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Tigers do have issues, but not on offense
By Scot Gregor | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/29/2008 11:47 PM | Updated: 6/18/2008 2:15 PM

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The White Sox don't have to wait long to size up the American League Central.

They'll open the season Monday against the Indians, last year's division winner, in Cleveland.

On Thursday, the Sox move over to Detroit, where a loaded team of Tigers await.

Weather permitting, the White Sox will play six games against the Central's top two clubs, then return home for three against another division rival, the Minnesota Twins, and three more against the Tigers.

How they fare in the challenging early portion of the schedule is going to say a lot about the rest of the White Sox' season. For now, here's how the division stacks up from top to bottom:

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1. Detroit Tigers

At the start of spring training, the Tigers looked like a lock to win the AL Central by a comfortable margin.

Now, not so much.

Detroit has the best group of hitters in the game, headed by Magglio Ordonez, newcomer Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield.

They also have a great new shortstop in Edgar Renteria and a solid cast of holdovers (Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Ivan Rodriguez).

The starting rotation is impressive as well, from No. 1 Justin Verlander to No. 5 Dontrelle Willis, who accompanied Cabrera from the Florida Marlins in a blockbuster trade.

What's not to like?

Well, the bullpen for one. The ageless Todd Jones returns as closer, but Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney are out indefinitely with shoulder injuries. That leaves Denny Bautista and Bobby Seay as the likely setup men for Jones, so the starting rotation had better be good.

Detroit also is missing breakout center fielder Curtis Granderson, who broke his finger and won't be back until the end of April.

If the Tigers come through April and May in good shape, they are going to be tough to beat. But this team isn't getting any younger, and a slow start could prove costly.

2. Cleveland Indians

Pretty much the same cast of characters returns, and that's not a bad thing for the Indians.

After all, they were 96-66 in 2007, tying Boston for best record in baseball. And Cleveland had the Red Sox 3-1 in the American League championship series before dropping three straight and watching the World Series on TV.

The obvious question is, can Cleveland take the next step this year, or are the Indians going to take the fade route?

Top two starters C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona carried the club to a first-place finish last year, but the load was heavy and it might show this season. Also, Sabathia was in the middle of a Johan Santana-like contract dispute during spring training, so that's something to keep an eye on.

Like the Tigers, the Indians have some bullpen questions, the biggest one being erratic closer Joe Borowski.

But this still is a strong team, with big bats in Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore.

3. White Sox

The Sox figure to be much better than they were in 2007, but, come on, how could they be worse?

A .246 overall batting average, which was the lowest in baseball? A bullpen with an ERA that soared dangerously close to 6.00?

The White Sox should be able to roll out of bed and do better this year, and they could even contend if everything breaks right.

Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera are significant offensive upgrades, and don't forget the versatile Alexei Ramirez, who may emerge as a Rookie of the Year candidate.

The bullpen looks much better with the addition of veterans Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel, who take over for Mike MacDougal and Matt Thornton in the critical setup roles.

But if the Sox are going to bounce back from last season's 72-90 disaster, Jose Contreras, John Danks and Gavin Floyd have to help out Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez in the starting rotation, and Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye have to put the heart back in the middle of the order.

4. Minnesota Twins

After six straight winning seasons, the scrappy Twins finished 79-83 last year. Look for the slide to continue.

Yes, Minnesota still has some stars in Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan, but they lost Santana and Torii Hunter during the off-season.

Francisco Liriano, who is expected to step back into the starting rotation and ease the loss of Santana, opens the season in the minor leagues for additional work after missing 2007 with Tommy John elbow surgery.

5. Kansas City Royals

They might be headed for a fifth straight last-place finish, but the Royals are no longer automatic pushovers.

Kansas City threw a scare into the White Sox last season while allowing young talent such as Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Joakim Soria to develop.

Add in quality veterans Mark Grudzielanek, Gil Meche and newcomer Jose Guillen and look out above a little more.