AL Will Be A Dogfight

LAKELAND, Fla. — Before you pencil in the Detroit Tigers for a second straight appearance in the World Series, get your eraser ready. The American League will not be that easy to conquer.

Not for the Tigers, not for any team.

The AL has gotten better from a year ago. In fact, if you talk to some involved, many say it’s a toss-up – for real. The season starts Sunday night.

And for once, this isn’t coach-speak, when teams compliment each other to be nice even though they know their opponent doesn’t truly have a chance.

How tough will the AL be in 2013? Even the Kansas City Royals won’t be pushovers.

“I don’t think anybody understands how good this competition is going to be in the American League, all throughout every division this year,” Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland said. “It’s going to be unbelievable. I don’t see anybody running away with anything. You can pick it and be right. But I’ll guarantee you. Whoever you pick, you may not be right.”

Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman agrees with Leyland when he looks at the AL landscape.

“Everybody’s getting better,” Cashman said. “There are not really any teams getting worse – except some are saying we’re getting worse.”

Indeed, some have downgraded the Yankees because of all the injuries to start the season. Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira are all on the disabled list.

But the Yankees are going to be in the mix because of their pitching. Their rotation is solid with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte at the top of it. In the bullpen, they have Mariano Rivera, the best-ever closer, in his final year.

The same can be said for the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best pitching staff in the league a year ago. Starters posted a 3.19 ERA and relievers had a stingy 2.88 ERA.

Baltimore almost won the AL East en route to making the playoffs.

“The AL is wild,” joked Sabathia. “I might have signed in the wrong league a couple of years ago.”

Sabathia laughed, but he’s right. And it’s not just about pitching. Some of the lineups AL starters will have to face will be no joke.

Enter the L.A. Angels, who added free-agent slugger Josh Hamilton to a lineup that already has Albert Pujols. They have enough firepower to win.

Last season, the Oakland A’s shocked the AL West by winning division on the last day of the season. The Texas Rangers, another loaded team, got knocked out of playoffs in first round.

In the Central, the Chicago White Sox held first place almost all season until stumbling in the final 10 days and finishing in second place, three games behind Detroit. The Royals picked up big-time pitching help with additions of James Shields and Wade Davis. They are now in play.

“We’re a very capable team,” Leyland said. “But there’s a bunch of capable teams in the American League this year. Don’t sell anybody short because it’s going to be a dogfight. I can promise you that.”

The Tigers, who swept the Yankees in the ALCS to get to the World Series, improved. They not only got DH Victor Martinez back, who missed all of last season with a left-knee injury, but also signed free-agent Torii Hunter to play right field. “Detroit got better, if you believe that,” Sabathia said. “Torii makes their defense that much better.”

The Tigers – who have the last two AL MVPs in Miguel Cabrera last year and Justin Verlander in 2011 – have everything except an experienced closer. They like hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon a lot, but it’s a tough spot for a team ready to win. And that’s what the Tigers fully expect.

“That’s our goal,” Tigers’ centerfielder Austin Jackson said. “Especially getting there last year, we think we’re capable of getting back there. The goal is to make the playoffs first and then try to get our ways back to the World Series like last year.”

Many love what the Blue Jays did in the off-season, adding Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes. They are loaded. Yankees’ shortstop Derek Jeter, however, never buys into teams on paper.

“Sometimes the names change and people talk about who got better in the off-season,” Jeter said. “Last year, people talked about the Marlins. People wanted to hand everything to the Marlins. My point is that you have to play the season. You play it for a reason.”

Jeter isn’t alone when it comes to forecasting a baseball season.

“I’m not saying the Royals are going to beat the Tigers,” Yankees’ TV broadcaster Ken Singleton said. “They’re not. But they’ll be closer. And who knows what’s going to happen injury-wise with teams. A lot of things can happen between April and October.”

Especially in this American League. No one is a lock. Leyland is right.

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