Since these are the Oakland Athletics, subject of a popular motion picture you may have heard about, we can say it without exaggeration: The 2012 season unfolded like a movie. Billy Beane, their mad scientist of a general manager, traded three All-Star pitchers before the season started, then used the pieces he got in return to build another unlikely winner. The A’s roared to a 33–13 finish after Aug. 15 to capture the AL West title on the season’s final day. They lost a five-game division series to Detroit but return nearly the entire roster in an effort to get back to the playoffs.
The A’s ranked third in the American League in starters’ ERA, with their 3.80 mark trailing only Tampa Bay and Detroit. They managed this despite having only two pitchers, Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker, make 25 starts, while losing another, Bartolo Colon, to a suspension for testosterone use in August. Still another starter, Brandon McCarthy, had his season end in early September when he took a line drive off of his head. McCarthy has since signed with the Diamondbacks, but the A’s are bringing back everyone else,including Colon, who returns on a one-year, $3 million contract. Perpetually overweight, nearing 40 and presumably off performance-enhancing drugs, Colon is no sure thing. But there is young depth around him, with Milone, Parker and A.J. Griffin having gone a combined 33–19 as rookies last season, and lefty Brett Anderson ready for his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Dan Straily looked promising last season in his first seven career starts.
As well as the Oakland starters pitched last season, the relievers were even better. Only the Rays had a better bullpen ERA in the AL than the Athletics, whose 2.94 mark was more than a full run better than that of the division-rival Angels. Grant Balfour, the hard-throwing, fist-pumping, rage-inducing Australian, secured a closer’s role for the first time in his nine big-league seasons, earning 24 saves in 26 opportunities. And Balfour wasn’t even the bullpen’s All-Star — that honor went to Ryan Cook, who also pitched well in the second half before stumbling a bit in the playoffs. After knee surgery in February, Balfour may not be ready to start the season, leaving closing duties in Cook’s hands. Cook and sidewinder Pat Neshek, who was devastating against righties, provide strong right-handed setup relief for Bob Melvin, who could carry three lefthanders if Travis Blackley stays on the roster as a long man and spot starter. Jerry Blevins is prone to the long ball but generally holds lefties in check. And Sean Doolittle, a former first-round pick as a first baseman, made a remarkably swift transition to the mound, blowing hitters away with his heat while featuring, perhaps, the coolest Twitter handle in baseball (@whatwouldDOOdo).
When the A’s look at what’s new this spring, they’ll train their eyes on the middle of the diamond. Scott Sizemore’s 2012 season ended before it even started due to a knee injury sustained in February. Jemile Weeks struggled to replace him, with a .304 slugging percentage that was even lower than his .305 on-base percentage. Cliff Pennington ended up starting at second in the playoffs but was traded to Arizona, so Weeks and Sizemore remain in the mix at the position. At shortstop, the A’s let Stephen Drew leave for the Red Sox and signed Hiroyuki Nakajima for two years and $6.5 million. Nakajima, a right-handed batter who hit for average and power in Japan, played in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 but did not participate this spring.
Nobody could have predicted at the start of last season that Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson would be starting at the infield corners for a playoff team. The duo had combined for zero hits in the majors in 2011, Moss having gone 0-for-6 in a brief call-up with the Phillies, and Donaldson having spent the entire season in the minors. Their unexpected rise was just further evidence of the charmed existence of the 2012 Athletics, and it’s fair to wonder whether either can maintain their success. So it’s difficult to blame the club for trading for Jed Lowrie. Having played shortstop with Houston last season, the A’s will pencil Lowrie in at third and in the No. 2 hole in the lineup. With Moss, it’s probably unrealistic to expect anything more. In just 84 games last season, he belted 21 homers, drove in 52 runs and posted an OPS of .954.
The A’s lost Jonny Gomes, their high-on-base, high-energy, high-strikeout slugger, to the Red Sox, who gave him $10 million for two years. Even so, the A’s bring back three solid, athletic outfielders — Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick — who cover lots of ground and bring a diverse set of skills to the lineup. Cespedes can do it all and seems to have all the indicators of a possible breakout season in 2013. The Cuban defector has had a year to adjust to the United States and has already shown he can handle the majors, finishing as the runner-up for Rookie of the Year by hitting .292 with 23 homers and 16 stolen bases. At 27, he should be squarely in his prime and is the closest thing Oakland has to a legitimate superstar. Crisp is the old man of the offense, at 33, but he’s plenty spry enough to cover lots of ground in the outfield and is one of the top base-stealing threats in the league. Reddick — another former Red Sox player — blossomed with a full-time role in Oakland, drilling 32 homers and showing off a great arm in right.
The A’s got a catcher from the Nationals before last season (Derek Norris) and then traded a different one (Kurt Suzuki) to Washington during the season. Suzuki was popular in the Oakland clubhouse, but the A’s are fine with the swap. Norris didn’t show much at the plate last year, but he’s only 24 and his minor league numbers suggest the kind of hitter Oakland has long loved: high on-base percentage, big power. He also showed enough leadership qualities and rapport with a young pitching staff to get the most out of their abilities during the heat of the pennant race. The A’s also brought in John Jaso over the winter. He and Norris should split time, keeping both fresh throughout the season.
Seth Smith can play all three outfield spots, but will be the primary DH. The A’s pulled off the rare October trade, acquiring Chris Young from the Diamondbacks shortly after their loss to Detroit in the division series. Parker, who played with Young in Arizona, told the San Francisco Chronicle he loved the move. “He’s similar to a lot of guys we have here. He’s young. He’ll have a lot in common with everyone. It’s going to be exciting to see him.” It’s a bit unclear where Young fits, exactly, because he’s a good defensive outfielder. But the A’s already have three of those, so expect Young to see at least some time at designated hitter while mixing in and out of the outfield to keep everyone fresh. Donaldson is the first option as a backup infielder.
It’s difficult to think of any manager/GM combination that had a better year than Beane and Melvin. Beane’s bold trades of Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez netted both quantity and quality, at low cost, and his signing of Yoenis Cespedes was a masterstroke. The A’s did not expect to win a division in 2012, but they did, and the level-headed, approachable Melvin clicked nicely with a young, exuberant roster. Melvin earned American League Manager of the Year honors, and Beane’s moves give the A’s the chance to keep their core while waiting for baseball to decide if owner Lew Wolff can ever build a ballpark in San Jose.
The unsettled stadium issue hangs over the franchise, but Beane showed last season that he could still win a brain race against division rivals with much more cash to throw around. As the Angels spend lavishly to recapture their recent glory — Albert Pujols one year, Josh Hamilton the next — and the big-budget Rangers try to re-tool, the A’s have a strong chance to at least make things interesting again. It’s probably asking too much to make Oakland the favorite on paper, but with the talent and grit of this group, and with plenty of winnable games against Seattle and Houston, it’s foolish to count the A’s out.
