Here's a breakdown of what that other division will be throwing at the Jays this year. The White Sox and Tigers reload in an effort to bring down the two-time defending champs, while the Royals lurk in the shadows.
There are two likely also-rans and three likely contenders. I predict they shall finish in this order.
5. Cleveland Indians
They looked like a model franchise three or four years ago. Then the baseball gods remembered they play in Cleveland, and things started to obey natural law. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner got hurt. The front office dealt Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez for unimpressive returns dwarfed by who they got for Casey Blake. The past few years have been bleak, but they have at least seen Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana emerge as new offensive threats. With a little luck, this could be an above-average hitting team.
CF Grady Sizemore: Three scary words: microfracture knee surgery. Here’s hoping he at least becomes the hitter he once was, even if he’s permanently lost a step or three. Cleveland doesn’t expect him to make the Opening Day roster; Trevor Crowe will probably start in his place.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera: a bit below average with the glove, a bit above with the bat.
RF Shin-Soo Choo: hits with authority, and has led the league in authority-to-homers ratio two straight years. Doesn’t look like a BABIP fluke at all.
DH Travis Hafner: looked finished after 2008, but seems to have settled in as a .270/.360/.440 DH. Not the terror he once was, but he’ll play. This is his age-34 season.
C Carlos Santana: think Ned Colletti wants him back? He’s destroyed every level he’s seen the past two years. I expect a slow start as Santana faces the dreaded Adjustment Period, when the fastballs suddenly stop coming. It’s hard not to be excited for the long haul, though.
1B Matt LaPorta: .221/.306/.362 in 2010 and dangerously close to being branded with the dreaded AAAA label.
2B Orlando Cabrera: good job with Cincinnati, I’m starting to believe in your leadership qualities. Now let’s see you take this team to the playoffs.
3B Jayson Nix: given 600 PA, he’ll probably hit 25 homers. (In unrelated news, Aaron Hill went deep 26 times last year.)
LF Michael Brantley: speedy lefty contact hitter. He was awful in the majors last year, but he hit .319 with more walks than strikeouts in the IL. A sleeper.
Bench: Jason Donald, Austin Kearns, Trevor Crowe, Shelley Duncan, Lou Marson
Fausto Carmona: sui generis. Throws a turbo-sinker which is impossible to square up: not only does he finish near the top of the GB% leaderboard every year, he also has an otherworldly 14.7% career LD rate, better than Mariano Rivera’s 16.6. He’s never repeated his outstanding 2007, but he’s Cleveland’s best pitcher for now.
Justin Masterson: sort of like Carmona, except he throws from a sidearm angle which ensures he will always struggle against lefty bats. I’m less certain he will do well.
Mitch Talbot: pitches to contact, will walk guys, doesn’t look like anything special yet.
Carlos Carrasco: good peripherals in the minors and an excellent 2010 audition; could easily start Opening Day 2012.
Josh Tomlin: an enormous flyball pitcher, but his hot start against AL East powers last year was an encouraging sign. I like fearless pitchers.
Bullpen: Chris Perez, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, Vinnie Pestano, Frank Herrmann, Chad Durbin
Even if Cleveland gets nothing from its 6-7-8-9 hitters, there’s enough patience and pop at the top of the order to carry the lineup to respectability. Then again, I don’t think there’s nearly enough to cover for the abysmal starting pitching. If Sizemore returns to form, Santana proves he can play every day at this level and at least two young pitchers make strides, call this season a success.
4. Kansas City Royals
Finally, the Process is about to yield some tangible results. I’m looking forward to reading Dayton Moore’s future book about how he built the AL Central-winning 2013 Royals. As I understand it, his strategy seems to hinge on tanking by gathering players who, while utterly mediocre, are unlikely to turn your team into a Three Stooges routine and get you fired. While you’re doing this, you gather high draft picks and gradually build a powerhouse farm system: Moustakas, Hosmer, Myers, Duffy, Lamb, Montgomery, and so on. Moore receives a lot of abuse for having made some dubious baseball decisions over the past few years. We’ll see how he fares once winning at the big-league level becomes his primary goal... next winter, that is. For now, in Year 1 A.Z., we get to sit back and enjoy one more season of vintage Royals futility.
In all seriousness, here’s a very nice Moore interview with John Sickels.
SS Alcides Escobar: as good a bet as any to be the Royals’ MVP. He’s 24, he’s an above-average fielder, he’s fast, his lack of power is better-suited to Kauffman than Milwaukee, and he hit .320 in his second crack at both A and AA.
