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AL Central Spring Training preview
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01/31/2003 3:58 pm ET 
AL Central Spring Training preview
Twins, White Sox cream of divisional crop
 

Baseball Perspectives
 Jim Molony

Torii Hunter and the Twins will be challenged by the White Sox for the division crown. (AP Photo)
Spring usually is a time of rampant optimism, particularly in baseball, when every team begins the exhibition season on equal footing -- at least in the standings -- with the other 29 teams. Spring is a time to think positively, a time for fans to foster hopes that their team might actually win this season however unrealistic those expectations might seem in hindsight when the calendar turns to August.

A large amount of optimism, however, is needed to change the pre-Spring Training perception of the American League Central Division, a five-team division that shapes up on paper as a two-team race between Minnesota and Chicago and a three-team race for third place between Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit.

complete coverage: spring training 2003
The two strongest contenders figure to be well ahead of the other three teams, all of which are in various stages of rebuilding. The Twins and White Sox finished .500 or better last season while the Indians, Royals and Tigers combined for 294 losses, the most by three members of the same division since 1982.

"Minnesota set the standard we're all chasing," White Sox General Manager Ken Williams said. "They lapped the field last year."

Now that everyone is back at the starting line, here's a look at how the teams shape up entering Spring Training listed in order of finish last season:

Minnesota Twins

This time a year ago they were considered dead, then they entered the season under a new manager and a cloud of uncertainty. Injuries sidelined starting pitchers Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays at one time or another, with only Milton making more than 21 starts.

The Twins didn't have a pitcher with more than 15 wins, they didn't have a 30-homer guy or anybody with 100 RBIs. The offense ranked fifth in the league in hitting and Twin pitchers finished sixth overall among American League teams in ERA.

They weren't overpowering, and yet the Twins were very effective, winning 94 games and outdistancing their closest rival by 13 1/2 games, the second-biggest margin in baseball.

GM Terry Ryan didn't go out and make any significant offseason acquisitions, but the Twins will arguably be even better in 2003.

They'll be better because they'll be healthier and more experienced. Radke, Milton and Mays likely won't miss 31 starts and the Twins are a much more confident team than they were a year ago. They not only reached the playoffs, they upset favored Oakland in the American League Division Series.

There are some areas of mild concern. The Twins are short on power, particularly from the right side. It's unrealistic to expect J.C. Romero and Tony Fiore to go a combined 19-5 out of the bullpen again like they did in 2002, and whether Kyle Lohse can win 13 games again is another question.

The Twins won't have designated hitter David Ortiz or relievers Bob Wells and Mike Jackson this time, but those losses shouldn't prove to be significant. The rest of the cast that came within three victories of reaching the World Series is intact. And that should be more than enough to keep the Twins in the hunt again in 2003.

Chicago White Sox

Picked by some to win the division last year, the White Sox never seriously threatened Minnesota and finished at .500 and in second place.

Todd Ritchie, who had been impressive the year before at Pittsburgh, fell to 5-15 and out of favor. Frank Thomas struggled at times and wound up hitting .252, starting shortstop Royce Clayton hit .251 and center fielder Kenny Lofton was traded to San Francisco. The starting rotation, with the exception of Mark Buehrle, was mediocre for much of the first half of season.

Things should be much better this time. The offense figures to be just as potent than the one that scored 856 runs last year (third most in baseball and nearly 100 more than the Twins). The bullpen, often a culprit in Chicago's 15-21 record in one-run games, should be stronger with the addition of Billy Koch, Rick White and Flash Gordon. The White Sox did lose Keith Foulke and Antonio Osuna, but those bullpen losses likely will be felt less with the addition of 20-game winner Bartolo Colon to a rotation that should be significantly stronger with Buehrle, Colon, Jon Garland, Danny Wright and probably Jon Rauch as the fifth starter.

The Chicago lineup will be one of the most dangerous around, with at least six everyday players -- Magglio Ordonez (.320, 38 HR, 135 RBIs last season), Paul Konerko (.304, 27, 104), Carlos Lee (.264, 26, 80), Thomas (.252, 28, 92), Jose Valentin (.249, 25, 75) and Joe Crede (.285, 12, 35 in just 53 games) -- capable of hitting 30 homers and driving in 100 runs. The addition of veteran Sandy Alomar Jr. bolsters the catching and the White Sox are optimistic center fielder Aaron Rowand will make strides in 2003 after hitting .258 in 302 at-bats last season.

The bottom line is if everyone stays healthy the White Sox should be in position for a playoff run.

Cleveland Indians

They lost their best player, Jim Thome, to free agency. They traded their top rookie of 2002, 10-game winner Ryan Drese and their starting catcher, Einar Diaz. While everyone supposedly loves a parade, it's doubtful you could find an Indians fan who enjoyed watching the procession out of town that began with the departures of Manny Ramirez two years ago, continued with Roberto Alomar last winter and now claims Thome et al.