Lineup CF Coco Crisp (S)
In three seasons with A’s, has 120 steals and .314 average with runners in scoring position. 3B Jed Lowrie (S)
When healthy, he’s proven to be an all-around solid player and one of team’s top power threats. LF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Four-year, $36M deal looked puzzling at the time; looks shrewd now for this emerging star. 1B Brandon Moss (L)
Led the American League with .545 average (18 for 33) when putting first pitch in play. RF Josh Reddick (L)
Embodies the A’s offense — lots of homers (32) and lots of strikeouts (151). DH Seth Smith (L)
Made final out of 2007 World Series with the Rockies and 2012 ALDS with the A’s. C John Jaso (L)
Had a .394 OBP in 108 games with Seattle. 2B Scott Sizemore (R)
A’s are eager to see how he comes back from knee surgery that kept him out all last season. SS Hiroyuki Nakajima (R)
Hit .302 with four seasons of at least 20 homers in Japan; signed a two-year deal with the A’s.
Bench C Derek Norris (R)
Pitchers’ ERA was 3.13 with him behind plate, best for any AL catcher (min. 50 games). Will get significant at-bats against left-handed pitching. OF Chris Young (R)
Strong defensive ability could be asset as fourth outfielder. 3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Former Auburn Tiger will need to improve .289 OBP to have a chance as an everyday starter. 1B Daric Barton(L)
Has hit .209 with one home run in 597 plate appearances since hitting .273 with 10 dingers in 686 Pas in 2010.
Rotation LH Brett Anderson
Southpaw has held opponents to .195 average with runners in scoring position over last three seasons. RH Jarrod Parker
Former first-round pick by Arizona went 13–8 and had seven quality starts in his eight no-decisions. LH Tommy Milone
Tossed Oakland’s only complete game with win vs. Dodgers last June. RH Bartolo Colon
Won double-digit games for first time since 2005. Still must serve final five games of 50-game suspension. RH A.J. Griffin
Slumped to 7.27 ERA in final four starts of regular season in his rookie campaign.
Bullpen RH Grant Balfour (Closer)
Last blown save of 2012 season came on April 29; allowed only 41 hits in 74.2 innings. Will miss the beginning of the season due to knee surgery. RH Ryan Cook
Held opponents scoreless in 22 of final 23 regular-season appearances in his first season in Oakland. Will fill in as closer until Balfour is healthy. LH Sean Doolittle
Former first baseman hit 22 homers with 90 RBIs in minors in 2008. LH Jerry Blevins
Allowed six first-batter home runs, most by A’s reliever in more than 30 years. RH Pat Neshek
Righties went just 5-for-53 off Neshek after Orioles sold him to A’s in August. RH Chris Resop
Threw a career-high 73.2 innings, seventh among NL relievers, for Pirates last season. RH Fernando Rodriguez
Torn ACL leaves season in doubt.
These players appear primed for big seasons on the diamond
Every spring, major league baseball teams gather in Florida and Arizona to knock off the rust and get ready for the 162-game grind that is the regular season. While spring training is necessary for all pitchers to get their arms ready and hitters to get their timing at the plate, this time is even more critical for younger players.
The Dominican Republic's record in the World Baseball Classic, which concluded on Tuesday night with the Dominican team defeating Puerto Rico 3-0 in the championship game. The Dominican team became the first to go through the tournament, which began on March 2 with 16 different countries participating, undefeated. A reported 885,212 fans attended WBC games, including 96,913 for the three-game championship round held at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Who are the biggest outfield sleepers and busts to watch out for on the fantasy diamond?
Using Athlon Sports' Big Board as the barometer, here are some potential sleepers who roam the outfield to keep an eye on, as well some possible busts to potentially be wary of. Keep in mind that the "bust" tag doesn't necessarily mean that player won't produce, it's more an indication of concern that he won't do so in relation to his position on the Big Board.
The Minnesota Twins aren’t calling this a rebuilding season, but there’s no question they’re a team in transition. After winning six division titles in nine years, they’ve lost 99 and 96 games over the past two seasons, disappointing the slowly shrinking crowds at Target Field. Some moves this offseason suggested they were more focused on 2014 than 2013, but general manager Terry Ryan insists that fans could see some immediate improvement. Trading Denard Span and Ben Revere in a span of eight days left a big hole in center field, but those moves netted three starting pitchers for an organization sorely lacking quality arms at all levels. Span went to Washington for Double-A righty Alex Meyer, a hard-throwing first-round pick from the 2011 draft. Revere went to Philadelphia for Vance Worley, who will jump right into Minnesota’s rotation, and Trevor May, another Double-A righthander with No. 3 starter potential. The Twins have a wave of positional talent coming through their farm system, including center field prospect Aaron Hicks, a former first-round pick who probably will start the year at Triple-A. The goal now is to build a bridge toward the future without embarrassing themselves on the field.
The Twins gave this group an overhaul after their starters ranked second-to-last in the majors last year, one spot ahead of Colorado, with a 5.40 ERA. Rookie Scott Diamond had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip from his left elbow in December after going 12–9 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts. His availability for Opening Day is in question. Kevin Correia, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal, isn’t flashy, but he’s been consistent over the past four seasons for the Padres and Pirates. Worley finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2011 but went 6–9 with a 4.20 ERA for the Phillies last year before having arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. The Twins were disappointed they couldn’t re-sign Scott Baker, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Baker took a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Cubs. Instead, the Twins signed another pitcher coming back from Tommy John surgery, former Met Mike Pelfrey, who hopes to be ready for Opening Day. Beyond Diamond, Correia, Worley and Pelfrey, the Twins have several wild-card rotation candidates including Liam Hendriks, Sam Deduno, Cole De Vries and P.J. Walters.
Twins officials point to their 2012 bullpen as proof things can turn around quickly. Their relievers were a major concern last spring, as they’d posted the worst ERA in baseball in 2011, at 4.51, before losing longtime closer Joe Nathan to free agency. But Ryan revamped the bullpen, turning it into a team strength. Jared Burton (2.18 ERA) handled the eighth inning, and Glen Perkins (2.56) handled the ninth. With dependable late-inning relief, the Twins had no problem letting former closer Matt Capps leave as a free agent. Burton and Casey Fien (2.06 ERA) were both minor league free-agent signings, proving there are gems in the scrap heap. They’ll both be back, along with lefthanders Brian Duensing and Tyler Robertson. The Twins believe this group can be even better if their starters can pitch deeper into games.
The Twins have candidates for both middle infield spots, but no sure things. Brian Dozier looked like he had real potential at shortstop at this time last year, but he disappointed both offensively and defensively in an 84-game stint. Now, there’s hope that he’ll settle in at second base, with Pedro Florimon taking over shortstop. Florimon has a strong arm and good range, but he’ll have to improve on the .272 on-base percentage he posted in six weeks last year. If either player falters, the Twins can turn to veteran utility man Jamey Carroll, who has shown he can start at second, third or shortstop.
First baseman Justin Morneau is entering the final year of his six-year, $80 million contract, and it’ll be interesting to see if he eventually gets traded for more pitching help. His past concussion issues and surgically repaired left wrist make him a continued injury risk, but after playing just 150 games combined the previous two years, he played 134 last year, making 99 starts at first base. The Twins could replace Morneau at first base with Chris Parmelee, but there’s room for both of them, as Parmelee also plays right field. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe hit 18 home runs in a staggering 39-game stretch last summer, but he managed just six homers over his other 80 games, and his defense was shaky throughout. A thumb injury helped contribute to his second-half fade, and the Twins hope he settles into another groove.
