MLB Predictions 2012: 10 Burning Questions for the AL Central
With the acquisition of Prince Fielder in January, the Detroit Tigers, already AL Central favorites in the media's eyes, gained a stranglehold on the top spot in the division in nearly every sportswriter's preseason predictions.
The Tigers, however, shouldn't count their chickens before they've hatched.
Detroit, like every other team in the AL Central, has a few questions to answer before they can truly be considered the juggernauts of the division as they have been labeled.
The Royals, Indians, White Sox and Twins also need to be seeking some answers if they have any hope of taking down the Tigers in 2012.
Some players need to come back from off years. Some players will be relied on to continue their quality performances.
And some players will just be asked to stay on the field.
Here are the biggest questions that need to be answered in the AL Central.
Can Justin Verlander Pick Up Where He Left Off?
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It would be unfair to ask Justin Verlander to pitch well enough to win the Cy Young and MVP awards again in 2012.
That being said, the Tigers would certainly appreciate it.
Verlander is the anchor of a solid Tigers rotation, and if he continues to dominate the American League, he will be a fantastic complement to a Detroit offense that is sure to be potent this year.
Last season, Verlander pitched over 250 innings for the first time in his career with an ERA (2.40) that was nearly a full point lower than his previous best. Throw in his 24 wins and Verlander has given himself a particularly hard act to follow.
Whether he wins any more awards or not, if Verlander remains a stud for the Tigers, their chances of making the playoffs shoot exponentially higher.
Can Shin-Soo Choo Bounce Back?
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Shin-Soo Choo was the shining star of the Cleveland Indians' lineup in 2009-10, posting a 11.1 WAR that was in the top 15 of all players over that time span. However, injuries and a DUI set the tone for a season in which Choo played only 85 games.
With Grady Sizemore already bitten by the injury bug, Choo's role in Cleveland's offense has been amplified, and much is expected of the Indians' right fielder this season.
There is little reason for Indians fans to worry about the quality of his performance. Choo hit at least .300 the three seasons prior to 2011, and at 29 years of age, his performance is not likely to diminish.
His health is the much bigger variable this season.
It is incredibly important for Choo to stay on the field and produce for an Indians team looking to compete with the Tigers for first place in the Central.
Can the White Sox Get Any Value out of Their Biggest Contracts?
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There is no question that Adam Dunn was utterly pathetic for a 2011 White Sox team that claimed to be "all in" in search of a division title. Alex Rios was only slightly less of a disaster, and Jake Peavy was once again hampered by injuries and a lack of stamina.
For what they have produced in their time playing for Chicago, the three are making an obscene amount of money.
Dunn and Rios are signed with the White Sox through 2014 and have a combined $82 million remaining on their contracts over these next three years. Peavy will be due $17 million this season, his last under contract with Chicago.
In order to earn that money, each player will have to pick up his performance significantly.
Dunn, who was six at-bats away from qualifying for the worst batting average over a full season since 1909, could not possibly play worse than he did, but even a 40-point hike in his batting average would leave him below .200.
Rios has come back from a poor season before. After a dismal end to 2009, Rios played well for the 2010 White Sox, batting .284 with 21 home runs.
The main concern for Peavy is his health and durability, and according to Peavy, he feels better than he ever has in his time with the White Sox.
Time will only tell, but if these three players continue to under-perform, it will be a long season for the White Sox.
Will the Youth of the Royals' Lineup Live Up to Their Potential?
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The investment in young players has finally paid off in Kansas City, as many of Major League Baseball's top prospects will be positioned in the Royals' lineup this season.
The question is whether or not the prospects can live up to the hype.
The good news is that players such as Eric Hosmer, Johnny Giavotella and Mike Moustakas all spent some time in the majors last season, and the results certainly have been impressive. Hosmer is clearly a future star, and in a limited sample size, Moustakas seems to be headed on the same path.
Whether the success of these players can last through a 162-game season has yet to be seen.
There is much to be excited about in Kansas City for the first time in a long time, and if their young lineup hits like it has the ability to hit, Royals fans can at last look for wins now rather than in the future.
How Much Will Mauer and Morneau Contribute This Season?
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The Minnesota Twins' lineup to start the 2012 season will contain two former AL MVPs. When healthy, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are a force to be reckoned with in the heart of the Twins' order.
Recently, however, this hasn't been the case.
Justin Morneau has not been the same player since the concussion he suffered on July 7th of 2010. He has only appeared in 69 games since.
Joe Mauer has struggled as well, playing in only 82 games in 2011. He posted career lows across the board, including batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and RBI (he hit more home runs in his 35-game 2004 season).
