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Tuesday, February 8, 2005
Updated: February 9, 10:03 AM ET
Maggs costly, but necessary

By Peter Gammons
Special to

Feb. 8

Understand the Tigers' dilemma. They tried. They offered Edgar Renteria, Adrian Beltre and J.D. Drew more than what they accepted as free agents. But players see Detroit as a city that has lost more than half its population in 50 years and have no idea what it was like 21 years ago when the Tigers were the best team in baseball.

Magglio Ordonez
Is a career .307 hitter with 187 homers worth $75 million?

Detroit opened the offseason by giving Troy Percival a two-year, $12 million contract, more than he was going to get anywhere else. The Tigers closed it by giving Magglio Ordonez a five-year, $75 million deal when no one else dared gamble on his knees. And like Pudge Rodriguez, the voidable language in the contract is so specific that the Tigers get out of the deal if there is a recurrence of osteochondritis during the 2005 season.

Owner Mike Ilitch saw what happened last season when Dave Dombrowski and Alan Trammell started the re-awakening, going from 43 to 72 wins. Beyond that, their bullpen and defense probably cost them the 78-81 wins their team statistics showed they should have reached.

Are the Tigers now contenders in the American League Central? Perhaps, at least for four months. Much depends on the hopes of some young players like Curtis Granderson, the progression of a potential ace like Jeremy Bonderman and Percival and Ugueth Urbina holding together the bullpen.

The Ordonez contract is arguably as foolhardy a gamble as, say, buying a hockey team in Nashville. But Dombrowski's regime hasn't been in place long enough (highly respected scouting director David Chadd just arrived last fall) to build the farm system, so to compete they have to spend – and when Renteria, Beltre and Drew chose other teams, they were essentially left with Ordonez or no one.

What's interesting about the AL Central and makes it one of the most compelling divisions in terms of new faces is the fact that Percival is the highest-priced pitcher brought into the division and Ordonez the highest-priced player. Oh, the Twins made the most important signing in the division when they kept Brad Radke for two years and $18 million. Otherwise the biggest free agent signings were Jermaine Dye (two years, $10.5 million) and Orlando Hernandez (two years, $8 million) with the White Sox and Kevin Millwood (one year, $3.5 million guaranteed with $3.5 million in incentives) with the Indians.

It is a division with more of a level playing field – look at the difference between the richest and poorest in most other divisions, such as the AL East (more than $150 million difference) and AL West (nearly $70 million between the Angels and Athletics). No AL Central team drew two million fans to its home park, and, because so many games were played within the division, they were five of the seven lowest road draws in the majors, with the White Sox at the bottom. Chicago, after all, is still Chicago and can have its payroll in the $75-78 million range. Detroit will be around $75 million, Minnesota $58 million, Cleveland $51 million and Kansas City $38 million. And if you were to lay odds going into spring training, the Twins and Indians would probably lead the polls.

The Twins already have what the industry considers the best organization in baseball, and despite losing three-quarters of the infield that started the 2004 season, they may be better than the team that won 92 games last year. The Indians have rebuilt their system and vision to the point where they got to within a game of being .500 last season, and this year could well jump into serious contention. Only the Royals, who must build with their young pitchers, will report to spring training next week knowing that the playoffs are more than just a shot away.

Troy Percival

So, aside from Ordonez and Percival, the biggest additions could be Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau going from 430 to 1,200 plate appearances. Or Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta and Aaron Boone ascending in Cleveland.

The Twins easily won the division in 2004 because of their pitching, which had Cy Young-winner Johan Santana. They led the league in ERA. Their starters' 4.08 ERA was 0.69 better than anyone else in the division, and the bullpen, anchored by All-Star Joe Nathan, was 32-24 with a 3.93 ERA that was 0.38 better than any divisional rival. If, at age 26, Kyle Lohse figures out how good his stuff is and reduces his 5.34 ERA and Joe Mays comes back from arm surgery – and all early indications are good – the staff will be deeper. It's possible that J.D. Durbin, he of the golden arm, will be given every opportunity to make the bullpen and learn the ways of the big leagues in that role before his time comes to start.

Even though they lost so much of their infield, Twins general manager Terry Ryan is convinced the offense will be better if Mauer – who one AL GM says is the best catcher in the league – is recovered from knee surgery. "We have every indication that he will be fine and able to catch regularly," Ryan said. Morneau and Mauer give them two big bats in the middle of the lineup, and if Jason Kubel hadn't torn up his knee in the Arizona Fall League, there might be three kids in the heart of the order. Michael Cuddyer finally will get his full-time shot at his natural position, third base. Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett and Juan Castro will compete at shortstop.

The Indians made significant strides last season as Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner and Ben Broussard all emerged as offensive forces, and they led the division in OPS. This time around, Peralta, who at 22 batted .326 with 61 extra base hits for Triple-A Buffalo, steps in for Omar Vizquel at short. In the outfield, Sizemore will eventually get his shot.

Where the Tigers went for the big names, the Indians went for the Scott Pioli-New England Patriots model of the deep roster. Boone moves in to third, but GM Mark Shapiro protected himself at third, short and second by signing Jose Hernandez and Alex Cora. Casey Blake, who hit 28 homers, will likely start in left field with Hernandez for protection. When Sizemore is ready, Coco Crisp can play left. Then there's the Juan Gonzalez gamble. He's back where he was happy, and with Juan it's all about being comfortable. Jody Gerut should also be back from knee surgery in June.

