decided to make him a first baseman. The results in spring training have been good, but we'll take a wait-and-see approach there.

As much potential as the Fielder-Miguel Cabrera pairing may have, this team will only go as far as Verlander will take it. Verlander put forth one of the best seasons ever by a starter in 2011 and is a threat to throw a no- hitter each and every time he takes the mound.

Verlander was simply marvelous last season, as he became the 12th pitcher in the last 50 years to win pitching's Triple Crown, leading the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250).

Are there better teams on paper? Probably. But when it's all said and done, in my opinion it will be Jim Leyland's team that will be coming out of the AL this season.

But there's a long, long way to go.

For an insight into the season, here's a brief synopsis and a look at some of the teams which will try to stop the Tigers from unseating the Texas Rangers as this year's AL champion:

CONTENDERS

BOSTON: Take away their horrific start and one of the worst September collapses ever and the Boston Red Sox were the best team in baseball for the better part of four months. We now know the clubhouse was a mess, but this is a team with a boatload of talent, maybe the most in the league, and it's also clubhouse with a giant chip on its shoulder after the way things played out last season. Josh Beckett was considered the ringleader of the beer and chicken fiasco and could be out to prove a lot of people wrong. And don't think new manager Bobby Valentine hasn't driven that point home. Speaking of Valentine, he should make things interesting. But, then again, he also could be a little more gasoline to the fire. Either way it will be fun in Boston this year,

TAMPA BAY: Is there a better run organization in baseball than the Tampa Bay Rays? How they just keep churning out starting pitching is quite simply amazing. From James Shields to David Price to last year's AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays just know how to build a team. This year, they will have another starting pitcher in that mix, 22-year-old Matt Moore, who started Game 1 of the ALDS last season against Texas. In just his second major league start, Moore responded with seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball. By the way, for those of you looking for an AL MVP favorite, look no further than Evan Longoria. The Rays third baseman struggled through injuries and saw his average dip 50 points to .244, but is primed for a monster bounce- back season this year.

NEW YORK YANKEES: Everyone seems to love how the Yankees upgraded their rotation from a year ago. Really? I don't see it. For those of you who love Michael Pineda, he'll likely be starting the year in the minors. And Hiroki Kuroda? Ehh. The Yankees' second-best starter is still Andy Pettitte. So what does that tell you? Phil Hughes has to be better than he was last year, but Ivan Nova could tail off. This is still one of the more dominant lineups in the game, though, but one that is starting to look really old and it showed last season with injuries to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Speaking of A- Rod, he has to find a way to stay healthy. Robinson Cano is now the leader of this offensive attack, but if Rodriguez is firing on all cylinders, he can still be a difference maker.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS: Maybe it was the fact they missed out on the postseason the last two seasons or had to watch a team in their own division represent the AL at the World Series in back-to-back years, but there was no AL team more active this winter than the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. After missing out on just about every big free agent the previous offseason, the Angels shocked the baseball world when they lured three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols to the City of Angels with a monster 10-year, $240 million deal. Then if that wasn't enough, just hours after getting Pujols to put pen to paper, the Angels signed lefty C.J. Wilson away from the Rangers. In one fell swoop they made themselves an AL favorite, while weakening a team in their own division. Pujols is going to be a beast and that pitching staff is as good as any baseball.

TEXAS: The Rangers lost Cliff Lee last season and still came out of the AL. Now they go into another season having lost another ace in Wilson and you know what, I'm not betting against them. Not yet anyway. A lot is riding on Japanese import Yu Darvish, but he has a solid cast of starters behind him, including former closer Neftali Feliz. This team gets by on offense and this year should be no different. Following a turbulent offseason, Josh Hamilton could be in line for a big year, this being a contract season. Injuries always seem to rear their ugly head with him, though. Ron Washington's club may not capture a third straight division title, but should do enough to get back to the postseason for a third straight season.

SLEEPERS

TORONTO: Warranted or not, there are some high expectations for the Blue Jays this season. But even with the added wild card team, the biggest obstacle the Blue Jays have is cracking a very tough division. Jose Bautista is one of the best hitters in the AL and if certain things break their way, like the continued progression of Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus finally realizing his potential or Brandon Morrow becoming a dependable starter, the Jays could be in the playoff mix should some teams stumble.

CLEVELAND: There wasn't a better story through the first four months of the season than the Cleveland Indians. But the story didn't end well. Cleveland stormed out of the gate and into first place in the AL Central by opening with a 14-2 record at home and a 30-15 record through May 23. Injuries, though, started to take their toll and the team struggled mightily in the second half, before ending the year 80-82, up 11 wins from 2010, but still a whopping 15 games back of AL Central Division champion Detroit. Having Shin-Soo Choo healthy will help, but Asdrubal Cabrera needs to have another solid year and youngsters like Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley need to continue to progress. Ultimately it comes down to pitching, and how Ubaldo Jimenez fares will go a long way in determining how far the Indians go.

KANSAS CITY: For years we have heard how deep and talented the Kansas City Royals' farm system was. In 2011, that young talent started to boil over at the major league level. Now for the first time in a long time, people are excited about baseball again in Kansas City. First baseman Eric Hosmer is a big reason for the optimism. He emerged as a burgeoning star a year ago and some believe third baseman Mike Moustakas will have a similar breakout campaign this year. Last season may have been the year that the turnaround began, but this will be the year that the rest of the league takes notice. Next year is the year they will contend for a division title.

DOORMATS

MINNESOTA: It's kind of weird putting the Twins in this category and I'll probably be proven wrong, but I just don't see it. Justin Morneau can no longer be counted on and does anyone remember Joe Mauer? Not to mention their pitching is atrocious. But, Ron Gardenhire has worked his magic before and it's usually when you least expect the Twins to make a run.

BALTIMORE: The Orioles seemed well on their way to joining the upper half of the tough AL East a few years back. But for whatever reason the team has taken two giant steps backward since Buck Showalter took over. While Matt Wieters and Adam Jones are progressing nicely, the young pitching has yet to catch up to the offense.

CHICAGO: Robin Ventura's maiden voyage into the managerial seas is going to be a bit bumpy. The anti-Ozzie Guillen, Ventura just doesn't have a lot of talent here. Adam Dunn, though, can't be as bad as the .159 he hit last season and John Danks is still one of the better left-handers in the AL, despite pitching to a 4.33 ERA a year ago. But other than that, this is going to be a rough transition for the former White Sox great.

SEATTLE: Last year, the Mariners scored the fewest amount of runs than any team in the league for the third straight season. The hope is the addition of Jesus Montero will help an anemic offense. But with that they robbed Peter to pay Paul. Rather than Pineda backing up the great Felix Hernandez, lefty Jason Vargas goes into the season as the Mariners' No. 2 starter.

OAKLAND: Brandon McCarthy was the team's Opening Day starter and Seth Smith the Athletics' cleanup hitter. That is, until Manny Ramirez returns from his 50-game ban for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Enough said. It's going to be a long year for baseball fans in the Bay Area. Unless, of course, you root for the Giants.

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