I was going to go out of order and save the Central for last, but I have a busy day tomorrow and the 4 team West will be an easier preview to write. So here's the Central...
Chicago White Sox
2007: 72-90 4th Place
The Sox made two big trades in the offseason, bringing in Orlando Cabrera and Nick Swisher. This will help the middle of the line-up and improve on the AL worst offense in 2007. The problem is they did nothing to improve a pitching staff that was in the bottom 4 in the AL in runs allowed last season. Javier Vasquez and Mark Buerhle are back, but with Jon Garland gone in the Cabrera trade the drop off after the top two in the rotation is significant. Jose Contreras is the default #3 starter, he was second to Daniel Cabrera of Baltimore to runs allowed in the AL last year. Thanks to the Swisher trade, young arms that could jump into the rotation (Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos) are wearing Oakland A's uniforms. Bringing in Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel will help the bullpen, if Dotel is finally healthy. Seeing as he has only pitched 55 innings total since the 2004 season, I wouldn't count on it. If the White Sox are lucky enough to carry a lead into the 9th, it's almost a guaranteed win with Bobby Jenks as a closer. But, with the offense continually being mismanaged by Ozzie Guillen, that will not happen often.
Pivotal Player: Nick Swisher. The traded three high prospects for him, he needs to help teh middle of the order produce runs.
Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Tomo Ohka. Ohka was 2-5 with a 5.79 ERA with the Blue Jays. Sadly he has a good chance of cracking the White Sox rotation.
2007: 96-66 1st Place; Lost in ALCS 3-4
One game away from the World Series, the Indians saw the every team in the AL Central make moves to dethrone them from the Central crown. The Indians stood firm, only signing reliever Masahide Kobayashi (over 200 saves in Japan) and trading for utility player Jamey Carroll. With two Cy Young caliber pitchers at the front of the rotation in C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona; and bats such as Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Perlata, and Ryan Garko you can see why Indians management is confident in the team they have. As a Tiger fan, here's where I think the Indians are vulnerable. First, outside of the 5 guys I mentioned, there isn't any on this team that can get on base or drive in runs. Asdrubal Cabrera started off strong after replacing Josh Barfield at 2nd in August, but cooled off down the stretch. I see this September Cabrera showing up more often, as he plays his first full season in the Majors. The corner outfielder platoon (Franklin Gutierrez, David Dellucci, Jason Michaels) drove in only 80 runs combined. Add to that, none had a OBP over .325, and you have the 1-5 guys in the order doing all the work. As for the pitching, spots 3-5 in the rotation aren't that great. Paul Byrd may of won 15 games last year, but that was more than likely is due to the Indians offense. He allowed the 2nd most hits of any pitcher in the AL, and tied for the 5th most HRs allowed. C.C. Sabathia also allows a lot of hits, but doesn't surrender HRs, and has the ability to strike out the side. Byrd doesn't have that ability, in fact the rest of the pitchers that might fill out the rotation (Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Sowers, Cliff Lee) resemble a Byrd's stats could pose a problem. The bullpen fares a bit better than the starters. Aaron Fultz and the Rafaels (Betancourt and Perez) did a great job in setting up Joe Borowski. Borowski did not do a great job finishing them off. No closer in baseball gave up more hits or runs than Borowski did, and only Tampa's Al Reyes surrendered more HRs. In 22 of the 69 games he appeared in he surrendered a run. The Indians do have some weak spots, but their also have a very good core to cover up their shortcomings. Cleveland is beatable, but they won't go down without a fight.
Pivotal Player: Travis Hafner. Troubled by injuries, had an off year HR and average-wise. If back to form, makes the line-up more dangerous than it already is.
Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Brendan Donnelly. Sidelined with Tommy John surgery. When he returns is a reliable arm in the bullpen, allowing other moves (Betancourt to closer?) to be made.
