The AL Central is a perpetual division of mystery here on The Box; I donít think anyone has ever come reasonably close to predicting an order of finish that was remotely correct. For this I mostly blame the White Sox, and all indications are they may mess it up again, as they seem intent on both rebuilding and contending at the same time. Still, this is a pretty exciting time for a division thatís been in the cellar for a while. The Tigers were a big player in the off-season, signing Prince Fielder. The Royals are starting to graduate players from what was very recently the Majors best farm system, and Cleveland has some high upside talent to go along with a few grizzled veterans. That just leaves the Twins, which may be for the best. Letís take a look.
Teams in order of 2011 finish.
95-67 (787 RS, 711 RA)
The 2011 Tigers had the second fewest wins of any division leader (pipped by the DíBacks by a single game) and yet still managed to win the division going away, finishing 15 games ahead of the Cleveland Clevelands. So, yeah, not such a strong division in the past. In any case, the Tigers retain the core of their team, and add an impact bat in Prince Fielder, making the club one of the most top heavy in the bigs Ė they had four 5 WAR players in 2011, with Alex Avila missing by a 1/10th of a win and with ace Justin Verlander and 1B Miguel Cabrera each posting better than a 7 WAR. As you may notice, however, the club now has two rotund slugging first baggers, and unless they can convince their opponents to bat exclusively from the left side that isnít going to work out so well. Miguel Cabrera drew the short straw and is supposed to take over third base, a position he last played regularly (and very poorly) in 2007. Cabrera is listed generously at 6í4, 240 lbs, and is about as mobile as an insert bad sportswriter pun here. The team doesnít want to slot either Miggy or Prince into the DH spot occupied last season by Victor Martinez, who will miss 2012 with an ACL tear, preferring to go with a DH by committee approach. This is in part, and I am actually writing these words, to appease Delmon Young, the starting left fielder, another player not know for his defense. With Jhonny Peralta, the fourth of the Tigers aforementioned five win players, an average defender at best at short, the Tigers have the potential to run out a nearly catastrophic defense. Austin Jackson may save the day in CF as he posted big fielding numbers last year, but second base base will likely also be a weakness, as leading contender Ryan Rayburn, who got the bulk of the time at second last year, has a -24 UZR/150 in 777 career innings at second, and the other contender, Brandon Inge, has never played the position in the majors.
If you're going to punt on defense though the Tigers at least have a pretty good staff for that. Justin Verlander was one of the best two starters in the AL last year, winning the Cy Young, and he is followed by the hard throwing Max Scherzer, the mid-season acquisition Doug Fister, former top prospect Rick Porcello, and current top prospect Jacob Turner. The Tigers posted a 4.10 ERA from their starters last year, good for the top half of the league, but figure to improve thanks to a full year from Fister and the addition of Turner.Key Additions: Prince Fielder 1B, Octavio Dotel RP, Gerald Laird C
Cleveland started 2011 like gangbusters, leading the division as late as the end of July, and they were within two games of the Tigers come the trade deadline. Despite this they weren't, however, a particularly good team, and the moves they made to try to put themselves over the top, including shipping out Drew Pomeranz and three other players for Ubaldo Jiminez, mostly backfired. The club isnít actually in bad shape going into 2012 though, possessing an array of exciting, and young, major league talent, along with some grizzled, and oft-injured, veterans.
Jason Kipnis, the starting second baseman, had a strong, if not quite Lawrie-an, debut in 2011, hitting .272/.333/.507 in 150 PA. While his minor league numbers donít indicate upside quite that high, he does draw a few walks and hit for a bit of pop, and is an outside 20-20 threat at the age of 25. Meanwhile Carlos Santana, only a year older, shook off the effects of an ugly plate crash at Fenway in 2010 and rebounded with a strong season split between first and catcher. He walked in almost 15% of his at bats and hit 27 home runs, with only a poor BABIP (.263) keeping him from being a superstar, presuming he continues to catch more than he plays first base. Asdrubal Cabrera got a bit homer lucky in 2011, knocking 25 of them over the wall, but even as a limited defender promises a fair amount of upside. Michael Brantley, who will start in centre in place of the-injured-Grady-Sizemore, is also on the right side of the aging curve, and is developing into a leadoff man who can walk a bit and steal a base (although he doesnít hit for any power). Shin-Soo Choo, possibly my favourite player in baseball, is hopefully recovered from thumb and back injuries that stifled him for most of 2011. The thirty year-old right fielder also avoided military service in South Korea after helping his country win the Asian Games in 2010. Pronk is also still around, and Casey Kotchman is in to assume first base duties. Matt LaPorta, Jason Donald, and Lou Marson also lurk in the background.
