This article is the fifth installment of a six-part series in which I analyze each division in baseball and tell you exactly how I believe things are going to shake out this season.
I am by no means a credible source—merely a casual fan who knows a little about baseball and would like to share his observations and thoughts.
Today we look at the AL Central, where the title has been decided by a 163rd game two years in a row. Never has there been a more competitive division than this one in any professional sport.
Minnesota Twins (88-74)
Why did everyone get all down on the Twins just because they lost Joe Nathan for the year? He's just a closer.
Did Metallica stop rocking when Jason Newsted left the group? Hell no, they got that Mexican guy!
Now the Twins can take a page out of Metallica's book by shifting Jose Mijares into the closer role, who's Venezuelan, not Mexican, but no one will know the difference.
Those who still doubt the longevity of what will probably end up being more of a "closer by committee" situation probably also need to be reminded about the existence of Pat Neshek. The funky submariner was a baller out of the set-up role before going down with injury in early 2008, and hasn't pitched since. Well he's back, and looking like his old self in spring training.
In case you need a reminder, his career numbers consist of a 0.96 WHIP, a 10.6 K/9 rate, and a .188 batting average against.
Am i seeing things, or do those look like closer-type numbers?
The lineup has the makings to be very potent. The newly acquired O-Dogg should get on base at a steady clip from the 2-spot in the order, and new DH Jim Thome will drive in plenty of runs, and also give Justin Morneau some protection.
Morneau should be more comfortable now that he's not counted on to be the only power bat in the lineup, and we should see his batting average rise to back around .300. Also, he's one of those "on-year, off-year" players, and thanks to that wonderful projection tool called superstition, we can expect 2010 to be another career year for him.
The Twins should be set in terms of run production, although if Denard Span needed a power boost, he could always ask his mother to sit in the left field bleachers.
Sorry. Too soon?
Chicago White Sox (86-76)
The White Sox rotation has the potential to be the best in baseball. In three starts last September, Jake Peavy showed quite admirably that he could handle the shift to the American League. Now he'll be counted on to be the staff ace, but unlike his days in San Diego, he won't be asked to single-handedly carry the team. This should allow him to settle into a nice groove and put up a Cy Young-caliber season.
The rest of the guys rounding out the rotation are very solid. John Danks is young but he's not lacking in terms of experience. I'm still blown away by his performance in Game 163 two years ago.
You know these guys will carry the team into contention. The question is, can the lineup push them into the playoffs?
Last year, offense was a huge problem for this team. These guys ranked 12th in the league in runs scored, and dead last in batting average. This was due to down years from Alexei Ramirez and Jermaine Dye, and Carlos Quentin's remarkable inability to remain healthy.
This season, they come out the gates with a new strategy: adding the dimension of speed to the lineup.
Juan Pierre will play left field and hit leadoff, setting the table for fellow newcomer Alex Rios, always a threat to steal a few bases himself. This should give the RBI guys like Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin plenty of opportunities to drive 'em in.
However, the lineup poses many questions. Can any of these guys play to their full potential?
We saw disappointing years from Rios and Ramirez last year, Quentin may go down again, and Andruw Jones hasn't hit above .220 since Papa Roach was popular.
Rookie Gordon Beckham had a nice campaign last year, but will the league start to find the weak spots in his swing?
Overall, there are too many uncertainties for me to crown them division champs.
Cleveland Indians (81-81)
Don't be surprised if the Indians make a little bit of noise this year.
And when I say a little bit, I mean a little bit. This is the Indians we're talking about.
No one noticed, but there were a few glimmers of hope hidden within last year's travesty of a season. Shin-Soo Choo hit .300 with 20 homers in his first full season as an everyday player. Asdrubal Cabrera's batting average soared up to .308, and I'll take 42 doubles from a shortstop any day of the week.
Of course there were plenty of guys who had downright awful seasons as well. But glimpses of these guys in Spring Training could hint that at least a few of them will bounce back.
Most notably is flame-throwing Fausto Carmona, who sported a 6.32 ERA last year. He must have worked something out over the offseason, because this spring he allowed just one run and eight hits in twenty innings.
Then there's Grady Sizemore, who set career lows last year in just about everything (except Google image search results). He's back, attacking the ball at a .378 average with a .521 OBP.
How much can you really tell from Spring Training stats?
Nothing definitively, except that these guys wore uniforms.
All I'm saying is don't be surprised if these numbers reflect more than just desert breezes playing tricks on the ball.
Kansas City Royals (76-86)
I was among the many who were on the Royals bandwagon last season, ready to crown them World Champions after their 18-11 start.
Before you knew it, key players went down with injury, and the rest didn't perform up to their potential, leaving the Royals looking up at the division for the rest of the year.
Now with their key players back, there's no reason to think the Royals are any different than that team that started the year 18-11. A team that we undoubtedly overrated, but not a last place team by any means.
Mike Aviles put up a fantastic rookie campaign before missing nearly all of last season. He's back in a big way, ready to improve on his '08 numbers.
Billy Butler also found some serious power last year, blasting 21 homers and 51 doubles. The kicker is he'll still only be 23 years old on opening day, and his power should only increase. Watch out for when all those gap-shots turn into over-the-wall shots.
They have the core of a young pitching squad with pretty high potential, but so far it's been very inconsistent. Zach Grienke is the only one you can count on to give the team a chance to win every day.
They're hoping that free agent pickup Jason Kendall can work with these young guys and help them harness their stuff.
At times, Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies have been unhittable, and if one or both of them has a breakout year, the Royals could potentially be dangerous.
Detroit Tigers (70-92)
The Tigers are putting a lot of stock into a youth movement that may come back to bite them.
They sent a lot of the key cogs to last year's playoff push packing, in the hopes of relying on their rising talent to remain competitive in 2010. In some areas, the rotation especially, this makes the team substantially weaker.
Rick Porcello burst onto the scene last year winning fourteen games in a solid rookie campaign, but at times he was very shaky. He allowed 9.3 hits per nine innings, a rate much higher than you'd like to see. Fortunately being very good at inducing the ground ball when he needed it, he was able to get out of plenty of jams via the double play. He may not have the same luck this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if his ERA inflated as a result.
The other young arm they're counting on is Max Scherzer, who has his own problems with walks.
Furthermore, the Tigers want to be sure they're not overextending these young guys, so their innings will probably be capped. That means the bullpen will get plenty of work, and, well, let's just say the bullpen could use some work.
The lineup is a bit of an enigma. In Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson, you have two top prospects with incredible potential, but you also have two guys who have never played an inning in the big leagues. I expect both these guys to have pretty slow starts as they get accustomed to the league.
Miguel Cabrera's power won't be enough to win games without a decent supporting cast, and the Tigers don't have one. There are glaring holes such as catcher, shortstop and third base that all need to be addressed before Detroit finds its way back to the postseason.
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