The American League Central division is evolving.
For the past decade, the Minnesota Twins have dominated the division, only to fall short in the playoffs. Their success has been based on destroying their opponents in the division and coasting outside of it. The Twins have won six of the nine division championships since 2002. They've also usually had the best talent.
But 10 years later, the landscape is completely different.
The Detroit Tigers are now on top of the AL Central, while the Twins find themselves at the bottom. The Chicago White Sox, who were the Twins' main rival over the past decade, almost find themselves stuck in a quasi-rebuilding mode. The Cleveland Indians, who won the division in 2007, have started to show signs of life after another rebuilding project that saw them trade away two Cy Young Award winners.
The craziest part may be that the Royals are suddenly considered an up-and-coming team. Yup, things have changed in the AL Central.
That's what makes it exciting for fans of the division. While the players of the old wave that has dominated the 2000's have started to decline or leave for free agency, a bunch of new players have filled their places.
Here is a look at the top 25 players in the American League Central.
2011 Stats: .227 AVG, 4 HR, 30 RBI (69 games)
The bottom of this list shows how the mighty Twins have fallen. The argument could be made that, two years ago, Morneau and Joe Mauer would have been Nos. 1 and 2 on this list. Injuries and the common cold have derailed that.
So after an abysmal 2011 season, why is Morneau on this list? It's because his injuries were pretty legit. When Morneau came back last March, it had been a little over nine months since he'd played organized baseball. That alone required an adjustment process.
Morneau then battled through neck and wrist injuries and found himself on the disabled list for a good chunk of 2011. He briefly came back in August, but suffered another concussion that sidelined him for the rest of the year.
It's easy to point at Morneau's struggles, but what should be pointed out is his track record. Morneau was the 2006 AL Most Valuable Player and may have been on his way to a second MVP award in 2010 if not for that collision in Toronto.
If he still has some gas left in the tank, it's hard to count Morneau out.
2011 Stats: .224 AVG, 10 HR, 32 RBI, 0 SB (71 games)
Like Morneau, Grady Sizemore makes the list because of past accomplishments and the slight chance he may repeat them.
Both Morneau and Sizemore would have made the top five of this list two years ago, but both have suffered injury after injury to prevent them from regaining that status.
The Indians signed Sizemore to a one-year contract this offseason, and they are hoping that he can recover from having two injury-plagued seasons in a row. However, his numbers make that seem unlikely.
The biggest drop-off for Sizemore has been his steals. Last year, he had zero stolen bases. This is from a guy who was a 30/30 threat in the latter part of the decade.
Something could be wrong with Sizemore, but again, there is no denying his talent.
2011 Stats: .287 AVG, 3 HR, 30 RBI (82 games)
When I first made this list, I had Mauer ranked in the top 10. Then I remembered that this was a list about players entering 2012. Mauer is still one of the best hitters in the game, but when it comes to the rest of the division, he has fallen behind.
Two short years ago, Mauer had a season that a catcher had never seen before, and he earned 2009 AL MVP honors. As with Sizemore and Morneau, the talent is still there, but currently Mauer is a shell of his former self.
Instead of being a machine like he was in '09, Mauer has devolved into a singles hitter. The move to Target Field has hurt him as well.
If Mauer can get healthy, he'll climb this list rapidly. Otherwise, he may be headed in the same direction as his teammate, Justin Morneau.
2011 Stats: .264 AVG, 2 HR, 16 RBI (70 games)
Normally, Span is like the fountain Coke in the division. He's not too syrupy. He's not too watery. He's just right for the environment he's in. That's what Span brings to the Twins' lineup.
The problem is that Span ran into the dreaded "Morneau" concussion in 2011 and it limited him to 70 games.
Regardless, Span is still the best leadoff hitter in the division, and he can get on base. His speed hasn't gone anywhere, and he should bounce back from what was a horrible 2011 for the entire Minnesota Twins team.
Again, this is another player that could jump up the rankings as 2012 goes on, but as of right now, Span sits near the bottom of the list.
2011 Stats: .280 AVG, 13 HR, 57 RBI (94 games)
While the players below Hafner on this list are injured stars trying to regain their form, Hafner is returning from rock bottom to make himself an adequate player.
