Big offseason moves close gap in AL Central

Big offseason moves close gap in AL Central

The races for the American League Central title have featured perhaps as much intrigue as any other division battle in recent years.

In both 2008 and '09, a 163rd game was required to determine the division champion. The Twins managed to stop that trend this year by capturing the title in runaway fashion down the stretch. But based on the way things have gone so far this offseason, it's looking as if the division with the flair for the dramatic could once again feature a very interesting battle in 2011.

The Twins are the reigning division champs, but the Tigers and the White Sox have made the strongest Hot Stove statements. The message? They aren't about to back down from what's been a perennially hard-fought battle for the AL Central crown.

The Tigers stormed into the offseason, re-signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta and third baseman Brandon Inge in the early days of free agency before making a big splash by landing catcher/DH Victor Martinez and right-handed reliever Joaquin Benoit.

Not to be outdone, the White Sox followed up Detroit's early splurge with one of their own. In the past two weeks, Chicago erased any thought that it might be taking a step back. Instead, the Sox added left-handed slugger Adam Dunn, pairing him with right-handed first baseman Paul Konerko by re-signing the team captain, and inked catcher A.J. Pierzysnki while keeping left-hander Mark Buehrle, who will make $14 million in the last year of his contract, in Chicago.

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MLB.com takes a division-by-division look at how the offseason has developed.
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So while two months remain until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the AL Central is already shaping up to once again be a tight race among three teams -- the Twins, the Tigers and the White Sox.

While others are trying to find a way to test Minnesota next season, the Twins have been relatively quiet, outside of posting the winning bid for negotiating rights with Japanese middle infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. So the question now is this: How will the Twins use the rest of the offseason to improve their chances in a division that's seemingly growing more competitive by the day?

Of course, those three teams won't be the only ones who will determine the eventual division champion. The Indians and Royals have played spoilers in recent years, and while both teams aren't necessarily expected to vault into contention in 2011, they could feature plenty of talented young players with much to prove. And those are just the types of teams that could make the race even more interesting.

Here is a team-by-team look at the AL Central in light of the developments so far this offseason:

Chicago White Sox

What they've done: The White Sox have made perhaps the boldest statement of any AL Central team. Not only did they get their left-handed run producer in the middle of the lineup by signing Dunn, they were also able to re-sign two other key pieces in Konerko and Pierzynski.

Left to do: The White Sox appear spent financially after making quite a splash, but the club is still looking to add some veteran help to the bullpen. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has been aggressive in filling his needs, so it's not a stretch to say that the club will likely find a way to eliminate the voids in this area as well.

Where they stand: Early in the offseason, it had appeared that the White Sox were prepared to take a step back, slash payroll and go with younger players for the 2011 season. But suddenly with their slew of signings, the White Sox find themselves right back in the thick of things with the Twins and Tigers. Chicago has improved its club, filling holes and bolstering itself for what could be another hard-fought division battle, and already it looks to be a strong contender.

Cleveland Indians

What they've done: The Indians have been the quietest of the AL Central teams -- no surprise considering their payroll constraints. The club has made some Minor League signings, including third baseman Jack Hannahan, as it tries to fill holes, but the expectation has been that the team won't be a major player on the free-agent market.

Left to do: The Indians would like to find a solution for third base and add a right-handed-hitting outfielder. Cleveland is also in the market for an experienced but inexpensive starting pitcher to help take some heat off its young staff.

Where they stand: The Indians' rebuilding continues, as the youngest team in the Majors is expected to maintain its focus on development. But with Grady Sizemore and Carlos Santana expected back from knee surgeries, the Indians hope those two players can be their big acquisitions and they'll improve from their 69-win total in 2010.

Detroit Tigers

What they've done: The Tigers were the most aggressive team in the Majors in the early days of the offseason, re-signing Peralta and Inge, and then they took their maneuvering to another level by adding Martinez and Benoit.

Left to do: Right field remains a big hole, although it looks like the Tigers are moving closer to re-signing Magglio Ordonez. The club might also still try to add another starter or swingman to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation. A southpaw reliever could also be on the list, but that's a need that won't likely be filled until later in the offseason.

Where they stand: The Tigers have made it clear they plan on being a team to reckon with. Their additions have been impressive, particularly when considering they already had a strong pitching staff. With money left to spend, the Tigers don't appear to be finished.

Kansas City Royals

What they've done: The Royals addressed their outfield needs last week, inking contracts with Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. The club also added some pitching depth when it traded right fielder David DeJesus to Oakland for left-hander Justin Marks and right-hander Vin Mazzaro.

Left to do: The Royals still need to address their starting rotation, with Zack Greinke's future the most pressing issue.

Where they stand: The biggest question mark surrounding the Royals is whether the club will trade its ace, Greinke, and the decision could largely affect the club's ability to have an impact on the race next season. Kansas City has made strides in strengthening its farm system, and there are talented players who could soon be making an impact on the big league level.

Minnesota Twins

What they've done: The Twins have restructured their middle infield, posting the winning bid for Japanese batting champion Nishioka and getting two hard-throwing young right-handers by trading shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Orioles. A deal with Nishioka still needs to be completed, but there haven't been any indications that a deal will not get done.

Left to do: The bullpen, which was expected to be hit hard by free-agent departures, remains one of the biggest areas of need. The Twins have tried to add a few relief options, but they still could use at least one proven arm to help bolster the group. The club would also like to re-sign right-hander Carl Pavano and DH Jim Thome, otherwise it could seek other ways to strength its rotation and its bench.

Where they stand: As the reigning AL Central champions, the Twins are already considered the team to beat. They'll return a strong nucleus of players that's anchored by All-Star catcher Joe Mauer. If the team can get back a healthy Justin Morneau for the start of next season, as they expect to do, it would be a boost. Although they haven't made many moves yet, the Twins have been known for taking their time over the winter, so it's far too early to judge their offseason. A veteran addition to the starting staff, such as Pavano, and at least one proven arm for the bullpen would make this team an even stronger postseason contender.

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Kelly's Corner and follow her on Twitter at kellythesier. Reporters Jordan Bastian, Jason Beck, Dick Kaegel and Scott Merkin contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.