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Front and Central in the playoff chase

Front and Central

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DETROIT -- Take a drive out of town down Interstate 75 after the morning rush, and you can be in Cleveland in time for lunch. It's a trip of three hours or less that's shorter than some Spring Training road trips in Florida, and it would be shorter still if not for Lake Erie.

Geographically, Detroit and Cleveland are similar: two Midwestern cities that catch the brunt of winter's fury before warming up for baseball season. Though Detroit boasts a larger population with its sprawling suburbs, the cities share many of the same economic woes that have come with lost manufacturing jobs, and their quest for revitalized downtown areas are seemingly separated by only a few years.

They're neighbors in the same situation, and they might well provide baseball's best 2008 playoff race without the hype of Yankees-Red Sox.

"It has the potential to be a great rivalry," Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "The only thing is that throughout the years, and they talked about this last year, rarely have the two clubs ever both been good the same years over the same time span. If we maintained that and Cleveland maintained that, it would be a real good rivalry. It's a good rivalry right now."

Indeed, last year was the first time since 1986 and the fifth time in the last 50 years that both teams had a winning record in the same season. The only other times they've finished first and second were 1940 and 1908.

They're both good now, and they're built to stay good for a few years. In terms of how they've gotten there, however, they're almost on opposite coasts.

On core young talent alone, both have earned their place among the leading candidates to get to this year's Fall Classic. However, while the Indians have stuck with their plan of building from within, the Tigers surprised most of baseball with changes, wheeling and dealing for Edgar Renteria and Jacque Jones before pulling off the offseason's biggest swap to add Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida.

What already ranked among baseball's most dangerous lineups with Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Guillen now looks fearsome. And what has been one of baseball's best comeback stories has taken on the subplot of matching the big-market clubs.

It was a perception that Tigers manager Jim Leyland raised at TigerFest.

"People don't like us right now in baseball, I can tell you that," Leyland said. "I think we're almost to the point of the Red Sox and Yankees right now where people say, 'Aw, they're spending money.' That offends some people, and I understand that. I've been on both sides of it. I'm not going to get trapped into all that stuff."

Nor is Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. Detroit can think about competing with Boston and New York, but Cleveland is the Central's incumbent team to beat.

"[The Tigers] have the third-highest payroll in the game, and we're 23rd," Shapiro said. "But we tend to focus on what we can control. Their payroll is not something we can control. You just build your club to be the best it can be."

Following a Game 7 loss to the Red Sox in the ALCS, the Indians expected to be quiet in the offseason. By locking up its young core to long-term deals over the last few years, the club had no major holes to fill. The Tribe's only notable move came in the signing of Japanese reliever Masahide Kobayashi.

Even when the Tigers became the talk of the Winter Meetings, Shapiro stuck to his guns, insisting the Indians would not make reactionary moves simply to steal headlines.

"We've been involved in every conversation with a player of significance, other than Johan Santana, and we've determined it's not in the best interest of the Cleveland Indians to make any of those deals," Shapiro said. "The majority of those deals would have involved Major League players and not just Minor League players.

"We've decided to take the rare opportunity to return a team that won 96 games and was very successful and give them a chance to build off their experience and see what they're capable of."

Actually, the Tigers' intent was similar. They filled their biggest need the day after the World Series with Renteria. Once free agents Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers re-signed, they were set. A call from owner Mike Ilitch asking about Cabrera's availability sent Dombrowski exploring.

Up to that point, top prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin were untouchable in trade talks, two key future pieces. The combination of youth and talent with the 24-year-old Cabrera and the 25-year-old Willis convinced Dombrowski otherwise.

"We made this trade to win now. I mean, it's obvious," Dombrowski admitted when the deal was announced. "However, I don't buy the thing that you're in a position where you're only going to win for a couple years. You might only win with the makeup of this club for a couple years, but it doesn't mean that this piece can't be added or that piece can't be added."

Ilitch has been a catalyst behind many additions following their 119-loss season in 2003. He personally recruited free agents Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez, promising them that he'll do what it takes to win. The 78-year-old patriarch has talked often about wanting to duplicate the success he has had with the Red Wings, but only in the last few years have his efforts paid off. Detroit's payroll this year could top $125 million, up from $98.5 million last year.

"Dave told me after he signed me that he was getting close to his budgets," Jones said. "He was worried he wasn't going to be able to do stuff. Then he landed Dontrelle and Cabrera. It just goes to show you the opportunities given with Mr. Ilitch."

While the Tigers have been dealing to add pieces, the Indians have successfully developed them. Asdrubal Cabrera, acquired from the Mariners at the 2006 trade deadline, helped Cleveland pull away from Detroit down the stretch last season, taking over at second base in his first big league experience. Fellow late-season callup Rafael Perez became a big piece in the bullpen. Fausto Carmona, of course, went from deposed closer to extra starter to All-Star. And that's on top of the core they've developed the last four years.

They've still added pieces when needed, but scouting savvy and discipline have been their strength. They received a tremendous boost from the farm system -- an area Shapiro and owner Larry Dolan agreed would be a focus of their rebuilding plan six years ago.

The Indians won 96 games with a team that had an Opening Day payroll of about $61.7 million. This year, with several notables such as Sabathia, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez receiving built-in bumps in salary, their payroll will likely increase to around $78 million.

"The way I look at it," Dombrowski said, "is that Cleveland has a good ballclub. They came one game away from beating the Red Sox last year. And I think when they evaluated their situation, they felt like they didn't need to make many changes. When you look at their rotation, it's a good one. Their bullpen pitched well for them. They have a very good lineup. Tied to that, they also have a lot of good young players."

Many of those young players are also locked up for the long term, which is where Cleveland has been aggressive. They have decisions looming on Sabathia, who could become a free agent next winter, and Victor Martinez, who like Detroit's Cabrera has two years left. However, Sizemore is signed through 2011, and Hafner through 2012.

And though it has been a quiet winter in Cleveland, the Indians still believe they have the pitching, depth and potential for offensive upside if they see improvement from Hafner, to repeat.

"Last year, the pitching staff was the strength of our ballclub, and it looks like it could be a strength again this year," Hafner said. "We feel really good about the team we have. We are a team that should have went to the World Series. But we've got everybody coming back, and we feel good about that."

The Tigers feel very good about their situation, too. Time will tell who feels better at season's end, and it could take well into October to decide.

Jason Beck and Anthony Castrovince are reporters for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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