Last year, when the Twins were in third place, I predicted that they would win the division. And they did, although it took them 163 games to do so. With most of the offseason moves having occurred already, here's part one of six of my division previews. The worst, but most entertaining division in baseball: the AL Central.
1. Minnesota Twins (87-76)
2. Detroit Tigers (86-77)
3. Chicago White Sox (79-83)
4. Cleveland Indians (65-97)
5. Kansas City Royals (65-97)
D: [Below Average]
1. Minnesota Twins
Key Losses: Boof Bonser, Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Carlos Gomez, Mike Redmond
Key Gains: J.J. Hardy, Jim Thome, Clay Condrey
Offensive Outlook: A
Well, the Twins have two of the past four American League Most Valuable Players in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau . Mauer won the award last year after leading the league in batting average, slugging, and on-base percentage. Morneau missed the end of last year due to back injury and still managed to crank out 30 home runs and 100 RBI. This potent punch is backed up by the underrated Jason Kubel , who's another lefty that only batted .300 with 100+ RBI for the Twins.
Think that's scary? They also just added Jim Thome , who still cranks out home runs (one per every 16 at-bats in 2009) and is still an OPS man. Throw in Michael Cuddyer (.276/32 HRs/94 RBI in 2009), and this offense is one of the best in baseball.
The Twins also acquired former All-Star J.J. Hardy , who was so bad last year that he was sent down to the minors, but Joe Vavra thinks he can fix him. Brendan Harris and Nick Punto had 75 RBI and seven home runs between them, so they are offensive liabilities. The Twins do have one of the best leadoff men in baseball in Denard Span . The one nitpick with the Twins is that they don't have a deep bench. In fact, it's awful.
Defensive Outlook: A
The Twins were one of the best fielding teams in baseball last year, having only committed 76 errors. J.J. Hardy is no Orlando Cabrera with the glove, but the Twins will still be just as strong. Mauer plays Gold Glove defense, Morneau has an ultra-reliable glove at first, and Denard Span is excellent in the outfield. Manager Ron Gardenhire preaches the importance of defense, and it's why his teams are successful.
Starting Pitching Outlook: C-
The Twins didn't have a pitcher with a sub-4.00 ERA last year, and they pitch in a terrible division. Scott Baker (15-9, 4.37 ERA in 2009) pitched well down the stretch for the Twins, but he's going to need to be more consistent to be considered an ace. Kevin Slowey (10-3, 4.86 ERA in 2009) had a great win percentage, but when he was off, he was bad.
Carl Pavano (5-4, 4.64 ERA in 2009 for Twins) tried to resurrect his career in the AL Central and was nothing special. Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.03 ERA in 2009) is a stud, but the Twins don't like to give him run support. And 26-year-old Francisco Liriano is still a question mark. We all know he can be great, but will he live up to his potential? His offseason resume is impressive.
Relief Pitching Outlook: B
The Twins have one of the best closers in baseball in Joe Nathan , who, outside the playoffs, was mister reliable yet again. They also acquired Jon Rauch from the Diamondbacks in late August last year, and he was decent, but his career has been marked by inconsistency. Matt Guerrier (2.36 ERA in 2009) is an underrated relief pitcher, and Clay Condrey came over after the Phillies failed to resign him. Jose Mijares (2.34 ERA in 2009) was unfairly overlooked in the Rookie of the Year race, while Jesse Crain is garbage.
2010 Outlook: B+. The Twins are the favorites to win the division in 2010 again. They have all the right pieces, including a great manager, best 3-4-5 punch in baseball, great defense, and a great closer. The Twins need to sign Mauer before the season starts so his contract situation doesn't become a distraction.
2. Chicago White Sox
Key Losses: DJ Carrasco, Octavio Dotel, Josh Fields, Chris Getz, Scott Podsednik, Jermaine Dye, Jose Contreras
Key Gains: Mark Teahen, J.J. Putz, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre
Offensive Outlook: D+
The White Sox were in the bottom-three in the American League in runs scored, RBI, and batting average in 2009. Health was a key issue last year, as 2008 MVP candidate Carlos Quentin missed a lot of games. Qunetin can still crank home runs, but he's going to have to bring his batting average back up.
