1. DETROIT TIGERS
2006 Record: 95-67
Under their new manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers were able to shock the world of baseball last season en route to the American League pennant. In 2007, it will prove far more difficult to sneak up on their opponents. With the majority of the team returning for the 2007 season, Detroit will look to rekindle the magic that led it to the World Series last season.
Key Additions: OF Gary Sheffield, RP Jose Mesa
Key Losses: RP Jamie Walker
X-Factor: OF Curtis Granderson
In a lineup that has tremendous talent throughout, it is essential that players get on base to create RBI opportunities for the middle of the order. After last season, there are some doubts about whether Curtis Granderson can thrive as a lead-off hitter. Last season, he struck out 174 times and had an on-base percentage of .335. Numbers like these will not allow him to keep the top spot in the order during 2007, but a consistent Granderson batting first would be part of the ideal lineup for Detroit.
Don’t be surprised if … the Tigers run out of steam and fall back into mediocrity.
2007 Outlook: Last season the Tigers showed that they were no longer the laughingstock of the American League when they ended their incredible turnaround with a trip to the World Series. Whether it was tremendous chemistry or just the perfect season, the majority of Detroit’s players performed well above their talent levels. It would be hard to expect them to repeat their performances in 2007. The Tigers are once again relevant and should be competitive, but a repeat performance is unlikely. Detroit should find itself closer to a .500 record than to a World Series this season. — D.C.
2. CLEVELAND INDIANS
2006 Record: 78-84
After a disappointing 2006 season which saw Cleveland grossly underperforming and finishing below .500, 18 games behind the eventual AL Central Division Champion Detroit Tigers, the Indians are healthy and hungry for a division title. Cleveland sits in a division with three teams that won 90 or more games last year. Although the Indians’ offense and starting rotation are strong, the bullpen and infield defense will have to tighten up for them to improve.
Key Additions: RP Joe Borowski, 2B Josh Barfield, LF David Dellucci
Key Losses: None
X-Factor: DH Travis Hafner. Although he missed the final month of the 2006 season with a broken hand, Hafner ranked second in the AL in HRs, RBIs and OBP at the time of his injury. With incredible power and the ability to cover the entire strike zone, if he can stay healthy throughout the entire season, T-Haf could bat over .300 and produce over 40 HRs and 100 RBIs and help make the Indians strong contenders in the AL Central.
Don’t be surprised if … Cleveland again underperforms despite Hafner being crowned AL MVP.
2007 Outlook: It’s hard not to like Cleveland given the strength of its starting rotation and its explosive offense. If new closer Joe Borowski and position players David Dellucci and Josh Barfield keep the Indians from making errors, there is no reason why Cleveland can’t make a run at the Central Division title. Although the talent is there, the notoriously underwhelming Indians should have yet another disappointing finish in the highly competitive AL Central. — M.P.
3. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
2006 Record: 90-72
The White Sox were poised to return as World Series champions last season but instead fell victim to baseball’s toughest division. While their cross town rivals, the Cubs, made headlines this offseason, the White Sox had a winter full of head-scratching decisions. Most notably, they traded away two reliable starters, Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy. Still, the White Sox have one of the best offenses in the American League and hope it will carry the pitching staff back to the playoffs.
Key Additions: OF Darin Erstad, SP Gavin Floyd
Key Losses: SP Freddy Garcia, SP Brandon McCarthy, RP David Riske
X-Factor: SP Mark Buehrle. After a dreadful 2006 season, the White Sox will be counting on Mark Buerhle to bounce back. Last year his ERA rose by a run and a half, while his strikeouts dropped by more than 50. The White Sox have a rotation full of second and third starters, but to go anywhere, someone will need to step up and be the staff ace. Buehrle must be the pitcher to fill that role again for Chicago.
Don’t be surprised if … the White Sox struggle out of the gate and trade impending free agent Jermaine Dye.
