Even with the exodus of such players as C.C. Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, and Zack Greinke the past few seasons, the AL Central certainly has no shortage of talent. Some of those star players simply don't get the attention they would playing in either of the Eastern divisions.
This division has sorely lacked parity the past few seasons, with a sizable gap existing between the top three teams and the bottom two, and this list reflects that. Whereas the Tigers, Twins, and White Sox combine for 20 representatives on the list, the Indians and Royals combine for just 5.
Before we get started, two star players not on the list who I admittedly had no idea where to place on this list given their rash of injuries recently; Cleveland's Grady Sizemore and Chicago's Jake Peavy. Both obviously have the talent to rank on the list; it's hard to know exactly where they stand given the trouble they've had staying on the field lately.
Without further ado, the best players in the AL Central. Enjoy.
The 25 year old switch-hitter is an ideal top of the order hitter. He had a hard time staying healthy in 2010, but he showed what he's capable of in 2009, as he batted .308 with 42 2B, 17 SB, and a .361 OBP that season.
His glove is probably his greatest tool, as Cabrera is a slick fielder at both shortstop and second base who produces web gems with regularity. One of the few bright spots for an Indians' team a ways away from contending again.
After three frustrating seasons, the Phillies traded Gavin Floyd, along with Gio Gonzalez, to the White Sox in 2006 for Freddy Garcia (what a coup that deal would've been had Kenny Williams not traded Gonzalez to Oakland).
Since then, the righty has been a solid mid-rotation starter for Ozzie Guillen, a 17 win, 3.84 ERA campaign in 2008 being the highlight of his career in Chicago. He's shown flashes of brilliance since then, and as he'll be just 28 on opening day, the best may be yet to come for Floyd.
The 32 year old Dominican, as well known for his antics on the mound as anything, signed with the Tigers last season in a move that puzzled some people. Overall, it proved to be a worthwhile investment for Detroit, as Valverde made the All-Star team and went 26 for 29 in save opportunities with a 3.00 ERA and 9.0 SO/9.
He can be wild, but he racks up more than his fair share of strikeouts as well (a career 10.7 SO/9). Perhaps not an elite closer, but a very solid, at-times dominant one.
It's safe to say the former Yankee farm-hand who was charged with the unenviable task of replacing the beloved Curtis Granderson outdid all expectations in 2010. Jackson, the Rookie of the Year runner-up, got off to a scorching start (36 hits in his first 99 AB) and finished the year with a .293 average, 27 SB, and played a fantastic center field.
As he posted an unsustainable BABIP in 2010, he's going to have to cut down on the strikeouts if he's going to build on his 2010 campaign. He's going to have to endure some bumps in the road, but there's an awful lot to like about Jackson's game.
After enduring two rough seasons following his 19 win, 3.06 ERA campaign in 2007, Fausto Carmona endured two rough seasons before bouncing back nicely in 2010. In 210.1 innings (11th most in the AL), Carmona went 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA. With C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee long gone, he has assumed the role of staff ace in Cleveland.
I don't know if he'll ever get back to his 2007 form but at 27, he could still have plenty of good seasons ahead of him.
Often overlooked hitting alongside Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer has been a quality RBI man for the Twins since his breakout season in 2006. For his career, he is averaging 20 HR and 83 RBI per 162 games played.
His home run totals fluctuate year to year but as long as he's healthy, he's productive. While he spends most his time in right field, he's been invaluable to the Twins filling in admirably at first base for the injured Justin Morneau both in 2009 and 2010, helping them win the division both seasons.
Ok, so he hasn't signed the contract yet. It's widely believed Pavano will re-sign with the Twins, so I'm including him here. It would make sense for both sides; the Twins rotation looks awfully thin without him and after a nightmarish tenure in New York, Pavano seems to have found a home in Minnesota (22-15, 3.97 ERA in 294.2 IP since joining the Twins).
Since spending most of his New York tenure on the disabled list, Pavano has been a workhorse the past two seasons for the Indians and Twins, averaging 210 innings a season. His re-signing would go a long towards the Twins winning the division a third straight season.
Since coming to the White Sox as an unknown commodity prior to the 2008 campaign, Alexei Ramirez has been a very solid two-way player for the pale hose. He he hit 21 HR with 77 RBI and a .290/ .317/ .475 line in 2008, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year vote and helping the White Sox win the division. He's a streaky hitter, but a dangerous one when he's going well.
He's an asset with the glove as well. Among qualified shortstops, Ramirez ranks fifth in ultimate zone rating over the past three seasons. While he was robbed of the AL Gold Glove at SS this season, one is probably in his future soon any way.
Billy Butler is a bit of a rarity among first basemen. The 24 year old does not have great home run power (he averages 17 per 162 games played), but hits for great contact (a career .299 AVG), gets his fair share of doubles (96 the past two seasons), and doesn't strike out much. He's one of the better young hitters in the game who often is overlooked.
Kansas City traded Zack Greinke because they didn't think he'd be around when the team became competitive again. It'll be interesting to see if they view Butler, who's under club control through 2014, the same way. If they were to shop him, there certainly would be no shortage of interested teams.