A.J. Pierzynski was the only reliable hitter, batting at the .300 mark. Plus, he's in a contract year. The captain Paul Konerko also was a consistent run producer (28 home runs and 88 RBI in 2009). The spark from last year's team is gone and replaced with Juan Pierre , who was arguably the Dodgers' most valuable player for a chunk of the season. The White Sox hope that this time Pierre will have a good season in Chicago. Mark Teahen is a question mark, as is whether or not Alex Rios can "be fixed," like hitting coach Greg Walker said he could be.
The platooning of the DH role with Mark Kotsay and Andruw Jones will also be interesting, as one only hits for power and the other for average. Alexei Ramirez hopes his sophomore slump doesn't last. The White Sox' future is Gordon Beckham , who had a tremendous rookie season, and his success will determine how the White Sox fare in 2010. The bench is average.
Defensive Outlook: D
Being a White Sox fan, I can honestly tell you the defense is awful. Too many stupid errors were committed last year. The departure of Jermaine Dye should help the problem a little, as should the shift of Alex Rios to center field. Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham will also be mentored by future Hall-of-Famer Omar Vizquel , whom the White Sox picked up as a backup.
Starting Pitching Outlook: A-
The White Sox clearly have one of the deepest rotations in baseball. Mr. Perfect Mark Buehrle (13-10, 3.84 ERA in 2009) anchors the rotation and will eat innings, although he's going to have to avoid a collapse this year. He will be followed by Jake Peavy (3-0, 1.35 ERA in 2009 for White Sox), who won't put up Petco Park numbers, but will be reliable and get lots of strikeouts.
John Danks (13-11, 3.77 ERA in 2009) keeps maturing and pitches well in big games. Gavin Floyd (11-11, 4.06 ERA in 2009) had a disappointing year in 2009, and it wasn't even that bad. He will only improve. The fifth starter spot is likely to go to Freddy Garcia (3-4, 4.34 ERA in 2009 for White Sox), who says he's healthy. If not, we will see some more Dan Hudson .
Relief Pitching Outlook: C
Bobby Jenks blew six saves last year, and his ERA (3.71) was unacceptably high. The White Sox lost Octavio Dotel and D.J. Carrasco to the Pirates, meaning the bullpen will rely heavily on undependable Scott Linebrink (4.66 ERA in 2009) and Tony Pena (3.75 ERA in 2009 for White Sox). Matt Thorton (2.74 ERA in 2009) has been labelled the best left-handed setup man, while "bromance" partner J.J. Putz is out to prove himself. Randy Williams (4.58 ERA in 2009) is a wild card, depending on the situation.
2010 Outlook: C+. Can a ballclub depend entirely on pitching? We shall see with the 2010 edition of the White Sox. We can see that their offense will be shaky, and the defense is still in transition (Beckham shifted to second base). The rotation is the best in the division.
3. Detroit Tigers
Key Losses: Curtis Granderson, Aubrey Huff, Edwin Jackson, Brandon Lyon, Placido Polanco, Fernando Rodney, Jarrod Washburn
Key Gains: Phil Coke, Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth, Jose Valverde
Offensive Outlook: C-/D+
The Tigers' best offensive weapon is clearly Miguel Cabrera , who would've been higher on the MVP final count had it not been for alcohol problems/late-season slump. Back to normal, he'll be his regular old juggernaut.
It's pretty much downhill from there. Gerald Laird is no offensive threat. Placido Polanco's replacement at second base, Scott Sizemore , has no big league experience. Brandon Inge can never seem to stay healthy and had an overrated year in 2009. What I said about Gerald Laird also applies to Adam Everett , as he's absolutely not an offensive threat. We know that Carlos Guillen can be a threat, but can he stay healthy? The Tigers really need his bat.