After the Twins traded Span, it looked like Revere would replace him as their center fielder and leadoff hitter, but then they traded Revere, too. It said something about how much confidence they have in 2008 first-round draft pick Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitting center fielder who made big strides last year in Double-A. Hicks will challenge for the starting center field job this spring, but the Twins likely will go with Darin Mastroianni, allowing Hicks to gain polish at Triple-A. Josh Willingham is back in left, coming off a career season that saw him rack up 35 home runs and 110 RBIs. The question now is, can he approach that same success at age 34? Parmelee is getting his first chance as a big-league regular in right field. He batted .355 with a 1.035 OPS for the Twins in September 2011 but struggled in the majors last year.
The Twins will use the same formula they used last year to keep Joe Mauer’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. In 2011, injuries limited him to 82 games, which was especially tough in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract. Last year, he rebounded to play a career-high 147 games. After signing Ryan Doumit, the Twins finally had a backup catcher with a good bat, which put less pressure on Mauer to stay behind the plate. Mauer played 74 games at catcher, 42 at DH and 30 at first base, and led the American League with a .416 on-base percentage. Doumit batted .275 with a career-high 18 home runs and 75 RBIs. The Twins were so impressed, they gave him a two-year contract extension.
After trading Jim Thome in 2011, the Twins often used the DH spot last year to keep Mauer and Morneau in the lineup. The team’s constant mound troubles led to it carrying at least 12 pitchers all season, leaving just four spots on the bench. They also kept three catchers, with Drew Butera serving as a defensive specialist to go with Mauer and Doumit (who will see time as the DH). This limits what the Twins can do with their other bench spots, but they gain some versatility with infielders who play multiple positions. Non-roster players Ray Olmedo, an infielder, and outfielder Wilkin Ramirez are making strong showings in spring training.
Ron Gardenhire was named AL Manager of the Year in 2010, but the past two seasons have taken a toll. The Twins made just one change to his coaching staff over his first 11 years as manager, replacing Al Newman with Joe Vavra after the 2005 season. But after finishing with the AL’s worst record the past two years, management demanded changes. Three longtime coaches lost their jobs — Rick Stelmaszek, Steve Liddle and Jerry White — getting replaced by Bobby Cuellar, Tom Brunansky and Terry Steinbach. Gardenhire knows he could be next to go.
Expectations haven’t been this low for the Twins since 2008, the season after they lost Torii Hunter to free agency and traded Johan Santana to the Mets. That year, the Twins wound up playing a Game 163 division tiebreaker, losing to the White Sox. But the Twins were stocked with pitching back then, both starting and relief. With their new makeshift staff, it’s difficult to imagine this team giving its fans much to cheer about in September. It’ll be interesting to see what midseason deals Ryan can make and whether Gardenhire survives to manage again in 2014.
Lineup CF Darin Mastroianni (R)
In 77 games as a rookie, he posted a .328 on-base percentage and was 21-for-24 in stolen base attempts. 2B Brian Dozier (R)
A career .298 hitter in the minors, he batted just .234 in 84 games as a rookie last season. C Joe Mauer (L)
Led the majors with a .416 OBP and a played a career-high 147 games, including 74 at catcher. LF Josh Willingham (R)
At age 33, he posted career highs in games played (145), home runs (35) and RBIs (110). 1B Justin Morneau (L)
Stayed healthy enough to play 134 games, but his .773 OPS was 78 points below his career average. After a terrific run in July and August (.314), he slipped in September (.236). DH Ryan Doumit (S)
At age 31, he had career highs for games played (134), home runs (18) and RBIs (75). RF Chris Parmelee (L)
Batted .338 with a 1.102 OPS for Class AAA Rochester last year but just .229 with a .671 OPS for the Twins. 3B Trevor Plouffe (R)
Twins love his power potential, but he was inconsistent and made 17 errors in 95 games at third base. SS Pedro Florimon (S)
The switch-hitter needs to improve offensively, especially from the left side of the plate.
Bench INF Eduardo Escobar (S)
Acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade; posted a .271 OBP in 14 games. C Drew Butera (R)
The defensive specialist’s .198 batting average actually was a 31-point improvement from 2011. INF Jamey Carroll (R)
After a slow start last year, he batted .295 with a .365 OBP over his final 86 games. OF Wilkin Ramirez
A .270 hitter in just 37 at-bats in 2009 and ’11.
Rotation RH Vance Worley
Acquired from the Phillies for Ben Revere after going 6–9 with a 4.20 ERA last year. RH Kevin Correia
Despite low strikeout rate, he’s averaged 11.5 wins over the past four years, the past two with Pittsburgh. RH Mike Pelfrey
The ground-ball specialist had Tommy John surgery May 1 before leaving the Mets as a free agent. LH Scott Diamond
Went 12–9 in 27 starts and ranked third among all qualifying MLB rookies in ERA (3.54). After elbow surgery in December, Diamond may not be ready to start the season. Righthander Liam Hendricks will fill the gap until the presumed ace is healthy. RH Cole De Vries
Was 3–0 with a 1.02 ERA in his final three starts before suffering a cracked rib on Sept. 8.
Bullpen LH Glen Perkins (Closer)
Had 78 strikeouts in 70.1 innings and converted 12-of-13 save chances to close the season. RH Jared Burton
Posted a 2.18 ERA in 62 innings pitched, holding batters to a .186 batting average. RH Casey Fien
Another minor league free-agent signee, he posted a 2.06 ERA in 35 innings pitched. LH Brian Duensing
Posted a 3.47 ERA in 44 relief appearances but went 2–8 with a 6.92 ERA in 11 starts. RH Alex Burnett
Led the Twins with 71.2 innings of relief, and his 3.52 ERA was down nearly two full runs from 2011. LH Tyler Robertson
In his final 31 appearances, he held opponents to a .186 batting average, including .167 vs. lefties. RH Ryan Pressly
Rule 5 draftee posted a 2.93 ERA in Double-A for the Red Sox last year.
An inside look at MLB's American League Central teams
Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, no team spent more days in first place in the American League Central than the Cleveland Indians. Getting there was no problem, but sustaining it proved much more difficult, as the Indians fell apart in the second half in both seasons. But significant changes have the Tribe moving in a better direction. The Tribe’s biggest offseason acquisitions were manager Terry Francona and outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. The speedy Bourn is a potent catalyst atop the lineup and brings superb defense in center field. The switch-hitting Swisher will help a weak offense that averaged 3.7 runs per game after the All-Star break last season. Francona is coming off a great run in Boston, but Cleveland and Progressive Field are a long way from Fenway Park. Francona doesn’t have the payroll or the talent he had when he led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. But his leadership should pay immediate dividends.
