2011 AL Central Preview: Do Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau Returns Put Twins at Top?

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2011 AL Central Preview: Do Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau Returns Put Twins at Top?
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First Place: Minnesota Twins

The key to the Twins' success is the health of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan. Minnesota did an excellent job piecing things together last year with Jim Thome, Michael Cuddyer and company, but if they want to repeat as American League Central Champions, they’ll need Morneau’s bat.

The Twins always seem to get by at closer, so this isn’t nearly as primary a concern. Even if Nathan falters, they have Matt Capps as an insurance policy.

The Twins added Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the offseason to bolster their middle infield. The rest of their moves were just securing their free agents, namely Carl Pavano and Thome. Delmon Young and Danny Valencia were pleasant surprises for the Twins last year, while Cuddyer once again showed his versatility. Denard Span struggled at times but should bounce back.

Francisco Liriano shined in the rotation, which will also be key to the Twins' success. If they can get strong efforts from Liriano, Pavano, Scott Baker and company, there is a good chance that Ron Gardenhire pulls the right strings again to maintain AL Central dominance.



Second Place: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox added some firepower in the offseason by bringing in Adam Dunn to join the likes of Alex Rios, Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez and Carlos Quentin. Juan Pierre will once again set the table, and Gordon Beckham looks to break out.

The White Sox have a solid rotation and should get a nice boost when Jake Peavy returns from shoulder surgery around the All-Star break. Until then, it will be up to John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson to carry the load. The White Sox lost Bobby Jenks in the bullpen, but Matt Thornton and Chris Sale should be up to the task.

Ozzie Guillen will be entertaining or annoying, depending on your point of view, once again. You cannot accuse him of not speaking his mind.

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The White Sox seem to have a mental block that keeps them from getting past the Twins. If they can overcome it, the division is theirs for the taking.



Third Place: Detroit Tigers

Miguel Cabrera is the most talented player in the division, but he may also be the most troubled. Good news for Tigers fans and his fantasy owners that his arrest happened before the season started. He’s dealing with a serious issue, though, that is bigger than baseball. Fortunately the structure of the season could be what he needs to keep his life in order.

On a less serious note, the addition of Victor Martinez gives the team a little more firepower. With Austin Jackson, Ryan Raburn, Carlos Guillen and Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers could have a potent offense in 2011.

Justin Verlander anchors the pitching staff with Max Scherzer living up to his promise. There are question marks at the back end of their rotation, which makes it hard for me to imagine they can surpass the Twins or the White Sox.



Fourth Place: Cleveland Indians

The Indians could actually surprise some people this year. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the most underrated players in the American League. Grady Sizemore is trying to recover from knee surgery. He was one of the most exciting players in baseball and could really help their offense.

Carlos Santana looks like one of the best young catchers in the league, while Orlando Cabrera will provide veteran leadership. If players like Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta can take the next step, the Tribe have an outside shot at taking third place.

That is, if they get the pitching they need. Fausto Carmona had a strong year, but if he loses his mechanics on his sinker, he can go south fast. Justin Masterson has the goods; he just needs to work on his control issues. Too many free passes lead to big innings. Chris Perez is a solid closer, but the rest of the pitching staff is loaded with question marks.



Fifth Place: Kansas City Royals

Zack Greinke is gone. Jeff Francis, Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies and Vin Mazzaro do not intimidate opposing batters. Joakim Soria is one of the best closers in the American League, but how many leads will he be able to protect?

Speaking of protecting, who is going to protect Billy Butler in the Royals lineup? Mike Aviles had a strong finish to last year, and Kila Ka’aihue has a cool name and some pop, but this is a team that is going to struggle to avoid 100 losses.

 

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