2007 Outlook: GM Ken Williams’ decision to save a few bucks by trading Garcia and McCarthy will prove to be a horrible one, as it leaves the White Sox with the most inconsistent pitching staff in the league. The pitching questions don’t end there because closer Bobby Jenks has struggled all spring and is already in manager Ozzie Guillen’s doghouse. Even with Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye in the middle of the lineup, Chicago could find itself with a losing record in 2007. If that happens, it may be a memorable year of Ozzie Guillen quotes. — D.C.
4. MINNESOTA TWINS
2006 Record: 96-66
The Twins were red-hot in the second half of 2006 and stunned the upstart Tigers by swiping the division crown on the last day of the season. Stocked with more arms than almost anyone in the league, Minnesota looked primed to make a run toward the Fall Classic; then its rookie stud Francisco Liriano went down with Tommy John surgery, and Brad Radke struggled with arm troubles down the stretch. The Twins will have to do battle without those two big names in the rotation for all of 2007, with Liriano rehabbing and Radke retired. Now a new-look pitching staff will try to ride the golden arm of Cy Young winner Johan Santana back to the postseason in the ultra-competitive AL Central.
Key Additions: 3B Jeff Cirillo, SP Ramon Ortiz, SP Sidney Ponson
Key Losses: SP Brad Radke, OF Shannon Stewart
X-Factor: SP Matt Garza. Following in the footsteps of recent graduates of the Twins’ farm system (most notably Santana in 2002 and Liriano in 2006), the potential emergence of top prospect Garza could be the reinforcement Minnesota needs to stay in the race in 2007. While Garza wasn’t in the rotation at the advent of the season, many expect the back of the Twins’ shaky rotation (comprised of Carlos Silva, Ortiz and Ponson) to crumble sooner or later. Garza seems to be the first in line to claim a rotation spot, and if his talent can translate on the Major League level in a hurry, he could be the lifeline the Twins need to defend their division title.
Don’t be surprised if … Twins fans are more interested in the minor-league outings of youngsters like Garza, Glen Perkins and Scott Baker than they are in the performances of some of their big league starters.
2007 Outlook: This is a new look Twins team given the radical changes to the starting pitching staff, but the team still has a lot going for it. The lineup, led by MVP Justin Morneau and batting champion Joe Mauer, certainly packs a punch, while ace closer Joe Nathan leads one of the league’s best bullpens. The Twins will likely need some pleasant surprises this season to compete in baseball’s toughest division, but despite the question marks in the rotation, don’t count this experienced group out of the playoff chase just yet. — K.S.
5. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
2006 Record: 62-100
The good news for the K.C. faithful is that the Royals shouldn’t lose 100 games in 2007. (That’s the one benefit of having such a bad 2006 … plenty of room for improvement in the next season.) The ’07 edition of the Royals has added a few veteran pitchers to the staff that should keep them a little more competitive, but it’s the development of three young studs, starting pitcher Zack Greinke, third baseman Alex Gordon and first baseman Ryan Shealy, that will be the most important thing for the organization’s long-term growth.
Key Additions: SP Gil Meche, RP Octavio Dotel, RP David Riske
Key Departures: 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, SP Mark Redman
X-Factor: RP Octavio Dotel. The long road back for Dotel just got longer. After winning the closer’s job coming out of spring training, the former Tommy John surgery recipient landed back on the DL with a strained oblique muscle. If Dotel can ever stay healthy and regain some semblance of his form from a couple of seasons ago, the Royals may have gotten themselves a solid closer for cheap. They’ll have to wait a bit longer to check out the return on their investment, however.
Don’t be surprised if…the Royals, who play the White Sox seven times in September, trip up Chicago, keep them out of the playoffs and send Ozzie Guillen on another memorable tirade.
2007 Outlook: Trial by fire will be the name of the game for the Royals, who not only play in the stacked American League, but call the Central, the league’s deepest division, home. They’ll most certainly be the doormat of the division and could be the only team in the Central under .500. But with a few promising prospects and new faces in Royal blue, things should be getting brighter, not darker, in Kansas City, especially if Alex Gordon (who’s been compared to Lance Berkman, but with more speed) competes for Rookie of the Year honors. — K.S.