AL Preview: Indians All-Time Rivals Edition

With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season. Previous previews include: TEX/HOU; OAK/LA; SEA/TOR; BOS/NYY; BAL/TB; KC/MIN

By Bob Toth

The race for the American League Central Division last season was one of the better battles in all of baseball, even if it took a back seat to races in the AL East and West.

The Chicago White Sox surprised many around the league with a young roster built around a trio of power-hitting veterans and a rookie manager who found themselves still in the race in the final week of the season. The Detroit Tigers remained hidden in the weeds, waiting to pounce with a dangerous rotation and a single offensive contribution not seen in 45 years.

Heading into the 2013 season, both teams will return rosters very similar to those they fielded last year. Will it translate into similar results on the field, or will the other three teams in the division be able to unseat last year’s trend setters?

The White Sox (85-77) made an unproven manager, their former third baseman Robin Ventura, look like one of the best young managers in the game. With no minor or major league managerial experience, he managed to put Chicago in position to lead the AL Central deep into the season.

The White Sox kept things close in the division all season long. They had no lead bigger than three and one-half games and no deficit greater than five games. They handled easily the Indians (11-7) and Twins (14-4) within the division and the Mariners (8-1) from outside of it, yet struggled against the Royals (6-12) and the Tigers (6-12). The latter would ultimately lead to their demise and would end their season short of the postseason, despite leading the division for the most games throughout the year.

An 11-11 month of April left the White Sox and Tigers neck and neck within the division, trailing the 11-9 Indians. An outstanding 18-11 month of May pulled the White Sox away from Detroit and stole away the top spot in the Central from Cleveland.

Cleveland would briefly reclaim the lead in the division in mid-June, but would quickly fall out of contention, leaving it a two-team race to October. Chicago finished 13-14 for the month, but was able to rebound and finish 14-11 in July, only briefly losing their foothold in the division to the Tigers late in the month.

Chicago then went on a tear, playing 58 straight games either tied for or in sole possession of first place. Their good run through the summer came to a screeching halt after a mid-September five-game winning streak. The club lost eleven of their final 15 games to the Indians, Angels, and Rays, and their season was over.

After the season, the White Sox lost three players acquired during the season – Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers, and Francisco Liriano – to free agency.

Long-time catcher A.J. Pierzynski was granted free agency and signed with the Texas Rangers. In his eighth and final season in Chicago, he slugged 27 home runs and drove in 77 runs, both establishing new career bests. The home run production exceeded his prior career high by nine and the RBI production equaled his high, set in 2004 while in his lone season with the San Francisco Giants.

The most significant of the offseason upgrades for Chicago was the addition of infielder Jeff Keppinger to replace the departing Youkilis. Keppinger batted .325 in 115 games in his only season in Tampa Bay last year. The career journeyman joins the eighth organization of his professional career. He has spent time at all four infield positions over the course of the last three seasons and has also played five games in the corner outfield spots during his big league career.

The White Sox will return a strong trio in the middle of the lineup that will need to replace some of the offense leaving with the departures of Pierzynski and Youkilis.

Paul Konerko was his usual self in 2012. He found his way into the lineup more often than not and produced at a high clip, batting .298 while hitting 26 homers and driving in 75 runs. As usual, he mashed against the Indians, hitting .328 with three home runs and five doubles while driving in 15, tied for his season-best production against any one team. Forty-six of his 422 career home runs have come against Cleveland.

Adam Dunn bounced back from one of the worst years of his career in his first season in Chicago to remind the Sox loyal why the club acquired him. His .159 batting average and eleven home runs in 122 games in 2011 was undeniably atrocious for an everyday player expected to produce $12 million worth of effort. The 2012 season was the polar opposite, as Dunn saw a resurgence in his power stroke, hitting his second highest total of home runs in any one season in his career. He drove in 96 runs, more than double his previous season’s effort. He led the league in both walks (105) and strikeouts (222).