Without Mauer or Morneau in the lineup, the lineup for the Twins is incredibly tame. Minnesota was second to last in runs scored in the league in 2011, and without Mauer and Morneau healthy and productive throughout the season, they may drop a spot in the rankings.
How Will Miguel Cabrera Fare at 3rd Base?
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There is no question that Miguel Cabrera is one of the best hitters in the major leagues today. He is a preseason front-runner for AL MVP, and his history at the plate certainly gives credence to the belief that he could be the MVP this season.
His defense, on the other hand, is much more suspect.
Cabrera has never been known for his defense, but it has become considerably worse over his years in the major leagues. He was phased out of playing third base upon his arrival in Detroit in 2008, and he has gained a considerable amount of weight since then.
As it is, he hasn't exactly set the world on fire defensively as a first baseman, either.
One important thing to remember about the move is that it has implications that go beyond the quality of the Tigers' defensive infield. Positional changes can have an impact on a player's performance in the batter's box as well.
Kevin Youklis is a perfect example. His move to third base had a negative impact on both his defensive and offensive play.
If Cabrera is to continue frightening American League pitchers in 2012, his transition to third base must be a smooth one.
Is Ubaldo Jimenez a One-Hit Wonder?
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With the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona in hot water with Major League Baseball, the United States and the Dominican Republic, even more pressure is on Ubaldo Jimenez this season to be the ace of the Cleveland Indians' staff.
If you look at Jimenez's numbers from 2010, he would seem like the man for the job.
But 2011 tells a much different story.
In a season split between the Rockies and the Indians, Jimenez struggled to a 10-13 record with a 4.68 ERA. His ERA was over 5.00 in his time with the Indians.
While Jimenez's career history seems to indicate that his 2012 will be better than his 2011, he certainly has something to prove this year. His spotlight has faded almost as quickly as it came, and if he wants to prove that he can be the pitcher he was in 2010 again, this is the year to do it.
How Will Robin Ventura Impact His Team?
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Whether or not you liked Ozzie Guillen as White Sox manager, one thing you had to give him credit for was being an attention-getter. He was loud, he was fiery, at times he was unintelligible, and he always wore his heart on his sleeve.
This makes Robin Ventura a huge change of pace.
A former White Sox infielder (like Ozzie) with no prior managerial experience (like Ozzie), Ventura will attempt to bring some sanity to an organization that has become accustomed to its manager always making noise.
In 2011, Ozzie frequently clashed with general manager Kenny Williams, and it was clear that the constant arguing was a disturbance in the clubhouse and may have been a factor in the team's poor play.
Ventura is not the type of manager who will make a scene, and it will be interesting to see how his players react to the complete 180 degree turn in management style.
Ventura has no prior coaching experience of any sort, and he has been handed quite a mess of overpaid players, but he has the full support of the White Sox's organization and will have every opportunity to prove that he is worthy of being manager.
Will the Royals' Pitching Acquisitions Be Worth the Investment?
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The biggest move of the offseason for the Royals was the trade they made with San Francisco. They traded one of their most talented hitters in Melky Cabrera for lefty starter Jonathan Sanchez. They also picked up free-agent relievers Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares.
These are moves that need to pay big dividends.
While the Royals' starting lineup is full of young talent, the pitching staff is not quite so promising, and it is very important that Sanchez is able to maintain his control and produce.
The bullpen is even more of a concern. With Joakim Soria coming off his worst season in the major leagues and Aaron Crow's role uncertain for the upcoming season, Jonathan Broxton must rebound from his injury-plagued 2011 campaign.
Quality efforts from Sanchez, Broxton and Mijares in 2012 will take some of the pressure off of the offense and make a playoff push much more feasible.
Can the Twins' Bullpen Be Effective?
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Joel Zumaya is out for the season. The experiment is over before it even had a chance to get started.
So what does that leave the Twins with?
Matt Capps, the team's closer, has plenty of previous closing experience, but he blew nine out of 24 save opportunities in what was an inconsistent 2011. If he can revert back to his quality performance of 2010, the closer spot should at least be secure.
The main setup man looks to be Glen Perkins, who pitched very well last season and is left-handed. Beyond Perkins is where things get scary.
Anthony Swarzak is one possibility, but he might also spend time in the starting rotation. The other options in the pen are Alex Burnett, Scott Diamond, Lester Oliveros and Kyle Waldrop, who have all struggled in limited experience in the majors.
One if not two of these pitchers needs to step up or things will go downhill in a hurry.
As anemic as the Twins' offense is, they need to hang on to every lead they get, and with the bullpen as weak as it is, it doesn't look good.