2007: 88-74 2nd Place
Miguel Cabrera is a Tiger. I don't think I'll get used to typing that until at least June. He joins Edgar Renteria and Jacque Jones adding to a line-up that was behind only Philadelphia and the Yankees in the Majors in runs scored. We all know the offense will produce, the thing that the Tigers need to win is good pitching. Justin Verlander was the only starter to provide it on a consistent basis last year. Not coincidentally, he was the only starter not to have an miss significant time. Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson, and Jeremy Bonderman all fought (perhaps fought too long in some cases) with injuries. The constant injuries and trading away of Mike Maroth left the Tigers at times with only 3 Major League level arms. The addition of Dontrelle Willis at worst gives them a guy that can throw 180+ innings at a high level. I'd be happy with a season like 2006's from Willis. An ERA around 4.00 and around 150 Ks. The real issue is with the bullpen. With Joel Zumaya out until after the All-Star break and Fernando Rodney's shoulder tightness issues, there are two big spots to fill. Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak did a great job as the lefties coming out of the pen. Yorman Bazardo did well as a starter down the stretch and that arm would be useful coming out of the bullpen. Then there's the Roller Coaster. Todd Jones is the closer and will stay the closer until the end of the season, just accept that. He might not be the best closer, but at least he's not Joe Borowski. In a perfect world, Brandon Inge would be traded to a team and the Tigers would get a good bullpen arm out of it. But that's not going to happen. Tiger fans will just have to hope that the offense is good enough, the starters are consistent, and the bullpen finds some way to get better.
Pivotal Player: Zach Miner. Looking at his stats, he wasn't that bad with a 3.03 ERA. He needs to be the guy to step up and be the 7th (or 8th if Rodney's out) inning guy out of the bullpen. IF he does well this year the chances the Tigers will go deep into the playoffs increase.
Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Mike Holliman. Competing for the reserve infielder spot. DTW likes him over Santiago. I'll echo BYB in jumping aboard that endorsement.
Kansas City Royals
2007: 69-93 5th Place
GM Dayton Moore is trying to rebuild the Royals back into the elite team they were in the heyday of George Brett. He seems to be following the Dave Dombrowski school of rebuilding, in overpaying for free agents. Last year it was Gil Meche, this year it's Jose Guillen. Meche while having a losing record, actually pitched very well. So I'll hold of judgement on the Guillen deal until later. Also Joakim Soria was a steal in teh Rule 5 draft, and getting Brian Bannister for Amborix Burgos was a pretty good move as well. They have a number of young promising players such as Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, John Buck, Luke Hochevar, and Tony Pena Jr. But they're still a few years, and players away from condenting
Pivotal Player: Alex Gordon. The ultra-hyped 3B has a slow start to his rookie campaign. Another bad year and he'll start to hear the word "bust" being whispered around
Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Mike Maroth. This time last year he was trying to regain his place in the rotation with the Tigers. Now he's trying to bounce back with the Royals after a rocky 2007
2007: 79-83 3rd Place
Johan Santana and Torii Hunter are gone. Before we weep for the poor small market Twins, may I remind you that when they make a big trade like the one for Santana, they usually end up breaking even if not ahead. The last time they did a blockbuster trade like this they received 3 players that are still important parts of the team (Lirano, Bonser, and Nathan for Pierzynski). The Santana trade brought them Carlos Gomez, the replacement for Hunter. He may not put of the offense immediately like Hunter, but Delmon Young can help with that. The pitching staff will miss Santana and Matt Garza. But the return of Fransisco Liriano, and the signings of Livan Hernandez will help take away some of the sting. That and they still have Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Micheal Cuddyer, and one of the best bullpens in the AL. The Twins most likely will not win the division, but they will be a tough team to play all year.
Pivotal Player: Fransisco Liriano. Was putting up Santana-like numbers before an injury forced Tommy John surgery in 2006. If he's back to his old self Santana might not even be missed.
Non-Roster Invitee of Note: Zach Day. Another journeyman pitcher who could fill in if the injury bug takes down a starter or two.
Right now the Tigers lack of depth in the bullpen scares me, but then I look at the line-up and think that the runs they score might be more than enough to hold off the Indians.
1) Detroit Tigers
2) Cleveland Indians
3) Minnesota Twins
4) Chicago White Sox
5) Kansas City Royals