2011 MLB Predictions: The Top 20 AL Central Players To Watch

Jim Berdysz@@JBirdman27Correspondent IMarch 24, 2011

2011 MLB Predictions: The Top 20 AL Central Players To Watch

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    The American League Central Division is filled with many talented players heading into the 2011 season.

    Some of them have been around for many seasons and have become great veterans and leaders in the clubhouse, while others are younger up-and-coming stars, looking to make their mark in the big leagues.

    Some of these players right now could be Hall of Famers, while others have the full potential to become not only All-Stars in the Majors, but Cooperstown bound as well.

    Injures and lack of production have also hurt some of the players on this list in the past, so they will be looking to bounce back in 2011. In just one week, the boys of summer will finally be back, in search for their destiny this season.

    The division is still up for grabs, but could very easily be determined by many of these players.

    Here are the top 20 AL Central players to watch in 2011.

20. Jeff Francis (SP) Kansas City Royals

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    We all remember Jeff Francis, the southpaw that led the Colorado Rockies to the 2007 World Series. This season he will begin a new chapter in his career with Kansas City.

    After going 17-9 with a 4.22 ERA in 2007, Francis has managed to pitch just 248 innings over the past three seasons. So far this spring, the 30 year old left hander has gone 1-1 with a 4.20 ERA in four starts covering 15 innings for K.C.

    If the Royals want to rely on a young group of starters in the rotation, Francis will need to step up and become the veteran presence Kansas City needs going forward. The main key to watch for in 2011 though will certainly be his health.

19. Gordon Beckham (2B) Chicago White Sox

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    Once considered a highly touted prospect after a great rookie campaign in 2009, Gordon Beckham had a down year in 2010. In his second season in the big leagues, Beckham hit .252 with nine HRs and 49 RBI in 131 games.

    Could it have been just a small sophomore slump?

    It's definitely a possibility, as Beckham has showed signs of the player he was as a rookie this spring, hitting .351 with three HRs and 11 RBI in 52 spring training ABs. If there was a White Sox player who could add even more of a power threat to Chicago's already lethal lineup, it's the 24 year old Beckham.

    If he becomes anywhere near the type of player he was as a rookie, the four other teams in the AL Central better be on the lookout.

18. Brennan Boesch (OF) Detroit Tigers

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    Brennan Boesch took the big leagues by storm in 2010, as the rookie outfielder was named the AL Rookie of the Month during both May and June and finished fifth in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year.

    For Boesch though, his rookie year became a tale of two halves:

    • Before All-Star Break: .342 AVG 12 HRs 49 RBI in 65 games
    • After All-Star Break: .163 AVG 2 HRs 18 RBI in 68 games

    With outfielder Magglio Ordonez and shortstop Carlos Guillen not getting any younger, Detroit needs Boesch to step up and be the type of player he was in the first half, not only to back up the dangerous Miguel Cabrera in the Tigers lineup, but give the team a young bat they look to for many years to come.

    What Boesch needs the most is another fast start in 2011, to get him going in the right direction and  hopefully make him forget about his poor second half. He looks as if he has found his stroke early this spring, hitting .276 with two HRs and seven RBI in 58 ABs, a good sign of what may be to come for him this year.

17. Tsuyoshi Nishioka (2B) Minnesota Twins

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    Signing a 3-year, $9 million deal with the Twins this offseason, Japanese native Tsuyoshi Nishioka will look show America what another great international talent can do in the Major Leagues.

    Last season with the Nippon Professional Baseball league, the switch hitting second baseman hit .346 with 11 HRs and 59 RBI in 144 games. Nishioka also was a star player for team Japan during both the 2006 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

    The Japanese native has done fairly well so far this spring hitting .359 with 0 HRs and five RBI in 37 ABs. Things could only get better for Nishioka and the Twins, as they believe they have filled their second base void with the 26 year old rookie for many years to come.

    Something to keep a close eye on as the 2011 season progresses.

16. Melky Cabrera (OF) Kansas City Royals

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    While he may not pose the biggest threat in the Royals lineup, outfielder Melky Cabrera is still a player to watch in 2011.

    After a forgettable season with the Atlanta Braves last year, Cabrera will look to resurrect his career in Kansas City after signing a 1-year, $1.25 million contract this past offseason. He has not only shown early on this spring what a force he could become, but the impact it could have on the team as well.