The Indians have gone from a team that had been a perennial postseason pick to one in the middle of a significant rebuilding process, two words no fan likes to hear. The good news for Cleveland is General Manager Mark Shapiro has assembled a promising batch of talented youngsters that should help speed the process along. He's also added a few veterans to the rotation mix who might be able to combine with the new blood to lift the Indians to perhaps third place in the division.

Travis Hafner, acquired from Texas in the Diaz-Drese trade, likely will succeed Thome at first base, which means he will be under the microscope the moment he sets foot in Winter Haven. While Hafner isn't going to duplicate Thome, scouts love the guy and he should develop into a solid lefty slugger with a better than average on-base percentage.

The rotation will consist of C.C. Sabathia, Jason Bere and Brian Anderson, with the final two spots to be decided by competition between youngsters Cliff Lee, Ricardo Rodriguez, Jason Davis, Billy Traber and Brian Tallet. The bullpen should be decent, if not overpowering, with the likes of closer Danys Baez, veterans Terry Mulholland and Dave Burba and set-up men Carl Sadler and Mark Wohlers.

Other than designated hitter Ellis Burks, All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel and infielder Ricky Gutierrez, the Indians will have plenty of competition for the other starting spots with new manager Eric Wedge expected to be very busy deciding who will play where.

Besides Hafner, the Indians have a few other youngsters with above average potential who will get long looks this spring, including second baseman John McDonald, third baseman Casey Blake, catcher Victor Martinez and shortstop Brandon Phillips.

Kansas City Royals

Paul Byrd? Gone. Chuck Knoblauch? History. Neifi Perez and Roberto Hernandez? Adios. Jeff Suppan, Blake Stein and Dan Reichert? They're outta here.

The Kansas City Royals parted ways with several veterans who had played significant roles in the organization and saved $10 million from the payroll at the same time. While the Royals didn't use the savings to sign a significant free agent or lock in star center fielder Carlos Beltran to a long-term deal, if the incoming talent plays as well as the Royals anticipate Kansas City should be a better team in 2003.

OK, admittedly, when a team loses 100 games, showing improvement the following year is not exactly the impossible dream, especially for a team with two of the better position players in the league in Beltran and first baseman Mike Sweeney. They also have outfielder/designated hitter Raul Ibaqez, who hit .294 with 24 homers and 103 RBIs last year after the Royals brought him to Spring Training in 2001 as a non-roster invitee.

"We're a young team, but we have some very good young players," manager Tony Pena said. "With those three, that's a good nucleus, and we've got others who are going to be pretty good, so I'm excited about this team. We lost some good players, but I think we're going to be better than a lot of people think."

The Royals will also have Michael Tucker and a healthy Mark Quinn (only 23 games last season) competing for starting jobs in the outfield. With the underrated Joe Randa manning third, Kansas City's everyday lineup has the potential to be decent.

The problem is pitching. Byrd, who led the league with seven complete games, and Suppan combined for 436 innings last season, or 30 percent of the staff total. If James Baldwin, who signed a minor-league contract, doesn't make the staff, the Royals likely will not have a pitcher who worked at least 150 innings last year or one who won more than four games. With Hernandez gone the Royals do not have a returning pitcher who saved more than one game last season.

The rotation could be made up of 20-somethings Runelvys Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt, Miguel Asencio, Shawn Sedlacek and Chris George, none of whom have more than a year experience in the Major Leagues.

Even with Sweeney and Beltran and friends, that's too much to overcome.

Detroit Tigers

If you're heading to Lakeland, Fla., for Spring Training at Tigertown, better make sure you pick up a program at Joker Marchant Stadium. No team will have more new faces than the Tigers.

Some of them, however, look very familiar. Tiger legend Alan Trammell takes over as manager and has added one of the franchise's most notable players, Kirk Gibson, as a coach. Both were key figures on the 1984 World Series champion Tigers.

Dave Dombrowski, Detroit's President/General Manager, has given Trammell an overhauled team to work with. Gone are outfielder Robert Fick, the club's only All-Star last season; first baseman Randall Simon, the team leader in all three Triple Crown categories; as well as pitchers Julio Santana and Juan Acevedo, third baseman Chris Truby, second baseman Damian Jackson, outfielder Wendell Magee and catcher Michael Rivera.

With a new staff and so many new players to plug in figuring out while Detroit's Opening Day lineup will look like is at best a parlor game at this point as at least six spots will be up for grabs during Spring Training. There are some holdovers who will figure prominently in Detroit's 2003 picture, including Dmitri Young, Bobby Higginson, Brandon Inge, Carlos Pena and Damion Easley.

But you'll definitely need a scorecard.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.





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