AL Central Preview: Battle Royale at Its Finest
Despite having no team based left of the Rockie Mountains, the AL central really is the wild west. Every team, including the Royals, has a path to the pennant, and while some are more convoluted than others, no one is out of contention from day one.
Pick a team and look at the national projections. The Twins were picked by one national pundit to win the World Series, by another to finish 10 games under .500, just one game ahead of the Royals.
I've watched the AL Central carefully since the Brewers were still a division member, and this is by far the most open I've ever seen it. Health will play a huge role in deciding who sees September, perhaps more so than in any other division.
1. Minnesota Twins
Why They're Here: They have the best rotation in the division by a long shot; anyone who says otherwise is selling something. They've got a stronger lineup than they've had in past years, and at the end of the game is Joe Nathan, one of the games' best closers.
Why They'll Fall: If Joe Mauer doesn't make a timely return, they'll get off to a very slow start. The Twins play their most difficult month of the season right from the opening bell, so if Mauer doesn't come back until May, they could be in serious trouble. They relied heaily on young players last year, some of whom are due for a regression.
Breakout Player: Kevin Slowey. Slowey enters the year as the Twins third best starter, but by midseason, he'll be higher than that. He could easily be the ace of the staff, but so could Francisco Liriano, and if both of them are pitching as well as they are capable of, the Twins will be more than a formidable team.
Projected Record: 89-73
2. Cleveland Indians
Why They're Here: Victor Martinez, Travis Halfner, and Fausto Carmona are healthy, they boast the reigning Cy Young Award winner, oh, and Grady Sizemore. Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa are two solid offseason signings that patch up the Indians' critical holes from last season.
Why They'll Fall: Wood is still a health risk, Halfner is on a three year decline that shows no sign of ending, and their rotation is unsettled. Cliff Lee is good, but probably not back to back Cy Youngs good, and there's no guarantee any of the guys behind him return to form.
Breakout Player: Shin-Soo Choo. Yes, Choo played well in the second half last year, but anyone can have a great half-season. Choo looks poised to play well the entire season, provided his elbow injury doesn't bother him all year.
Projected Record: 86-76
3. Chicago White Sox
Why They're Here: Gavin Floyd and John Danks broke out last year and look poised to anchor the rotation. Alexei Ramirez may be one of the best Cuban position players ever, and between Brent Lillibridge and Gordon Beckham, they've got a great middle infield even if someone gets injured.
Why They'll Fall: They key cogs to this machine: Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and even AJ Pierznyski are all aging and declining, they have almost nothing resembling a high average/OBP table-setter, Carlos Quentin is likely going to see a small decline in production.
After their two good young pitchers, they are hoping for serious production out of Bartolo Colon or the mediocre Clayton Richard.
Breakout Player: Brent Lillibridge. One of the pieces sent from Atlanta in the Javy Vasquez trade, and if Matt Weiters stays in the minors too long, he could be a serious Rookie of the Year candidate. He took a step backwards in AAA last year, but a strong spring has renewed expectations that he could be a very good player for years to come.
Projected Record: 80-84
4. Kansas City Royals
Why They're Here: Another weak rotation after Greinke and Meche, but stronger than last year. Joakim Soria is a legitimate shutdown force at the end of games. Coco Crisp improves the outfield defense, but there are too many holes for them to make a run of their own.
However, stumbles and key injuries above them may provide them the space they need to rise from perennial cellar-dweller to serious contender.
Why They'll Fall: The Royals have almost no margin for error, so any injury to a starter will be very problematic. Kyle Farnsworth could be feast or famine coming out of the 'pen, but more likely famine. While the talent is there for them to be solid, the Royals are still more of a spoiler than a true contender.
Breakout Player: Mike Aviles. Aviles had a strong rookie season and if he can raise his walk-rate, he'll be a stellar lead-off hitter. A key battle over the course of the season will be who gets the chance to lead off: Coco Crisp or Aviles.
Projected Record: 76 - 86
5. Detroit Tigers
Why They're Here: Pitching, plain and simple. Their addition of Edwin Jackson pushes them out of in the "two good pitchers and then question marks" category, which gives them a chance to make an impact.
Their offense is aging, Justin Verlander had his worst season as a professional last year and needs to return to ace form if the Tigers are going to improve upon last year's embarrassment.
It isn't out of the realm of possibility that someone will have an unexpectedly excellent season, and the Tigers will surprise people, but there's no one poised to assume the role of hero.
Why They'll Rise: If Verlander returns to form, Armando Galarraga and Edwin Jackson step up, and Rick Porcello emerges the way Galarraga did last year, they'll have a formidable rotation. Offensively, they've got a number of strong hitters, any of whom can turn a game with one swing. How often Miguel Cabrera and the rest will get a chance to hit with runners on will determine how effective they'll be.
Breakout Player: Edwin Jackson. Jackson is just 25, so he's got a lot of time to improve, but getting out of the Tampa Bay will benefit him immensely.
The expectation on young players in Tampa, as in Minnesota, is that if you've made the team, you'd better produce. Jackson will have a small margin for error in Detroit if he struggles at the beginning of the season that he wouldn't have in Tampa.
Projected Record: 74-88
The AL Central will be much like this year's Big Ten. Teams will beat up on each other, whoever wins the division won't break 90 wins, and, as such, they'll get written off the in the media.
There is a lot of talent in this division, however, definitely enough to win a playoff series, and maybe even enough to produce the world champion.
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