2B Mike Aviles: offers hope for a hollow .300 and competent defense. If Wilson Betemit turns into a pumpkin, Aviles may end up at third.
1B Billy Butler: low strikeouts, high doubles, student of the game, quietly posted a .388 OBP last year which is very impressive for a guy who never strikes out. Magglio-esque.
3B Wilson Betemit: after the most unexpected second-half surge of 2010, he’ll return to keep Mike Moustakas’ seat warm. If he replicates said surge, there’ll be plenty of open spots in the lineup for him to slide into when Moustakas arrives.
DH Kila Ka’aihue: a Ken Phelps All-Star? It looks like he’ll actually have a chance to find out this year. Sadly, Kansas City is a rough environment for a three-true-outcome guy, and he will never know the pleasure of facing the Royals’ pitchers.
RF Jeff Francoeur: he just looks like a ballplayer.
LF Alex Gordon: insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Then again, for the Royals to give up on him in a rebuilding year would be insane.
CF Lorenzo Cain: another piece of the Greinke haul. The light went on in the minors last year, and in his brief callup, he hit .306/.348/.416 with 7 steals and excellent fielding stats.
C Brayan Pena: more exciting than Jason Kendall, and I like the double-flap helmet.
Bench: Chris Getz, Melky Cabrera, Gregor Blanco, Mitch Maier, Jason Kendall, Jarrod Dyson
Luke Hochevar: because he averaged over 6 innings a start last year, he’s the clear Opening Day starter. He also has a 5.60 career ERA in 387.2 innings. His FIP is better; he just can’t strand runners. Pencil him in for a 4.70 and etch his name in stone as the majors’ worst ace, unless Millwood starts Opening Day for Baltimore.
Vin Mazzaro: replacement-level starter. If they’re lucky.
Jeff Francis: in his heyday – which was four years ago – he handled Coors Field surprisingly well for a lefty with a big curveball. Shoulder issues derailed his career, but he’s exactly the kind of reclamation project KC should be looking for.
Sean O’Sullivan: see Mazzaro.
Kyle Davies: debuted in 2005 with the Braves and had one successful season with KC, 2008. He was 24. Like most Royals veterans, he’s not awful at most aspects of pitching, but his career strand rate (67.6%) is brutal. It makes you wonder how much of that is mental, influenced by your laundry. If you expect to lose, you’re probably right.
Bullpen: Joakim Soria, Blake Wood, Jesse Chavez, Kanekoa Texeira, Greg Holland, Robinson Tejeda, Bruce Chen, Tim Collins?!
The starting pitching will suck to an alarming degree, the lineup will be mediocre, and the defense should be much improved. I actually think Cleveland is more likely to make a miracle playoff run in 2011 than Kansas City. However, I like the Royals to finish with the better record. There’s a good chance the prospects will start to descend on the K in the second half, and if that happens, look out: led by enormously talented kids who are seeing nothing but fastballs, the Royals could easily have the AL’s best September record. As usual, of course, the record is of secondary importance: the real story here is the progress of Escobar, Cain, the pitchers, and all the superstuds in the minors.
3. Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera Associates underachieved last year and finished .500 on the nose. They took one small step forward and one giant leap sideways this winter, replacing Johnny Damon with Victor Martinez, dumping one-trick-pony Jeremy Bonderman and heady Armando Galarraga for converted setup man Phil Coke and grizzled veteran Brad Penny, and importing Joaquin Benoit to build an imposing bullpen. Ultimately, how well they hold up against Minnesota and Chicago will be determined by how much progress their incumbent players make.
CF Austin Jackson: already one of the best contact hitters around, but will people blame his 10 added pounds of muscle when fewer than 39.6% of his BIP fall in this year?
LF Ryan Raburn: no, really, this is his year! And they’re going to stick with him no matter what! Swear! Perhaps he’ll end up playing second base.
RF Magglio Ordonez: one of this generation’s most underrated players, a metronome .310 hitter, but he’s coming off a season-ending ankle injury and wasn’t exactly noted for his mobility before. Wild card.
1B Miguel Cabrera: no pressure! He broke 1.000 OPS for the first time in his age-27 season.
DH Victor Martinez: he can catch, sort of, and he hits very well for a catcher. But he doesn’t catch very well for a catcher, and moreover catching takes a toll on his knees. How do you assess the value of a guy like this? One plus is that he enables the Tigers to roll without a typical backup catcher.
