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2011 AL Central Preview: Can Twins Hold off Re-Tooled White Sox, Tigers?

John ChurchCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2011

2011 AL Central Preview: Can Twins Hold off Re-Tooled White Sox, Tigers?

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    Despite Joe Nathan missing the entire season and Justin Morneau having to sit out the last three months, the Minnesota Twins won their second straight division title in 2010.

    As defending champs with an already lofty payroll by their own standards, the Twins didn't feel compelled to make any major additions this off season, instead focusing on re-signing their own free agents.

    The same cannot be said for the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, who seized the opportunity to close the gap.

    Kenny Williams added the premier power hitter on the market in Adam Dunn to an already powerful lineup, and Dave Dombrowski got Miguel Cabrera some much-needed protection by signing Victor Martinez.

    Whereas the Twins watched several pieces of their 2010 bullpen depart, the White Sox and Tigers strengthened their pens with the additions of Jesse Crain and Joaquin Benoit, respectively. Additionally, both teams retained key players from their 2010 squads, including Paul Konerko and Magglio Ordonez.

    The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals brought up the rear in 2010, and they took very different approaches to their rebuilding processes this Winter.

    Whereas the Indians lacked the flexibility and trading chips to do much of anything, the Royals were able to parlay some established players into young talent.

    Consider the improvements made by the White Sox and Tigers, the uncertain status of Jake Peavy and Justin Morneau, and Miguel Cabrera's latest off-field issues, and picking a winner is no easy task. In fact, with all due respect to the AL West and NL Central, this is easily the hardest division in baseball to predict.

    While teams on the coasts will continue to hog the publicity, no division in baseball is more primed to offer high drama and good theater this season than the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox

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    2010 Record: 88-74, Second Place

    Offseason Grade (B+): No one was really sure what Kenny Williams would do heading into the offseason but he ended up making quite the splash, landing the premiere power hitter on the market in Adam Dunn. The Big Donkey should run into 40 home runs with ease playing half his games at U.S. Cellular Field.

    With Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz departing, they stole Jesse Crain away from the Twins for late inning experience and also signed the lefty Will Ohman. Though Matt Thornton and Chris Sale look to be the favorites to assume closing duties, Crain could pick up a few saves this season as well.

    Additionally, owner Jerry Reinsdorf opened up the checkbook to keep mainstays Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski on the South Side.

    Strengths: Sluggers Dunn, Konerko and Carlos Quentin cement a middle of the order that has the look of a beer league softball team. With 2010 MLB stolen base leader Juan Pierre and Alexei Ramirez in the fold, they have no shortage of table setters either.

    Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle headline one of the AL's deepest rotations. Thornton, Crain, Sale and Sergio Santos look like a pretty solid late-inning quartet.

    Weaknesses: While it appears Peavy will take the mound sooner rather than later, it remains to be seen how effective he'll be; without him, they do not have a true ace. Buehrle (1.40 WHIP, 10.5 H/9) started to show his age last season. Dunn, Quentin and Alex Rios are all streaky hitters and it could make for a feast-or-famine offense.

    Breakout Candidate - Chris Sale: While many of his fellow 2010 draftees took their time signing, Sale signed shortly after being drafted and reaped the benefits, making it to the majors in August. From there, the 6'6" lefty dazzled, posting a 1.93 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP and 12.3 K/9 in 23.1 innings.

    He's very much in the running as far as the White Sox' closer competition goes, but he was a starter in college and could fill that role should Jake Peavy miss extensive time. Either way, the 21-year-old is clearly a big part of the pale hoses' plans in 2011

    The Bottom Line: Though they do not have the star power of the Twins or Tigers, the White Sox always seem to field a well-rounded, solid team and this season is no different. The addition of Adam Dunn to a team that finished fourth in the AL in home runs in 2010 ensures they'll be among the Junior circuit's best power-hitting teams in 2011.

    They've been a favorite among prognosticators so far this spring; whether or not they fulfill that promise depends largely on the health of Jake Peavy. If he's anything close to the pitcher who won the 2007 NL Cy Young, the White Sox just might have too much pitching for the rest of the division to handle.

Cleveland Indians

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    2010 Record: 69-93, Fourth Place

    Offseason Grade (D-): Simply put, the Tribe didn't do anything this winter. They made a grand total of three major league signings—Austin Kearns, Orlando Cabrera and Chad Durbin—none of whom help Cleveland's chances this season much. In fairness, they couldn't have been expected to make any waves via free agency.

