Jim Leyland couldn't have started his tenure as the Tigers' manager on a much better note. He replaced Alan Trammell prior to the 2006 season, and led the Tigers to their first World Series appearance in 22 years. Though the Tigers were upset by the Cardinals in the World Series, it hardly mattered. The Tigers were the American League champions just three years after losing 119 games, and the future could not have seemed brighter.
However, the Tigers haven't been back to the postseason in the ensuing four seasons. Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski are in the final year of their contracts, and it seems certain that the Tigers need to improve on their 81-81 record of last season for the duo to keep their jobs.
Leyland, in typical fashion, addresses the matter of his job security head-on. However, he also makes it clear that he does not want it to become a focal point of the 2011 season, stating, "My tail is on the line. Dave's tail is on the line. We all know that, but I'm not going to spend all season discussing it, and I'm not worried about it for one minute. I came here to give (Tigers owner Mike Ilitch) a world championship trophy, and that's what I'll continue to try to do. If there comes a point where they don't want me to be the manager, so be it, but I'm not going to intimidated by the fact it's my last year. I've got all kinds of energy. I feel good."
Leyland is as spry as any 66-year-old chain smoker you will ever find. And though Leyland hasn't been able to find his way back to the postseason since '06, the Tigers are in a much better situation than when he arrived. However, the fan base is frustrated by the lack of post-season appearances since the unexpected '06 run.
The Tigers have reason to believe they can contend for the AL Central title this season despite finishing 13 games behind the Twins a year ago. The Tigers signed DH/catcher Victor Martinez, right-handed starter Brad Penny, and right-handed set-up reliever Joaquin Benoit as free agents and retained three of their own free agents in third baseman Brandon Inge, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and outfielder Magglio Ordonez.
"The potential of our pitching staff is fantastic," Leyland said. "We're definitely much better going into spring training. I take a little offense when people act like we haven't done anything. We've been pretty good. It's not like we've been a bunch of donkeys."
The Tigers have two potential thoroughbreds who combined for 9.9 SNLVAR at the top of their rotation: Justin Verlander (5.0) and Max Scherzer (4.9). However, they are going to need a bounce-back season from Rick Porcello, a smooth transition from the bullpen to the rotation by left-hander Phil Coke, and a healthy season by Penny to contend with a fully-stocked rotation. The Tigers were 10th in the AL and 22nd in the majors in runs allowed last season, with an average of 4.6 allowed a game.
Porcello was a disappointment in 2010 as he provided just 1.1 SNLVAR after having a 4.2 mark as a rookie the previous season. Leyland believes the 22-year-old will take a step forward this upcoming season, noting, "It wasn't too long ago that Verlander broke in with a big splash and all of a sudden there's a period where he got challenged a little bit. Sometimes guys like Rick Porcello and those star young players like that, they have never had any adversity athletically. All of a sudden you're in the big leagues and you're going to have a little of that. I think it's important how you learn to handle it. You have to go through those times and as a manager, you can't eliminate that. You can't stop it. Everybody says, 'Well, why don't you fix it?' Sometimes it's like an injury, and the only thing that heals it is a little bit of time. I think that you have to be careful trying to force that. You're there to try to help them, you are there to support him, but at some point, when you're playing at this level, you're going to go through some adversity and the key is how you handle it. And I think they both handled it very well."
Coke has made only one start in his 158 major-league appearances in three seasons. However, he was a starter while coming up in the Yankees' farm system.
"Phil Coke is a very talented guy and he's got good stuff," Leyland said. "When we acquired him (during the 2009-10 offseason), there were several of our scouts that said, 'This guy can be a starting pitcher for you.' I didn't know him very well and he fit better for us last year in the bullpen. As it turned out, we got thinking about it during the course of the year, more so later in the year, that everybody is always looking for starting pitching and maybe we can come up with one from within. That's what we were trying to do with Phil Coke and I think it's going to work out fine."
Opening Day isn't until April 1 for the Red Sox, when they visit the defending AL champion Rangers. It also can't come soon enough for club president Larry Lucchino, who noted, "I'm really anxious. By the end of last season, I think I was as tired as any of our fans or our players, just being frustrated and all that. All it took was a few months away from it and a few big off-season acquisitions, and all of a sudden, I can't wait to get going."
The Red Sox' string of three consecutive post-season appearances ended last year as they went 89-73 during a season in which first baseman Kevin Youkilis, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and center fielder Mike Cameron all suffered major injuries. However, the Red Sox believe they are ready to return to playing in October following an offseason highlighted by the additions of two stars in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford.
"I'm very excited about those two players because of their age and how they're going to be part of the Red Sox, not just for 2011, but for years to come," Lucchino said. "Also, seeing healthy guys like Pedroia, (pitcher Tim) Wakefield, (catcher Jason) Varitek, Ellsbury, and Youkilis, it's going to be an exciting time."
At this point, the Red Sox seem to be the team best positioned to unseat the Rangers in the race for the AL pennant. Ron Washington, the manager of the team that won the 2010 pennant has noticed, observing, "They certainly did everything they had to do to make sure they can come out and make another run at the American League championship first and then the World Series. The job that (manager) Terry Francona did last year, with all the injuries he had, and now to be able to come into spring training with a team that's capable of going all the way, has got to be exciting for people in the Boston area. I'm looking forward to it, right out the chute we get to gauge where we are. We've got to defend it, and it's got to start against Boston."
The Nationals finished 69-93 last season, and haven't been above .500 in the six seasons since the franchise moved to Washington from Montreal. However, GM Mike Rizzo is excited about his team's future after an offseason in which the Nationals signed free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract, and also added first baseman Adam LaRoche as a free agent, while trading for left-hander Tom Gorzelanny.
"We've had a very active, very effective offseason," Rizzo said. "We accomplished a lot of our goals. We're certainly never finished. I think we constructed a team that's going to be a big upgrade over 2010. It's a solid ballclub that's going to contend very positively in the National League."
The only disappointment for the Nationals this winter is that they have failed in their primary objective of landing a top-of-the-rotation starter. Instead, they will have to settle for Gorzelanny, who was acquired from the Cubs in a trade for three prospects. He will join holdovers Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, John Lannan, and Jordan Zimmermann.
"We attempted to get a number-one starter," Rizzo said. "When we couldn't acquire that, our thoughts shifted to other ways to improve the roster. Whether we got a number one or not, we thought getting Tom Gorzelanny was a solid deal for us."
One thing is certain in the Cardinals' negotiations on a contract extension for superstar first baseman Albert Pujols: there will be no mudslinging.
Pujols has made it clear that he has nothing to say about the situation. While the Cardinals did allow publicly that Pujols wants a deal in place by February 13, the day that spring training opens–or he will test free agency in November–club chairman Bill DeWitt has let it be known but there is nothing but admiration for the face of the franchise from ownership. As DeWitt noted, "He's an iconic player because he's such a great player. He's proven year-in and year-out that he's one of the greatest players to play the game. He's never had a bad year, and his lifetime totals are incredible. You can't go out and find an Albert Pujols. You can't say, 'If he leaves, I'll get this person or that player.'"
What would the Cardinals do if Pujols were to leave after this season? DeWitt didn't try to be evasive when he said he didn't have an answer. "You deal with the situation as it occurs," he said. "I really don’t know what else to say."