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Throwing heat: AL Central race should be a dogfight

MIKE FITZPATRICK • Mar 31, 2007 at 10:54 AM

Everyone is curious about Daisuke Matsuzaka, which makes perfect sense.

He throws something like seven or eight pitches for strikes, and the Boston Red Sox coughed up $103 million to import him from Japan before he even set foot on a major league mound.

Spiced up that ol' Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in a hurry.

But while so many eyes are fixed on baseball's most mysterious rookie this season, the toughest tug of war around lies smack in the middle of America's heartland - the AL Central.

No fewer than four teams in that dog-eat-dog division are good enough to expect a playoff berth. Of course, there's room for only two - at most.

The Minnesota Twins boast two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, league MVP Justin Morneau and batting champ Joe Mauer. By the way, they've won four of the past five Central titles.

Jim Leyland's Detroit Tigers return almost their entire team intact - minus injured Kenny Rogers - after a surprising run to the World Series last year. Plus, they added slugger Gary Sheffield in a trade with the New York Yankees.

The Chicago White Sox won 90 games last season and still missed the playoffs. But remember, they're not far removed from their 2005 World Series championship.

And the Cleveland Indians appear ready to reach the postseason, with young stars such as Grady Sizemore backing an underrated rotation. They plan to rebound from a disappointing dropoff last year.

"We've got challenges ahead of us, but so does every other team in our division," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Our goal is to get into the playoffs starting now and every year, and we feel we have a legitimate reason to believe we can."

Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and the Yankees always expect a spot in the postseason. They've won nine consecutive AL East titles, but are without a World Series ring since 2000. Now they're without longtime stalwart Bernie Williams, too.

Looking to end the "drought," New York brought back lefty Andy Pettitte and added a Japanese pitcher of its own, Kei Igawa. Alex Rodriguez is under immense pressure - again - as the Yankees try to hold off Boston in the AL East - again.

The Red Sox went on a spending spree in the offseason, signing J.D. Drew to protect David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the middle of a dangerous lineup.

Jonathan Papelbon filled a huge hole when he switched from starter back to closer late in spring training, and Matsuzaka joins a rotation that also includes Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett.

"I think he's a perfectionist, like a lot of good players, a lot of good pitchers," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He wants to make every single pitch."

Sounds like Roger Clemens, who could alter the AL East race this summer by choosing to pitch for either Boston or New York, two of his former clubs. Of course, he could also just stay retired this time.

The race out West is expected to be between defending champion Oakland and Los Angeles again, though the Athletics lost ace Barry Zito when he jumped across the bay to San Francisco. Big slugger Frank Thomas also bolted, for Toronto.

The Angels have injury concerns - pitchers Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver will miss the start of the season. So maybe 38-year-old comeback kid Sammy Sosa and the Texas Rangers can sneak up on a few people under rookie manager Ron Washington.

"When you were out for a year like I was, sometimes they think you are finished - and I'm not," Sosa said. "I feel hungry again."

A look at the AL in predicted order of finish:

EAST New York Yankees

Mike Mussina headlines an aching rotation, which already lost No. 1 starter Chien-Ming Wang to a hamstring injury. Last year's Cy Young Award runner-up is out until at least late April. Pettitte's back acted up in spring training, too, so opening-day starter Carl Pavano needs to stay healthy and prove his resolve. There are some promising young arms on the way but, even if the pitching falters, the relentless lineup has more than enough firepower to carry this team to another division title.

Boston Red Sox

The additions of Matsuzaka, Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo might have helped the Red Sox close the gap on New York - but not enough. Look for them to stay in contention longer than last season, when a five-game sweep by the Yankees at Fenway Park in August sent Boston spiraling to a third-place finish. This time, the Red Sox win the wild card. But they'll need bounce-back seasons from Beckett, Jason Varitek and Coco Crisp.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have big stars in Thomas, ace Roy Halladay and center fielder Vernon Wells. The powerful lineup will make it tough on opposing pitchers, but this team is relying too heavily on injury-prone starters throughout the rotation. Lefty closer B.J. Ryan is one of the game's best.

Baltimore Orioles

Erik Bedard has developed into a front-line starter. Now the Orioles are just waiting for two other talented young arms, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen, to follow suit. Kris Benson's injury hurts the rotation. Baltimore upgraded its bullpen in the offseason, which should help.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Plenty of promising kids to watch: right fielder Delmon Young, shortstop Ben Zobrist, catcher Dioner Navarro, second baseman B.J. Upton, outfielder Elijah Dukes. Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli have already established themselves, so there is hope for the future. Third baseman Akinori Iwamura comes over from Japan, and lefty Scott Kazmir was an All-Star last year. He must stay healthy. Behind him, though, the pitching staff is a mess. Second baseman Jorge Cantu, who had 28 homers and 117 RBIs in 2005, was sent to the minors in a curious move.