The depth issue is the same with the pitching. After C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee and Millwood, there is Scott Elarton, Jason Davis or Jason Stanford. Davis could end up in the bullpen, which for two-thirds of last season cost them close to 10 games (32 saves, 28 blown saves). All Bob Wickman has to do is survive the ninth inning thanks to the depth provided by David Riske, a reborn Bobby Howry, Rafael Betancourt, Scott Sauerbeck (after surgery, he was unscored upon in the Dominican), Arthur Rhodes and Davis. In time, Adam Miller and Fausto Carmona will be there.

The White Sox are built on their pitching: Freddy Garcia and Mark Buehrle at the front, Jon Garland, Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras (who may be helped by El Duque) rounding out the rotation, then Shingo Takatsu and Damaso Marte at the end with Cliff Politte, Luis Vizcaino and Dustin Hermanson setting up.

GM Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen made the decision to move one of the league's better outfield bats in Carlos Lee to get Scott Podsednik's speed and energy. They replaced Ordonez with Dye, signed A.J. Pierzynski to catch and have Carl Everett to DH if Frank Thomas isn't ready to open the season.

As for the Royals, look, they are trying again to rebuild, with the dream that Runelvys Hernandez is healthy, Zack Greinke is indeed another Greg Maddux, Denny Bautista can learn to put hitters away and Jeremy Affeldt becomes the league's most dominant left-handed reliever.

"This is a very even division," Williams said. "It will all come down to pitching."

Pitching and organization. Not money.

Healthy Big Three good for business
Unlike the Royals, who are good decisions away from contending, the Devil Rays are in a virtually hopeless situation with an eBay payroll in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. But for those who complain about those teams, consider that in Tampa's nine home dates against the Yankees (including the two "home" games in Tokyo), the Rays drew nearly 335,000 fans, which means that when they weren't playing New York, they drew less than a million. The Red Sox drew nearly 150,000 in nine dates in Tampa, so when they were playing New York or Boston, the Devil Rays drew 790,000 fans.

Here are some other facts:

  • In their 19 regular-season games, the Red Sox and Yankees drew 845,600 fans – more than the Expos for the entire season;

  • The Yankees led the majors in road attendance with 3.3 million – another form of revenue-sharing. The next three road draws were the Giants, Cubs and Red Sox.

    What this says is that the record attendance and television ratings of this past season were greatly impacted by the fact that the sport's three national teams – the Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox – were all very good.

    Jose Canseco

  • Whatever the continuing fallout from BALCO and Jose Canseco's opus, the fact remains that while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa may have helped bring the business back to its post-strike feet, the fascination with homers has left the yard.

    Canseco's book deserves to be read and critiqued, then dissected as to agenda and the ethics of throwing teammates under the Marrakesh Express. If it is good, then it will shed light on the culture of the '90s when enhancers were not technically illegal, as well as athletes who live for the edge and owners who looked the other way or had no clue (the assertion that George W. Bush knew Canseco was juicing is an absurdity thrown at the wall simply to sell books). It can be a perspective on the fact that because the sport went so long without testing that not only did many players feel the peer and performance pressure to juice, but in the coming months many innocent players will have to prove it to a public whose media has no problem throwing accusations without proof.

    It is interesting that home runs are so important that they spark such emotion. Last week on WEEI radio in Boston, former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski was asked by Glenn Ordway about his BALCO involvement. Romanowski declined to comment, but then detailed the drugs he used, and in many cases claimed that team officials handed out those drugs. No raised eyebrows. As a caller said, they were necessary in order to play.

  • Whitey Ford and Gaylord Perry were known to doctor baseballs, and I know of at least two other great pitchers for whom I voted as Hall of Famers who scuffed. Where is the broad difference? Or in corked bats, which were far, far more prevalent than the public realizes, going back to the 1950s.

    Where do we place suspicions about the vote in Illinois in 1960, or Florida in 2000? Where was the outcry when President Bush appointed Jonathan Snare as the director of the Occupational Safety and Health Organization when Snare was the chief lobbyist for Metabolife, who profited greatly with ephedra, which the Food and Drug Administration blames for 155 deaths.

    The Canseco book apparently has two purposes: 1. Make money off his former friends' backs, and 2. Get revenge on the sport he claims blackballed him. That notion is about as crack-brained as claiming that The Pope condoned steroids. The fact is that after 1992, Canseco had worked so little at his baseball skills that he could not play the field, knocked in more than 95 runs once and by 2002 couldn't hit .280 in the minor or independent leagues – not a good résumé for someone who in 1996 was so out of baseball shape that when he was forced to play the outfield, he reported the next day that he was too stiff to play.

    Red Sox give Petagine a shot
    The Red Sox hope that the signing of Roberto Petagine, back from Japan, gives them another piece of depth. Boston, Oakland and Cleveland tried to sign Petagine when he turned around his career in Japan, but he got huge dollars. The 33-year old left-handed hitter will be given a shot to replace Doug Mientkiewicz, as he is a left-center field gap hitter and an outstanding defender. … Incidentally, the Mets did get insurance on Pedro Martinez, with a dual policy with Carlos Beltran and Pedro. If his arm proves to be shot, there will be no insurance.