MLB Preview: Taking a Closer Look at the AL Central

Zach Dirlam@Zach_DirlamSenior Analyst IIJanuary 23, 2013

MLB Preview: Taking a Closer Look at the AL Central

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    The American League Central division race lasted a lot longer than many expected in 2012, though the Detroit Tigers did finally put everything together at the right time and won eight of their last 10 games to hold off the Chicago White Sox.

    Once again, the Tigers look to be the class of the AL Central, but the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals have all made several moves during the offseason and could be piecing together talented teams as well.

    How will each team in the division perform in 2013? Will anyone challenge Detroit for the AL Central crown? Click ahead for the answers to these questions and much more!

5. Minnesota Twins

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    After finishing dead last in the American League Central last season, the Minnesota Twins are hoping to make some strides forward in 2013, but did not improve a whole lot over the winter.

    The Twins decided not to pony up for right-hander Scott Baker, who missed all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery, though he did manage to string together three seasons of 11 wins from 2008-10.

    Instead, Minnesota upgraded its dismal pitching staff, which finished 28th in the majors in ERA, by trading for right-handed starter Vance Worley and signing fellow righties Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey. 

    Worley notched 11 wins and only lost three decisions in 21 starts as a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, though the Sacramento, Calif. native regressed a bit last year and saw his record fall to 6-9. Worley's ERA also rose from 3.01 to 4.20 during his second season in the big leagues.

    Meanwhile, Correia won 12 games in three of his last four campaigns with the San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates. The nine-year veteran should settle in as Minnesota's No. 4 man in the starting rotation.

    Pelfrey should be the Twins' third starter behind Worley and 26-year old ace Scott Diamond. This is not exactly an upgrade for Minnesota considering that Pelfrey struggled with his command in 2011 and saw his ERA balloon to 4.74.

    Minnesota will lose a little bit of offense with Denard Span no longer in the lineup, but five-time All-Star Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham should do plenty of damage on their own in 2013.

    Beyond that, fans will have to hope aging first baseman Justin Morneau returns to MVP form, or somebody else emerges from the woodworks to give the Twins' top hitters some much needed help.

    Prediction: 62-100, Fifth Place in the AL Central

4. Cleveland Indians

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    Despite finishing 20 games out of first place in the American League Central thanks to a 24-53 record in the second half of last season, the Cleveland Indians managed to orchestrate a relatively impressive offseason.

    The Indians fired manager Manny Acta and have replaced him with two-time World Series champion Terry Francona, who will have several new acquisitions at his disposal for the 2013 campaign.

    General manager Chris Antonetti chose not to pick up designated hitter Travis Hafner's option, let third baseman Jack Hannahan join the Cincinnati Reds and dealt right fielder Shin-Soo Choo in a three-team trade

    Cleveland will counter those losses with utility man Mike Aviles, first baseman Mark Reynolds and one of the biggest offseason signings in right fielder Nick Swisher, who hit .272 and eclipsed 90 RBIs for only the second time in his career last season with the New York Yankees.

    In return for Choo, the Indians received right-handed starting pitcher Trevor Bauer. The 6'1", 185-pounder struggled in his four starts with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012, but will get a chance to make significant strides forward at the back end of Cleveland's rotation.

    Center fielder Drew Stubbs also came over in the deal for Choo. Unfortunately for the Indians, Stubbs is coming off of his worst season since his rookie campaign with the Reds in 2009.

    The addition of Brett Meyers should solidify the middle of Cleveland's rotation. The only problem is, the rest of the Indians' pitching staff looks to be heading for another rocky year.

    Ubaldo Jimenez's ERA has skyrocketed after a breakout performance in 2010, and Justin Masterson took a step backward last season after a promising 2011 campaign.

    Talented young catcher Carlos Santana could be primed for a breakout year after seeing his power numbers come down a bit and his batting average rise a bit last season. 

    Given how weak Cleveland's pitching will be once again in 2013 it is hard to fathom the Indians being much better than they were a year ago. Francona could work some magic in the coming years, though as long as Antonetti continues to wheel and deal like he did this winter.

    Prediction: 72-90, Fourth Place in the AL Central

3. Kansas City Royals

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    It is unlikely that we will find out just how good or underwhelming the Kansas City Royals offseason acquisitions have been until the closing months of the 2013 season, but no matter what happens you've got to credit general manager Dayton Moore for making waves this winter.

    In what could wind up being one of the most beneficial trades of the year, Kansas City gave up two of its top prospects in power-hitter Wil Myers and pitcher Jake Odorizzi for veteran hurlers James Shields and Wade Davis.   