Ryan Raburn (.291 avg/16 home runs in 2009) was surprisingly good for the Tigers last year, and Clete Thomas is still maturing into a big league hitter who has tons of power. Magglio Ordonez (.310 avg/nine home runs) got his batting average back up after a horrible start, but it's clear that his power is gone. The bench is pretty decent for a bench.
Defensive Outlook: B+
The Tigers have an above average defense. Gerald Laird and Adam Everett are not offensive threats, but they're in there because they're two of the best with their gloves at their positions. Brandon Inge also flashes nice leather, and Miguel Cabrera plays an underrated first base. It's yet to be seen if Scott Sizemore is the real deal and how the outfield will be without Curtis Granderson.
Starting Pitching Outlook: B+
The Tigers have a dynamic one-two punch in Justin Verlander (19-9, 3.45 ERA in 2009) and Rick Porcello (14-9, 3.96 ERA in 2009). Verlander got a Cy Young vote because he led the league in wins and strikeouts in 2009, after a horrendous 2008. Porcello was one of the best rookies in baseball, and he just turned 21 and has a really bright future.
The Tigers traded Edwin Jackson and got Max Scherzer (9-11, 4.12 ERA), who might have the same problem he did in Arizona: a lack of run support. Jeremy Bonderman also only started one game in 2009, before being moved to the bullpen. His health will be a key factor. The fifth starter role is up for grabs between Nate Robertson (who split time between starting and relief duties in 2009), Dontrelle Willis (whose mental health is questionable), Armando Galarraga (who has shown flashes of brilliance but was disappointing last year), and Eddie Bonine .
Relief Pitching Outlook: C+
The Tigers got arguably the best closer on the market in Jose Valverde , who was great for the Astros and an upgrade over Fernando Rodney. Everybody wants to know if Joel Zumaya (4.94 ERA in 2009) will be healthy, because if he is, he's unhittable. Bobby Seay (4.25 ERA in 2009) and Zach Miner (4.29 ERA in 2009) are iffy, and the Tigers also acquired inexperienced Daniel Schlereth (5.89 ERA in 2009) and Phil Coke (4.50 ERA in 2009). Fue-Te Ni (2.61 ERA in 2009) will be an interesting case with potential to examine.
2010 Outlook: C+. The Tigers have one of the best 1-2 starting pitching punches in baseball. The key question is whether or not the offense will give them enough run support to win games and if the bullpen can sustain leads. If the Tigers fourth and fifth starters turn out to be reliable, then they have a shot at the division.
4. Kansas City Royals
Key Losses: Coco Crisp, John Buck, Mark Teahen, Mike Jacobs
Key Gains: Rick Ankiel, Josh Fields, Chris Getz, Jason Kendall, Scott Podsednik
Offensive Outlook: D-
The Royals have an absolute stud at first base in Billy Butler (.301 avg, 21 home runs, 93 RBI in 2009). Just imagine what his stats would be if he played with a competent offense. The Royals also have a gem at second base in Alberto Callaspo (.300 avg, 73 RBI in 2009).
Other than those two, you can describe the team as washed up veterans. Their starting catcher is Jason Kendall , who might have been the worst player in baseball in 2009. Rick Ankiel (.231 avg/11 home runs in 2009) suddenly lost his power in 2009, and DH Jose Guillen (.242 avg/nine home runs in 2009) can't stay healthy and can't hit for power any more. The shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt had an on-base percentage below .300 in 2009.
Scott Podsednik has a resurgent year with the White Sox but has yet to prove that he can play outside of Chicago. David DeJesus (.281 avg/71 RBI in 2009) had a nice year in 2009, and Alex Gordon has still failed to live up to the hype. The Royals upgraded their bench with Josh Fields and Chris Getz and still have Willie Bloomquist , so their bench might be the deepest in the AL Central.
Defensive Outlook: D-
The Royals were the worst defensive team in the American League last year. Jason Kendall lets lots of stolen bases occur, and Alberto Callaspo has to cut down on his errors. Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel are no angels in the outfield, so the Royals should expect to see more balls hit the grass.
