The American League Central boasts a trio of good, but not great teams that should battle it out down to the wire. It’s difficult to see any of these teams pulling away or fading from contention. In the end, I’m going with the team that always seems to wind up on top.
1. Minnesota Twins: One of safest predictions in baseball is that the Minnesota Twins will win the American League Central and then lose in the divisional series to the Yankees. Since I have the Yankees finishing third in the East, I can’t quite go with that, but the first half of that prediction seems like a pretty good play.
The Twins head into the 2011 season with pretty much the same roster that guided them last year to their sixth division title since 2002. As usual the Twins are well-balanced offensively and on the mound, with really no superstar outside of catcher Joe Mauer. One key bat is DH Jim Thome, who will turn 41 this season. The Twins will need Thome to provide protection for Mauer and First Baseman Justin Morneau, the latter of whom is returning from a season-ending injury that derailed what was shaping up to be an MVP season – and one he would have deserved this time. He posted an astounding 5.3 WAR according to Fangraphs in just 81 games, a Barry Bonds on the juice level of production.
Another key player returning from injury is closer Joe Nathan, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. He and Matt Capps will be battling for saves – a good positional battle to have. But perhaps the most important man on the roster is Francisco Liriano. Liriano struggled in 2009 after coming back from Tommy John surgery himself, but he rebounded in 2010 and displayed the dominance that made him one of the most promising stars in baseball before losing two seasons due to injury. Liriano must be able to repeat that performance if the Twins are to have any chance at winning a third straight division title.
The Twins are also going to need another big season from Carl Pavano. After years of struggling with injuries and other problems with the Yankees, Pavano has been a steady performer for two seasons. He and Liriano will anchor a rotation that has four other guys all capable of keeping the Twins in a vast majority of their games. It’s that rotation that that has me predicting the Twinkies winning yet another Central title.
2. Detroit Tigers: As was the case with Twins, the Tigers head into the season with a team that is mostly unchanged from a year ago. The one significant addition was catcher/DH Victor Martinez. Martinez will likely start most games as the DH, spotting starting catcher Alex Avila from time-to-time. Last year Martinez showed that he still has some pop in his bat, hitting .302 with a .369 on-base percentage and slugging .468, a slash-line of .302/.369/.468. Being primarily a DH will diminish some of his value, but it should prove a valuable signing for an offense that is just a bit above average.
Of course the most important part of the Tigers attack is Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera has been in the news of late for an arrest for DUI and resisting arrest. It doesn’t seem like the incident has affected Cabrera’s status with the team, but he’s certainly a combustible element.
Another key to the Tigers’ offense is Austin Jackson. Jackson was part of the three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. Though Jackson lacks pop (only four homers a year ago) he actually provided marginally more value than Granderson did with the Yankees. If Jackson continues to progress, the Tigers could have a supertstar on their hands.
Another part of that Granderson trade was pitcher Max Scherzer. After a rough start last year, Scherzer pitched very well down the stretch for the Tigers and was the second best pitcher on the staff after ace Justin Verlander. Scherzer has been hit hard this Spring, and Tigers fans will be holding their breath as Scherzer tries to hold down the number two slot in the rotation. As for Verlander, he looks to contend for another Cy Young award as he anchors what is an otherwise inconsistent staff. The model for the staff’s inconsistency is Ricky Porcello. Porcello just never got into a groove in 2010, and the Tigers are going to need more than replacement level pitching from him if they’re going to edge out the Twins.
3. Chicago White Sox: Ozzie Guillen will say something insane, GM Kenny Williams will make a risky trade, and the White Sox will win somewhere between 80-90 games. It’s become quite the routine on the South Side.
Looking at the Sox is a lot like looking at their two main competitors. The Sox have a moderately good lineup, but one that features no standout star. They added Adam Dunn at DH, and he should provide some much needed pop. Meanwhile, Paul Konerko experienced something of a renaissance in 2010, posting his best season since 2006. Konerko turns 35 this year, and like Jim Thome in Minnesota, he needs to prove that he has something left in the tank if the Sox hope to remain in the race.
Konerko wasn’t the only comeback story on the Sox a year ago. The Blue Jays left Alex Rios on the side of the curb in the summer of 2009, and much to the consternation of most Sox fans, Kenny Williams decided to pick him up. His faith was rewarded when Rios rebounded to a .284/.334/.457, 3.7 WAR performance in 2010. Again, the Sox are going to need more of that.
