GOODYEAR, Ariz. — At the last out of the 2013 regular season, the top of the American League Central looked like this:
One game. That’s it.
"To be fair about it, though, they knew they won," Indians manager Terry Francona reminded me Sunday, referring to how the Tigers lost their final three games after clinching. "They kind of manhandled us during the year, and they took care of what they needed to. I understand your point: We ended up being one game back.
"But with a week to go, they knew they had it. So . . . we have a ways to go."
Perhaps. The Tigers did dominate the Indians last year: They won the season series 15-4 and throttled the Cleveland pitching staff for 6.3 runs per game. The Tigers’ payroll was nearly double that of the Indians in 2013 — and it often looked that way when the teams played.
The Tigers are the only major league team with division titles in each of the past three years. And they are widely expected to continue that streak under first-year manager Brad Ausmus, with a roster featuring the two-time defending AL MVP (Miguel Cabrera), reigning AL Cy Young Award winner (Max Scherzer), 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young (Justin Verlander), and 2013 AL ERA champion (Anibal Sanchez).
Yet . . . look at those 2013 standings again: One game .
Cabrera and Verlander, both of whom will play this season at 31, underwent core muscle repair surgeries in the offseason. Relief pitching is a major concern in Detroit, coming off a year in which the Tigers had the worst bullpen ERA of any AL contender — despite a rotation that logged the most innings in the majors. Rested bullpens are supposed to perform better , not worse. What happens if the Detroit relievers are asked to cover more innings in 2014, as the rotation regresses because of its heavy workload in recent years?
Meanwhile, news that the Tigers traded Prince Fielder and Doug Fister over the offseason was well-received in Northeast Ohio. Fielder has a .902 OPS in 42 career games against Cleveland, while Fister pitches like an All-Star (5-3, 2.73 ERA, 14 starts) when he faces the Indians.
So, would it be that outrageous to pick the Indians in the AL Central?
Without Fielder and Fister, shouldn’t the Indians be able to turn that 15-4 season series into, say, 13-6? Last year, as it turned out, that would have been enough. If you were in the Indians’ clubhouse, might you take stock of your rival — with the losses of two players who stung you so routinely — and wonder if 2014 is the year to overtake the mighty Tigers?
"You could look at it that way," acknowledged Nick Swisher, the Indians’ voluble and charismatic first baseman. "But for us, we’re really focused on the things we have to do in here. We’re not necessarily putting ourselves up against one team, because we’ve got to beat everybody.
"Last year was an amazing run for us at the end of September. People gave us a lot of (crap), saying we had an easy schedule the last 10 games, but, hell, we played everybody early in the year. They weren’t saying (anything) about it then. For us, man, what we accomplished last year gave a lot of these young guys in here a little taste of that. Everybody knows once you get a little taste of that, man, you want the whole thing."
Are the Indians truly good enough to win the whole thing ? Offensively, yes. They ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored last year and should be even better with Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley now solidly in their primes. Swisher and Michael Bourn also will be more consistent in their second seasons with the team.
The starting rotation, though, looms as the major question. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir are gone after accounting for 61 starts and 23 victories in 2014. Even without Fister, the Tigers have a superior rotation. Consider:
Detroit: Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly.
Cleveland: Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, and a fifth-starter derby involving Aaron Harang, Shaun Marcum, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer.
As with the standings, though, the difference might not be as immense as you might think.
"We don’t even necessarily know who our full rotation is quite yet," Swisher said. "But Corey Kluber had an amazing year last year. No one even knew who this cat was. Next thing you know, he’s running 94-mph cutters off people’s knuckles.
"Then you take a guy like Danny Salazar. He’s throwing 100 miles an hour – like it’s nothin’. You bring up these young studs, these young thundercats, man — the sky’s the limit for us."
With the first and perhaps only "thundercats" reference of the spring, Swisher highlighted another of the team’s attributes: Due in large part to the culture Francona brought when he took the job before last season, the Indians have one of the most entertaining clubhouses in baseball. Even on a Sunday morning before the official start of full-squad workouts, Swisher held court — at midseason volume — as Bourn and others laughed.
As the din rose with pockets of conversation popping up throughout the room, it became obvious: These guys really like each other. As the 2013 Red Sox (and 2012 Giants) have demonstrated recently, that matters. The Indians know they’re good. They also know the pressure is on a different team to win the division. That’s a good place to be.
"Looking at this team, from the outside looking in, they kind of reminded me of where the Rangers were in 2009," observed David Murphy, who signed with the Indians this winter after playing in the ’10 and ’11 World Series with the Rangers. "They were knocking on the door. They were almost there. They just came up a little bit short.
"Comparing this team to the Tigers, there’s definitely a lot of heart in here. You look at the list of names on paper. You’ve got Cabrera. You’ve got Verlander. You’ve got Scherzer. You’ve got Victor Martinez. The list goes on and on. We have some incredible talent in here — Swisher, Carlos Santana, Kipnis. There’s a lot of great names in here. But let’s be honest: Miguel Cabrera is a marquee name in major league baseball. Justin Verlander is a marquee name in major league baseball. It’s nice to have that underdog mentality and be that team that’s going to sneak in there and show, ‘Hey, we can play with y’all. Weâre going to be right there."
About now, you may be wondering which team I’ll pick in the AL Central. Truth is, I don’t know. My AL predictions were so pathetic in 2013 — Blue Jays in the East, Royals in the Central, Angels in the West — that I’m serving a one-year, self-imposed suspension from all baseball prognosticating. But the case is under appeal. Since Fredric Horowitz was busy with another baseball matter, I’m serving as my own independent arbitrator. I will let myself know once I have made a decision.
In the meantime, I’m comfortable making the following statement: The Indians are close to overtaking the Tigers atop the AL Central. And if you don’t believe me, check the standings.