February 15, 2013 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Indians finally spending, but can't match Tigers in pitching department

Justin Masterson is the Indians' No. 1, but he had an ERA of 4.93 and a WHIP of 1.454 in 2012. (David Maxwell/Getty Images)

Chris Perez spoke, and the Indians certainly listened.

Whether their surprising recent shopping spree had anything to do with the closer's harsh critique of the organization last summer — in a rant in which he praised spend-happy Tigers owner Mike Ilitch — we'll never know. But the message has been sent.

The Indians aren't to be taken lightly as free-agent players any longer, even if their three big acquisitions this offseason — manager Terry Francona, for starters, followed by veteran Nick Swisher (four years, $56 million) and, this week, speedster Michael Bourn (four years, $48 million) — aren't likely to make them a contender in the American League Central in 2013, or maybe even 2014.

No question, the Indians' offense is impressive, with the additions (they also acquired Drew Stubbs in a trade, and signed all-or-nothing Mark Reynolds), and the bullpen, led by Perez and Co., is uber-tough.

But the starting pitching is severely underwhelming, and that's not the recipe to win this division. In seven of the last nine years, the division champion has been the team whose starters posted, collectively, the best ERA.

The only exceptions: 2009 and 2006, when the Tigers' rotation had the best ERA in the AL, but had to settle for the wild card after squandering the division to the Twins in the final days of the season.

The Indians had the second-worst rotation ERA in the AL (5.25) last season, and didn't upgrade much — outside of signing veteran Brett Myers, who spent all of last season as a reliever, and trading for temperamental prospect Trevor Bauer, who's made just four major league starts.

Back are "ace" Justin Masterson, who took a significant step backward in 2012 after a breakthrough 2011 (ERA and WHIP up to 4.93 and 1.454, respectively); up-and-down Ubaldo Jimenez, who, it's quite clear, won't ever again be the pitcher he was during a magical stretch with the Rockies in 2010; and a back-end trip of Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber.

Match that up against the Tigers' rotation of Justin Velrander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello/Drew Smyly, and how does it match up? It simply doesn't, not even close.

Why were the White Sox able to make a surprising push at the Tigers, all the way down to the wire, in 2012? Two names: Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. The Indians don't have a Sale or a Peavy. They barely have a Jose Quintana.

Now, that said, give the Dolan family, which bought the Indians in 2000, props for taking some of that new TV revenue and re-investing in the ballclub.

"I never got a free agent like that when I was there," Yankees ace CC Sabathia joked recently. Neither, for that matter, did Tigers DH Victor Martinez, who spent eight seasons in Cleveland.

This winter's shopping spree by the Indians put an end to a two-year stretch in which they swung and missed on nearly every marquee name they pursued, from Carlos Beltran to Shane Victorino to Kevin Youkilis. Of course, notice, those aren't pitchers, either.

And unless the Indians find a way to upgrade that rotation — and, mind you, there's still some time; with a crowded outfield, they could spin off Stubbs or Michael Brantley for help, or they still could make a big free-agent splash and bring in still-unemployed Kyle Lohse — they won't be ready to de-throne the Tigers, who have a loaded offense to match their stud rotation as they pursue a third consecutive AL Central championship.

It's starting pitching, again, why I suspect it'll the Royals who'll provide the only legitimate challenge to the Tigers, after they added James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana, and re-signed Jeremy Guthrie. Last year, Bruce Chen was Kansas City's ace; this year, he's pegged as a No. 5.

Now, that's an makeover that just might make a difference — and it better, for Royals GM Dayton Moore's sake, since he gave up the game's top hitting prospect, Wil Myers, for Shields and Davis.

But the Indians' moves, while certainly headline-grabbing, can't be nearly enough.

Parting shot

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Twitter contest, in which I gave away an autographed copy of Tony La Russa's new book. Make sure you follow me on Twitter (tonypaul1984) throughout the regular season for more chances to win some cool baseball prizes.

tpaul@detnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984