AL Central up for grabs

During the past three seasons, the American League Central produced three different division winners, and a fourth team, the Tigers, went to the World Series. In two of those three seasons, the division was decided on the final day of play. The same could happen at the end of this season, only instead of two teams being tied for the division lead, there could be three teams … or four.

That, of course, will never happen, but the point still stands: The AL Central is a highly competitive division. Four teams, none of them great, have a legitimate chance to win the division in 2009. And a fifth team, the Royals, who didn't even finish fifth in 2008, "could have our best club since 1994 [their last season as a contender]," Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore said.

A close race in the AL Central is likely, if not guaranteed. That's in part because the White Sox, who won the division in 2008, appear to have taken a slight step backward, and the Twins, the team the White Sox beat in a one-game playoff last season, added no one of major significance. The three teams that finished below them -- the Indians, Royals and Tigers -- all got better.

"It's a pretty good division," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Look at the end of last year. You know Detroit had injuries, and they struggled, but you know they have a good baseball team, and they've improved. Chicago and us went to the end. Kansas City was as good as anyone [in September]. Cleveland was probably the best of the group at the end. It's a pretty balanced division. There's going to be a good amount of head-knocking."

The Indians, who went 44-28 after July 9 to finish the season with 81 wins and seven games out of first place in the division, might have improved the most. They signed free-agent closer Kerry Wood and traded for reliever Joe Smith to help a bullpen that posted a 5.13 ERA, second-worst in the major leagues to the Texas Rangers' 5.15.

"He [Wood] transcends our prior experiences at closer since I've been here," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said. "We've had capable guys at the end of games, but they got by on toughness and playing the odds. Now we have a strikeout guy with a fear factor. And we have support for him."

The Indians rectified their infield problem by trading for the Cubs' Mark DeRosa, who will play third base. DeRosa gives the Indians a bat they didn't have at third for most of last season and gives them a chance to be a really good offensive team in 2009. The Indians scored 804 runs in '08, seventh-most in the major leagues, but with a combined 59 RBIs from catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez and DH Travis Hafner. Each is now healthy.

"With Vic and Haf, we hope to return to the elite level of run production," Shapiro said.

The Tigers were perhaps the most disappointing team in baseball last season, finishing last in the AL Central even though they were supposed to be contenders for not just the division title but also the AL pennant. Instead, the Tigers' starting pitching struggled even more than expected. The lineup that was supposed to score 950 runs scored 821. And the defense, especially in the infield, was so bad and so slow that "we need to grow our infield grass as high as possible so some of our guys could get to balls on the ground," one Tiger said.

The Tigers addressed their defensive lapses by not re-signing shortstop Edgar Renteria and replacing him with Adam Everett. Catcher Brandon Inge will return to his best position, third base, to give the Tigers a demonstrably better left side of the infield than they had last season. They acquired Gerald Laird and Matt Treanor to replace Inge behind the plate.

The Tigers have not done enough this offseason to fix their starting pitching, which last season compiled a 5.03 ERA, 26th-best in the major leagues. They did trade for Tampa Bay's Edwin Jackson, who last season showed signs of becoming the pitcher the Dodgers thought he would become years ago. A return to health of Jeremy Bonderman certainly will help, as will a return to form of ace Justin Verlander, who dropped to 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA last season and threw the most pitches per inning of any pitcher in the major leagues.

An even bigger issue exists in the bullpen. Brandon Lyon was signed to a one-year deal and likely is the leading candidate to be the closer, a spot that was in flux most of last season. Lyon saved 26 games for the Diamondbacks in 2008 but allowed 75 hits in 59 1/3 innings.

"He just puts the ball in play too much," one Diamondback said. After Lyon, Fernando Rodney would be next.
As for other Tigers relievers, Joel Zumaya's injured shoulder appears to be healing.

The White Sox have a very good closer in Bobby Jenks, but, in building up their farm system this offseason, they traded pitcher Javier Vazquez to Atlanta, sent outfielder Nick Swisher to the Yankees and let shortstop Orlando Cabrera and third baseman Joe Crede go to free agency.

The White Sox are left with questions at second and third base. Cabrera didn't want to return -- "He told me last year was his most miserable year in baseball," one scout said -- in part because of his strained relationship with manager Ozzie Guillen. Cabrera will be replaced at shortstop by Alexei Ramirez (who hit 21 homers and had 77 RBIs), a dynamic player and a great athlete who likely will be even better at shortstop than he was at second base.

The White Sox signed Ramirez's buddy from Cuba, Dayan Viciedo. He will compete with young Josh Fields and Wilson Betemit for the third-base job.

The Twins lost no one of great value but added no one. They plan to improve with the return of injured right fielder Michael Cuddyer, who gives them the depth in the outfield and at DH they haven't had for a while.

"We figure we have the people to fill in some holes," Gardenhire said. "We developed so many players last year, and we had to make so many changes [after the 2007 season], it's good to have some consistency."

Maybe Gardenhire's team will play until the final day this season again. Maybe one of three other teams will, too.

"The good thing is that this year, we won't have a coin flip," Gardenhire said with a laugh. Gardenhire was referring to how the Twins beat the White Sox in the season series, but lost the coin flip (a rule that has been changed by Major League Baseball this year) and had to play the one-game playoff in Chicago, where they lost. "We're going to go head-to-head this season. No more rock, paper and scissors."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May. Click here to order a copy.