Francona and new pitching coach Mickey Callaway are dealing with a rotation that lost the most games (76) in the AL last year. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers and Zach McAllister should fill the first four spots. Masterson and Jimenez, both righthanders, made a combined 65 starts last year, losing 32 of them. Myers was signed to a one-year $7 million deal in January, but he has not started a game since 2011. This will be McAllister’s first full year in the big leagues. The fifth spot will be decided among Trevor Bauer, Scott Kazmir, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and David Huff. Bauer, the third pick in the 2011 draft, was acquired in a three-way trade with Arizona and Cincinnati during the offseason. Bauer put up great numbers in the minors for Arizona last season, but his unique training methods and personality were so off-putting that the Diamondbacks traded him after only four big-league starts. At some point, he will join the rotation if not out of spring training. Kazmir, a former All-Star lefthander, has made just one major league start — lasting only 1.2 innings — since 2010. He came to camp on a minor league deal and has impressed Francona, becoming the leading candidate for the fifth spot.
All winter there was speculation that the Indians would trade closer Chris Perez, who offended almost everyone this side of the Pope last season with a sharp tongue and Twitter account. The Indians did not trade Perez, who will once again anchor the strongest part of the team after recording a save in 75-of-83 chances over the past two years. As in 2012, spring injuries have slowed his preparation for the season. There were changes in Perez’s setup men as Tony Sipp was traded to Arizona, Esmil Rogers to Toronto and Rafael Perez was non-tendered. Still, there are still plenty of good arms in front of him. Closer-in-waiting Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Cody Allen and Nick Hagadone are back. Newcomers Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw were acquired in the Arizona deal. Until Perez recovers from a balky shoulder this spring, Pestano will be the closer and either Rich Hill or David Huff will fill in gaps.
Fat and out of shape is no way for an All-Star shortstop to go through a career. Such has been the chatter surrounding Asdrubal Cabrera. He’s been great until he makes the All-Star team. Then in the second half, when the Indians fall out of the race, he loses interest. He’s signed through 2014, and it will be interesting to see if Francona can snap him out of his second-half slumps. Second baseman Jason Kipnis, coming off his first full season in the big leagues, needs to put forth a much more consistent effort if the offense is going to improve. Like Cabrera, Kipnis disappeared offensively in the second half. The Indians are expecting Cabrera and Kipnis to key the offense between Bourn at the top and run producers Carlos Santana and Swisher in the middle.
This should be the year Lonnie Chisenhall gets his much anticipated chance to start at third base. Chisenhall, a No. 1 pick in 2008, was beaten out by journeyman Jack Hannahan the last two years. Hannahan was non-tendered after the season. The job belongs to Chisenhall as long as he can stay healthy and survive against lefthanders. Chisenhall, a converted shortstop, has power potential, but he doesn’t walk much. The Indians committed $56 million to Swisher over the next fours year, the richest free-agent deal in team history. Not only will his bat anchor the lineup, but his personality will liven up the clubhouse.
The Indians committed $48 million to Bourn over the next four years. His on-base has been between .341 and .354 over the past four seasons, which should translate into about 40 steals and close to 100 runs for the Tribe. Pitchers will love his ability to run down balls in the gaps. Drew Stubbs, acquired in a three-team deal with the Reds and Diamondbacks, is scheduled to play right with Michael Brantley moving to left. Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians’ starting right fielder for the last four years, was traded to Cincinnati as part of the deal. Brantley, the only holdover from last year’s starting outfield, spent last season in center.
The Indians insist that Carlos Santana is a front-line catcher, but the evidence continues to mount that he is a future first baseman or DH. When the switch-hitting Santana struggles with the bat, as he did throughout the first half of last season, his catching suffers. He’s not aggressive or confident with his game-calling, and his ability to block balls in the dirt and control the running game is inconsistent. Santana is blessed with a strong arm, but he threw out only 26.3 percent of the runners he faced last season. Santana did lead the Indians in homers, walks and tied for the team lead in RBIs. Lou Marson was Santana’s backup, but he didn’t get much playing time. Yan Gomes, acquired from Toronto, could steal Marson’s job this summer.
Mark Reynolds has averaged 30 homers per year since reaching the big leagues in 2007. The Indians signed him to a one-year $6 million deal because they needed his power and right-handed bat to balance a lineup that leans heavily to the left. The byproduct of Reynolds’ power is strikeouts, lots of them. He averages 187 per year. His glove improved dramatically at first base last season, so Swisher will DH occasionally. Jason Giambi, in camp as a non-roster player, should make the team out of spring. He may have more value as a mentor and de facto hitting coach than as a pinch-hitter. Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn can both play multiple positions, but neither has much pop at the plate. Gomes may be the most interesting bench possibility. He’s a right-handed hitter with pop who can catch, play some outfield and first and third base.
The ties between the front office and the dugout have seldom been tighter. In signing a four-year deal with the Indians, Francona insisted on a clause that will give him an out if certain members of the front office are fired. It’s believed those members are GM Chris Antonetti and president Mark Shapiro. This is a homecoming of sorts for Francona, who worked as special assistant for the Indians in 2001 and played for them in 1988. Tito Francona, Terry’s father, played for the Indians from 1959-64. Sentimentality aside, there is a lot of work to do. Francona must repair a rotation that posted the second-highest ERA (5.25) in the AL last year and reclaim a roster that rolled over and played dead for former manager Manny Acta in the second half last season. The one good sign is ownership’s willingness to finally spend money on the free-agent market.
The Indians have lost 93 or more games in three of the last four years. Fans have lost faith in the Dolan family ownership, and they showed it with the second-lowest attendance in the big leagues last year. It’s unlikely the Dolans will ever be popular owners in Cleveland, but hiring Francona was a positive step. Signing Swisher and Bourn certainly helped. However, there have been so many bad drafts and poor trades that a turnaround will take more than one or two seasons. The best the Indians can do in 2013 is take one or two steps along that path.
Lineup CF Michael Bourn (L)
Speed atop the lineup will be catalyst of the offense although he doesn’t steal as much as he once did. SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Led AL shortstops last season in OPS (.765) and slugging (.425) and finished second in homers (16). 2B Jason Kipnis (L)
Finished tied for the team lead in RBIs despite driving in only 27 runs after the break. 1B Nick Swisher (S)
Ohio native hit 13 of his 24 home runs last season for the Yankees on the road. C Carlos Santana (S)
Indians pitchers had a 4.68 ERA last season when he was behind the plate. DH Mark Reynolds (R)
Hit just three of his 23 homers against left-handed pitching last year. LF Michael Brantley (L)
Had hitting streaks of 22 and 13 games last season en route to career-high .288 average. 3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
Returned from a broken right wrist to hit .257 (18-for-70) in final 19 games of last season. RF Drew Stubbs (R)
Over the last two seasons, Stubbs has averaged a strikeout for every three at-bats.
Bench IF Mike Aviles (R)
Played in 128 games at shortstop last season for the Red Sox, hitting .250 with 60 RBIs. C Lou Marson (R)
Threw out only 14 percent (11-of-78) of the basestealers he faced last year. UT Ryan Raburn (R)
Can play all over the field and has averaged more than 330 plate appearances over last four years as utility man with Detroit. 1B Jason Giambi (L)
Francona loves the presence of the veteran and believes he will be a good manager some day.
Rotation RH Justin Masterson
Masterson allowed six or more earned runs in eight of his 34 starts last year. RH Ubaldo Jimenez
His 17 losses were the most by a Tribe pitcher since Tom Candiotti lost 18 in 1987. RH Brett Myers
Made 70 relief appearances last season for the Astros and White Sox, but has been a starter most of his career. RH Zach McAllister
Finished sixth among American League rookies with 110 strikeouts last year. LH Scott Kazmir
Former Tampa Bay fire-balling ace has resurrected his career — for now — with a fine spring.