2B Carlos Guillen: an old pro, he may end up as a super-utilityman if Will Rhymes stakes a claim to the everyday 2B gig.
SS Jhonny Peralta: a serviceable fielder with pop and not much else.
3B Brandon Inge: struggled to a .247/.321/.397 line and had surgery on both knees over the winter.
C Alex Avila: was taken in the fifth round of the 2008 draft and forced his way to the show in a hurry. He bats left, draws walks, and did show some power in September 2009.
Bench: Will Rhymes, Brennan Boesch, Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Scott Sizemore, Danny Worth, Casper Wells
Justin Verlander: a model of consistency, health and strikeouts.
Max Scherzer: dark-horse Cy Young candidate. The Fans at Fangraphs predict he’ll K 215 and post a 3.50 ERA; if your team leans right, prepare to be shut out.
Rick Porcello: Youth, stuff and pedigree are on his side (he’s 22), but his stats to date scream Casey Janssen. If (when?) he makes the leap, this will be a terrifying rotation. Until then, he’s just a guy.
Phil Coke: Their setup man in 2010, he’ll be their #4 starter in 2011, because he can.
Brad Penny: Wait, they are serious?
Bullpen: Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Joel Zumaya, Ryan Perry, Brad Thomas, Dan Schlereth, Robbie Weinhardt.
Sorry, I don’t see it. The lineup should hit for a high average, and Cabrera is one of the most dominant hitters in either league, but they may be short on home run power and they will be leaning heavily on veterans to provide it. Ordonez looks like he will be ready to go on Opening Day, at least, which is huge, but between him, Guillen, Inge, Peralta and Martinez, there’s considerable mileage on their key cogs. Ultimately, their season could hinge on Rick Porcello. Jim Leyland is being careful not to put too much pressure on him, but he has the talent to be a well-above-average pitcher. A team with Verlander, Scherzer, a breakthrough Porcello, the Tigers’ bullpen and the Royals’ lineup could make noise in the Central. Then again, one injury to a key starter will put the Tigers in big trouble. Detroit's playoff hopes are too fragile to anoint them the Central favorite.
2. Minnesota Twins
The defending champs have a little problem: they can’t beat the Yankees in October. Reinforcements have arrived after last year’s failure. Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan return, and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka figures to start every day at second base. On the other hand, they'll be hard-pressed to replace Jim Thome’s glorious .283/.412/.627 line from last season. Regardless of how that works out, they remain one of the most likable teams in the league, a fundamentally sound, supremely annoying outfit with a surprisingly deep lineup (and, of course, a superstar catcher who’s also the best contact hitter in the AL).
CF Denard Span: a BABIP faceplant last year knocked 50 points off his average, but I expect they’ll return. He’s fast, he hits grounders, and he never pops up.
2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka: a switch-hitter who batted .346 with 11 homers for the Chiba Lotte Marines at age 25 and cashed in. Who knows?
C Joe Mauer: MVP.
1B Justin Morneau: coming off two months of 1.100 OPS and eight months of concussion recovery, he’s the biggest wild card in the division. Que sera sera.
LF Delmon Young: after years of hype he finally took a step forward and hit like latter-day Vlad Guerrero; another leap forward and this lineup is a juggernaut, but I’m not holding my breath
DH Jason Kubel: it’s official, 2009 was probably an outlier.
RF Michael Cuddyer: the fielding stats hate him. -6 DRS, -13.0 TZ, -18.3 UZR150. Credible RH batters are in short supply here, though.
3B Danny Valencia: is he for real? .311/.351/.448 as a rookie blew away his last two minor-league seasons. The Twins certainly hope so – they haven’t had the same opening-day third baseman two years in a row since Corey Koskie, 2001-02.
SS Alexi Casilla: too many K’s and popups to be anything like the slash-and-burn menace he’s touted as. Overrated, but he’s not here for his bat.
Bench: Jim Thome, Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe, Ben Revere.
Francisco Liriano: he’s a lefty, he throws 94, he strikes out more than a batter an inning, he doesn’t walk people, he induces grounders, he’s 27. What more do you want?
Carl Pavano: doesn’t walk people, doesn’t overpower people, slight groundball pitcher, a bit hittable, will be effective if he keeps the ball in the yard.
Scott Baker: a difficult matchup for right-leaning lineups, and the closest thing the Twins have to a power pitcher outside of Liriano.
Brian Duensing: see Pavano.