His days of hitting 40-plus home runs are probably over, but Hafner can provide just enough to help the Indians, and that's why he's on the list.
Hafner can still take any pitcher in the league deep. If he can stay healthy in 2012, he could put up a pretty solid season.
2011 Stats: 10-13, 4.68 ERA, 1.40 WHIP (188.1 Innings Pitched) (4-4, 5.10 ERA, 1.45 WHIP in 65.1 Innings Pitched with Cleveland)
People are going to remember Ubaldo Jimenez for his scalding 15-1 start to the 2010 season. At that point, he was throwing Skittles at opposing hitters. It now looks like he's throwing a beach ball.
Since the 2010 All-Star break (at which point Jimenez stood 15-1 for the Colorado Rockies), Jimenez has registered a 14-20 record with a 4.24 ERA. Not exactly "Ace" numbers.
The Indians were excited to get Ubaldo at the trade deadline this year because they felt like they were getting the ace pitcher to replace Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia. The evidence in Ubaldo's numbers and the struggles of Jake Peavy (another NL West pitcher who transitioned to the American League Central) suggest otherwise.
2011 Stats: 7-7, 4.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP (111.2 innings pitched)
Jake Peavy is another player rebounding from injury and trying to regain his past form. Peavy was supposed to be the ace for the Chicago White Sox when he was acquired from the San Diego Padres a couple seasons ago.
All Peavy has done is pitch at a mediocre level and get hurt. The White Sox need Jake Peavy to stay healthy if his transition to the American League is to finally work out.
2011 Stats: 4-7, 3.32 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 36/40 Save Opportunities (59.2 Innings Pitched)
A solid closer should make the top 25 list, and Chris Perez is one. He'll be one of the reasons that the Indians will not only compete for the second wild-card spot in the American League this year, but also the AL Central championship.
Perez only blew four saves for the Tribe in 2011, and he is a solid option for the Indians to slam the door on a tight game.
2011 Stats: 15-9, 4.43 ERA, 1.34 WHIP (195.0 Innings Pitched)
Max Scherzer has had an up-and-down career so far in the major leagues, but he seemed to figure it out in 2011.
While Scherzer did have a career-high with 15 wins, the season wasn't as sharp as it could have been. Scherzer gave up 25 home runs (career-high) and his K/9 rate (8.0) was the lowest of his career.
The addition of Carl Willis as the Tigers' pitching coach made Scherzer seem better through the second half of the season.
Scherzer, who will be 27 next season, has nowhere to go but up.
2011 Stats: 8-12, 4.33 ERA, 1.33 WHIP (170.1 Innings Pitched)
John Danks may not be in this division for long, as Kenny Williams is trying to trade the left-hander, but for now he's one of the top 25 in the division.
Danks had an off-year in 2011 as he snapped a streak of three straight seasons with at least 10 wins and 190 innings pitched. However, when Danks is on his game, he can be a solid pitcher.
The White Sox are trying to trade Danks, but are "asking for the world" in trade talks with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers (who may not be interested anymore after winning the rights for Yu Darvish) and Chicago Cubs.
A rebound year from Danks is possible in 2012.
2011 Stats: .293 AVG, 19 HR, 78 RBI (128 Games)
One of the reasons for hope in Kansas City has been the rise of Eric Hosmer. The highly-touted prospect made his debut in May for the Royals, and he did not disappoint.
Hosmer finished the season third in the Rookie of the Year voting, and figures to be a cornerstone for the Royals for years to come. Once he gets paired with some of the other intriguing prospects in the Royals' system, Hosmer could become not only one of the best hitters in the AL Central, but also one of the best in baseball.
2011 Stats: .283 AVG, 16 HR, 54 RBI (115 Games)
Brennan Boesch will be another interesting player to keep an eye on. Boesch had a pretty good rookie season, but really tailed off in the second half. He came back strong in 2011, but he still has some things to work on.
First, he is purely a first-half player at this point of his career. Boesch's career numbers in the first half (.321 AVG, 24 HR, 93 RBI...including a .358 AVG in June) are far superior to his second-half numbers (.182/6/28). He also still has some difficulty hitting evenly between his righty-vs-lefty splits (higher average against left-handers, more power against right-handers).