Bullpen RH Chris Perez (Closer)
He’s 41-for-45 in one-run save opportunities dating back to Aug. 12, 2010. With a strained shoulder, Perez is likely to begin the season on the DL RH Vinnie Pestano
The Indians went 50–20 in his 70 appearances last year; only gave up 53 hits in 70 innings. RH Joe Smith
His seven wins in relief were tied for second most in the American League last year. LH Nick Hagadone
Struck out 26 in 25.1 innings last year, but allowed 14 earned runs in his last 10 appearances. RH Matt Albers
Lefthanders hit .207 against him last year, righthanders .220. RH Cody Allen
Started last season at Class A Carolina and ended up in the big leagues, where he struck out 27 in 29 innings. LH David Huff
Made 52 starts over last four seasons with a 5.30 ERA.
It’s possible that the Kansas City Royals, after more than two decades of often pointless meandering, can become truly relevant again in 2013 after a seminal offseason in which general manager Dayton Moore overhauled a wretched rotation. Moore retained free agent Jeremy Guthrie and added James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis through trades. Remarkably, Moore did all of this without blowing up the baseball club’s modest payroll budget or disrupting a promising young lineup or deep bullpen. The cost, and it was high, came in prospects from a deep farm system, including outfielder Wil Myers (the consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year) and righthander Jake Odorizzi (the club’s most advanced pitching prospect). Myers and Odorizzi each went to Tampa Bay, along with two other prospects, to acquire Shields and Davis. It was a go-for-it move not without risk, but, as Moore says, “It’s time for us to start winning games.”
Shields is the front-of-the-rotation arm the Royals have coveted, and failed to develop, since trading Zack Greinke to Milwaukee after the 2010 season. Shields isn’t an ace in the mold of Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez or even former Rays teammate David Price. But he is a genuine staff leader who eats innings and brings a proven ability to anchor a rotation. The Royals control Shields for two more years, and there is genuine debate whether that span is sufficient to offset surrendering six years of Myers. But they wouldn’t have made the deal if they didn’t think they could reach the postseason before Shields becomes a free agent. Davis also came in the Tampa Bay deal and will get a chance to pitch as a starter after spending last season in the bullpen. Davis flashed a notable hike in velocity as a reliever. If he can maintain that bump for 100 pitches, he could be an enormous addition. The Angels agreed to part with Santana primarily because the Royals will be paying all but $1 million of his $13 million salary for the final year of his contract. Santana closed strong last season after some early struggles. A full bounce-back would more than validate the financial outlay. Guthrie returns on a three-year deal after resurrecting his career with two terrific months following a July 20 trade that brought him from Colorado. That leaves the final spot as a battle between veteran lefty Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, whose flashes of considerable potential are too often countered by monumental meltdowns. The Royals are open to trading either one. Otherwise, the loser goes to the bullpen.
Closer Greg Holland heads a collection of young power pitchers who performed so well last season the Royals chose not to pony up the dollars necessary to see whether former closer Joakim Soria could return to form after Tommy John surgery. Holland was 16-for-18 in save opportunities after replacing Jonathan Broxton (who replaced Soria) as the closer. Holland also compiled a 2.08 ERA after returning in early May from the disabled list. Lefty Tim Collins, in his second season, led all AL relievers with 93 strikeouts and demonstrated improved consistency in compiling a 3.36 ERA in 72 appearances. Aaron Crow, an All-Star as a rookie in 2011, produced a solid second season with 19 holds and a 3.48 ERA in 73 games. But the staff’s best arm is Kelvin Herrera, who had a 2.35 ERA in 76 games while often drawing the toughest assignments prior to the ninth inning. Manager Ned Yost relies on those four to protect leads. Francisley Bueno is a good bet to be the unit’s situational lefty after a strong series of late-season appearances, which could push side-armer Louis Coleman into a battle for one of two projected long-relief roles. Luis Mendoza is likely to get one of those jobs after the offseason seemingly squeezed him out of the rotation.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar turned into an All-Star candidate with a breakout offensive season after signing a four-year contract that includes two additional club option years. Escobar batted a career-high .293 while stealing 35 bases and provided the glue to an underappreciated defensive infield. Second base will most likely be a platoon situation with Chris Getz, who can’t stay healthy, and Johnny Giavotella, who has yet to replicate his minor league production.
That overhauled rotation might not mean much if first baseman Eric Hosmer doesn’t rebound from a disappointing sophomore season. The most hopeful sign, beyond his immense potential, is that Hosmer batted .255 last season on balls in play. Statistically, that just shouldn’t happen again. Hosmer’s tools project as an impact No. 3 hitter — and that’s what the Royals need him to be. Mike Moustakas is another high-profile homegrown talent still looking to climb closer to his potential. He hit 20 homers last season while playing third base well enough to be a Gold Glove candidate in any league without Adrian Beltre. Moustakas denied a connection, but his production plummeted after he tweaked his knee in late July in Seattle.
Here’s where the trade sending Myers to Tampa Bay has its biggest negative impact: The Royals, barring a late move, now have limited alternatives to right fielder Jeff Francoeur, whose production dipped alarmingly last season after a revitalized 2011. Then again, Francoeur could quell the concern by bouncing back again. Lorenzo Cain, when healthy, draws comparisons in center field to a young Torii Hunter. Problem is, Cain played only 61 big league games in 2012. Yost says, “I need him healthy.” There are no worries in left field, where Alex Gordon backed up a breakthrough 2011 season with another All-Star-caliber year and a second straight Gold Glove.
Salvy Perez, at 22, is firmly established as the club’s most irreplaceable player because he combines superior defensive skills and a remarkable feel for calling a game with an ability to hit for average and power. Perez suffered torn knee cartilage last year in spring training, which sidelined him until June 22, and it’s no coincidence that the Royals stumbled through a disastrous April. He showed no limitations from the injury after returning and is likely to start at least 140 games.
Billy Butler was the Silver Slugger recipient last year for designated hitters and is quickly validating the belief that he is this generation’s Edgar Martinez — a .300-plus hitter with power but limited speed and defensive skills. Plus, Butler shows signs of only getting better after achieving numerous career highs in 2012. The bench will consist of a catcher (George Kottaras, acquired on waivers from Oakland); a utility infielder (presumably Getz or Giavotella, but Miguel Tejada, is trying to restart his career); and a backup outfielder (speedy Jarrod Dyson is the leading candidate); and an extra utility type (Elliot Johnson, acquired off waivers from Tampa Bay). David Lough, who is having a terrific spring, could be a low-cost corner outfielder to challenge Francoeur.
Moore achieved his offseason goal of upgrading the club’s rotation by retaining Guthrie and acquiring Shields and Davis from Tampa Bay and Santana from the Angels — all without surrendering anyone from the club’s projected big-league roster. Yes, the cost in prospects was high. Some argued that the cost was too high. Time will tell. This much, however, is certain: Moore’s efforts send the Royals into the season positioned as legitimate postseason contenders for the first time since 1994.