    Cabrera has virtually become MLB's best hitter in spring training hitting .500 with one HR and 13 RBI in 44 ABs, numbers that possibly indicate a potential breakout year for the former Yankees outfielder this season.

    At 26 years old, Cabrera still has time enough to reach his maximum big league potential, something that could finally be seen with the Royals in 2011.

15. Matt LaPorta (1B) Cleveland Indians

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    When the Cleveland Indians traded former ace C.C. Sabathia in 2008, the deal centered around a package of prospects from the Milwaukee Brewers organization. The top prospect in the deal was Matt LaPorta.

    So far though, LaPorta has somewhat gone unnoticed in the Indians lineup, hitting .221 with 12 HRs and 41 RBI in 110 games last season. There's nothing else for the first baseman to prove at Triple-A either, as he owns a career .310 batting average with 22 HRs and 76 RBI in 111 career AAA ABs.

    The only thing for LaPorta to do now is prove the Indians and many Cleveland fans wrong, and become the type of hitter he has projected to become in the Major Leagues. He will get his chance to shine in 2011, as the Indians have already stated he will be their opening day first baseman.

    Tribe fans certainly hope this spring training isn't a sign of things to come for their first baseman though, as LaPorta is currently hitting a dismal .174 with two HRs and 10 RBI in 46 ABs. If the Indians have any shot at winning in 2011, LaPorta will need to be a key piece to the lineup.

14. Max Scherzer (SP) Detroit Tigers

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    For Tigers starting pitcher Max Scherzer, 2011 could be a huge breakout year for the former Arizona Diamondbacks farm hand.

    A big piece of the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to New York, Scherzer went 12-11 with a 3.50 ERA in his 31 starts with Detroit last season. Pretty good numbers for the 26 year old's first taste of the American League baseball. This upcoming year could prove to be even better for Scherzer, where he will look to back up ace Justin Verlander up top the starting rotation.

    He has struggled this spring though, going 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in 15 innings. More importantly, he's walked nine batters over that span as well, striking out 10. If he can get his walks down, Scherzer could very easily be in the running for the AL Central's lowest ERA by a starter by season's end.

13. Jim Thome (DH) Minnesota Twins

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    Jim Thome? Really?

    Yes, the Thominator will be a player to watch once again come 2011, not because this may be his last season in the big leagues though, but because of one number: 600.

    With 11 HRs this season, Thome will become just the seventh player in baseball history to hit 600 HRs in his career. What a milestone that would be for a small town, midwestern guy like Thome, who currently is eighth all-time on the career home run list with 589 HRs (20 HRs behind Sammy Sosa and 24 HRs behind Alex Rodriguez).

    Thome certainly paved the way to reach 600 HRs in 2011 thanks to a big 2010 season, when he hit .283 with 25 HRs and 59 RBI in just 108 games. Lets all hope this spring training is just a small bump in the road for the 40-year old Thome, hitting just .100 with 0 HRs and three RBI in 20 ABs this spring.

12. Josh Tomlin (SP) Cleveland Indians

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    If you don't know him now, you certainly will in by the end of the 2011 season.

    Projected as the Indians fifth starter, Josh Tomlin has come out of nowhere and surprised even the Indians in his early big league success last season. Facing the Yankees in his Major League debut last July, Tomlin went seven innings giving up just three hits and one earned run to earn him his first big league victory of his career.

    A former 19th round pick in 2006, the 26 year old right hander went 6-4 with a 4.56 ERA in 12 starts that covered 73 innings in 2010. So far, Tomlin has looked like a front of the line rotation guy this spring, going 0-0 with a 1.13 ERA in eight innings pitched for the Tribe.

    Fans better keep and eye on him throughout the 2011 season, as this is the type of guy who could have a major breakout.

11. Austin Jackson (OF) Detroit Tigers

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    Why should we be watching the American League's runner up in the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year race?

    Simply for that reason.

    With any former top rookie in his first season in the big leagues, the sophomore slump could easily pose a threat to Jackson in 2011.

    The centerpiece of the Granderson trade to the Yankees, Jackson broke out in his rookie year in a big way, hitting .293 with four HRs and 41 RBI. while stealing 27 bases in 151 games. Anything close to those numbers in 2011 will make the 24 year old one of the best outfielders in not only the AL Central, but the entire game.

    Jackson has started out slow this spring, hitting .280 with 0 HRs and two RBI in 50 ABs, but something tells me he will do just fine in his second season with Detroit.