Boesch will turn 27 on April 12, so there is time to correct some of these flaws in his game. That makes him a player to watch in the AL Central.
2011 Stats: 12-10, 3.21 ERA, 1.27 WHIP (216.0 Innings Pitched)
This could be a breakout year for Justin Masterson. Projected to be the Indians' No. 2 starter behind Ubaldo Jimenez, Masterson will look to improve on a year in which he surpassed the 200 innings pitched plateau for the first time.
Masterson also posted impressive numbers in several other categories. Aside from a career-low ERA of 3.21, he also had career-bests as a starter in WHIP, K/BB ratio (2.43) and walks (65).
As this young Indians team continues to develop, Masterson should continue to improve on an impressive trend.
2011 Stats: .268 AVG, 12 HR, 64 RBI (124 Games) (.274, 8 HR, 32 RBI in 40 Games with Detroit)
When the Delmon Young trade was made last August, it looked like the Twins had given away a once-promising player away for a beer-soaked coach from a University of Michigan fraternity house. A couple months later, it looked like the Twins had given away Mr. October for the same beer-soaked coach.
Young hit .316 with three home runs in the ALDS against the New York Yankees, and hit two more home runs in the ALCS against the Texas Rangers. While the Tigers couldn't make it to the World Series, Young had an impact in getting them to the ALCS.
The Twins' loss is the Tigers' gain, as Young, who is only 26, should improve after getting away from the supposed pitcher's paradise known as Target Field.
There were rumors that the Tigers would non-tender Young, but that wasn't the case. It could prove to be a very good move for Detroit, as they're keeping a player that drove in over 100 runs in 2010.
2011 Stats: .259 AVG, 8 HR, 36 RBI (85 Games)
I mentioned earlier that Denard Span was like fountain Coke due to his consistency. Actually, compared to Shin Soo-Choo, he's more like Diet Coke.
That's because Soo-Choo has better numbers and an even larger measure of consistency over his career. Choo had an injury-riddled season in Cleveland last year and didn't put up his usual numbers. However, in a normal 162-game season, Choo averages a .291/20/91 line with 20 steals to boot.
Soo-Choo may not be a guy you've heard a lot about, but along with his arm, he's what you want in right field.
2011 Stats: .291 AVG, 19 HR, 95 RBI (159 Games)
Billy Butler is another reason why the Kansas City Royals are on the rise. Butler is a consistent, durable player who the Royals can count on in the designated hitter spot.
While Butler can't serve much of a purpose in the field, the guy can hit. He's registered an OPS of over .820 in the last three seasons, and that was without much help in the lineup. With the emergence of Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer in the lineup, Butler should only continue to get better.
Kansas City is going to have a very formidable 3-4-5 combination for many years to come if this keeps up.
2011 Stats: .295 AVG, 19 HR, 82 RBI (141 Games)
While Joe Mauer had a rather bizarre season, Alex Avila had a good one for the Detroit Tigers. Avila set career-highs across the board in 2011, and looks like he is now the best catcher in the AL Central until Mauer regains his form.
Also, Avila is a team player. When the Tigers were in interleague play, Avila volunteered to play third base in order to keep his bat in the lineup.
Avila is a valuable commodity in Detroit.
2011 Stats: .303 AVG, 23 HR, 87 RBI (151 Games)
This is what the Royals were expecting when they took Alex Gordon No. 2 overall in the 2005 MLB Draft. The Royals selected Gordon ahead of Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman, Ricky Romero, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutcheon and Jay Bruce.
Because of that company, Gordon looked like the biggest bust in that draft because of his inability to stay healthy and his ineffectiveness on the field.
Then the Royals moved Gordon to left field to make room for Mike Moustakas.
Gordon exploded and showed signs of why he was the best player in college baseball in 2005 when the Royals selected him. If he can build off his breakout season, Gordon will be a solid player in the division for years to come.
