This is the time of the baseball year — a great time, by the way — when the marathon known as spring training finally hits the finish line and you can get a better handle on how the division races are going to shake out while anticipating the upcoming season.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, along with the rest of the American League Central, the Tigers still stack up as the overwhelming favorite to win their third straight division title.
“They’re the defending champions, they have a good team and they should be favored,” Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “Last year was tough because we didn’t finish it off at the end, and you never want to go home not making the playoffs.
“We’re just as disappointed as anybody else. But any time you’re knocked down you have to get back up and go. I’m getting everybody ready to win this year, not worry about falling down.”
The White Sox, Royals, Indians and Twins are going to have to stand tall from start to finish in order to compete with the Tigers.
Let’s take a closer look at the Central, in order of predicted finish:
There’s a trend developing in Motown, which should give the rest of the division some hope.
For whatever reason, Detroit stumbled out of the gates in each of the past two seasons before turning it on at the end and winning the Central.
In 2011, the Tigers were chugging along at 57-51 before going 38-16 over the final two months and cruising into the playoffs.
It was pretty much the same scenario last year, when Detroit finished with 10 wins in the final 15 games, easily erasing the Sox’ 3-game lead.
Detroit has two of baseball’s top players in third baseman Miguel Cabrera — the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 last year — and starting pitcher Justin Verlander, the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 2011.
Offensively, the Tigers also feature Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila, they get proven RBI man Victor Martinez back from a knee injury and they added Torii Hunter, who is still going strong at age 37.
Joining Verlander in the rotation are Max Scherzer, who was 16-7 with a 3.74 ERA and 231 strikeouts in 187 innings last year, Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez, all proven starters.
Even with the addition of Hunter, the Tigers are still suspect on defense, and they are apparently going to roll the dice with rookie closer Bruce Rondon.
Robin Ventura’s squad heads into another season with low expectations, but don’t count the Sox out yet.
They still have the best defense in the AL Central, the starting rotation is still sound and will survive just fine until John Danks makes a full recovery from shoulder surgery, and third baseman Jeff Keppinger is just the type of hitter the White Sox need to balance out the power-first mentality.
The White Sox aren’t quite sure what they’re going to get from Gordon Beckham, ditto for Tyler Flowers, and Adam Dunn’s fondness for striking out remains a concern.
Even if the Sox avoid another late collapse, they might not be good enough to catch the Tigers. Grabbing a wild-card spot definitely seems within reach.
If the pitching finally catches up to the hitting, don’t be surprised if Kansas City blows right past the White Sox and even makes a run at the Tigers.
You can’t put too much stock in spring training, but the Royals had the best exhibition record (23-7) in the majors, and they finally have a legitimate ace in James Shields, who opposes the Sox’ Chris Sale in Monday’s season opener at U.S. Cellular Field.
Kansas City also added Wade Davis and Ervin Santana to the rotation, and free-agent Jeremy Guthrie returns with a three-year, $25 million contract.
Quality hitters like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas spark the offense, which could be really scary if Eric Hosmer regains his 2011 form.
Only Tampa Bay had lower overall attendance last year, but Cleveland found some money to add free agents Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds, and they also acquired Drew Stubbs in a trade from the Reds.
The Indians have somehow emerged as a popular darkhorse pick the past few months, but unless they upgrade the starting rotation of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers, Zach McAllister and Scott Kazmir, they’re not going anywhere.
It just doesn’t make sense.
After years and years of playing in baseball’s worst stadium (Metrodome) but making it work by drafting and developing solid baseball players, the Twins moved into stunning Target Field in 2010 and have finished last in the Central the past two seasons.
Expect more of the same this year.
Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau are dangerous hitters in the heart of the order, but there’s nothing else to see here.
And considering the way this once-proud franchise has deteriorated, don’t feel too bad for long-time manager Ron Gardenhire when he is asked to leave.
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