MLB Preview 2012: Predicting the American League Central
The 2011 season signaled a changing of the guard in the American League Central. The Minnesota Twins, who had risen above injuries, deficiencies and many other things so many times in the past decade, went from a 94-win team in 2010 to a 99-loss team in 2011.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers completed their climb from the bottom of the league in 2003 to capture their first division title since 1987.
Even the usual bottom feeder of the AL Central, the Kansas City Royals, are starting to put together a team that looks like it can contend within the next couple of seasons.
Simply put, we're in a new AL Central now.
It remains to be seen whether the Cleveland Indians can finish what they started last year, whether the Chicago White Sox can avoid a drop-off while rebuilding, and whether the Twins can steal healthy enough to get back into the race.
Prior to the addition this year of a fifth playoff team, the AL Central didn't have the best baseball, but teams in the division made it interesting. In 2008 and 2009, AL Central teams competed in Game 163s that were filled with drama and competitiveness.
That's been a tradition in the AL Central recently. We should not expect anything less in 2012.
5. Minnesota Twins
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As a Twins fan, I really want to be wrong on this. However, there just isn't enough from the Twins that convinces me that they'll be any better in 2012.
To clarify, I don't think the Twins are destined to lose 100 games. I do think that they'll come close due to injuries and their pitching.
While Joe Mauer has been reported to look like a completely different player in March, the concern is more about his running buddy, Justin Morneau.
Morneau seems like a player who is paranoid about suffering another concussion. Although he's looked a lot smoother in camp, Morneau had struggled at the plate before launching two home runs on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The hope is that if the Twins keep Morneau at designated hitter, they will be able to keep him healthier. But what happens if another player goes down? The Twins have insurance policies against this in Ryan Doumit and Chris Parmelee. But if Morneau has to play first, will he sustain another concussion?
The pitching for the Twins doesn't look promising either. The Twins have opted to bring back almost the same pitching rotation that they had last year. That group did not perform well. To make matters worse, the Twins brought back Matt Capps at a bargain-basement price.
If all of these red flags turn out to be nothing, the Twins will finish much higher than last place in the Central. As of now, we haven't seen anything from them, so there's no reason to expect anything to be different.
4. Chicago White Sox
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The Chicago White Sox could suffer a similar fall from grace. For a majority of the previous decade, the White Sox were the team battling the Twins for control of the AL Central. Coming into 2012, they look like a shell of their former selves.
The White Sox lost two of the faces of their franchise when manager Ozzie Guillen and Mark Buehrle departed for the Miami Marlins. They've also dealt Carlos Quentin and promising closer Sergio Santos in what some would call a fire sale.
The White Sox do have some talent. John Danks and Gavin Floyd will lead their rotation, but they also have several young players who have not realized their potential.
Combined with the free-agent bust that is Adam Dunn (and the struggles of Dayan Viciedo this spring), it seems the White Sox could be a car that's teetering on the edge of a cliff. If the White Sox fall off, it could cost general manager Kenny Williams his job.
3. Kansas City Royals
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The young talent is finally starting to develop in Kansas City. Last season was yet another rebuilding year for the Royals, but it had a much different feel to it. Royals prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas finally made their major league debuts and gave the struggling franchise a reason for optimism.
The Royals will return another year wiser, and the scary part is even more prospects should see more major league time this season.
The only concern at the moment is injuries. The Royals already have been bit hard by the injury bug. Catcher Salvy Perez (knee) and Joakim Soria (elbow) are going to miss a significant portion of the season. (Soria is out for the year after undergoing a second Tommy John surgery.)
The Royals have relievers who can replace Soria. They signed Jonathan Broxton during the offseason and also have a promising right-hander in Greg Holland, who could rack up some saves as well.
However, the key will be how the Royals handle Perez's absence and if the promising rookies can avoid a sophomore slump.
2. Cleveland Indians
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The Cleveland Indians had a path similar to the Kansas City Royals, but on a much more accelerated path. After bottoming out a couple seasons ago, the Indians are starting to see some of their young players make an impact as well.
The fruits of their labor was seen in the Tribe's second-place finish in 2011.
They'll look to build on that this season. A key will be the performance of Ubaldo Jimenez, who was acquired in a mid-season trade from the Colorado Rockies. Since joining the Indians, Jimenez has been unable to regain his electric form of 2010. To justify the trade, he must return to being the ace of their staff.
The Indians also have young players like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall who should continue to develop. Both had respectable debut seasons in 2011.
The Indians hope they'll continue to build on that momentum and win their first division championship since 2007.
1. Detroit Tigers
For a moment during the 2012 offseason, it appeared that the door had opened a bit for one of the rising teams in the American League Central to dethrone the Detroit Tigers. Victor Martinez had just torn his ACL, and some of those teams had to be licking their chops as they looked to pounce on the Tigers.
About a week later, however, that door slammed shut as Prince Fielder accepted a nine-year, $214 million contract from the Tigers. The rest of the AL Central may be in trouble.
The Tigers already had one of the best lineups in baseball before the Fielder signing. Now the Tigers have something similar to what the Brewers had in Milwaukee when Fielder was mashing bombs in front of Ryan Braun.
To make the move work, Fielder's new tag-team partner, Miguel Cabrera, has shed some weight and moved from first to third base. Although it can be said that Cabrera's move is a work in progress, the Tigers are confident that he will be able to hold his own at third.
As for the Tigers pitching, they have this Justin Verlander guy who is pretty good at baseball. Verlander won both the AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, and leads a rotation that got a huge boost with the mid-season acquisition of Doug Fister last year.
With an All-Star closer in Jose Valverde, not only should the rest of the Central fear the Detroit Tigers, but quite possibly all of baseball should follow suit.