    He definitely has what it takes to be the leadoff hitter for the Tigers for the next decade. Fans and teams better take note of him.

10. Alex Gordon (OF) Kansas City Royals

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    Could this be the year Alex Gordon finally bounces back to the hitter he was back in 2008?.  Well if spring training was any indication as to his future success in 2011, then the answer would certainly be yes.

    The Royals former second overall pick in 2005 is hitting .333 with three HRs and 14 RBI in 48 ABs this spring.

    His last two seasons in the big leagues are far from memorable, playing in just 123 games over two years and hitting a combined .223 with 14 HRs and 42 RBI. Transitioning from a third baseman to an outfielder, the 27 year old Gordon still has time for one last chance to prove many fans wrong this year.

    If Gordon does in fact come back to give the Royals a great 2011 season, he could easily be on the radar as an AL Comeback Player of the Year. Don't count him out on making his mark in the Major Leagues just yet.

9. Chris Sale (LHP) Chicago White Sox

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    After pitching just 10.1 innings in the minor leagues, White Sox pitcher Chris Sale became a huge force out of the Chicago bullpen down the stretch last season.

    Drafted thirteenth overall by the ChiSox last season, Sale soared in his first taste of the big leagues, going 2-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 21 games that covered 23.1 innings, also adding four saves to his incredible rookie stat line as well.

    The question that now remains for both Sale and the White Sox is: Will he regress in 2011? While he still is considered a rookie, Sale could possibly find himself struggling through a pre-sophomore slump in the setup role this season, which is definitely something to watch for this upcoming season.

    The 21 year old has already struggled a little bit this spring, going 0-0 with a 5.79 ERA in 9.1 innings pitched.

8. Kila Ka'aihue (1B) Kansas City Royals

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    Don't worry if you can't pronounce his last name right now, you probably still will have trouble saying it by season's end. One thing is for certain though, Kila Ka'aihue could potentially become not only one of the best AL Central hitters in 2011, but throughout the big leagues as well.

    A former fifteenth round pick by the Royals in 2002, Ka'aihue has already shown signs of what is potentially to come in this season, as he is hitting .413 with five HRs and 12 RBI in 46 ABs this spring.

    He may have not had a standout 2010 campaign (.217 AVG eight HRs and 25 RBI in 52 games) but the Hawaiian native could very easily be a superstar in the making.

    By the end of the season, fans will see why the first baseman is named after one of Hawaii's most active volcanoes, Kilauea, as the Royals phenom will be erupting at the plate in 2011.

7. Joe Mauer (C) Minnesota Twins

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    Virtually baseball's best catcher over the past few seasons, Joe Mauer is still a player to be on look out for in 2011. No, not because of his consistent .300+ batting average, but rather his lack of power last season.

    In 239 ABs at the new Target Field last season, Mauer managed to hit just one HR. This coming from a guy who hit 16 HR at the Metrodome in 2009. Could he struggle again at home in this season? To any baseball fan, the odds are he probably will, as the big wall in right field at the new ballpark could be a problem for Mauer once again.

    If the Twins want success to come easier in 2011, Mauer simply has to hit the long ball in front of his hometown fans in Minneapolis. If not, could it be too soon to rethink his eight-year, $184 million extention?

6. Adam Dunn (OF) Chicago White Sox

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    Signing a  four-year, $56 million deal to play on the South Side of Chicago this year, Adam Dunn could make some noise at U.S. Cellular field in 2011. Even though he has never played a single game at the home ballpark, Dunn could easily slug his usual 35+ HRs this season, something he has been averaging each year for the past seven seasons.

    At 31 years old, Dunn is still in the prime of his power hitting career, hitting .260 with 38 HRs and 103 RBI in 158 games last season. Even though this will be his first taste of the big leagues in the American League, Dunn will look to prove some critics wrong in 2011.

    Look for him to add even more of a power source to the White Sox lineup, one that already features the likes of standout hitters like Paul Konerko, Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios.

5. Carlos Santana (C) Cleveland Indians

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    No, not that Carlos Santana, but rather Indians young phenom catcher Carlos Santana.

    Even though his rookie year was cut short after a season ending injury in early August, Santana provided the Indians with a punch on offense when he was in the lineup in his first taste of the big leagues. In 150 ABs last year, Santana hit .260 with six HRs and 22 RBI, giving the Tribe another young bat ready to produce in 2011.