2011 Stats: 11-13, 2.83 ERA, 1.06 WHIP (216.1 Innings Pitched) (8-1, 1.79 ERA, 0.83 WHIP in 70.1 Innings Pitched with Detroit)
When Doug Fister arrived from the Seattle Mariners to Detroit, somebody looking at his win-loss record would have guessed that he was an awful pitcher. Fister had a 3-12 record with Seattle, but posted a respectable 3.33 ERA.
It's amazing what a little run support can do. Fister went crazy for Detroit down the stretch and became the second best starting pitcher in the AL Central behind his teammate, Justin Verlander. The odd part is that while Fister continued to keep balls in the park (0.5 HR/9 innings was best in baseball), his K/9 rate exploded from 2.78 with Seattle to 11.40 with Detroit.
Like most of the players toward the top, Fister is still young. At age 28, Fister can still become a better pitcher. That's a scary thought for the rest of the AL Central.
2011 Stats: .300 AVG, 31 HR, 105 RBI (149 Games)
Paul Konerko is a professional hitter. While the signing of Adam Dunn hasn't worked out in Chicago, it turns out that Konerko didn't need Dunn's protection in the lineup after all. Konerko was an All-Star again in 2011, and didn't show any signs of slowing down.
While the White Sox are in full-fledged rebuilding mode, Konerko remains a staple on the South Side of Chicago.
2011 Stats: 5-5, 4.03 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 28/35 Save Opportunities (60.1 Innings Pitched)
Was 2011 an aberration or a trend for Joakim Soria? I would believe the former, and that's why he's so high on this list.
With the exception of 2011, Soria has been one of the game's top closers. From 2007-10, Soria's WHIP was just under one, and he saved an average of 32 games a year. That seems low, but since the Royals didn't give him many opportunities, it means he made the most out of the ones he did receive.
Soria should have a lighter workload this season with the arrival of Jonathan Broxton from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Some may view Broxton as a Plan B in case Soria looks more like he did in '11 than in '07-'10. However, Broxton should make it easier for the Royals to get to Soria to close the game.
I'm expecting Soria to rebound next season and stay as one of the top players in the division.
2011 Stats: 2-4, 2.24 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 49/49 Save Opportunities (72.1 Innings Pitched)
Jose Valverde was doing a lot of dancing around this season. The mercurial Tigers closer converted every save opportunity in 2011 and it led the Tigers to their first ALCS appearance since 2006.
Valverde was dominant in every way, and when the Tigers used him extensively down the stretch, he still held up.
Valverde is the best closer in the American League Central entering 2012.
2011 Season: .273 AVG, 25 HR, 92 RBI (151 Games)
Asdrubal Cabrera has always been a solid, unspectacular shortstop. He can make the plays he needs to in the field with a little bit of flair, and he's a good guy to have at the top of the order. That was how most people looked at Cabrera before 2011.
When 2011 arrived, Cabrera added one thing to his game: power. Cabrera hit 25 home runs in 2011, crushing his previous career-high of six. The shoulder injury from 2010 had obviously healed, and Cabrera became one of few offensive shortstops in baseball.
The question is can Cabrera match his spectacular 2011 season?
2011 Stats: .344 AVG, 30 HR, 105 RBI (161 Games)
Some people thought that when Miguel Cabrera was arrested for drunken driving right before spring training, it would start a downward spiral for one of the best hitters in baseball. Yeah...right...
Cabrera went nuts in 2011, winning his first batting championship and playing in a career-high 161 games. Apparently, those alcohol and weight concerns were not valid, as Cabrera went on to finish fifth in Most Valuable Player voting.
Miguel Cabrera is the most feared hitter in the AL Central by a long shot.
2011 Stats: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP (251.0 Innings Pitched)
In order to win the MVP award as a pitcher, you have to be unbelievably good. That's what Justin Verlander was last season.
In an era where good pitching is increasingly beating good hitting, the Detroit Tigers have an advantage in the AL Central simply because they have Verlander.
Verlander is good in so many ways. He goes deep into ballgames as his 251 innings pitched in '11 points out. His stuff is nasty, as evidenced by his 250 strikeouts. There are times where he simply gets locked in, like he did in June, when he went 6-0 with a 0.92 ERA.
Any guy who has a chance at throwing three no-hitters in a season should be called one of the best players in the game. That's why Justin Verlander is the best player in the American League Central.