1 | Detroit Tigers
2006 2nd place 95-67
Manager: Jim Leyland.
Key free agent: RP Jose Mesa (1 year, $2.5 million).
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Acquired in trade: OF Gary Sheffield (from Yankees).
Going, going, gone: RP Jamie Walker (signed by Baltimore), DH Dmitri Young (signed by Washington), OF Matt Stairs (signed by Toronto).
On the hot seat: Todd Jones is one of the most underrated closers in baseball, saving 77 games the past two years. But Joel Zumaya has a 100 mph fastball, which means the Tigers won’t stick with Jones long if he stumbles.
Written in Stone: Provided their pitchers stop overthrowing third base, the Tigers are primed for another big year. True, the stars aligned last year, when they came out of nowhere to win the American League pennant. But the Tigers have an abundance of talent and confidence, and a new impact bat in Sheffield, who should thrive under his former Marlins skipper, Leyland. One concern is that young fireballers like Justin Verlander and Zumaya might regress after last year’s season-plus workload. But Jeremy Bonderman should be ready to step up to No. 1 status. Losing Kenny Rogers for half the season is a huge blow. Curtis Granderson is on the rise, and ex-Mariner Carlos Guillen has arrived as a leader. One player not to overlook: Brandon Inge, who is a superb defensive third baseman and can hit a little, too.
2 | Chicago White Sox
2006 3rd place 90-72
Manager: Ozzie Guillen.
Key free agent: OF Darin Erstad (1 year, $1 million).
Acquired in trade: SP Gavin Floyd (from Philadelphia), RP David Aardsma (from Cubs), SP John Danks (from Texas).
Going, going, gone: SP Freddy Garcia (traded to Philadelphia), SP Brandon McCarthy (traded to Texas), RP David Riske (signed by Kansas City), RP Dustin Hermanson (signed by Cincinnati).
On the hot seat: GM Kenny Williams took plenty of heat for trading pitchers Garcia and McCarthy. He’ll hear about it all year, if Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle aren’t better than they were in 2006.
Written in Stone: Rumor has it the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, but that couldn’t be confirmed at press time. The Sox are still formidable — what pitcher in his right mind wants to face Dye, Konerko, Thome and Crede? — but the Guillen-Williams magic seems to be wearing off. Both Dye and Buehrle are entering the final years of their contracts, which could emerge as a distraction. The Sox believe Erstad can reinvent himself, but the truth is, outside of his monster 2000 season, he hasn’t been much of an offensive force. Whatever happens, it’s always a hoot to watch Guillen in action. Can’t wait for those interleague games against Lou and the Cubs.
3 | Cleveland Indians
2006 4th place 78-84
Manager: Eric Wedge.
Key free agents: OF David Dellucci (3 years, $11.5 million), OF Trot Nixon (1 year, $3 million), RP Joe Borowski (1 year, $4 million), RP Aaron Fultz (1 year, $1.65 million), RP Roberto Hernandez (1 year, $3.5 million).
Acquired in trade: 2B Josh Barfield (from San Diego).
Going, going, gone: INF Kevin Kouzmanoff (traded to San Diego), INF Aaron Boone (signed by Florida).
On the hot seat: Nobody had any problems with manager Eric Wedge when the Indians won 93 games in 2005. But last year’s 15-game decline, with basically the same club, has some Clevelanders down on Wedge.
Written in Stone: It’s hard to figure where it went off track last year, considering the Indians ranked second in the AL in runs and sixth in ERA (they were also 13th in errors: A clue!). This spring has had its rocky moments, with the retirement of prospective closer Keith Foulke and an injury to starter Cliff Lee (stomach strain). But the Indians still look strong, provided new closer Borowski isn’t a flop, and Lee isn’t out too long. GM Mark Shapiro made another astute pickup in Barfield. While Cleveland fans are still waiting for Andy Marte to live up to his hype, Grady Sizemore has far surpassed his and is close to being the best all-around player in the league.
4 | Minnesota Twins
2006 1st place 96-66
Manager: Ron Gardenhire.
Key free agents: SP Ramon Ortiz (1 year, $3.1 million), SP Sidney Ponson (minor-league deal).
Going, going, gone: OF Shannon Stewart (signed by Oakland), SP Brad Radke (retired), 2B Luis Rivas (signed by Cleveland).
On the hot seat: How shaky is the Twins’ rotation, after the great Johan Santana? Well, it includes Sir Sidney Ponson, who is with his fourth team in less than two years and hasn’t been an effective pitcher since 2003.
Written in Stone: I’ll never underestimate the brilliance of Twins GM Terry Ryan, but I just don’t see it happening for the ’07 Twins. At least, not unless Ryan figures out a way to pitch Santana three times a week. The Twins will miss Radke, and they’ll also miss promising Matt Garza who, for some unexplained reason, didn’t make the rotation. No question the Twins have some tremendous pieces, including the Cy Young winner (Santana, hands down the best pitcher in baseball), MVP (Justin Morneau) and batting champion (Joe Mauer) from last year, plus All-Star closer Joe Nathan. Michael Cuddyer had a nice offensive breakout last season, and Torii Hunter, heading into the final year of his contract, is a leader on and off the field. Bottom line, however, is the Twins have too many holes in their rotation to defend their title in the rugged AL Central.
5 | Kansas City Royals
2006 5th place 62-100
Manager: Buddy Bell.
Key free agents: SP Gil Meche (5 years, $55 million), RP Octavio Dotel (1 year, $5 million), RP David Riske (1 year, $2 million).
Acquired in trade: SP Brian Bannister (from Mets), C Jason LaRue (from Cincinnati), 1B Ross Gload (from White Sox).
Going, going, gone: SP Mark Redman (signed by Atlanta), RP Ambiorix Burgos (traded to Mets), 1B Doug Mientkiewicz (signed by Yankees).
On the hot seat: Sure, the free-agent market is crazy, but five years, $55 million for Gil Meche? The same Gil Meche who pitched for the Mariners? Seriously? This has Chan Ho Park written all over it.
Written in Stone: The Royals fall into the “Nowhere To Go But Up” category, and things definitely look brighter under the new regime of GM Dayton Moore. The pitching focus will be on Meche, but the genuine excitement in camp, pitching-wise, was over Zack Greinke, the one-time top prospect whose career was nearly brought down by an anxiety disorder. Now taking medication to combat the problem, Greinke has had an outstanding spring. If he produces, the whole outlook changes for the Royals. But for KC excitement, nothing tops Alex Gordon, the uber rookie who looks like the second coming of George Brett.
|SS||*Tony Peña Jr.||.282||1||23|
|LH||Jorge De La Rosa||5-6||6.49||67|
Capsules by Bill Reader, section editor; Written in Stone and division rankings by Larry Stone, Seattle Times baseball reporter. Stats from 2006 season unless noted.