But the most critical element to any meaningful run is Carlos Quentin. In 2008 Quentin was one of the leading MVP candidates in the American League, and was the most important player on a team that eventually won the division. But Quentin’s season ended early, and he has been awful since. The Sox cannot get another replacement-level or worse season from their right fielder, or else they will simply not have not enough juice to beat out the Twins and Tigers.
The Sox rotation is an interesting one to figure out. They will trout out a decent pitcher every single night, but are there any stoppers in the bunch? In 2010 Mark Buerhle pitched better than his 4.28 ERA suggests. He is guaranteed to throw 200+ innings of quality stuff (he hasn’t thrown less than 200 innings in any full season), but it’s tough to imagine that someone who never overpowered anyone to begin with can continue to work his magic with even less dominant stuff (his 4.24 Ks per nine innings were a career low). After him, it’s a lot of above average pitcher. Edwin Jackson, Jon Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Jake Peavy are all guys most every other team would want on their rotation, but only towards the back of said rotation. Of course, the Sox won a World Series in 2005 with a similar type of staff, but they’ll need career years out of one or two of these guys in order to repeat the magic of that season.
4. Cleveland Indians: This could be a make or break year for a couple of the Indians projected starters. Matt LaPorta was the major prize of the CC Sabathia trade, and thus far he been a Major League disappointment. If LaPorta fails to rake as he has done in the minors, then he could be headed towards bustville. Meanwhile centefielder Grady Sizemore just wants to get through a year without injury. From 2006-2008 he battled Carlos Beltran for the title of best centerfielder in the game, but two injury plagued seasons have practically removed him from the radar (almost like Beltran). In fact Sizemore’s injury is just about the same as Beltran’s, as he, too, had micro-facture knee surgery. It’s quite possible that one of the most promising stars in the game never returns to form ever again, and that would be incredibly unfortunate.
The Tribe will also be looking closely to see what they have in Carlos Santana. Santana is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and he showed promise in limited Major League action in 2010. If he’s the real deal, then AL Central could be the home of the two best catchers in all of baseball.
Other than that, it’s going to be another struggle for the Indians. Shin-Soo Choo, one of the most unheralded players in the game, will likely provide most of the punch for this offense, especially if Sizemore and LaPorta disappoint. Unfortunately, things don’t get much better in the rotation. Fausto Carmona pitched well, but again fell far short of his dynamic 2007 campaign. If Carmona pitches as he did a year ago and remains the ace of the staff, then it’s going to be a long year in Cleveland. And if they don’t get much production from LaPorta, Santana, and Sizemore, it’s an even more ominous sign of things to come.
5. Kansas City Royals: The Royals, along with the Pirates, are the model team for everyone who bellyaches about the financial disparity in Major League Baseball. It’s true that the Royals play in a tiny market and don’t have the resources of just about any other team. But here’s something else to consider: they have been run by absolute idiots for decades, and no team, no matter the financial resources, can compensate for horrendous roster management.
A case in point. For a couple of years now it has been a running joke that as soon as Jeff Francouer became eligible for free agency, General Manager Dayton Moore would swoop in and sign him. Sure enough, Moore showed his sense of humor by providing the punchline and signing Francouer this past off-season. If nothing else, the signing was an amazing source of gallow’s humor for Royals fans (see the comments). But it also demonstrated that Moore is simply clueless. Frenchy, as he is affectionately called, is simply an awful baseball player. Yeah he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he had that one season where he had a bunch of RBI, but he is the absolute shining exemplar of what not to be as a player. He strikes out a lot, doesn’t get on base, has limited outfield range, and doesn’t even have all that much pop for a corner outfielder. Oh, he has a cannon for an arm, so at least he’s got that going for him. Which is nice, I guess. But you know that sometimes derided term, replacement player? Yeah, Jeff Francouer is the very definition of replacement player, meaning you’d get as much value out of some triple A scrub as you would by playing Frenchy every day. And yet Moore, who was with the Braves organization when Francouer came up, decided to give him a multi-million dollar contract.
That, in a nutshell, describes Dayton Moore’s management style. And to think that Moore was actually a shining beacon of hope after Allerd Baird was dismissed. The Royals have simply been mis-managed for too long. While other teams with limited financial resources find ways to maximize their revenue dollar and remain competitive (see Oakland A’s), the Royals have minimized what little they have.
But there’s hope. If you’re so bad for so long you almost have to develop a good farm system, even if by accident. According to most scouting systems the Royals have the best farm system in all of baseball. Those prospects will likely be heading towards the big club by the middle of the season. For the sake of the Royals and their pugnacious fans, I truly hope that those prospects pan out and that the Royals start fielding competitive teams within a couple of years. In the meantime, it’s going to be another miserable season in KC.