CENTRAL Detroit Tigers

Rogers had surgery Friday to remove a blood clot from his left shoulder and repair arteries. He is expected to be out until at least July. But all those hard-throwing youngsters are back: Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Joel Zumaya. And in pitcher-friendly Comerica Park, they only figure to get better with experience. Add in Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth (returning from injury) and closer Todd Jones, and the Tigers still have a strong staff. Sheffield provides the big bat this team needed. With Leyland making sure there's no letup, Detroit proves its 2006 turnaround was no fluke - even without Rogers.

Cleveland Indians

Shapiro revamped a leaky bullpen, Cleveland's biggest flaw last season as it slipped to 78-84 after winning 93 games in 2005. Joe Borowski is the new closer. The group is better, but still nothing to get excited about. Travis Hafner anchors a high-powered offense, and C.C. Sabathia leads a capable rotation. Cliff Lee (14-11, 4.40 ERA) will begin the year on the DL with an abdominal strain. Look for the Indians to have a strong season but fall just short of a playoff berth.

Minnesota Twins

Santana is baseball's best pitcher. After that, the rotation is filled with question marks because Brad Radke retired and Francisco Liriano will miss the entire season following elbow surgery. Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser and Ramon Ortiz will try to steady the ship. The bullpen remains reliable with dominant closer Joe Nathan, and the offense has some punch. The Twins always catch the ball and mind their fundamentals, so don't expect them to fall too far.

Chicago White Sox

Manager Ozzie Guillen's team didn't add much in the offseason other than injury-prone Darin Erstad and pitching prospect John Danks. GM Ken Williams did trade right-handers Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy, which could hurt. But Williams isn't afraid to take risks, and the rotation still boasts Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle, who is coming off a poor second half. The middle of the lineup is packed with power: Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye and Joe Crede.

Kansas City Royals

Prized prospect Alex Gordon takes over at third base, bumping Mark Teahen to the outfield. Gordon could be a rookie of the year contender. The usually frugal Royals raised eyebrows by signing starting pitcher Gil Meche to a $55 million, five-year contract. Octavio Dotel attempts to become a closer again. GM Dayton Moore appears to have a reasonable rebuilding plan.

WEST Los Angeles Angels

One of the Angels' strengths is depth on the pitching staff, which makes it possible to absorb the injuries to Colon and Weaver for a while. With closer Francisco Rodriguez and rubber-armed setup man Scot Shields, the bullpen is always outstanding - perhaps the best in baseball. The addition of Justin Speier makes it even better. Vladimir Guerrero needs help on offense. Juan Rivera, productive last year, broke his leg playing winter ball and is expected to miss much of the season. Maybe a few of the kids are ready to break out at the plate.

Texas Rangers

Michael Young, Mark Teixeira and the Rangers rarely have trouble scoring runs. Now, Sosa slides into the middle of the lineup after sitting out a year. He's 12 homers shy of 600. It sure looked as though he could still hit in spring training, but the regular season should be a tougher test. If youngsters Robinson Tejeda and McCarthy come through, the pitching staff might be better than expected. The key could be star closer Eric Gagne, coming off two injury-plagued seasons with the Dodgers. He'll start the year on the DL, but the team says he just needs more time to get ready. Hank Blalock looks for a bounce-back year.

Oakland Athletics

Following Zito's departure, Rich Harden takes over as the No. 1 starter. He has the stuff to be an ace, but injuries limited him to 28 starts the past two seasons. The rest of the rotation could be hit or miss. Bobby Crosby is also trying to stay healthy at shortstop, and Mike Piazza would be hard pressed to duplicate Thomas' big year at DH. Center fielder Mark Kotsay (back surgery) is expected to miss the first two months of the season. Still, the A's could contend again. Bob Geren replaces Ken Macha as manager.

Seattle Mariners

World Series star Jeff Weaver joins a retooled rotation led by former phenom Felix Hernandez, who is in much better shape this year. Ichiro Suzuki moves from right field to center and enters the final year of his contract. The Mariners are counting on Jose Vidro and his creaky knees at DH. Raul Ibanez is coming off a big season. The bullpen is a major concern, partly because of injuries. Manager Mike Hargrove and GM Bill Bavasi are under pressure due to three straight last-place finishes and diminishing attendance.

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