    They've been linked to Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Bonderman in recent weeks but to date, have not signed either of them.

    Making matters worse, they were unable to deal any established players to add to their farm system as neither Grady Sizemore or Travis Hafner had much trade value. 

    Strengths: In Shin-Soo Choo, they have a bona-fide star and maybe a second if Sizemore taps into his pre-2009 form. With a full season's worth of AB, Carlos Santana could emerge as one of the best catchers in the AL. Chris Perez has emerged as a stingy closer.

    Weaknesses: Their rotation thins out drastically after Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson, with Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff and Mitch Talbot among those vying for starting spots. While a very-talented two way player, Asdrubal Cabrera just can't seem to stay healthy. It's not far-fetched to wonder if Hafner will ever get back to his pre-2007 form.

    Breakout Candidate - Carlos Carrasco: He was one of the key ingredients in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Phillies in 2009, so Carrasco obviously has some potential. 

    The young Venezuelan parlayed a strong showing at the end of 2010 into a job this Spring, as he's expected to be Cleveland's No. 3 starter. He turns 24 later this month, so even if it doesn't happen this season, Carrasco has some time to put it all together.

    The Bottom Line: Since they came within a game of advancing to the 2007 World Series, it's been all downhill for the Tribe. Over the past few seasons, they've parted ways with some very good players (Lee, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez) and Sizemore and Carmona could be the next two out of town if Chris Antonetti wants to add to his farm system.

    It's a long climb back to the top for small market franchises like the Indians. If their young players can keep progressing and they can parlay established players into more young talent, that at least is a step in the right direction.

Detroit Tigers

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    2010 Record: 81-81, Third Place

    Offseason Grade (B+): With a ton of money coming off the books, many expected the Tigers to make a splash this winter and they did just that.

    The addition of Victor Martinez is fairly significant, as he provides the Tigers something they've sorely lacked the past three seasons: a bona fide all-star to protect Miguel Cabrera. While they paid premium price to get him, new setup man Joaquin Benoit should solidify the eighth inning for them with Phil Coke moving to the rotation. At $3M for one year, Brad Penny was a very reasonable gamble.

    On top of these additions, Dave Dombrowski was able to retain Magglio Ordonez, Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Inge. The departures of Jeremy Bonderman (8-10, 5.53 ERA) and Gerald Laird (.207/ .263/ .304 in 270 AB) qualify as addition by subtraction.

    Strengths: With all due respect to Josh Hamilton, Cabrera is the best hitter in the AL. Sandwiched between Ordonez and Martinez, Cabrera has more protection than he's had at any point in his tenure with Detroit. 

    Led by perennial Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, their rotation has remarkable upside. Though Coke is moving to the rotation, they still have the best bullpen in the division.

    Weaknesses: They have definite concerns defensively, as Martinez (who will get most of his AB at DH for a reason), Peralta and Ryan Raburn are all average glovemen at best. Their rotation options outside the top five sorely lack experience, maximizing the need for Porcello and Coke to perform. Aside from Austin Jackson, they have virtually no speed.

    Breakout Candidate - Phil Coke: Acquired at the 2009 Winter Meetings with Jackson, Scherzer, and Daniel Schlereth in a deal that already looks great for the Tigers, the net gain will be even greater if Coke can take his talents from the bullpen to the rotation.

    Coke has a three-pitch repertoire and started 77 games while in the Yankees' minor league system. If he makes a smooth transition, the Tigers will have a solid left-handed presence in the rotation for the first time since the days of Kenny Rogers.

    The Bottom Line: The 2011 campaign symbolizes a crossroads for the Tigers. Neither Dave Dombrowski or Jim Leyland is signed beyond this season. Considering the team has flat out not gotten it done the past few seasons, the pressure to win is on. That said, Dombrowski and Leyland should like their chances, as the Tigers enter 2011 with the most talented, well-rounded team they've fielded since 2006.

    Their lineup, anchored by Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, shouldn't have much trouble scoring runs. If they don't shoot themselves in the foot on defense and their young rotation realizes its vast potential, the Tigers will at least be in the race all season long, with a very realistic chance of winning their first division title since 1987.

Kansas City Royals

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    2010 Record: 67-95, Fifth Place

    Offseason Grade (C): Though the moves they made may make for a rough go in 2010, Dayton Moore deserves some credit for adding to an already impressive collection of young talent this Winter.