Starting Pitching Outlook: B-
The Royals get a bump up from "Okay" because they have the best pitcher in baseball in Zack Greinke . The 2009 American League Cy Young award winner was absolutely brilliant last year (16-8, 2.16 ERA) and would've had a lot more wins had it not been for his lack of an offense.
Gil Meche (6-10, 5.09 ERA in 2009) has proven he can be a reliable number two but will have to stay healthy. Like with Alex Gordon, we're still waiting for Luke Hochevar (7-13, 6.55 ERA in 2009) to have a break-out year, because he's got the stuff, and he just doesn't know how to use it. Brian Bannister (7-12, 4.73 ERA in 2009) suffers from the lack of consistency problem.
The other rotation spot will go to Kyle Davies (8-9, 5.27 ERA in 2009), who gives up too many hits, or Robinson Tejeda , who was surprisingly effective in the starter's role in 2009 (3-1, 2.84 ERA as a starter in 2009).
Relief Pitching Outlook: C
Joakim Soria is one of the best closers in baseball. He still managed to get 30 saves in 2009, despite being injured for a large chunk of the season. From there, the bullpen goes downhill. The Royals bullpen was the worst in the American League last year (with a 5.02 ERA) and they blew 22 save opportunities. Kyle Farnsworth (4.58 ERA in 2009), Juan Cruz (5.72 ERA in 2009), Bruce Chen (5.65 ERA in 2009), Ramon Colon (4.83 ERA in 2009), and Victor Marte (8.25 ERA in 2009) just do not make for a good bullpen. Carlos Rosa (3.38 ERA in 2009) has potential.
2010 Outlook: D+. The Royals don't play defense well, and they have a terrible offense. Besides that, Zack Greinke can only pitch once every five days. The Royals have an unreliable bullpen and made some questionable moves in the offseason that only maintained, not improved the team.
5. Cleveland Indians
Key Losses: Kelly Shoppach
Key Gains: Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan, Mike Redmond
Offensive Outlook: C
The Indians didn't have a healthy team last year and still finished in the top-twelve in all of baseball in runs scored, batting average, and RBI. The Tribe will be displaying a lot of new, young talent this year. Matt LaPorta will be the everyday first baseman and is recovering from injury ahead of schedule. 22-year-old Michael Brantley will be in left field, and it's up to him to prove himself.
Lou Marson and Wyatt Toregas will be competing for the starting catcher role and couldn't have had a better mentor than Sandy Alomar, Jr. Luis Valbuena (.250 avg/10 home runs in 2009) will be the starting second baseman, and he's not really an offensive threat. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (.308 avg/68 RBI in 2009) is an unheralded gem for the Tribe, while Jhonny Peralta (.254/11 home runs in 2009) underachieved in 2009.
The key question will be whether or not Travis Hafner can stay healthy. He had an excellent June in 2009 but was otherwise inconsistent. The two main sources of offense for the Indians are the extremely underrated Shin-Soo Choo (.300 avg/20 HRs/86 RBI/.883 OPS in 2009) and Grady Sizemore , who should be back to his normal (healthy) self. The bench is also average.
Defensive Outlook: C+
Defense will be a question mark for the Tribe in 2010. They have all this fresh, young legs and arms, but they're also inexperienced. However, we do know that Grady Sizemore and Shin-soo Choo play a good outfield, and the middle infielders are a pretty good duo.
Starting Pitching Outlook: F
The Tribe's ace is Jake Westbrook , who didn't play a single game in 2009. His career ERA is 4.31, and he's clearly the Indians' best starter, which doesn't spell good things. There's also Fauston Carmona , who couldn't keep his emotions in check. After winning 19 games with a 3.06 ERA, Carmona has taken a nosedive, going 13-19 with a 5.89 ERA over the past two years.
Justin Masterson came over from Boston in a trade and went 1-7 in 2009 and didn't live up to his expectations. Aaron Laffey is inconsistent, although he's shown flashes of brilliance. If he can get comfortable in the starter's role, he's dangerous. David Huff led the Tribe with 11 wins last year, but it was nothing special (5.61 ERA in 2009). There's also the potential of Jeremy Sowers , Carlos Carrasco , Hector Rondon , and Mitch Talbot snagging a starter role or at least playing time with the low quality of this rotation.