    Will he stay healthy the entire season though?

    Santana has showed no signs of injury early on, as he is hitting .308 with one HR and five RBI in 39 ABs this spring. With Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner in the middle of the Indians lineup, Santana could be the key piece that could potentially push the Tribe's offense over the top this year.

    You will be seeing 24 year old Santana in an Indians uniform for a long time.

4. Victor Martinez (C) Detroit Tigers

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    The former longtime Indians catcher, Victor Martinez has found a new home in Detroit this offseason, adding more of a threat to the Tigers solid lineup.

    Last season with the Red Sox, Martinez hit .302 with 20 HRs and 79 RBI in 127 games, an above average season for the player known around baseball as V-Mart.

    So why should we bother watching him in 2011? He will put up similar numbers by season's end, right?

    Well the only real problem with Martinez heading into this season is his lack of success at his new home ballpark, Comerica Park. Martinez has managed to hit just .225 with four HRs and 19 RBI in 169 career ABs. Did Detroit overthink this when they signed him to a 4-year, $50 million contract?

    Honestly, the Tigers probably knew his lack of production at Comerica in his career, but they are willing to still take a chance on one of the best catcher's in the game. You better believe Detroit fans will be watching Martinez closely in 2011.

3. Justin Morneau (1B) Minnesota Twins

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    Arguably one of baseball's best hitters over the past few years, Justin Morneau will be the biggest Twins player to watch this upcoming season. After putting up huge numbers during the first half of the 2010 season, (.345 18 HRs 56 RBI in 81 games) Morneau suffered a season ending concussion in July, which has still set him back early on in 2011.

    Averaging 20+ HRs each season since 2005, the Canadian native will hopefully be ready in time for Opening Day. In just 13 ABs this spring, Morneau has just one hit, but thinks are certainly looking up for the former 2006 AL MVP.

    Even though we seen the Twins still have success without him in 2010, if the Twins want to set aside themselves from the other teams in the AL Central, Minnesota surely needs a healthy and productive season from Morneau in 2011.

2. Jake Peavy (SP) Chicago White Sox

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    If there was a player as important for a starting rotation heading into 2011, it's White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy. Still recovering from surgery from a detached lat muscle last July, the former 2007 Cy Young Award winner is the definite key to the ChiSox starting rotation this season.

    When the White Sox shocked the baseball world and traded for Peavy at the trade deadline in 2009, many baseball fans believed the White Sox would become one of the American League's best teams for years to come. That plan hasn't gone according to plan.

    Last season was simply a down year for Peavy, going 7-6 with a 4.63 ERA in 107 innings during 17 starts in his first big taste of the American League.

    Spring Training hasn't been exactly good to Peavy either, as he is currently 0-3 with a 4.11 ERA in four starts covering 15.1 innings this spring, even hitting a minor bump in the road due to rotator cuff tendinitis. The White Sox are still optimistic that he will be ready for the start of the season, but any more setbacks could put Peavy's 2011 season in limbo.

    With newly acquired Adam Dunn and the always consistent Mark Buehrle leading the pitching staff, Peavy could give Chicago a real boost if he stays healthy and starts showing signs of the pitcher he was a few years ago.

1. Grady Sizemore (OF) Cleveland Indians

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    There is honestly no better player in the AL Central that you will need to watch more than Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore.

    Once looked upon as the face of the Tribe, Sizemore has all but disappeared from baseball over the past two seasons, hitting a combined .230 with 18 HRs and 77 RBI in only 139 games over that time span, this after playing a full 162 game season in both 2006 and 2007.

    His average has also been free falling since the 2006 season.

    • 2006: .290 AVG
    • 2007: .277 AVG
    • 2008: .268 AVG
    • 2009: .248 AVG
    • 2010: .211 AVG
    • 2011:  ???

    Even though he will start the season on the DL, Sizemore will be back in the middle to late April. Tribe fans hope he returns to his past greatness.

    As we have seen over the past two seasons now, the Cleveland Indians are nothing without Sizemore's spark, roaming center field or at the top of the Tribe lineup. If the Indians have any chance of contending the next few seasons with the young pieces they have in place, Sizemore will need to be in there for a full season to lead Cleveland once again.

    If he doesn't show signs of coming back, Sizemore and the Indians could be parting ways fairly soon.