I'll give you one simple reason the Tigers are the team to beat in the AL Central and very possibly the whole AL this year: Gary Sheffield. This is a team that made it to the World Series last year, and only improved in the off-season, adding a guy who is so hellbent on proving something to the Yankees, baseball GMs, his mom, you name it, that I wouldn't be surprised if he hits 40 homers and drives in 120. I don't care that he's 38 and coming off a drastically injury-shortened season. Adding Sheffield to a lineup that was already formidable and to a team with a young pitching staff which only seems to be getting better makes for a scary, scary opponent. Kudos to you, Dave Dombrowski. I hate you and your resurgent Tigers.
Here's the deal: everyone and their brother is predicting a drop-off for the 2007 Tigers, pointing mainly to their mediocre second-half record last year and the inevitability of a regression to the mean for the pitching staff. I don't buy either one.
First of all, teams regularly put together wildly disparate first and second half splits. It may just be because I haven't looked hard enough (read: I haven't looked at all), but I haven't seen anything that proves to me that a bad second half one year translates into a bad year the next year. Maybe it's just the skeptic in me, but I doubt there's a significant correlation.
Second, just because the White Sox experienced a pitching staff regression from 2005 to 2006 doesn't mean it's going to happen for the Tigers. People will keep squawking about Kenny Rogers' age, Verlander's injury risk, and all that other junk, but guess what? Every pitching staff has holes, even the ones that look invincible (see also: 2006 White Sox). Sure, Kenny Rogers out until July with blood clots will test the starting rotation, but a playoff-experienced Bonderman is poised for a breakout year, and I think the Tigers staff (if Rogers can come back healthy and effective) can match up favorably with any staff in the majors.
That said, if the Tigers have problems, it'll be with pitching. They are shaping up an awful lot like the 2006 White Sox--coming out of the gate guns-a-blazin' only to finish the regular season the year before, improvement on offense through the addition of a big name slugger (Thome, Sheffield), a pitching staff prone to regression--which is not necessarily a good thing for Tigers fans.
Bottom line is this, though: the Tigers got better with the addition of Sheffield while no other team in the Central made moves to significantly improve. That fact alone should allow Leyland's squad to contend for the division and head to the playoffs for the second straight year. Heady times in Motown indeed. Forget about the Indians (they still haven't sold me--potential doesn't equate to playoffs) and Twins (they're really gonna miss Liriano and Radke), I'm worried about the Tigers.