In the shadow of staff ace Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer just might have been the Tigers' best pitcher from June on this past season. After being demoted to AAA after a horrendous start, Scherzer rejoined the team May 31. He promptly showed how dominant he can be, striking out 14 A's in just 5.2 innings.
In his subsequent 22 starts, Scherzer went 10-7 with a 2.55 ERA and 144 SO in 148 IP. That performance has many thinking the young flamethrower is poised for a breakout season in 2011. For all the uncertainty that surrounds the back of the Tigers' rotation, they have quite the dynamic duo at the top.
Magglio Ordonez can flat out hit. Even in a 2009 season that was generally accepted as an unproductive, down year, the lifetime .312 hitter rallied to bat .375/ .438/ .540 in the second half to finish the season with a .310 AVG. He picked up where he left off in 2010, rediscovering his power stroke with 12 HR and 59 RBI before an ankle injury ended his season in July.
A fan favorite in Detroit (pennant-clinching walk-off home runs will do that for you), Ordonez gave the Tigers a hometown discount this Winter to continue his tenure there. Along with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, he makes up one of the most lethal middle-of-the-order trios in the American League.
Mark Buehrle is their most accomplished pitcher and Jake Peavy is the Cy Young winner, but John Danks has been Chicago's best pitcher the past three seasons. In that time frame, Danks has gone 40-31 with a 3.61 ERA, topping 200 innings in both 2009 and 2010. He's been around for a while now, but the lefty is still just 25 years old.
Danks doesn't dominate with the strikeout, instead reliant on limiting the traffic on the base paths, as he has a career BB/9 of 3.1 and has posted a sub 1.30 WHIP each season with Chicago. Even with Jake Peavy's status up in the air heading into Spring Training, Danks has the ability to fill in amply as staff ace in his absence.
A member of the 2005 World Championship team and second only to Frank Thomas as the White Sox' franchise home run leader, Paul Konerko had already accomplished quite a bit before having the best season of his career in 2010 at age 34. He finished 2nd in the AL in HR (39), 8th in AVG (.312), and his .977 OPS was the highest of his career.
Even if he regresses next season (as many expect), a typical year for Konerko is still 32 HR, 101 RBI, and a .280/ .356/ .498 line. That kind of production in tandem with new-comer Adam Dunn could be quite the powerful punch for the White Sox this year.
Apparently, Delmon Young got sick and tired of hearing about how the Rays fleeced Minnesota in the deal that sent him to Minnesota and Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to Tampa. In 2010, the deal started paying dividends for the Twins as Young set career highs in HR (21), RBI (112), AVG (.298), SLG (.493), and OPS (.826).
His career season was vital in Minnesota off-setting the loss of Justin Morneau in the second half. He basically never walks and that doesn't do his OBP any favors, but Young has come into his own as a quality middle-of-the-order hitter, fulfilling the promise the Rays saw when they selected him first overall in the 2003 draft.
If you want an idea of how good 26 year old Joakim Soria (otherwise known as "The Mexicutioner") has been since taking over as Kansas City's closer, consider this; since 2008, Mariano Rivera is 116 for 124 in save opportunities. In that same time frame, Soria is 115 for 124. With that kind of efficiency, it's no wonder prospects as well-regarded as Jesus Montero have been connected to Soria in trade talks.
Soria has a career SO/BB of 4.01 and a lifetime 0.99 WHIP; being that hard to hit will work wonders for your save percentage. Whether the Royals hold on to him to be their closer when they're relevant again, or trade him elsewhere to add to their already impressive farm system, they've got quite the valuable commodity in Soria.
Though he missed all of the 2010 season following Tommy John surgery, Joe Nathan is one of the best closers in the game when healthy. Since the Twins stole him and Francisco Liriano from the Giants in a 2003 swap for A.J. Pierzynski, Nathan has been preposterously good, with 246 saves in 6 seasons, with a 0.93 WHIP, 4.32 SO/BB, and only once has posted a BAA higher than .200.
Much has been made of the relievers the Twins have lost this off season, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and possibly Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch among them. The return of Nathan will do much to off set those losses, and the Twins should field a solid pen again in 2011.
When Kenny Williams claimed the pricy, underachieving, yet talented Alex Rios off waivers from the Blue Jays in August 2009, some (including me) didn't know what he was thinking. He struggled mightily the rest of 2009, but enjoyed a very solid campaign his first full season on the South Side, hitting 21 home runs, stealing 34 bases, and making all the plays in center field.
It's never been a question of talent with Rios, as he's a perennial 30-30 candidate with power and speed to spare. He has not yet fulfilled his potential, but still may be young to realize it eventually. He wore out his welcome in Toronto, but in short order has become one of the most important parts of the White Sox lineup.
Their inability to win in the postseason has given rise to the claim that the Twins don't have a true ace. Nothing could be further from the truth, because Francisco Liriano is precisely that; an electric southpaw who can rack up strikeouts and shut down elite lineups. The Twins' problem is that they don't have more pitchers like him.
