Deep AL Central should be a dogfight
Four legitimate contenders mark baseball's best division
The American League Central has produced the last two AL champions and with the division shaping up as arguably the strongest in the Major Leagues again in 2007, there's ample reason to think the team that wins the AL Central will once again go far in October.
The question is which team?
Will it be the Detroit Tigers, who won the Wild Card last year before advancing to the World Series? Or will the Chicago White Sox, the 2005 division and World Series champions, bounce back?
Then there's the defending AL Central champions, the Minnesota Twins, who have won the division four of the last five years, or the Cleveland Indians, who haven't won the division since 2001 but have the personnel to go a long way in 2007.
The most improved team might be Kansas City, though the Royals still have a lot of ground to make up before they can catch the four heavyweights in this division.
The favorite White Sox
Offensively, the White Sox were far more potent in 2006 than they were in 2005, when the team won the World Series. The 2006 team scored 127 more runs, hit 18 points higher and posted an on-base percentage 20 points better than the 2005 White Sox, yet Chicago won nine fewer games and missed the playoffs last season. The culprit was a pitching staff that tailed off significantly, especially in the second half. Chicago's team ERA climbed a full run in 2006 (from a league-leading 3.61 the previous season) which is why GM Ken Williams worked to improve the staff this winter. Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy are gone; arriving are a crop of promising young arms like Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Gio Gonzalez, David Aardsma, Carlos Vasquez and Nick Masset joining holdovers Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez. There's enough talent to get the staff close to where it was in 2005, and with the offense figuring to be one of the best in baseball again, look for the Sox to bounce back big in 2007. Projected regular-season finish: AL Central champions Biggest ST challenge: With left fielder Scott Podsednik's early season status uncertain because of a sports hernia, combined with questions about whether center fielder Brian Anderson will hit enough to play every day, the top of the batting order could become a concern. Best position battles: Anderson is the favorite to start in center field, but he could be pushed by Ryan Sweeney. With all of the new arms on the staff, the bullpen roles other than closer Bobby Jenks could provide some interesting battles. Wild card: The risk of injury increases with age, and with as many as 14 White Sox either over 30 or celebrating their 30th birthday, this year the injury bug could bite. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
The challengers Tigers
The team with the best ERA in the Major Leagues last season could have an even stronger staff this time as youngsters like Jeremy Bonderman, Fernando Rodney, Nate Robertson and Joel Zumaya continue to improve. Offensively, the Tigers will have virtually the same cast that reached the World Series last year, with one notable addition: Gary Sheffield at designated hitter. If everyone stays healthy, this team should be even better than last year's. Projected regular-season finish: Second place Biggest ST challenge: Finding a lefty reliever to replace Jamie Walker. Best position battles: The Tigers are set at most positions with the one or two bullpen spots perhaps all that will be up for grabs in Lakeland. Veteran right-hander Jose Mesa will compete for a spot and Edward Campusano, a 24-year-old recently signed free agent, will get a shot as he'll be one of the few lefty candidates in camp. Wild card: The Tigers aren't going to sneak up on anybody this year, but if they get similar production from the key players and avoid significant injuries they should be back in the playoffs again. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
Only the Yankees scored more runs than the Indians last season, and among AL teams, Cleveland's starters had an ERA that was surpassed by only the Angels and Tigers. This year the rotation of C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers and Paul Byrd figures to be among the more formidable in the league. This is a playoff-caliber team -- if the bullpen comes through and the Indians improve a defense that was among the worst in baseball last season. Projected regular-season finish: Third place Biggest ST challenge: The reshuffled infield, including new second baseman Josh Barfield, will need to get comfortable working together defensively. Improving the defense remains a priority. Best position battles: Jason Davis, Fernando Cabrera and Matt Miller are expected to battle for the final two spots in the bullpen. Wild card: There are questions about the bullpen, but if the relievers come through, particularly projected co-closers Keith Foulke and Joe Borowski, the Indians have an excellent chance to reach the playoffs. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
The long shot Twins
Twelve games out on July 15, the surprising Twins put together a remarkable run to clinch the division title on the final day of the regular season. Led by Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, All-Star phenom Francisco Liriano, batting champ Joe Mauer and MVP Justin Morneau, the Twins were one of the amazing stories of the 2006 season. This time, however, Liriano is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery and Brad Radke has retired, leaving Minnesota with two major holes to fill. Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place Biggest ST challenge: Solidifying the rotation behind Santana. Boof Bonser hasn't had a full season in the Majors yet and Carlos Silva gave up a league-leading 38 home runs last year. The Twins are hoping Matt Garza is ready and at least one other candidate steps up. If not the Twins could be in trouble. Best position battles: The Twins are fairly set at most spots, though there could be some tweaking at third base and perhaps left field. Jason Kubel will get first crack at nailing down designated hitter. Wild card: The last two teams returning the previous season's MVP and Cy Young Award winner (St. Louis in 2005 and Oakland in 2002) both made the playoffs the following year, and the Twins will have a shot with Mauer and Morneau back and a healthy Torii Hunter. With the bullpen figuring to be strong again, whether the Twins successfully defend their crown or not will probably come down to the performance of the rotation. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
Maybe next year Royals
The good news is the Royals played better as the season progressed. The bad news is they were so bad early they were unable to avoid a third consecutive 100-loss season, despite going 21-22 after Aug. 15. No division team, however, made more upgrades this winter than the Royals, who added Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, Octavio Dotel, David Riske, Zach Day, Dewon Brazelton, Jason LaRue and Ken Ray. This team will be better in 2007, but then, after the last three years, there's no where to go but up. Projected regular-season finish: Last place Biggest ST challenge: With perhaps seven rotation candidates manager Buddy Bell must settle on two other starters after Meche, Odalis Perez and Luke Hudson. The outfield picture is unsettled, especially if Alex Gordon starts at third base, and the bullpen roles must be sorted out. Best position battles: LaRue is expected to square off with John Buck for the starting job at catcher. If Dotel is not ready to assume closer duties it could create a scramble for that job. Center field could be an interesting competition between David DeJesus and Joey Gathright. Wild card: The Royals were clearly better at season's end -- upsetting the Tigers in a key September series to help give Minnesota the division crown -- and may have finally turned the corner in their rebuilding efforts. But there's still a long way to go and the next step will be avoiding another 100-loss season. That goal is certainly reachable in 2007. More: Spring Training preview | Quick hits | Spring schedule and tickets
You read it here first ... 1) For the second year in a row, two teams from the AL Central Division reach the playoffs. 2) Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman combine for 35 victories and the Tigers lead the league in ERA for the second consecutive year. 3) The Royals, who improved by six games in 2006, double that total in 2007 to finish 74-88.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.