Rounding Third: AL Outlook: Tigers still the team to beat in AL

There are no better words to hear if you are a baseball fan than "Opening Day." Amazing as it seems, the 2013 Major League Baseball season is now upon us.

And as we head toward a new season, it's a familiar team that's still at the top of the class in the American League.

The Detroit Tigers entered the 2012 campaign as huge favorites to win an AL Central title. Well, they won their second straight division title, but it wasn't easy, as the Tigers sat below .500 for most of the first half, and never actually clinched the Central until the final week of the regular season.

Detroit then outlasted the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS before sweeping the New York Yankees in the ALCS. But that offense that carried the Tigers for much of the second half of the year and through the first two rounds of the playoffs disappeared in the World Series and they were swept by the San Francisco Giants in four games.

Now, if you are a fan of another team in the AL you may want to stop reading because as good as the Tigers were a year ago, they may be even better this season thanks to the addition of outfielder Torii Hunter and the return of Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury.

Of course, the Tigers are led by Triple Crown winner and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, who had a season for the ages in 2012, leading the league with a .330 average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI. His partner in crime, Prince Fielder, enjoyed his first year in Motown, as he hit .313 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI.

Speaking of Cabrera, there's really no reason to think he won't replicate his average from last year and the lineup additions should net him close to his RBI total from a year ago. If he's able to match his home run production, he may very well repeat as a Triple Crown winner. Let that soak in for a second.

While Cabrera and Fielder hold down the fort from the offensive side, it doesn't get much better on the mound than Justin Verlander, who followed up his MVP and Cy Young season in 2011 with another typical great year in 2012.

There's also a little sidebar story to this year's Tigers. There have been whispers that this could be the final season for 68-year-year-old manager Jim Leyland. His team is better on paper than it was last season.

Is there a better way to end a career than with a championship?

For an insight into the season, here's a brief synopsis and a look at some of the teams which will try to stop the Tigers from repeating as this year's AL champion in power poll form:

2. LOS ANGELES ANGELS: The Angels were supposed to be the "it" team last season, but were unable to overcome a slow start. The one good thing to come out of last season was the emergence of Mike Trout. Now he, Albert Pujols and newly acquired Josh Hamilton pose as intimidating a trio as there is in the league. Pujols took a while to get going last year, but should be better in his second year in the AL. As long as Hamilton doesn't have the same growing pains, the Angels should be back in the postseason for the first time in four years.

3. TORONTO BLUE JAYS: Everyone loves the Toronto Blue Jays. And why not? The team added multiple All-Stars in that monster deal with Miami in addition to the National League's reigning Cy Young Award winner in R.A. Dickey. Not to mention it looks like it could be a down year in the AL East. On paper the Jays look great. But, it's not often that the team who won the offseason actually wins in the regular season. If you don't believe me, just ask last year's Angels. Or better yet look at the Jays' dugout and ask the former Marlins how it worked out for them last season. Point is super teams rarely work. before any games are played, though, the Jays look tough to beat.

4. TAMPA BAY RAYS: Call me crazy, but substance usually wins out over style. Over the course of a 162-game season the Rays just find ways to get it done. Lose B.J. Upton? Big deal, go out and get one of the top outfield prospects in all of baseball in Wil Myers. The Rays are so deep they were able to deal James Shields and some think their pitching staff will be even better than it was last year. I'm tired of picking against them and looking foolish. Evan Longoria will win an MVP sometime in his career. It may very well be this season.

5. OAKLAND ATHLETICS: The Athletics came out of nowhere last year to win the AL West thanks to a furious finish that saw them win their final six games and overcome a four-game deficit with less than a week left in the season. The A's rode a tremendous young pitching staff and a lineup full of mostly castoffs that finished seventh in the majors in home runs. The core of the team is still there, but the A's are hoping Brett Anderson can stay healthy and become the ace they think he can be. Should that happen, there's no reason to think they won't be a factor again in the West.

6. TEXAS RANGERS: It's a brand new era in Texas Rangers baseball, as Hamilton and his Triple Crown-caliber numbers and enormous baggage will no longer be roaming the outfield in Arlington. Instead Hamilton is in Anaheim and the Rangers have a huge hole in the middle of their order. Texas is hoping Lance Berkman can give it a little pop, but the Rangers are going to have to manufacture runs in what is expected to be a tough AL West. It could all go wrong real quick for the Rangers, but then again, they could find themselves back in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

7. BALTIMORE ORIOLES: The Orioles were the surprise of the AL last season. Nobody expected them to do anything and they were in the mix for a division title up until the final day of the season and reached the postseason for the first time since 1997. They return basically the same team as last year so they should once again be near the top in the AL East. Right? Well some people think Baltimore could take a step back. Why? Well, the Orioles were a stunning 29-9 record last year in one-run games and even more remarkable was the fact that they rattled off 16 straight extra inning wins at one point. It's hard to imagine them being that good again in those situations.

8. NEW YORK YANKEES: How bad is it in Yankees land? Well the recent acquisitions of Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay instantly made them better. Yes, things don't look good on Opening Day. But everyone is forgetting this is a 162-game season. For the better part of the year they are still going to put a lineup out there that includes Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis and Ichiro Suzuki. And maybe, just maybe Alex Rodriguez returns at some point in the second half. Yes, they are old, but it's essentially the same lineup that won 95 games a year ago. From top to bottom, there are few better pitching staffs in the league. They are a middle- of-the-road team on April 1. Something tells me they won't be on Sept.1. While everyone seems to be licking their chops over the Yankees' demise, I need to see the body before declaring them dead.