The Royals have everything in place to harbor postseason aspirations, although let’s not overstate things; Detroit remains the division favorite, and the Royals need a nine-game improvement just to reach .500. There’s a lot still to prove, but there’s real hope in the Heartland. That’s no small thing.
Lineup LF Alex Gordon (L)
Lineup’s best fit for leadoff role but only if Eric Hosmer can handle No. 3 slot. SS Alcides Escobar (R)
Performed well last season after being moved up from bottom of the lineup. 1B Eric Hosmer (L)
Average dropped from .293 as a rookie to .232 in 2012; home runs and RBIs were down, too. DH Billy Butler (R)
Continues to establish himself as one of the game’s best all-around hitters; belted 29 HRs in 2012. C Salvy Perez (R)
Assuming he stays healthy, will be interesting to see what he can do in a full season. 3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Always likely to be streaky hitter but must prove late-season slide was outlier. RF Jeff Francoeur (R)
Will be watched closely to see if he rebounds to 2011 form after disappointing 2012. CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Must prove he can stay healthy after multiple injuries derailed him a year ago. 2B Chris Getz (L)
Has set a franchise record with 887 career plate appearances without a home run.
Bench C George Kottaras (L)
On-base percentage fell from .409 for Brewers to .280 for A’s. Has never hit higher than .252 2B Johnny Giavotella (R)
Will platoon at second base with Getz. IF Elliot Johnson (S)
Is handy with the glove at multiple positions. OF Jarrod Dyson (L)
Speed makes him ideal late-game weapon; could be more if he keeps ball on ground.
Rotation RH James Shields
Last two seasons in Tampa were outstanding; won a combined 31 games and gave up 403 hits in 473 IP. RH Jeremy Guthrie
Pitched like a legit No. 1 starter over final two months, which led to three-year deal. RH Ervin Santana
Royals betting $12 million that he bounces back big in final year before free agency. RH Wade Davis
Velocity jumped last season when used as a reliever — but can he do it for 100 pitches? LH Bruce Chen
Probably merits rotation job over Luke Hochevar after winning 35 games in last three years.
Bullpen RH Greg Holland (Closer)
Proved over final two months last season that he had all the tools to be a closer. RH Kelvin Herrera
Superior arsenal makes him a closer-in-waiting while getting tough outs before ninth. LH Tim Collins
Proved last year that he was more than a situational lefty; has multi-inning stuff. RH Aaron Crow
Much like Collins, he can handle hitters from either side; potent setup weapon. LH Francisley Bueno
Former Cuban defector emerged late last season as good fit for duty as situational lefty. RH Luis Mendoza
Often characterized by manger Ned Yost as a perfect fit for duty as swingman/long reliever. RH Luke Hochevar
Loser in battle for fifth starting spot will spend time as long man until opportunity to spot start arises.
Looking for a big finish, not just a fast start, the Chicago White Sox hope they can out-pitch their competition in the AL Central. That’s a tall order given that the Detroit Tigers line up behind Justin Verlander, but first-year general manager Rick Hahn hopes that his rotation will be deeper and even more effective. He re-signed Jake Peavy to work alongside lefty Chris Sale and is counting on a comeback from John Danks, the 2012 Opening Day starter who was limited to nine starts and eventually underwent shoulder surgery. The lineup lacks any especially dynamic young hitters, continuing to count on Alex Rios, homer-or-bust slugger Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. Manager Robin Ventura had his team in first place for most of 2012, with strong fielding as the trademark, but he will be challenged to improve on that 85-win season.
You can argue that the White Sox never should have let Mark Buehrle get away, but Sale has emerged as a potential long-term ace, and Peavy rebounded from three injury-plagued seasons to deliver 219 solid innings. Sale, an All-Star in his first year as a starter, draws some comparisons to Randy Johnson, with better command if not quite as much velocity. A few years ago, Danks looked like he’d be a staff ace, compiling a 3.32 ERA as a 23-year-old in 2008, but he now finds himself trying to turn around a slide that began in 2011. Gavin Floyd has been a consistent double-figure winner, which was why his contract option was exercised. Lefties Hector Santiago and Jose Quintana try will try to build off strong rookie seasons, with Brazilian prospect Andre Rienzo pushing for big-league consideration. Quintana has the edge over Santiago and Rienzo, who has a high ceiling, needs a full season in Triple-A.
How much does experience matter? Addison Reed and Nate Jones seemed to move past Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain to become the key guys in a group that is talented but wildly inexperienced. Reed is looking to build off a 29-save rookie season, and Jones carries just as much momentum into his second season after going 8–0 with a 2.39 ERA over 65 appearances as a rookie. He’s got the best stuff on the staff, but Reed doesn’t rattle, which is why he’s the closer. Thornton, arguably the best lefty setup man in the AL over the last seven seasons, appears to be a trade candidate with Donnie Veal and possibly Santiago or prospect Santos Rodriguez available to fill that role. Matt Lindstrom, signed as a free agent, adds some experience.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez and second baseman Gordon Beckham provide up the middle fielding that’s as strong as any combination in the big leagues. But you wonder how much longer they will play together, as both have regressed as hitters. Ramirez’s OPS was .788 in 2008, his rookie season, and slipped to .651 last season. Beckham, a former first-round pick expected to be a force, had an .807 OPS as a rookie in 2009 but has been below .700 since. Carlos Sanchez, who hit .370 in 30 games in Double-A late last season, is a gifted fielder and promising on-base guy who could force himself into the mix at some point this season.
Konerko has been as consistently productive as any big leaguer over the last decade but at 37 is starting to show his age. Metrics suggest he’s become a liability in the field to go along with a career-long base-clogging tendency. The White Sox hope offseason surgery on Konerko’s left wrist will make this season more enjoyable for him, as it is the last one on his contract. He’s averaged 33 homers and 96 RBIs over the last nine years, and the Sox need him to get back to that level after a second-half slide ruined what was looking like a strong 2012. Third baseman Jeff Keppinger, signed to a three-year, $12-million contract, could get 500-plus at-bats for only the second time in almost a decade in the big leagues. He’s not flashy but could end the post-Joe Crede revolving-door approach at third.
Rios resurrected his career after a 2011 season that had people wondering if he could be productive again. He adjusted his batting stance, raising his hands into a more conventional position from an exaggerated crouch, and is pounding the ball in the fashion that prompted the Blue Jays to give him a seven-year, $70-million contract before the 2008 season. He’s had an up-and-down career since then but will establish himself as a true All-Star if he can repeat a season in which he had 37 doubles, 25 homers and 23 stolen bases. Center fielder Alejandro De Aza and left fielder Dayan Viciedo return for their second years as regulars. De Aza is a decent on-base guy and good baserunner. Viciedo is better than advertised defensively in left, thanks to a strong arm, but his low on-base percentage (.300) must be addressed to justify regular at-bats. Dewayne Wise is available if Ventura wants to consider a platoon. His on-base was only .322 against righthanders, however.