Nick Blackburn: see Duensing.
Kevin Slowey: will likely end up with the best K/BB ratio on the staff if he makes the team, but he’s a flyball pitcher. You’d think this would play well in Minnesota against an AL Central schedule, but they seem determined to move him for bullpen help.
Bullpen: Matt Capps, Joe Nathan, Jose Mijares, Alex Burnett, Jeff Manship, Glen Perkins, Patrick Neshek, Anthony Slama...
This is a team that is designed never to beat itself. Their pitchers will throw you strikes – you have to hit them. Their hitters will put the ball in play – you have to get them out. They will force the issue on the basepaths. And so on. They’ll beat the crap out of bad teams. I’ll be very surprised if the White Sox end up with a better record against Cleveland and Kansas City than the Twins do. And you could also make a compelling case that the Twins have the best pitcher and the best position player in the AL. However, I’m worried about their depth, especially on the pitching side. I’ll take the White Sox’ 2-5 starters over Minnesota’s, and I also expect their lineup to bludgeon pitchers in a way the Twins probably won’t. If Morneau returns with a vengeance, or if Thome continues to turn back the clock, the calculation changes, but right now I think Minnesota is a very, very slight underdog in this race.
1. Chicago White Sox
Handicapping the White Sox is like hitting a knuckleballer. You’d think it would be easy since so much of their roster stays the same from year to year, but no. The only thing you can count on is that their performance will fluctuate wildly. This season looks as unpredictable as ever. I'm not even going to pretend to have a clue how Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham will do this year; I just know that I'm bullish on their power hitters. But even each of them comes with a built-in concern:
LF Juan Pierre: no arm or power; he’ll steal 50 bases and lead the league in hits and outs.
2B Gordon Beckham: occupies their Snider seat, a bit rushed and a lot under the microscope, yet unlikely to lose his job to his underwhelming understudies.
CF Alex Rios: rey misterio. Is there any point in guessing?
DH Adam Dunn: finally a DH and back in the kind of homer haven where he belongs, but his true outcomes took a sharp turn for the worse last year, and he just received a four-year contract. That said, as long as the team stays in contention he should have no problems with motivation.
1B Paul Konerko: possibly the AL’s most similar hitter to Jose Bautista, and possibly the regression police’s second-most-wanted hitter in 2011 after Jose Bautista.
RF Carlos Quentin: was headed for superstardom two years ago before a wrist injury smote him like Lyle Overbay; remains a wild card.
C A.J. Pierzynski: would be the best contact-hitting catcher in most other divisions...
SS Alexei Ramirez: very quietly, one of the AL’s best fielding shortstops, and he’ll compete with Inge for the Central’s pop-to-girth ratio title. Underrated.
3B Brent Morel: a tiny step down from Mark Teahen with the bat, they hope, and a marked improvement with the glove.
Bench: Dayan Viciedo, Brent Lillibridge, Omar Vizquel, Alejandro de Freakin' Aza, Mark Teahen
Mark Buehrle: K rate goes down every year (11.0% in 2010), but he’s above reproach
Jake Peavy: coming off knee microfracture surgery, soon to be an interesting data point for Petco translation purposes
Gavin Floyd: I got nothin’. Pencil him in for a 3.90 ERA.
John Danks: a perennial BABIP overachiever and one of the best cutter/changeup guys around.
Edwin Jackson: baseball’s preeminent hot potato, he put up a 3.24 ERA with the Sox over the last two months with 77 K in 75 innings. The Sox could easily boast a rotation with five legitimate #2 pitchers this year.
Bullpen: Matt Thornton, Chris Sale, Tony Pena, Sergio Santos, Jesse Crain, Will Ohman
This team is going to wear pitchers out. Rios, Beckham, Pierzynski and Morel are all unknown quantities, but Dunn-Konerko-Quentin in any order is a scary proposition, especially at the Cell. It’s a patient, powerful core. The Twins will run out Mauer, Morneau, Young and Thome 3-4-5-6 some days, which may compare, but their lineup doesn’t have the same top-to-bottom power Chicago’s does. I’m choosing to take a slightly optimistic view on Morneau; I think they're a wash.
If so, it’ll come down to pitching, and though I’d take Liriano in a one-game playoff, I expect the Sox to have better park-adjusted run prevention. Their bullpen is deeper, their defense looks excellent, and they have more talented pitchers throughout their rotation.
Bold Prediction: The Ozzmen win 93 games and reclaim the Central crown.