9. KANSAS CITY ROYALS: If you are looking for a sleeper team, look no further than the Royals. For years we have heard how deep the Royals' farm system was. Little by little we have seen the fruits of their labors with the development of Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. General manager Dayton Moore realized the Royals were getting close and this offseason overhauled the starting rotation, acquiring righties James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. That group combined with returning right-hander Jeremy Guthrie and lefty Bruce Chen gives Kansas City as talented a rotation as there is in the AL. The pieces are in place and if it's not this year it won't be long before the Royals are contending for a division title.

10. BOSTON RED SOX: This is a team a lot of people, including myself, could be really wrong about. The Red Sox were absolutely miserable last season. Did Bobby Valentine play a big part of that? Probably. But, John Farrell inherits almost the same team that ended last season with 93 losses. The one thing that could make this Red Sox team sneaky good is the fact that Farrell knows this pitching staff. That group was a mess last year. If he can work his magic and Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and a returning John Lackey get their acts together, the Red Sox might not be all that bad.

11. CHICAGO WHITE SOX: The Chicago White Sox probably overachieved last season in Robin Ventura's maiden voyage into the managerial seas. In first place for 117 days and the better part of the second half, the White Sox crumbled down the stretch and eventually lost control of the AL Central to Detroit with two weeks to go in the season. Chicago should once again be in the wild card mix thanks to what is expected to be a pretty solid rotation headlined by breakout star from a year ago, Chris Sale. Offensively, though, the club is still veteran heavy led by Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and boom-or-bust slugger Adam Dunn.

12. CLEVELAND INDIANS: Fans in Cleveland likely won't recognize the team they see on Opening Day. Gone are Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo, a trio that combined to play 25 seasons and 2,655 games in Cleveland. In addition to new manager Terry Francona, general manager Chris Antonetti handed out big money deals to outfielders Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, as well as infielder Mark Reynolds and right-hander Brett Myers amongst others. If the Indians are going to do anything, though, they need righty Ubaldo Jimenez to be the pitcher the Tribe thought they were trading for in 2011. Either way, though, this team should be better this year than they were last year.

13. SEATTLE MARINERS: Now the Royals are going to be a sleeper team this season, but if you are looking to pick a team really out of the box, check out the Mariners. Yes, we know they have scored the fewest runs in the league the past four seasons. But scoring runs may not be a problem this year, as youngsters Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders continue to progress, coupled with the additions of veteran boppers Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and even Jason Bay. Now if the Mariners are going to do anything in the AL West, they are going to need someone, anyone, to step up after Felix Hernandez in the rotation. It may not be this year for the Mariners, but they are coming.

14. MINNESOTA TWINS: If you are a fan of the Minnesota Twins, there are a few things you can do this season. One, enjoy the play of your rookie center fielder, Aaron Hicks. Two, appreciate the fact that Justin Morneau is healthy and still playing for your club. And, three, give manager Ron Gardenhire a standing ovation every time you are at a game because he won't be there next year.

15. HOUSTON ASTROS: The Astros are set to make their AL debut. If you can name two players in their lineup, you are probably in the minority and the biggest fantasy baseball nerd in your family. This is not a good team. Houston was a last-place team in the NL Central and it will remain a last-place team in the AL West.


BREAKOUT PLAYER: DAYAN VICIEDO, OF, CHICAGO: There is not much youth in the White Sox lineup. The one player who could make an impact is Cuban import Viciedo, who swatted 25 home runs last season. Like most young hitters, he was a little over aggressive at times and managed just 28 walks and a .255 average. However, with a year under his belt, he should be more patient at the plate. Plus, it doesn't hurt that he is surrounded by a couple members in the 400-HR club in Konerko and Dunn.

BREAKDOWN PLAYER: DAVID ORTIZ, DH, BOSTON: This is a lazy prediction. Ortiz is 37 and already going to start the year on the disabled list. But, when healthy, he is still the most feared hitter in the Red Sox lineup. Before he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in July (though he did come back for one game in late August), Ortiz had been on pace to swat 41 homers with 108 RBI. Sluggers like him tend to lose it over night. Call it a hunch, but it could be a long year for Ortiz.

FIRST MANAGER FIRED: RON GARDENHIRE, MINNESOTA: Now Houston's Bo Porter is the easy choice here. But, not even the Astros think he is going to win this year. Texas' Ron Washington and Joe Girardi of the Yankees could be candidates as well, but we are going to go with Gardenhire, who is in the final year of his contract. And barring a miracle, the Twins are headed toward their third straight last-place finish in the AL Central. Gardenhire is so good and has had such a great track record, Twins GM Terry Ryan likely wouldn't fire him midseason. But if he does, Gardenhire will be out of work for about a minute, provided he doesn't want to rest a little. Prediction. Gardenhire manages the New York Mets next season.

PLAYER MOST LIKELY TRADED BY DEADLINE: JUSTIN MORNEAU, 1B, MINNESOTA: When it was learned that Teixeira would miss the first two months of the season with a wrist injury, the knee jerk reaction was that the Yankees would go out and get Morneau from the Twins. He is the ideal candidate to be moved. The Twins are going to be bad and he is in the final year of a six-year, $80 million deal that pays him $14 million this season. There's going to be a lot of names that become hot as the season wears on, but none will be hotter than the former AL MVP.




AL MVP - ROBINSON CANO (NYY); AL CY Young - JERED WEAVER (LAA); AL Rookie of Year - WIL MYERS (TAM); AL Manager of Year - NED YOST (KAN); AL Comeback Player - MARIANO RIVERA (NYY)