MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Tigers team to beat in AL Central, but foes await

Indians, White Sox, Royals have eyes on Detroit for top spot in AL Central

Tigers team to beat in AL Central, but foes await

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Word was spreading of the Indians' signing of Michael Bourn last week just as the Tigers were getting ready for their first official workout of the spring. And though this was a day reserved merely for some pitchers' fielding practices and bullpen sessions, the competitive instincts kicked in.

"They gotta do better than Michael Bourn," said a smiling Victor Martinez, before gesturing toward catcher Alex Avila. "We've got some policemen who give tickets to people who go from first to second!"

If the Tigers are confident about their ability to defend not only second base but also their American League Central title, they have every right to be. They return a robust rotation and a lineup bolstered by the return of Martinez and the addition of Torii Hunter. When the predictions for 2013 start rolling in en masse, they will once again be the consensus favorite to win the division crown, just as they were a year ago.

Want an early read on those predictions? Check out Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report, which gives the Tigers a 73.8-percent chance of winning the Central -- by far the highest such percentage of any team in the game. BP's forecast has the Tigers running away with the division by nine games. PECOTA's projection has them winning it by 12.

So ... nothing to see here?

Let's not be silly.

Last year, the Tigers were in a similar situation in the wake of the Prince Fielder signing. And while the season was ultimately rather satisfying (save for that World Series sweep, of course), the postseason run had a way of masking the memory of the regular-season struggle to live up to the hefty hype. The Tigers found themselves in a mid-September dead heat with a White Sox team that exceeded expectations. And an argument can be made that the White Sox, winners of just four of the season's final 15 games, did more to cough up the division in the home stretch than the Tigers did to claim it.

Careful, then, with the assumptions about the Central, as we embark upon 2013. The Tigers are clear favorites to fly another division flag, but that doesn't mean the other clubs are flying white ones just yet. Their goal, of course, is to close the gap.

"I don't think there's any question the Tigers will be favored on paper," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "But the Royals have done quite a bit, the Indians have done quite a bit, the White Sox were competitive for about five and a half months last year. This division has improved, and there's a lot of optimism in a few towns here, I know that."

Where is that optimism most justified?

Well, the BP and PECOTA projections see the greatest gains coming in Cleveland. The Indians lost 94 games last season, thanks in no small measure to an abysmal August that saw them go 5-24. So much needed to change, and so much has changed in the time since, and the changes are enough to grant the Indians a 12-game improvement, according to PECOTA, and a baker's dozen upgrade according to BP.

Certainly, you have to like the improvement that comes with a two-time World Series-winning manager (Terry Francona) in the dugout and $104 million worth of monetary commitments to outfielders Nick Swisher and Bourn -- a level of free-agent expenditure the organization has simply never achieved previously. The Tribe is also taking fliers on Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs, and highly touted pitching prospect Trevor Bauer should be injected into the rotation by year's end.

The Indians are banking, quite literally, on a revamped roster, improved clubhouse culture and stellar outfield defensive alignment overcoming the potential ails of a suspect starting staff led by Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter Brett Myers. It's a rotation that certainly pales in comparison to that of the Tigers, but the speed and power in the offense is intriguing, and Francona's club could be frisky.

Not that Francona is proclaiming his club ready to tackle the Tigers.

"That's almost disrespectful to the Tigers," he said. "They've been there and done it. What we need to do is get ready for Spring Training, and then get ready for the year. There's a progression and [you can't] forget about that progression. Nothing has changed in my mind."

Frankly, not much changed with the White Sox in the winter months, and the lack of prominent player movement undoubtedly influenced the BP and PECOTA projections, which both see the White Sox taking a step back in the standings. Neither has the Sox finishing above .500.

However, that could be a particularly faulty forecast if history is any indication. As Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune pointed out recently, the Sox significantly outperformed their PECOTA projection in six of the past eight seasons.

To do it again, they'll need, first and foremost, continued health from both Chris Sale, who saw his innings workload increase by more than 120 from 2011 to '12, and Jake Peavy, whose reconstructed shoulder will always be a worry. They'll need a similarly stable shoulder from John Danks, who pitched just 50 innings last year. And they'll need Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago to avoid sophomore setbacks.

That might be a lot to ask. Especially when you consider the backloaded contract budget crunch that limited the Sox to just one "prominent" offseason acquisition (third baseman Jeff Keppinger), with longtime catcher A.J. Pierzynski and midseason hired hands Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Liriano and Myers all departing.

Much pressure, then, falls at the feet of Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez, Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo. The Sox, as a unit, overachieved last season, and -- on paper, at least -- it appears they'll have to do so again.

The team that could really be in a position to rise is the Royals. But they are fundamentally the hardest AL Central club to put predictions on, simply because their lineup has so much youth and upside but so little in the way of track record.

Eric Hosmer was abysmal last season, and shockingly so. But he remains a tantalizing talent, as do catcher Salvador Perez, shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain.

That group could pair with the established Billy Butler and Alex Gordon to give the Royals an elite offense, along with what could be an elite bullpen. And those if-comes were enough to compel Dayton Moore to bet the farm -- namely, top position prospect Wil Myers -- and the finances on a rotation that now will feature James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis. But while Shields is prone to 200-inning output, Guthrie made strides last season and Santana has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, suffice to say that's a pretty big gamble.

"I'm not one that's going to sit here on the sidelines and predict what's going to happen," Moustakas said, "but we've got a pretty good group of guys, and it's going to be a lot of fun to watch things fall into place."

Clearly, these clubs are not conceding the division to Detroit. Even the Twins, losers of 96 and 99 games the past two years, could be a little more feisty with a revamped rotation.

For now, the advanced calculations have the Tigers out in front for a reason. But we certainly have our own reasons for not taking those numbers as gospel.

"I know how this stuff works," Jim Leyland said. "I've seen a lot of teams be declared champions in February, then sit home in October."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. Jason Beck, Scott Merkin, Jordan Bastian and Dick Kaegel contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.