Right fielder Alex Rios, like Dunn, proved his worth after several previously unsuccessful seasons. Coming off of a season in which he batted a career-worst .227 while making $12.5 million, Rios bounced back up over the three hundred mark, batting .304 while establishing new career highs in home runs (25) and runs batted in (92) and tying his career high in triples (8) and slugging percentage (.516).

Young Cuban defector Dayan Viciedo joins Rios again in the outfield in Chicago. In his first full season in the big leagues, the left fielder hit 25 home runs and drove in 78 runs while playing 147 games.

Left-hander Chris Sale took charge of the starting rotation after seeing action in each of the previous two seasons. He earned an All-Star nod while posting a 17-8 record and a 3.05 ERA. He will lead the staff again this season, but is a relative unknown after just one season as a starter in the majors. Veterans Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd will follow him in the rotation, but both have been inconsistent in recent years.

Closer Addison Reed struggled down the stretch last season, despite saving 29 games. The young reliever, in his first full season in the Bigs, started the year as the setup man before being promoted into the closer role. He struck out a batter in each appearance in June, but only half of his July games. He seemed to rediscover the ability to strike out batters in August, striking out men in seven of nine games, but then lost it again in September, earning strikeouts in just half of his twelve appearances.

The White Sox owned the head-to-head with the Tribe last season, winning eleven of 18 games and outscoring them 120-72. Chicago has had similar success all-time in 2,063 games against Cleveland. The Indians won their 1,000th game against the Sox last season, but have dropped 1,046. Both teams have fared better at home than on the road, but the advantage has favored Chicago overall.

A pair of new Indians are former White Sox. Myers pitched for the club after being acquired during the season from Houston. The infectious personality of Nick Swisher also once donned the pinstripes of the Pale Hose. No former Indians are on the 40-man roster of the White Sox, but several former players grace their coaching staff, including hitting coach Jeff Manto, assistant hitting coach Harold Baines, and bullpen catcher Mark Salas.

Luck sure seemed to be on the side of the White Sox as they surpassed most everyone’s expectations throughout last season. With another year under their belts, Ventura and many of his younger players should have benefited from the experiences of a pennant race deep into September. The health of the aging veteran players and the need for a strong showing from the rotation will be the key needs for Chicago if they hope to produce similar numbers to last season. For a team that pushed strongly for a division crown, they did not do much to improve their chances in the offseason.

The Tigers (88-74) proved that you do not need to lead the division all season long in order to win it. You just have to be in first place on the last game of the season.

Detroit actually spent the third-most days in first place in the AL Central last year, trailing both Chicago and Cleveland. The Tigers snuck past the White Sox in the final weeks of the season, despite having no lead in the division higher than three games.

The Tigers started out April with an even 11-11 showing, but still spent all but three games in first place for the month. They followed with a 13-16 month of May that dropped the team into third place and a season-worst six games out of the division lead on June 1st.

A powerful Tigers lineup and a solid starting rotation were not to be deterred though, as the ball club posted winning records every month for the rest of the season. A season-best 16-10 July was followed with an equally-helpful 16-11 August and a 16-12 September. They dominated within the division and their head-to-head record of 12-6 against the White Sox made all of the difference down the stretch. They also took 13 of 18 games from the Royals and another ten from the Twins. Only the Indians were a thorn in their side in 2012, as Detroit outscored Cleveland by 15, yet had an 8-10 record against them.

With the AL Central crown, the Tigers entered into a tough American League Divisional Series matchup with the surging Oakland Athletics. After winning each of the first two games at home at Comerica Park, the Tigers were blanked in Game Three and lost Game Four on a blown save in the bottom of the ninth by Jose Valverde, who allowed three runs in a 3-1 ballgame at the time.

Unbeknownst to the Tigers, it would be a warning sign about Valverde and the bullpen, but they did not need it in Game Five, as Justin Verlander threw a four-hit shutout to advance the Tigers into the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees.

After a hard-fought five-game series against Baltimore, including two extra inning games, the Yankees were no match for the Tigers. Detroit bowled right through New York, sweeping the Yankees and winning the AL Pennant. They limited the Yankees to just six runs in four games.

