Competition tight in tough AL Central

Competition tight in tough AL Central

People keep calling the AL Central baseball's most competitive and brawling division -- and the Minnesota Twins keep winning it. They will be trying to do so for the fifth time in six years, but have reached the point where that just isn't enough.

Yes, when it comes to what defines a good season, the Twins have become the Yankees of the Midwest. A postseason record of 6-15 during their run -- bottomed out by their sweep out of last October's Division Series -- has left them feeling empty and hungry.

"The memory of stinking in the playoffs," said their manager, Ron Gardenhire, "maybe we can use that to our advantage."

It would not be their only advantage. Foremost is the talent lode, at least in one sense the deepest in league history:

The Twins are the first AL team ever with three different winners of the MVP Award (Justin Morneau), the Cy Young Award (Johan Santana) and the batting title (Joe Mauer). The trifecta has been accomplished only once, by the 1962 Dodgers trio of Maury Wills, Don Drysdale and Tommy Davis.

Yet a pitching rotation left scrambling in the wake of Francisco Liriano's elbow surgery makes Minnesota vulnerable game for the division's hunters.

The Tigers are arguably stronger than during last season's stunning revival, when they came within a brick of going wall-to-wall. The Indians need only a mulligan for 2006 to pick up the pace they set in 2005. The White Sox are making one last push with the core that has put up their first consecutive 90-win seasons in 40 years.

Even the Royals are dramatically improved. Remember, we said dramatically, not miraculously.


Minnesota Twins
They win if ...

They can get 35 wins out of the bottom three-fifths of their rotation -- matching what Santana and Boof Bonser could give them from the top two spots. Ramon Ortiz doesn't have a great history as an indoor pitcher, and Sidney Ponson by now has more skeptics than a kennel has fleas.

Possible pitfalls
Pending free agency messes with Torii Hunter's mind and muffles the personality of the team's on-the-field soul. Emotion will play a huge role down the combative stretch, and the Twins won't be playing with it if Hunter isn't showing it.

Detroit Tigers
They win if ...

The ball still leaves Gary Sheffield's bat as fast as he leaves his old teams. The Tigers need a reliable power source, because not even Jim Leyland can always make the right move.

Possible pitfalls
The return of lefty Mike Maroth from elbow surgery isn't enough to offset the bite the sophomore jinx is expected to take out of Justin Verlander's contribution.

Cleveland Indians
They win if ...

Fausto Carmona's impression of Cliff Lee is better than his impression of Bob Wickman. He's in the rotation while Lee recovers from abdominal pain, and will be a key to helping avoid a slow getaway that could rehash some of last season's bad vibes and raise doubts.

Possible pitfalls
Joe Borowski, the fallback closer with Keith Foulke's sudden retirement, isn't as effective as he'd been in the low-key Florida atmosphere, and the back end of the bullpen again offsets all of the Tribe's other assets.

Chicago White Sox
They win if ...

Scott Podsednik is indeed fully recovered and again the spark atop the lineup (he had only 12 Cactus League at-bats), and Ozzie Guillen's exhortations still ring true, rather than hollow.

Possible pitfalls
The pitching staff is in shambles, as it appeared to be in Spring Training, from Mark Buehrle's continuing ineffectiveness (9.00 ERA, 27 hits in 15 innings) to Bobby Jenks' achy woes.

Kansas City Royals
They win if ...

The top dogs in a tough division knock each other out, and the $62 million overhaul (Gil Meche, Octavio Dotel, David Riske) of MLB's worst pitching staff pays off.

Possible pitfalls
The division sticks to the script, which still calls for the Royals to make a quick exit stage left.


Top pitcher
Santana, Twins: Perhaps the conventional pick -- although we were set to instead anoint C.C. Sabathia, until the Indians lefty took a liner off his pitching wrist on Wednesday -- but it's tough to go against someone who for three seasons has been crossing into Sandy Koufax territory. This is a different, offense-dominated era, but Santana posted an ERA nearly two runs lower than the AL average in 2004-06, while going 55-19. Ain't no one can keep pace with that.

Ivan Rodriguez, Tigers: In a division where many of the biggest impact hitters are taken out of the picture by being DHs (Gary Sheffield, Travis Hafner, Jim Thome), this physical marvel will be recognized for his role in another Bengal charge. At 35 and after having already squatted through nearly 2,000 games, he'll turn over a new leaf by batting leadoff against left-handed starters -- because Jim Leyland wants his speed atop the lineup. Imagine that.


Sheffield, Tigers -- His previous union with Leyland paid off in a World Series title for the 1997 Marlins.

Ortiz, Twins -- If he could win 11 games for the Nationals ... ?

Meche, Royals -- Big contract, big responsibilities.

Darin Erstad, White Sox -- Guillen's kind of player. If healthy, he'll be all of the South Side's kind of player.

Borowski, Indians -- A lot's riding on his 36-year-old arm.

Josh Barfield, Indians -- Arrives from San Diego after a smashing rookie season to stabilize second base, where the Indians went through five different starters last season.

Dotel, Royals -- A good bet for K.C., given that he had 36 saves in 2004 before being sidetracked by elbow surgery.

Jose Mesa, Tigers -- His 34th appearance will make him the 11th pitcher in Major League history to pitch 1,000 games.

Trot Nixon, Indians -- Spring Training has been inconclusive regarding his comeback from December disc surgery.


John Danks, White Sox -- Chicago dealt "untouchable" Brandon McCarthy to get him from Texas, which is all you need to know about his power arm.

Ryan Garko, Indians -- Averaged nearly an RBI last season for his 50 games, most of which came in September, preserving his rookie status.

Matt Garza, Twins -- Will spend the first part of the season refining his secondary pitches to be ready to help when one of the vets falls out of the rotation.

Alex Gordon, Royals -- The third baseman tries to be fitted with a unique triple crown: 2005 NCAA Player of Year to 2006 Minor League Player of Year to 2007 AL Rookie of the Year.

Tom Mastny, Indians -- Pitched his way into the pen with 13 strikeouts in 15 sharp (1.80 ERA) Cactus League innings.

Adam Miller, Indians -- Farmed out despite 11 shutout exhibition innings, but could be standing by for a Jonathan Papelbon-like career switch if Borowski falters as closer.

Joakim Soria, Royals -- Rule 5 Draft pick from San Diego looks like a great investment after striking out 15, with only one walk, in 15 innings of Cactus League action.

Tom Singer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.