January 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Offseason changes make American League Central a brand new ballgame for 2014

The Tigers hope experienced reliever Joe Nathan will be the closer they sought but did not find in 2013. Nathan was their only significant free-agent target. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Usually, it’s the broken down shacks getting the extreme home makeover.

But not this time, not in this American League Central.

Sure, the Indians, Royals, Twins and White Sox have made their share of moves, some rather drastic — and many impressive. Yet, it’s the Tigers, winners of three straight division titles, who will be most unrecognizable on Opening Day.

A team built on big money, big names and big bats has failed to deliver Mike Ilitch the World Series crown he’s craved, so president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has gone back to the drawing board, while insisting he’s not making wholesale changes or reining in the payroll.

The moves say otherwise.

Manager Jim Leyland retired following 50 years in baseball; Prince Fielder was traded in the wake of his miserable postseason; Doug Fister was dealt to the Nationals in a move that disappointed many Tigers fans who were underwhelmed with the return; and Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta and Joaquin Benoit were allowed to walk.

In their place, the Tigers hired a first-time manager in Ivy League brainiac Brad Ausmus, who’s barely older than some of his players; picked up speed with the additions of Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis; and took flyers on the likes of Ian Krol and Joba Chamberlain in hopes they’ll help the bullpen.

A team known for blowing the doors off the free-agent warehouse never seriously got involved in the bidding for big-ticket items such as outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, the latter of whom not long ago would’ve been a no-brainer signing, given the team’s left-field deficiency. Rather, the only splash they made was signing their top target, 39-year-old Joe Nathan, who, outside of Mariano Rivera, has been the second-sturdiest closer of the last decade.

It’s doubtful the Tigers are a better team than the one that finished two wins from back-to-back World Series appearances. Even Dombrowski wouldn’t say that they were definitely better.

But he, of course, is hard-selling the new look, which puts more emphasis on speed and manufacturing runs and less on relying on a three-run homer that might never come.

Meanwhile, the rest of the AL Central has undergone its share of changes, but nothing this severe, leaving open the possibility the transformed Tigers have come back to the field, at least a little.

“It will be an intensely competitive division,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti told The News during a telephone interview. “Each team can make the case for being better.”

The competition

The Indians are most interesting to Tigers fans. After all, they came closest to dethroning the Tigers last season.

Like the Tigers, it’s debatable whether the Indians are better today. But unlike the Tigers, if they aren’t better, most analysts don’t think they’re much worse.

They spent big a year ago on the likes of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (neither lived up to expectations). And despite making the playoffs, their attendance dropped from the year before. So this offseason, they’ve kept things in check. They don’t appear willing to meet the steep demands to keep resurgent starter Ubaldo Jimenez — who remains unsigned, as do other notable starters waiting for Masahiro Tanaka to pick a team and, thus, define the market for them — and they allowed solid setup man Joe Smith to sign with the Angels.

The Indians did sign right fielder David Murphy, a left-hander with pop who was brought aboard to help correct one significant problem — their lack of success against right-handed pitching. They’ve also swapped closers, dumping Chris Perez for John Axford, whom Antonetti believes can rediscover the magic he had with the Brewers in 2011.

Most everything else remains the same — not that that’ll necessarily remain the case.

“It’s a work in progress,” Antonetti said. “If you ask me that question all the way up to Opening Day, it’ll probably be the same answer — actually, probably through the trade deadline.”

The rotation seems an obvious place to continue searching for help. While Jimenez remains a free agent, there’s no indication the Indians will pony up to put him back in an Indians uniform.

Right now, it’s five right-handers with potential — including ace Justin Masterson and impressive prospect Danny Salazar — but they’ve proven little.

“We have a rotation filled with upside,” Antonetti said. “Maybe not as much certainty.”

On the flip side, Antonetti said that while they gave Perez his walking papers and couldn’t re-sign Smith, he’s more comfortable with the options in the bullpen. While Perez was being showered in boos, Axford showed signs late with the Cardinals he might be on the road to redemption.

The Royals were the other team that pushed the Tigers, after years of ownership pledging good times were on their way back.

And they, too, have had a busy offseason — for better or worse.

Worse will be the rotation, to which they added Bruce Chen clone Jason Vargas. Desperate to fill some of the void left by soon-to-be-departing Ervin Santana, the Royals handed $32 million to Vargas, a soft-tossing left-hander who gives up homers in bulk.

Two other moves were more applauded. While they missed out on a reunion with Carlos Beltran, they acquired speedy outfielder Norichika Aoki from the Brewers for a song, and pilfered the highly underappreciated Infante for $30.25 million. Those two will bat 1-2 in a lineup that was outscored by the Tigers by 148 runs last season. They’ll be good table-setters for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon can drop from leadoff to the middle of the order where he belongs — and will do far more damage.

“We’re going to have more offensive RBI production further down in our lineup, which is going to be an advantage,” manager Ned Yost said at the Winter Meetings. “More than what we had last year.”

One step at a time

Then there are the Twins and White Sox.

The Twins haven’t been a serious factor post-Memorial Day since 2010, while the White Sox took a huge step back after being a surprise contender in 2012. No surprise, then, they’ve used plenty of cell phone minutes — one focusing on offense, while the other addressed starting pitching.

The White Sox scored the fewest runs in the AL and second-fewest in baseball in 2013, and there’s no excuse for that when they play in the bandbox that is U.S. Cellular Field. Paul Konerko decided to hold off retirement, but that didn’t stop the White Sox from addressing first base. The free-agent market was slim, so general manager Rick Hahn went the international route, and signed slugger Jose Abreu from Cuba to a six-year, $68 million contract.

The move upgrades the lineup and bench, where Konerko has agreed to be on days he’s not filling in for designated hitter Adam Dunn.

Then, Hahn worked out a three-team trade with the Diamondbacks that netted him speedy center fielder Adam Eaton, who will hit leadoff, and cost only overrated closer Addison Reed and lefty Hector Santiago. The addition of Eaton and Avisail Garcia last July gives the White Sox a crowded outfield, which could put Dayan Viciedo or Alejandro De Aza either on the bench or on the trade block. The latter would seem more likely.

“There are ways to make it work,” Hahn said.

The Twins are finding it more difficult to make it work because their holes are deeper and more plentiful. In the AL, only two teams scored more runs in 2013, while only one (Astros) gave up more.

General manager Terry Ryan is being forced to take it one step at a time. This offseason, the focus was on improving the starting pitching. They signed Ricky Nolasco to a $49 million contract that is the largest deal the team has given to an outside free agent. Then they gave $24 million to Phil Hughes, hoping a bigger park will help make him more like the pitcher who won 18 games for the Yankees in 2010 and 16 in 2012, and not the one who was 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA in 30 appearances last season.

They also brought back Mike Pelfrey, and they might not be done. There are rumblings they remain hot for Bronson Arroyo.

But they’ve had a harder time upgrading the offense. They had to settle for a Jason Kubel reunion, and were left scrambling for a catcher after announcing Joe Mauer would move to first base to help him avoid concussions. To their surprise, though, the market dried in a hurry, and they were left with Kurt Suzuki after A.J. Pierzynski chose the Red Sox.

“We’ve gotten beaten up for three years now,” manager Ron Gardenhire said last month. “Our goal is to get better. We started that process, but by no means is it done. We’re still working hard at it.”

That’s because the Twins know there’s still a ways to go before they catch the Tigers, who, for all the griping about their moves, still have dynamite rotation and Miguel Cabrera.

Everybody else, however, might just be a little closer to the mountaintop.

tpaul@detroitnews.com
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