As easily as Detroit moved past New York in the ALCS, the Giants returned the favor in swiftly sweeping the Tigers out of the World Series. Like the Yankees, the Tigers scored just six runs in four games. They were shut out in Game Two and Game Three, by Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong respectively, and did not take their first lead in the series until the bottom of the third inning in the fourth and final game. The Tigers held that lead, their only lead in the entire series, until the top of the sixth.

Following their no-show in the World Series, the Tigers began work on upgrading the roster.

In mid-November, Detroit added veteran outfielder Torii Hunter to their outfield mix on a two-year, $26 million contract. In his last season in Los Angeles with the Angels, he hit over .300 for the first time in his 16 year career. He drove in 92 runs.

The Tigers also brought Anibal Sanchez back into the fold. Sanchez, who was acquired midseason during the first 2012 fire sale by the Miami Marlins, finished the year 4-6 for the Tigers and was 1-2 in three postseason starts with a 1.77 ERA.

The Tigers did not re-sign free agent catcher Gerald Laird, outfielder and ALCS MVP Delmon Young, or the former All-Star closer Valverde.

The Tigers bring back a dangerous offense and see the return of a formerly important cog in their lineup.

Miguel Cabrera will again man the hot corner after his Triple Crown Award winning season. Cabrera led the AL with his .330 batting average, 44 home runs, and 139 runs batted in, becoming just the 15th player ever to win the Triple Crown and the first since Carl Yastrzemski for Boston in 1967. It was the second straight season that Cabrera won the batting title and marked his first MVP Award.

First baseman Prince Fielder begins year two of his monster contract in the Motor City. Fielder has actually been the model of consistency throughout his career, playing no fewer than 157 games since becoming an everyday player. He played in all 162 in three of the last four seasons. Offensively, he supplied his lowest home run production (30) since 2006, but established a new career high .313 batting average. He batted just .173 in the postseason with one home run, three runs batted in, and eleven strikeouts.

Victor Martinez returns after missing all of last season rehabbing a left ACL injury he sustained during offseason conditioning. He batted .330 and drove in 103 runs in his first season in Detroit in 2011.

The starting rotation is led by Verlander, the staff’s ace for the last several years and for many more years to come. The club announced on Friday that the team and Verlander had come to an agreement on a five-year contract extension that could keep the starter in Detroit through 2020. Last season, he was 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting. He led the league with six complete games and 239 strikeouts. He led the league in innings pitched for the third time in four years.

In the long history of the Cleveland Indians organization, they have faced no opponent more in the regular season than the Detroit Tigers. In 2,121 matchups, the Tigers own the edge with 1,071 victories to the Indians 1,038. The Tigers have a 120 game advantage in Detroit over the Indians.

Ryan Raburn, released last November, is the lone former Tigers player on the Indians roster heading into the season. Indians prospect Giovanni Soto, acquired in exchange for Jhonny Peralta, spent time in the Detroit organization. In addition to Peralta, the Tigers have former Tribesman Martinez returning to the club this season. Former Indians reliever Jess Todd, acquired with Chris Perez in 2009 from the St.  Louis Cardinals for Mark DeRosa, was in Spring Training with Detroit. Tigers third base coach Tom Brookens played with the Indians in 1990.

The Tigers are still the class of the division. With no significant subtractions, the additions of veterans Hunter and Martinez, and the return of Sanchez to the rotation, Detroit will be the team with the target painted on its back all season long. The starting rotation is solid and is nearly guaranteed a win every five days when Verlander takes the mound. The key to their season may revolve around whether or not the bullpen can function without an established, dominant closer. Valverde was replaced by prospect reliever Bruce Rondon during Spring Training, but he was unable to earn a spot on the roster to break camp. Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke will hold down the position in the meantime.

Tomorrow, come back to catch the Did the Tribe Win Last Night writers giving some of their opinions on the Indians upcoming 2013 season.

Photo: Dave Reginek / Getty Images

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