    The Royals re-signed Jeremy Guthrie after the right-hander went 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts last season. Guthrie did not enjoy similar success with the Colorado Rockies, though, and posted a 3-9 record with an ERA over six in as many starts and five relief appearances in the first half of 2012.

    The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim shipped Ervin Santana to Kansas City after a disastrous year, but each time the seven-year veteran has failed to record double digit wins in a season he has bounced back with no less than 16 victories.

    Luke Hovechar recently signed a one-year deal and will likely compete for the fifth spot in the starting rotation with Luis Mendoza, Will Smith and Bruce Chen before winding up in the bullpen.

    Relief pitching was not a major issue for Kansas City a year ago, and closer Greg Holland should convert over 20 saves this season.

    With a solid pitching staff in place, the Royals could finally get on the right side of the .500 mark this season if corner infielders Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer are able to put together impressive years at the plate.

    Designated hitter Billy Butler will need to carry the load offensively for Kansas City once again and left fielder Alex Gordon has to be at his best if the Royals hope to challenge the Chicago White Sox for the second spot in the division.

    The results of this season will likely determine whether or not Moore is looking for a new job once his contract expires after 2014.

    Prediction: 82-80, Third Place in AL Central

2. Chicago White Sox

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    Not too many people expected the Chicago White Sox to be able to contend with the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central crown last season, but thanks to solid starting pitching and timely hitting, Robin Ventura's ball club managed to hang around with the preseason favorites until the very end.

    The White Sox did not go on a spending spree over the offseason and only made a few key transactions.

    Outfielder Dewayne Wise re-signed with the club to give Chicago a quality reserve, though the more important move involved coming to terms with Tampa Bay Rays' third baseman Jeff Keppinger, who hit .325 last season.

    Paul Konerko will still hold things down at first base for at least one more year, while Alejandro De Aza and Alex Rios could do some major damage near the top of the White Sox's batting order in 2013.

    Designated hitter Adam Dunn should provide Chicago with plenty of home runs and a low batting average once again to round out the primary sources of offense.

    Two major concerns as spring training approaches are Tyler Flowers, who will have to take over as the team's starting catcher with the departure of A.J. Pierzynski, and the injury-prone pitching staff.

    Jake Peavy has had more than his fair share of injuries over the past few years, John Danks missed time with a shoulder injury last season and Gavin Floyd made two trips to the disabled list in 2012. 

    If the White Sox can remain healthy and the Tigers fail to take control of the division early in the year, there is no reason Chicago should be out of the AL Central race and it could push for a wild card spot.

    Prediction: 87-75, Second Place in AL Central

1. Detroit Tigers

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    There is absolutely no doubt that the Detroit Tigers will be the team to beat in the American League this season, and thanks to a large investment in a quality starting pitcher there is no reason they should not make a second consecutive appearance in the World Series.

    The Tigers made one of the best moves of the offseason by re-signing Anibal Sanchez to hold down the No. 4 spot in the rotation, and brining in veteran outfielder Torii Hunter will only help Detroit come playoff time.

    Ace right-hander Justin Verlander will be one of the favorites to take home the Cy Young award come season's end, Doug Fister is going to be a dominant No. 2, Max Scherzer will be a strikeout machine once again and either Rick Porcello, or Drew Smyly will round out the Tigers' rotation.

    Offensively, Miguel Cabrera is coming off of a triple crown year, Prince Fielder hit .313 with 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs in his first season in Detroit, so adding a career .303 hitter like Victor Martinez to the Tigers' lineup almost seems unfair.

    Martinez spent all of 2012 recovering from an ACL injury, which will keep him in the designated hitter role for 2013. 

    The only concern for the reigning AL champs is the major question mark about who will be the closer this season.

    General manger Dave Dombrowski already announced the team will not bring back Jose Valverde, who racked up 110 saves in three seasons as Detroit's closer, which means the Tigers will likely turn to 22-year old Bruce Rondon to pitch the ninth inning.

    Even though Rondon is characterized as a "rare talent," the Tigers would be wise to take a chance on a recovering Brian Wilson, or Francisco Rodriguez in case the Venezuelan righty struggles as the closer.

    If all else fails, Detroit could attempt to promote one of their other relievers. Set-up man Al Albuquerque or lefty Phil Coke should be the top two candidates if the Tigers are forced to go that route.

    Regardless of who manager Jim Leyland elects to give the ball to in the final inning, it will not impact the Tigers significantly until the postseason. Detroit has more than enough offensive firepower and starting pitching to survive the regular season with a shoddy closer, but if the Tigers want to win a World Series title they will need somebody to be effective in the ninth.

    Prediction: 94-68, First Place in AL Central