After bursting onto the scene in 2006, injury and inconsistency wreaked havoc on Liriano the next three seasons. In 2010, the Liriano of old returned, posting career bests in wins (14), innings (191.1), SO (201) and leading the AL with a miniscule 0.4 HR/9. Some Twins pitchers will have to improve if the Twins are to win in the postseason; Liriano isn't one of them.
After puzzling many by remaining adamant against DHing, Adam Dunn decided not to cost himself millions of dollars this off season and signed with the White Sox to become their primary DH. Dunn, who has 354 home runs under his belt at age 31, should flourish playing half his games in the bandbox known as U.S. Cellular Field.
Since coming to the major leagues, Dunn has championed each of the three true outcomes, racking up more than his fair share of home runs, walks, and strikeouts. He consistently boasts a great OBP and made steady improvement hitting for average while with Washington. He doesn't have the broadest skill set, but you'll be hard pressed to find a more reliable slugger.
The Tigers' biggest addition of the Winter, Victor Martinez provides something they've sorely lacked the past three seasons; a proven, all-star caliber hitter to bat behind Miguel Cabrera. A career .300 hitter who averages 21 home runs and 103 RBI per 162 games played, Martinez just might put the Tigers' lineup over the top.
Having hit 20 HR with 79 RBI in just 127 games for Boston last season, seeing most of his AB as the DH should help Martinez stay healthy and be even more productive. He's still scheduled to catch primarily against lefties, and while not skilled in shutting down the running game, is serviceable enough behind the plate to do it full time should Alex Avila struggle. Such versatility could prove to be invaluable to Detroit.
The most underrated player in baseball, who simply falls through the cracks playing in Cleveland. Shin-Soo Choo has been remarkably steady the past two seasons (.300/ .394/ .489, 20 HR, 86 RBI, 20 SB in 2009, .300/ .401/ .484, 22 HR, 90 RBI, 22 SB in 2010). Simply put, he does a little bit of everything and at 28, he's still in the midst of his prime.
Much like teammate Asdrubal Cabrera (acquired from Seattle for Eduardo Perez), the Indians stole Choo from the Mariners in a swap for Ben Broussard (can you imagine Choo and Ichiro in the same outfield?) and since then has blossomed into a five-tool stud. Its a good thing he won't need to leave MLB to serve in the Korean army because the Tribe would be pretty hard to watch without him.
2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau was on pace for the best season of his career in 2010 (.345 AVG, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 1.055 OPS) when a concussion cut his campaign short. Had he stayed healthy, he very well could've been in the discussion for a second MVP award. He and Joe Mauer make up arguably the most dangerous 3-4 tandem since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were split up.
While his batting average can wax and wane from year to year (ranging anywhere from .271 to .321 since 2006), he's a consistent 30 HR threat who doesn't strike out often. When healthy, he's certainly among the league's elite first basemen. That his recent injuries have not prevented the Twins from winning the division the past two seasons is a scary thought for the teams trying to catch them.
The best pitcher in the AL Central and with Zack Greinke now a Brewer, I think the only other pitcher you can make an argument for is Francisco Liriano. A down year in 2008 notwithstanding, Justin Verlander has just kept getting better since winning the AL Rookie of The Year in 2006. His 2010 season saw him finish in the top 5 in the AL in W (18), IP (224.1), SO (219), and CG (4).
Few in the game have better pure stuff, as Verlander's fastball and curveball are consistently mentioned among the best in the AL. In the past five seasons, Verlander ranks 6th in MLB in innings pitched and only Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia have won more games. With a no-hitter and three all-star nods under his belt, Verlander has accomplished a lot already and at 27, he has plenty of time to accomplish more.
No catcher in baseball history had ever won three batting titles; Joe Mauer won three before he turned 27. The four-time all-star, three-time gold-glove winner, and 2009 AL MVP truly is a rare bird; a hitting machine ( a career .327/ .407/ .481 hitter) who happens to play the most physically demanding position on the field. In less than a decade, he has established himself as one of the most memorable players in Twins' history.
It remains to be seen how many home runs he can be counted on for, year to year. He enjoyed a breakout season power-wise in 2009 (28 HR), but has hit fewer than ten each of his other three most recent seasons. Even if he never approaches that total again, he might just be too good a pure hitter to hold that against him.
In light of the season he just had, there can be no other choice for number one than Miguel Cabrera. With little to no protection from late July on, the Venezuelan slugger managed to post career bests in HR (38), BB (89), and OPS (1.042). He's been terrorizing major league pitching seemingly forever yet is still just 27. A five-time all-star and three-time silver slugger who hit a walk-off home run his first game in the majors, Cabrera is second only to Albert Pujols as the game's best hitter.
To his credit, Cabrera exorcized his demons this off season after an ugly incident at the end of the 2009 season. His life in order, he enjoyed the best season of his career in 2010. Through age 27, he has a career .313/ .388/ .552 line and 247 career home runs. If he keeps up this pace, he'll have a plaque in Cooperstown some day. A pure joy to watch every day.