    They did very well acquiring Vin Mazzaro from Oakland for David DeJesus. I also like the package they received for Zack Greinke. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar could both contribute immediately (especially on defense) and are young enough to continue developing as hitters. Add in the two pitching prospects they received, Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, and I think they did pretty well.

    If he's healthy, onetime Rockies' ace Jeff Francis could prove to be one of the bargains of the offseason.

    Strengths: Believe it or not, they finished second in MLB in hits and BA last year, so hitting for average clearly is not a problem for them. At age 24, we have yet to see the best from Billy Butler. In the event of injuries, they have several near-MLB-ready prospects who could step in and make a splash.

    Weaknesses: They finished in the bottom 10 in MLB in HR and XBH last season, and they didn't make any moves that suggest they'll be any better there this season. Though they have some high upside young arms, they lack a bona fide ace with Greinke gone. Though Soria is a stud, their middle relief options leave a lot to be desired.

    Breakout Candidate - Kila Ka'aihue: Broadcasters across the country better learn the proper pronunciation quickly, because they could be saying the 26-year-old Hawaiian's name a lot this season. In 180 AB last season, Ka'aihue showed a glimpse of his power (8 HR) and batting eye (24 BB).

    The catch is that he hit just .217 with an OBP just barely above .300. Nonetheless, the Royals are giving him a chance to put it all together this season. If nothing else, he should be a solid source of power (something the Royals direly need).

    The Bottom Line: It's been some time since the Royals were a factor in the AL Central, and they don't figure to be this season either. That said, perhaps those days are finally winding down as the franchise's farm system is the envy of the rest of baseball.

    Whether its Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery or John Lamb, it wouldn't surprise me to see some of their promising youngsters make their way to the majors in 2011. Sick of losing as the organization and fan base may be, there's legitimate reason for hope in Kansas City.

Minnesota Twins

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    2010 Record: 94-68, First Place (Lost ALDS to NYY)

    Offseason Grade (C+): Their 2011 commitments already nearing $100M, the Twins had to be conservative this off season and focused mainly on retaining their own free agents.

    By re-signing Carl Pavano and Jim Thome, they solidified their rotation and bench. They were able to make a splash internationally, adding 26-year-old Japanese switch-hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka to be their starting second baseman.

    Unfortunately, middle relievers were at a premium this Winter, and they watched Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay sign elsewhere (Crain with the division rival White Sox). Their budget stretched thin, they were unable to make a move to address their bullpen, meaning they'll rely on Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek among others to fill the void.

    Strengths: Their lineup, built around the dynamic duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau and the budding star Delmon Young, boasts a good mix of power and speed. They have the best defense in the division. 

    With Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey among those competing for rotation spots, they have good starting pitching depth. For all the relievers they lost this winter, Matt Capps and Joe Nathan could be a dominant late-inning tandem.

    Weaknesses: While it's helped them to two straight division titles, their lack of power pitching hasn't done them any favors in the postseason. Outside of Morneau, their infield (Nishioka, Alexi Casilla, Danny Valencia) is very young and unproven. If Nathan cannot tap into his pre-injury form, their bullpen could be a major liability.

    Breakout Candidate - Tsuyoshi Nishioka: While Minnesota is not known as a typical landing spot for Japanese players, it's really not surprising they signed Nishioka given his skill set. A batting champion with good speed renowned for his glove work, he fits them like a glove.

    As with all overseas imports, there's no telling how he adapts to playing overseas; he could make an impact or he may need time to adjust. If the former happens, the Twins could have quite the table setter.

    The Bottom Line: Though they didn't make waves this winter as the White Sox and Tigers did, the Twins already boasted such a rock solid team, they didn't need to. Their lineup is very deep and they're always among the best defensive teams in the league as well. What their starting pitchers lack in power, they make up for in efficiency and dependability.

    Whether they can pull off a three-peat depends on the health of Morneau and Nathan, the latter being especially important with such bullpen stalwarts as Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier gone.

    If those two are back to their old selves, the Twins are in great shape. Until someone knocks them from their perch, Ron Gardenhire's club is the team to beat in the AL Central.

Five Players Who Could Change the Race

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    1. Jake Peavy

    One of the main reasons this race is so hard to forecast is the uncertain status of the South Sider's ace. He's looked and felt good this spring but it's still unclear if he'll break camp with the team or not.

