By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Justin Verlander, King of the Hill in the American League after winning last season's Cy Young and MVP awards, feels the Kansas City Royals are the darkhorse team to give his Detroit Tigers a battle in the 2012 season.
Verlander, coming off a 24-5 season with a 2.40 earned run average, 250 strikeouts and a no-hitter, acknowledged the Tigers looked powerful after adding slugger Prince Fielder but said Detroit expects a battle to defend their AL Central crown.
"I don't think you can ever take anything for granted," Verlander told Reuters in a telephone interview from Florida where the AL Central Division champions (95-67 last year) spend spring training. "On paper we have a very talented team. "Hopefully we run away with it, but this game isn't played on paper. You have to go out and do it," added Verlander, whose Tigers won their division last year by 15 games, the widest victory margin of any division winner.
Verlander made a case for every one of the teams in the Central to prove dangerous, but singled out Kansas City (71-91) as a possible surprise -- a surprise in itself.
The Royals have not finished higher than fourth in the five-team division in eight years, and last finished as high as second place 17 years ago.
"Kansas City has a very good lineup," Verlander said about a Royals team that includes Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakis - all 25 years old or younger. "I think they pose a threat and it's really understated how good their lineup is and how deep it is."
The Royals showed signs of awakening last season as former first-round draft pick Alex Gordon, 28, blossomed as a left fielder by batting .303 with 23 home runs, 87 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases, and have added young speedster Lorenzo Cain.
"They have one of the better lineups in the American League with a bunch of young talent," added Verlander, who was promoting 2K Sports' $1 Million Perfect Game Challenge for video game players starting April 4.
Verlander, 29, said Kansas City's fate rests with the progress of their young pitchers in a rotation steadied by veteran Bruce Chen and former San Francisco starter Jonathan Sanchez.
"There's no question that they're going to hit. It's just a matter of those pitchers maturing," Verlander said about former top draft pick Luke Hochevar and prospects including Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow and Mike Montgomery.
Verlander said the rest of the division was also dangerous.
"Cleveland (Indians), they just have a fire about them. They don't give up. They had a taste last year of being successful, early on especially, and I think they want to come back and do it again and carry it over for a whole season.
"The (Minnesota) Twins, they're always in it. They have a great pitching staff. When you get (Joe) Mauer and (Justin) Morneau back in the lineup that does wonders for you.
"They say the (Chicago) White Sox are retooling, but I think if their pitchers are healthy they have a great pitching staff as well."
Verlander was by no means talking down his Tigers, especially after the acquisition of free-agent slugger Fielder, who used to terrorize pitchers for the Milwaukee Brewers.
"We're all excited for the season to start," he said, adding that he thought hard-hitting Miguel Cabrera would do fine at third base, despite being sidelined for more than a week by a bad-hop bouncer that hit him under the eye.
Cabrera shifted across the diamond from his usual spot at first base to make room there for Fielder.
Verlander said he was tamping down high expectations for himself by focusing on specific improvements.
"I try not to outdo myself," he said. "My goal is to become a better pitcher and that doesn't necessarily mean that my numbers will be better."
The hard-throwing Verlander said he aimed to improve on throwing first-pitch strikes, yielding fewer walks and having a better April among his goals.
"I'm not trying to repeat my numbers," Verlander said. "Just try to go out every day and pitch to the best of my ability and see what happens."
(Reporting By Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)