Few teams allow above-average catchers to walk, but the White Sox made almost no attempt to keep A.J. Pierzynski after he turned in a career year at age 35. It was clear that Hahn did not believe Pierzynski could duplicate that performance, and also that Hahn felt it was past time for 27-year-old Tyler Flowers to get his shot as a regular. Flowers, who is listed at 6'4", 245, spent the last two years backing up Pierzynski. He has hit only .205 in 108 games, but the Sox are sold on his ability to replace Pierzynski’s power and also to be an upgrade behind the plate. He threw out 33 percent of runners attempting to steal last season, and Sox pitchers had almost exactly the same earned run average with him catching as with Pierzynski.
To know Dunn is to respect him, which made it easy to explain how he was named Comeback Player of the Year even though he hit .204 and finished one strikeout short of matching the all-time record. It was impossible to ignore his 41 home runs, but the reality is that Dunn was never happy with his performance, even if it was much better than the nightmare 2011 season in which he hit .159 with only 11 homers. This is not an especially deep team, as Dunn, Konerko, Rios, Peavy, Danks and Floyd earn a combined $74.25 million (even with Konerko deferring $7 million of his salary), leaving little for spare parts. The Sox picked up corner infielder Conor Gillaspie over the winter and the former Giant appears to have earned a roster with a strong spring. Jordan Danks could figure in as an extra outfielder, though former Padre Blake Tekotte will also be in the mix to win a spot. Angel Sanchez, claimed in the Rule 5 Draft, and backup catcher Hector Gimenez round out a second-division bench.
Hahn, who had spent 12 years as Ken Williams’ assistant general manager, takes over an organization that has wasted its post-World Series spike in attendance, which has fallen below two million, where it was in 2004. Williams repeatedly went for the jugular and failed after the ’05 championship, trading away kids for veterans and largely neglecting the farm system. Hahn’s mandate is to rebuild the foundation while trying to contend behind the declining base of veterans. It’s a daunting task, but he is off to a good start by penciling in Brent Morel, Carlos Sanchez, Tyler Saladino and Andy Wilkins as his Triple-A infield rather than rush any of them to Chicago. The Sox gained a pulse internationally when Williams hired Marco Paddy from Toronto to run that operation, and the 2012 draft — the first with the spending limits favored by Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf — seemed a step in the right direction. Ventura finished third in Manager of the Year voting in his first season on the job. Pitching coach Don Cooper remains a key organizational asset.
There’s nothing wrong with this team that Mike Trout or Bryce Harper couldn’t fix. But the White Sox haven’t found many impact hitters in the draft since the run that brought them Frank Thomas, Ray Durham, Mike Cameron and Ventura, among others. The Sox were fourth in the AL in scoring last year but seem unlikely to sustain that level given the age of the lineup. They’ll need great pitching and fielding to compete. The presence of Sale, Peavy, Reed and Jones gives them a chance, but it will take surprising contributions elsewhere to win 85-plus games and click with a shrinking fan base.
Lineup CF Alejandro De Aza (L)
Leadoff man with speed had a higher WAR than Paul Konerko last season. 3B Jeff Keppinger (R)
Solid right-handed bat figures to get 500-plus at-bats in first year of three-year deal. RF Alex Rios (R)
Best hitter in the lineup hit mostly fifth and sixth a year ago, a mistake Robin Ventura shouldn’t repeat. 1B Paul Konerko (R)
Surgery on left wrist may explain why his OPS dropped from .932 at All-Star break to .771 in the second half. DH Adam Dunn (L)
Fifty-homer season isn’t out of the question if he stays healthy and figures a way to make better contact. LF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Decent first season as a regular, highlighted by .289 average with runners in scoring position. SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
While hitting career-low nine homers, took only 14 unintentional walks in 621 plate appearances in 2012. C Tyler Flowers (R)
Favorite of teammates and coaches last two years when serving as A.J. Pierzynski’s understudy. 2B Gordon Beckham (R)
.270 average as rookie in 2009 has shrunk to .245 career batting average.
Bench OF Dewayne Wise (L)
Veteran with all-around skills could get 250 at-bats if Viciedo starts slow. SS Angel Sanchez (R)
Houston’s primary shortstop in 2011, he hit .320 in Triple-A last year. C Hector Gimenez (S)
Next to Wise, probably the best hitter in the group; could emerge as a key contributor. 1B/3B Conro Gillaspie (L)
Picked up from San Francisco over the winter, he had six extra-base hits in his first 32 at-bats in the spring.
Rotation LH Chris Sale
A 17-game winner and All-Star in first year as a starter, he looks like a cornerstone player. RH Jake Peavy
Fifth in AL with 219 innings last year; White Sox are betting he’s overcome run of injuries. LH John Danks
Signed to a $65-million contract a year ago, he is a question mark after shoulder scope last August. RH Gavin Floyd
With free agency around corner, the consistent double-figure winner is a trade candidate. LH Jose Quintana
A major surprise as a rookie; started 22 games and pitched 136.1 innings.
Bullpen RH Addison Reed (Closer)
Stephen Strasburg’s old college closer was 29-for-33 in his rookie season. RH Nate Jones
High-90s fastball and snap-dragon curve give him chance to be eighth-inning force. RH Jesse Crain
Veteran setup man makes mistakes up in strike zone but held hitters to .171 average last year. LH Matt Thornton
Quiet leader in bullpen, the veteran workhorse worked a career-high 74 games at age 35. LH Donnie Veal
Former Cubs second-rounder throws a slider that was death to left-handed hitters down the stretch. RH Dylan Axelrod
Independent League find has a filthy slider and the ability to start or relieve. RH Matt Lindstrom
Veteran allowed just four of 20 inherited runners to score last season split between Baltimore and Arizona.
The 2012 Detroit Tigers were a runaway pick to win the AL Central and a fashionable pick to win it all. But nothing ever seemed easy for them. They floundered below .500 for most of the first half of the season, trailed the Chicago White Sox for the bulk of the year and didn’t clinch the AL Central title until the calendar had flipped to October. Then, after surviving the A’s in the ALDS and destroying the Yankees in a four-game sweep in the ALCS, their bats curiously disappeared in the World Series, as they lost to the Giants in four games. The Tigers knew they needed more pop, and they also knew more pop was on its way, with DH Victor Martinez set to return in 2013 after a year spent rehabbing a blown-out knee. But that wasn’t enough — they also struck early in free agency, signing 37-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter coming off a career-high .313 average. Finally, they upgraded their rotation by re-signing righthander Anibal Sanchez, who came to Detroit in a trade-deadline deal last summer and pitched impressively down the stretch. Perhaps even more than a year ago — against a backdrop of an American League in which several perennial powers appear in decline — the Tigers will be viewed as a threat to win it all.
On the surface, any rotation that has Justin Verlander at the top and three other 10-game winners following him — a rotation that, in fact, posted a combined 3.76 ERA in 2012 — is plenty solid. Not only that, but No. 2 starter Max Scherzer also took a huge step in 2012 towards fulfilling his vast promise, with a 16-win, 231-strikeout season. But as the wise men say, you can never have too much pitching, and the Tigers knew they needed to retain Sanchez if they wanted to enter April with a championship-caliber club. The cost was staggering: $80 million for what is essentially a No. 4 starter. But the payoff is also enormous: The Tigers’ rotation is arguably the strongest and deepest in the American League — whether the fifth starter’s job belongs to righthander Rick Porcello or emerging lefty Drew Smyly.
