The release of Gary Sheffield from the Tigers yesterday makes this projection very timely. This division will struggle to compete on a national level and does not have one team that will dominate. Picking a team almost becomes an exercise of choosing the fewest flaws.
It could very well be any of the top four teams, and look out for the Royals to play much better this year. I would not be shocked if any of these teams win the division. They could be separated by only five to eight games by the end of the year, so close is the race.
Division Winner: Cleveland Indians
I love the Indians' lineup. The addition of Mark DeRosa provides a great bat that can play a number of positions well. Kelly Shopach will provide 20+ power if he gets enough playing time, and Grady Sizemore provides consistent production every year. They have questions at pitching, but there is no reason to think that Cliff Lee will fall off after a Cy Young season, and Fausto Carmona should be a solid number two.
I have concerns about the back end of the rotation, but they should provide consistent enough production for this offense to get them through division. They will not win 90 games, but will win the division.
X-Factor: Shin-Soo Choo looks to be a player with 25+ HRs and consistent batting average.
Liabilities: Are we not all waiting for the inevitable Kerry Wood collapse? The Indians should ride his talent for pitching as long as they can before he breaks down.
Chicago White Sox
Carlos Quentin is a stud, no question. Alexei Ramirez will bloom into an even more productive player this year. Their starting pitching will be the one issue that keeps them from contention. They lack a dominant ace, as that role is currently being filled by Mark Buehrle. Right now, their number four is Bartolo Colon (will not make it out of camp) and Jose Contreras (really? Still in the league?).
If their lineup can stay healthy, they have the potential to hit a lot of homers, but probably not enough to win the division. They have some good players in the minors, but few will provide enough production to get this team to the top of the division.
X-Factor: Josh Fields can provide some power from 3B if he can stay healthy.
Liabilities: Age. Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, and Jim Thome are all one year older, and the skills are now in decline. They will still produce good numbers, but not what the White Sox need to win.
Every year, this team beats the projections. Their front office has become very adept at developing young talent and they surprise me every year (I guess I should start picking them higher). Joe Mauer’s ailing back is the main reason they are not on the top of this list. They need his batting average in the middle of the lineup.
Delmon Young and Denard Span are good young talented ball players, if Young can keep his head on straight and Span gets consistent playing time. The Twins have very nice starting pitching with the return of Francisco Liriano, and who doubts Joe Nathan at this point? They need a few things to break right for them (i.e. Mauer’s back) in order to win the division, and they will probably fall short.
X-Factor: If Jason Kubel hits righties as well as he hits lefties, he can produce 25+ HR power from the DH spot.
Liabilities: Another untimely injury derails this team for the division hunt.
Kansas City Royals
It looks like the Royals may have started to figure out how to run a small market team. They have a group of talented young players that could help them compete for the division. They have some holes at starting pitching, but otherwise good young talent there (Sidney Ponson notwithstanding).
Billy Butler is a rising star at DH and Mike Aviles will provide consistently from SS. I love the Coco Crisp move, as he provides them with an everyday center fielder. Jose Guillen will quietly put up good numbers this year. The Royals will make some noise this year, but are another year away from competing for the division.
X-Factor: Mark Teahen playing second base and to his potential leaves this lineup with very few holes.
Liabilities: Mark Teahen could be a disaster at second base. Look out for inconsistent middle relievers as well.
Jim Leyland in a contract year and disagreeing with GM Dave Dombrowski? Yeah, Leyland is gone next year. This team always teeters on the edge of simply dominating the division, yet they cannot pull it together long enough to make a run. Their outfield is a fantasy player’s dream, with Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, and Carlos Guillen (sometimes).
Miguel Cabrera may have a MVP-type season this year, but he Ordonez and Granderson cannot carry the load themselves. Newcomer Josh Anderson provides depth at the outfield, but I do not think the Tigers can produce consistent runs.
X-Factor: If Justin Verlander returns to his old self, this team now has a dominant ace and a chance to compete.
Liabilities: Bullpen. Joel Zumaya is hurt again, and they have the oft-injured Fernando Rodney setting up Brandon Lyon. Too many close games will be lost by this bullpen.