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By the time this column runs next week, the regular season will be in session, so it’s time to make your predictions for the 2008 American League Central. Take your best shot in the comments below. Here is my blind guess:

1. Detroit Tigers (99-63)

2. Cleveland Indians (98-64)

3. Kansas City Royals (82-80)

4. Minnesota Twins (75-87)

5. Chicago White Sox (70-92)

The Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers, two teams headed in opposite directions, each locked up a player to a long-term contract this past week. The Twins, on the decline after a run of four AL Central titles from 2002 to 2006, signed closer Joe Nathan to a 4 year, $47 million deal. The Tigers, who have had two straight winning seasons (including a World Series trip in 2006) after twelve straight losing seasons (including a 119-loss disaster in 2003), locked up third baseman Miguel Cabrera for $152.3 million over 8 years.

These moves are indicative of larger trends which are driving the futures of both of these teams. The Tigers have engineered their turnaround by paying over slot money in the draft and signing their stars to long contracts. They used two former first-round draft picks, Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin, as part of a package which netted them lefthanded pitcher Dontrelle Willis and Cabrera earlier this offseason.

Now Cabrera, who won’t even be 25 until June, is ready to lead the Tigers’ lineup into the middle of the next decade. Cabrera’s pudgy appearance, which to me seems to be more leftover baby fat than any overall lack of conditioning, has given voice to some detractors in the media. However, he has been nothing but a dominant performer for the Marlins since he came up as a 20-year-old in 2003. He’s been remarkably durable and consistent, especially for a young slugger, playing in at least 157 games each of the last four seasons while collecting at least 65 extra-base hits in each of those campaigns. Last season, he hit .320 with a .401 on-base percentage, and 34 home runs and 119 runs batted in. His defense at third base has been called suspect, but the consensus seems to be that being surrounded with well-respected veterans in Detroit will help his concentration in the field. He looks primed to take the next step to superstardom in a larger market on a more competitive team.

Minnesota, on the other hand, has fallen behind the Tigers and Cleveland Indians in the resurgent Central by holding onto some assets too long and overpaying for others. By the time they finally traded ace Johan Santana in February, after months of rumors and speculation, they ended up with a package of middling prospects from the Mets because their leverage in the situation had dissolved away. Now that they’ve entered what looks to be a rebuilding mode, it’s curious that they would choose to sign Nathan, whose contributions as a closer are much more valuable to a contending club. There’s no doubt that Nathan, one of the most dominant closers in the game, is well worth the money to some team, but that team is not necessarily these Twins. He is not young (33 now, 37 in the last year of his deal) but he has been extremely durable for the Twins after injury problems earlier in his career in the Giants organization. I agreed with the team’s long-term deals for Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer inked earlier this offseason, but it seems like they would have been further ahead to trade Nathan and use that money to sign Santana long term.

Hopefully Nathan will have more to do over the next four seasons than close out one Twins victory a week, with mop-up duty in between.