While many people had already written off the Twins as contenders in 2012 following a 99-loss season, I've been bullish on their (admittedly slim) chances, reasoning that a whole lot can change health-wise from one season to the next and that no club in the AL Central was looking like a world-beater.
The entire division has largely been in a holding pattern all winter. The White Sox, Indians and Royals haven't made impact additions. The Twins have brought in several new players, but all have been designated to fill newly created vacancies. (Willingham for Cuddyer, Marquis for Slowey, Zumaya for Nathan, Doumit for Kubel, etc.)
And those reigning champs? Coming off a 95-win campaign, the Tigers had been conspicuously quiet, seemingly content to maintain the status quo and take another run with largely the same group that succeeded a year ago. Sounded similar to the Twins' approach last offseason.
As it turns out, these Tigers had just been lying in the weeds, waiting to pounce with their royally big move. Yesterday, Detroit signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal worth a reported $214 million.
The blockbuster signing comes as a surprise. General manager Dave Dombrowski told reporters less than a week ago that the slugging first baseman was "probably not a good fit," which rung true seeing as how the team already employed one of the best hitters in baseball at Fielder's position. In addition, most were unaware that the Tigers possessed the financial muscle to lock up the game's best under-30 power hitter for a decade.
It's a strong move, and one that bolsters Detroit's roster immensely, ostensibly transforming them from de facto favorites in a weak division to legitimate American League powerhouse. A lineup anchored by Fielder and Miguel Cabrera will strike fear into opposing pitchers, and could approach 900 runs if guys like Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta are all at the top of their game.
Without question, the Fielder signing weakens Minnesota's chances, which were already sketchy at best. But it would be foolish to write off the rest of the AL Central on the basis of this one move. Here are a few reasons to hold out hope that the Tigers can be toppled this summer:
1) V-Mart is out.
Granted, Detroit just added a guy who drove in 120 runs with a .981 OPS last year. But they also lost a guy who drove in 103 runs with an .850 OPS when Victor Martinez went down with a torn ACL a week ago. Fielder is of course a superior hitter to Martinez, especially in the power department (he out-homered V-Mart 38-12 last year) but it's not like his production is simply sprinkled on top of what Detroit got last year.
2) The rotation is questionable beyond Justin Verlander.
Detroit's starting corps is led by the Ace of Aces, a reigning Cy Young winner and MVP. But outside of Verlander, no pitcher who threw more than 100 innings for the Tigers last year posted an above-average ERA. And does anyone really believe that Doug Fister is going to be able to replicate his 2011 performance? Pitching issues could be magnified by the following:
3) This looks like a slow and defensively awful team.
This lineup will slug, no doubt, but baseball isn't all about hitting and there are few defensive assets to be found on this roster. Delmon is tabbed to man left field, Fielder is a notoriously bad defender at first, and there's been some talk that Cabrera could see time at the hot corner this year. Yeesh. In addition, nobody in the lineup outside of Jackson runs well.
4) Stuff happens.
I can't emphasize this one enough. On paper, the Tigers look like runaway favorites in the AL Central with Fielder aboard. Then again, on paper, the Twins looked the same way to many a year ago. Adam Dunn hadn't posted an OPS under .819 in his career before he logged a .569 mark for Chicago. The Red Sox were the toast of baseball before the they became the laughing stock.
A lot can happen in this game. Things rarely work out the way everyone expects them to. It would be surprising if Detroit failed to outclass the rest of the division this year, but it wouldn't be all that surprising.
If you thought the Twins had a shot two days ago, you shouldn't feel any differently now.