Relief Pitching Outlook: D-
The bullpen was wretched for the Tribe in 2009. Kerry Wood got paid $10 million to blow six saves and be ultra-unreliable. Chris Perez , who was acquired by trade for Mark DeRosa, was nothing special but has potential. Same thing applies to Rafael Perez (7.31 ERA in 2009). Joe Smith is reliable (3.44 ERA in 2009), and Tony Sipp (2.93 ERA in 2009) had an excellent rookie season. Jensen Lewis (4.61 ERA in 2009) and Jess Todd (7.66 ERA in 2009) are also question marks expected to fill big roles in 2010.
2010 Outlook: F. Their starting pitching is just so bad. There's not one quality pitcher. Westbrook's health is a concern, Carmona has been trash over the past two years, and the rest are all young, inexperienced, and unproven. This will be a rebuilding year for the Tribe.
2010 PRESEASON ALL-AL EAST TEAM (and ranking the rest)
CATCHER: Joe Mauer (Minnesota)
2. A.J. Pierzysnki (Cws)
3. Gerald Laird (Det)
4. Jason Kendall (Kan)
5. Lou Marson (Cle)
FIRST BASE: Justin Morneau (Minnesota)
2. Miguel Cabrera (Det)
3. Billy Butler (Kan)
4. Paul Konerko (Cws)
5. Matt LaPorta (Cle)
SECOND BASE: Gordon Beckham (Chicago)
2. Alberto Callaspo (Kan)
3. Luis Valbuena (Cle)
4. Nick Punto (Min)
5. Scott Sizemore (Det)
SHORTSTOP: Asdrubal Cabrera (Cleveland)
2. Alexei Ramirez (Cws)
3. J.J. Hardy (Min)
4. Adam Everett (Det)
5. Yuniesky Betancourt (Kan)
THIRD BASE: Brandon Inge (Detroit)
2. Mark Teahen (Cws)
3. Jhonny Peralta (Cle)
4. Brendan Harris (Min)
5. Alex Gordon (Kan)
LEFT FIELD: Jason Kubel (Minnesota)
2. Scott Podsednik (Kan)
3. Juan Pierre (Cws)
4. Ryan Raburn (Det)
5. Michael Brantley (Cle)
CENTER FIELD: Grady Sizemore (Cleveland)
2. Denard Span (Min)
3. Alex Rios (Cws)
4. Rick Ankiel (Kan)
5. Clete Thomas (Det)
RIGHT FIELD: Shin-soo Choo (Cleveland)
2. Michael Cuddyer (Min)
3. Magglio Ordonez (Det)
4. Carlos Quentin (Cws)
5. David DeJesus (Kan)
DESIGNATED HITTER: Jim Thome (Minnesota)
2. Travis Hafner (Cle)
3. Carlos Guillen (Det)
4. Andruw Jones (Cws)
5. Jose Guillen (Kan)
STARTING PITCHER: Zack Greinke (Kansas City)
STARTING PITCHER: Justin Verlander (Detroit)
STARTING PITCHER: Jake Peavy (Chicago)
STARTING PITCHER: Mark Buehrle (Chicago)
STARTING PITCHER: Jon Danks (Chicago)
6. Rick Porcello (Det)
7. Max Scherzer (Det)
8. Scott Baker (Min)
9. Gavin Floyd (Cws)
10. Nick Blackburn (Min)
11. Brian Bannister (Kan)
12. Jake Westbrook (Cle)
13. Gil Meche (Kan)
14. Aaron Laffey (Cle)
15. Freddy Garcia (Cws)
SETUP: Matt Guerrier (Minnesota)
2. Matt Thorton (Cws)
3. Joel Zumaya (Det)
4. Tony Sipp (Cle)
5. Juan Cruz (Kan)
CLOSER: Joe Nathan (Minnesota)
2. Joakim Soria (Kan)
3. Jose Valverde (Det)
4. Bobby Jenks (Cws)
5. Kerry Wood (Cle)