AL Central update: Leyland sees gap closing on Tigers

Updated 2/18/2013 6:22 PM
  • Associated PressEver the pessimist, Detroit manager Jim Leyland, center, likes his team but insists the Tigers can't take it easy with the improved talent on the Indians, White Sox and Royals.

    Associated PressEver the pessimist, Detroit manager Jim Leyland, center, likes his team but insists the Tigers can't take it easy with the improved talent on the Indians, White Sox and Royals.

Once again, it's the Detroit Tigers and the rest of the AL Central fighting for second place.

That was the outlook last season, and the Tigers did win their second straight division title and advance to the World Series.

But it was hardly the summer stroll most expected.

Detroit was 24-27 on June 1, 44-42 at the all-star break and the Tigers trailed the first-place White Sox by 3 games with 15 to play.

Detroit pulled it together down the stretch, going 10-5, while the Sox went 4-11 and plunged into second place.

With Victor Martinez back as the designated hitter after missing the 2012 season with a knee injury, and with 37-year-old Torii Hunter now manning right field after putting up solid numbers (. 313, 16 home runs, 92 RBI) with the Angels last season, Detroit's roster is loaded with even more talent.

The Baseball Prospectus/PECOTA projections for the upcoming season came out last week, and the Tigers are pegged at 92-70. The Indians are projected to finish second in the Central at 80-82, followed by the White Sox (77-85), Royals (76-86) and Twins (66-96).

There's a huge gap between Detroit and the rest of the division, and you knew Tigers manager Jim Leyland was going to downplay the difference.

"People are saying we have a good team," Leyland told reporters at spring training in Lakeland, Fla., "but if I'm sitting, say, in Kansas City, I'm saying we have a pretty good team, too. Chicago, we're pretty good, too. And all these other teams.

"You're either the hunted or you're the hunter. We're going to be the hunted, because we were the winner. We were the American League champions. That's a good thing, but my point to all the guys is it's how you handle it that's important."

With players such as Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Max Scherzer, Martinez and Hunter on the roster, Detroit stacks up as the AL's best team.

Leyland has the temperament and experience to keep his club grounded.

"I love being a target," he said. "That means we have a good team. But other teams are going to get sick of reading about how good of a team the Tigers have. I mean, I would. So I just want to warn guys: 'Don't get wrapped up in all this, because there's going to be stuff that comes out that's going to tick a lot of other teams off.'"

Did Indians spend wisely?

Cleveland has been in a downward spiral since 2007, when the Indians blew a 3-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox and lost the AL Championship Series.

Averaging 89 losses over the last five seasons, Cleveland changed managers this winter, replacing Manny Acta with Terry Francona.

The Indians also went on a spending spree, doling out $117 million on free agents such as Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds.

Talking to reporters at spring training, Francona was feeling equal parts optimistic and realistic.

"It's easy on a day like today when it's 65 and sunny," Francona said. "But there are going to be days where it's windy and rainy and you want the guys to go out there and fight through it. You want to go out there and do the right thing."

The Indians' offense should be improved this season, but a starting rotation featuring Justin Masterson (11-15, 4.93 ERA), Ubaldo Jimenez (9-17, 5.40), Carlos Carrasco (10-15, 4.88) and retreads such as former White Sox reliever Brett Myers and Daisuke Matsuzaka is collectively bad.

Royals: It's time to win

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore has taken plenty of heat for trading baseball's top prospect -- outfielder Wil Myers -- and a package of more young talent to Tampa Bay for No. 1 starter James Shields and hard-throwing Wade Davis, who should also crack the rotation.

But when you consider the once-proud Royals have just one winning season since 1994 and haven't been to the playoffs since 1985, it's difficult to blame Moore for finally addressing K.C.'s biggest need and trying to win now.

"If we don't start winning, we're never going to be ready to win," Moore told the Kansas City Star. "We've got to start. I can't predict we're going to win our division or whatever, but we've got to start."

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