After letting Jose Valverde, their high-wire artist of a closer, walk away via free agency, the Tigers kicked around various options for a closer in 2013, including free agents, trade targets and in-house candidates. Of that last category, the most intriguing option is much-hyped prospect Bruce Rondon, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who torched batters at Single-A and Double-A in 2012. The Tigers have given him a chance to win the closer’s job, and it appears that he has done so this spring. Also on board for 2013 is a strong core of bullpen veterans in lefty Phil Coke and righthanders Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel, plus an intriguing Rule 5 pickup in swingman Kyle Lobstein. Al Alburquerque appears healthy and ready to return to his swing-and-miss form.
Although Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers’ veteran double-play combo, don’t inspire much excitement, on this team and in this lineup there is something to be said for steady veteran play up the middle. Infante, a second baseman acquired last July in the Anibal Sanchez trade, broke his hand in Game 4 of the World Series but is completely healthy. Peralta, meantime, saw his offensive numbers drop in 2012, but he was an All-Star as recently as 2011 and is a capable shortstop, if nothing else.
The Tigers paid their corner infielders a combined $44 million in 2012 to hit a lot of home runs and not kill themselves (or the team) on defense. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder succeeded on both counts. The former had a historic year at the plate, winning both the Triple Crown and the MVP, and while the latter posted his lowest home run total in six years, he put up otherwise gaudy numbers in line with his career norms. On the other side of the ball, while neither was a threat to win a Gold Glove, the “experiment” of shifting Cabrera from first to third in order to accommodate Fielder was also not the abject disaster many predicted, and Cabrera’s selflessness in switching positions resonated both with teammates and MVP voters.
With all the firepower in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, it was easy to overlook the brilliant season put up by center fielder Austin Jackson, who raised his OPS by 166 points over the year before and established himself as one of the top leadoff men in the game. One of the great travesties of the 2012 AL MVP race was that Jackson garnered nary a vote. The addition of Hunter gives Jackson a Gold Glove-caliber wingman in right, as well as another big-time bat behind him. Left field might wind up being a revolving door, but for now it appears that Andy Dirks, who had a fine 2012 season in a limited role, will get the first crack at the starting job. At some point in 2013, top prospects Nick Castellanos and/or Avisail Garcia could get the inevitable call-up.
Alex Avila had a breakout 2011 season, highlighted by an All-Star selection, but an injury-plagued 2012 sent his numbers plummeting and raised questions about his future durability. He made only 107 starts at catcher in 2012, down from 130 the year before, and almost all his numbers dropped — including his OPS by a whopping 159 points. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Tigers felt it important to upgrade at backup catcher, dropping veteran Gerald Laird and signing free agent Brayan Pena.
With Martinez out for the year following knee surgery, the Tigers’ DH job in 2012 was left primarily to Delmon Young, who, while capable of an occasional burst of power, is certainly no V-Mart. Getting the veteran Martinez back in 2013 will be like adding another big bat via free agency — only without the extra expenditure. As for the Tigers’ bench, Don Kelly, Jim Leyland’s favorite super-utility security blanket, is gone now, and it could take multiple players to replace him. The Tigers acquired a second baseman, Jeff Kobernus, in the Rule 5 Draft, but if he is to stick he will need to learn additional positions — and perhaps become a Kelly-like utility man. The Tigers still have Danny Worth and Ramon Santiago as backup infielders — though they can probably only afford to carry one of them — plus Quintin Berry as an extra outfielder. It isn’t the most intimidating bench around, but it should be functional.
Leyland, who has led the Tigers to two AL pennants in seven years with the organization, seems content at this point to exist on a series of one-year contracts, ending his last one with a World Series appearance, then signing yet another once the series was over. But at age 68, there are plenty of people wondering how many one-year contracts he has left in him. Which means, like plenty of others in the organization, his sense of urgency to win in 2013 will be acute. General manager Dave Dombrowski, on the other hand, signed a four-year extension in 2011 that carries through 2015 — not that he feels any less urgency to win. Together, they form one of the longest-standing and most respected GM/manager duos in baseball.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has always shown a willingness to spend money, pushing the Tigers’ payroll into the upper quartile of baseball and dishing out mega-deals to Cabrera and Fielder. But in 2013, with the Tigers coming off a season that fell one step short of the ultimate goal, Ilitch is going another step. The signings of Hunter and Sanchez, plus the arbitration and contractual raises due a number of key players, will push the Tigers’ 2013 payroll into even more rarified air — in the $150 million range. Clearly, from the top of the organization down, the Tigers believe they are in position to win it all in 2013. They have arguably the best nucleus of talent in all of baseball, and all they need is for the rest to fall into place.
Lineup CF Austin Jackson (R)
Dazzling .300/.377/.479 season established him as one of top leadoff men in game RF Torii Hunter (R)
Still a great glove man, a professional hitter and top-notch clubhouse influence. 3B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Inherited the mantle from Albert Pujols as best right-handed hitter in the game. 1B Prince Fielder (L)
His 30 HRs were fewest since 2006, but Tigers are confident he’s poised for a monster 2013 season. DH Victor Martinez (S)
His return from injury deepens the lineup and makes pitching around Cabrera, Fielder a risk. LF Andy Dirks (L)
Tigers anxious to see if he can extend big-time 2012 production over a full season. SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Steady veteran has played at least 145 games in seven straight seasons. C Alex Avila (L)
Even in what constituted a “down” year, posted a healthy .352 OBP. 2B Omar Infante (R)
Say what you will, but if he’s your No. 9 hitter, you’re in good shape.
Bench C Brayan Pena (S)
Upgrades backup catcher spot, replacing popular veteran Gerald Laird. 2B Jeff Kobernus (R)
Light-hitting Rule 5 Draft pick will probably need to play multiple positions to stick. OF Quintin Berry (L)
Plays all three outfield spots, and stole 21 bases without being caught in 94 games in 2012. IF Ramon Santiago (S)
Has made at least 60 starts as a middle infielder in each of the last four seasons for Detroit.
Rotation RH Justin Verlander
Cy Young runner-up in 2012 is arguably the best pitcher in the game. RH Max Scherzer
Flamethrower took huge step forward in 2012, winning career-high 16 games. RH Doug Fister
Strained oblique plagued him in 2012, but still won 10 games with a respectable 3.45 ERA. RH Anibal Sanchez
Justified July trade with three quality starts in postseason and was signed to big deal in offseason. RH Rick Porcello
Still only 24, but allowed a career-high 11.5 hits per nine IP in 2012.
Bullpen RH Bruce Rondon (Closer)
Throws gas, but does he have the command and the calm to close in majors? RH Joaquin Benoit
Jim Leyland’s top right-handed setup man struck out 84 in 71 innings. LH Phil Coke
Strong showing in 2012 postseason underscored his value and versatility. RH Octavio Dotel
Not the workhorse he used to be, but still effective when used right. LH Kyle Lobstein
Rule 5 Draft pick is seen as a starter long-term, but to stick he’ll need to relieve. RH Brayan Villarreal
Emerged as Leyland’s top option in the sixth and seventh innings. RH Al Alburquerque
After returning from injury last September, he struck out 18 and gave up only six hits in 13.1 innings, but walked eight.