    Pre-surgery, Peavy was a bona fide ace, winning the pitching triple crown en route to the 2007 NL Cy Young. After a rough start to 2010, he was finally getting acclimated to the AL (3-2, 1.75 ERA in 5 June starts) when he detached the latissimus dorsi muscle in his back and underwent season-ending surgery.

    There really is no precedent for recovery from that kind of injury, so it remains to be seen if he can get back to being the pitcher he was in San Diego. If he can, the sky is the limit for the pale hoes' rotation.


    2. Rick Porcello

    After a stellar rookie season, the 22-year-old righty went through some growing pains in 2010 (4-7, .324 BAA, 6.14 ERA in the 1st half). Following a demotion to the minors though, he started to right the ship (6-5, .258 BAA, 4.00 ERA).

    He was a reliable third starter for the team in 2009 and a major reason they nearly won the division. If the Tigers are to contend this season, a bounce back season by Porcello is imperative.

    The Tigers brass are so confident he's primed to build on the second half of 2010, they never seriously considered adding a mid-rotation starter via free agency. Whether or not he rewards that faith will go a long way in deciding the Tigers' fate this season.

    3. Gordon Beckham

    The 2010 season was tough sledding for this sophomore as well (9 HR, .252/ .317/ .378) after impressing greatly in 2009. Like Porcello, Beckham made marked improvement after the All-Star break (.310/ .380/ .497).

    He's probably slotted in the back of the White Sox order, but he saw most of his AB in the two hole his rookie season. If he could fill that role in 2011, it would allow the hard-hitting, free-swinging Alexei Ramirez to move to the middle of the order.

    The White Sox should score runs regardless of what Beckham does this year, but a return to his rookie year form would make their lineup that much more potent.


    4. Pat Neshek

    With Joe Nathan coming back and Matt Capps in the fold should he falter, I don't think the Twins should have any trouble closing games this season. How they plan on getting the ball to those two is a cause for concern though.

    Enter Neshek, a live-armed righty not short on talent who's appeared in just 26 games the past three seasons. While the Twins had the bullpen depth to withstand his absence then, they need him now.

    There's no questioning the talent (1.00 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 5.6 H/9 in 70.1 innings in 2007). It's simply a matter of him taking the mound often enough to utilize it.


    5. Carlos Guillen

    Guillen has had such a miserable time staying healthy the past three seasons, you forget that he was once counted among the best shortstops in the AL.

    Since then, he's moved all over the diamond as his range diminished and more mileage piled up on his knees. When he is ready to play, Jim Leyland has been adamant he'll be the starting second baseman.

    At 35, Guillen's best days are probably behind him. If he stays healthy though, he probably has enough left in the tank to be a productive hitter in the sixth or seventh spot in the Tigers' lineup.

Predicted Standings

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    1. Detroit Tigers (91-71)

    2. Minnesota Twins (89-73)

    3. Chicago White Sox (84-78)

    4. Cleveland Indians (67-95)

    5. Kansas City Royals (61-101)

     

    Given my rooting interest, I'm sure some will scoff as this prediction. The White Sox are the sexy pick and the Twins are the defending champions but this is going to be a three team race, and I'm picking the Tigers to come out on top.

    While he must get his life off the field in order, there's no denying Miguel Cabrera's talent between the lines. With Magglio Ordonez and Victor Martinez hitting around him, I expect Cabrera to flourish. 

    Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer will be as good as advertised and Rick Porcello and Phil Coke will come through for Jim Leyland, as the Tigers will ride their pitching to the postseason.

    I fully expect the Twins to be in it to the end. Even if Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan suffer a setback or two in their recoveries, they'll still probably find a way to get it done.

    I'm concerned about their bullpen and for the first time in a while, the Tigers have the better overall pitching staff. As such, I'm picking them to dethrone the Twins after two years atop the division.

    I think the White Sox have more issues than people are acknowledging, none more pressing than Jake Peavy's health. Without him, their rotation looks a lot less scary.

    I don't see Paul Konerko replicating his monster 2010 season, and their lineup is littered with streaky hitters which could make for a feast-or-famine offense. This team has definite promise, but they're far from perfect.

    All three of these teams should benefit from playing in the same division as the two worst teams in the AL. For the Indians and Royals, 2011 looks to be another step in a rebuilding process.

    No matter who comes out on top, I expect this to be a fantastic race.

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