If the lineup is interesting, the rotation is a bit of a question mark. Justin Masterson finally mastered left handed hitters in 2011 and is poised for a big year at age 27. Ubaldo Jiminez posted similar peripherals to his outstanding 2010 but had luck catch up to him; I wouldnít count him out this year consequently. After that things thin out considerably. Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez is on the restricted list after it came out that he was three years older/not the same person as previously stated; itís unclear if heíll pitch in the major leagues again. Carlos Carrasco, who was decent in 2011, is out for at least most of the year with Tommy John surgery; Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin and Kevin Slowey round out the prospective rotation.
Key Additions: Casey Kotchman 1B, Derek Lowe SP, Kevin Slowey SP
Key Subtractions: Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez SP, Austin Kearns OF, Orlando Cabrera SS, Travis Buck OF
Chicago White Sox
79-83 (654 RS, 706 RA)
After talking about how the club wasnít going to rebuild, White Sox GM Kenny Williams unloaded key 2011 contributors Carlos Quentin and Segio Santos for essentially nothing and Nestor Molina, respectively; he also let Mark Buehrle go as a free agent and flirted with trading Gavin Floyd, to the Blue Jays apparently, and re-signed John Danks to a basically market rate long term deal. Also leaving the organization was outspoken skipper Ozzie Guillen, who ended up with the Florida Marlins. Robin Ventura, the long-time White Sox third baseman, now takes over as skipper despite the fact that his chief post-playing expertise has been as an occasional college baseball broadcaster. So, really, who knows what is going on in Chicago.
Whatever it is, it could get a bit ugly. The White Sox have, by a fair margin, the worst farm system in baseball, and a major league roster replete with badly aging veterans. Adam Dunn, Paul Konero and AJ Pierzynski figure to hit in the 3-7 holes in the lineup; Dunn is the young man of the group at 33 (Paul and AJ are 36), and heís coming off the worst season in baseball, essentially, in which he hit .159 in almost 500 plate appearances. While he does have strong secondary skills, he possess extremely negative defensive value, and conveniently has 3 years and $44 million left on his deal. If he bounces back it will basically be to adequate, for which $14 million this year is a bit much. Konerko is a relative bargain at $25 million over this year and the next Ė he can actually still hit, not that that will help the White Sox any. They figure to run out an outfield of Alejandro De Aza, Alex Rios and Dayan Viciedo. De Aza is a 28 year old AAAA player, while Viciedo is only 23 this year and actually hit in AAA in 2011. The less said about Alex Rios the better. The pitching staff at least has depth, as the White Sox can run out a respectable five man rotation of Danks, Floyd, Jake Peavy, Phil Humber and Chris Sale, though most donít think Sale will hold up in the rotation. Former Jay Zach Stewart is also in the mix.
The White Sox may be able to stumble through 2012 without embarrassing themselves too much, but these are not going to be a pretty few years for Chicago, as they just do not have the talent to compete, even in the AL Central.
Key Additions: Kosuke Fukodome OF
Key Subtractions: Carlos Quentin OF, Sergio Santos RP, Jason Frasor RP, Mark Buehrle SP
Kansas City Royals
71-91 (730 RS, 762 RA)
Thanks in part to being awful for most of the last decade, one brief run at a division crown aside, the Royals, like the Rays before them, are well stocked to field an exciting, and more importantly, good, major league team in the coming years, with as much young talent as this sentence has commas. After several years of solid but unspectacular production Alex Gordon put things together in a big way in 2011, posting the best season by a Royals position player since Carlos Beltran in 2003 with 6.9 fWAR Ė it is in fact the only 5 win season for a Royal since Beltran. Billy Butler had his second pretty good year in a row, though he is limited to a full-time DH role at this point so heíll need to be more than pretty good to have a large impact on the club. Meanwhile Eric Hosmer posted a .293/.334/.465 line during his age 22 rookie season, and profiles to have MVP race type ability with the stick. Mike Moustakas also held his own during his rookie season, rookie Lorenzo Cain, acquired in the Zach Grienke deal, should start in CF, while 25 year-old Johnny Giavotella, who hit .338 in Omaha over 500 PA but struggled in a 46 game call up, should get the nod at second base. Starting shotstop Alcides Escobar is in his fourth season but only 26 (and not good, to be fair), while Jeff Francoeur is, at least in our hearts, forever ageless.
The Royals pitching is a little further away than their hitting, and their rotation will feature a mish-mash of veteran pitchers, with a couple of young guys figuring to figure by the end of the season. Luke Hochevar is the nominal ace Ė he posted an ERA of 4.68 last year, though he did walk the fewest batters of his career, albeit along with the second lowest K rate. Jonathan Sanchez, acquired in the Melky Cabrera trade with the Giants, slots in as the number 2 man. Heís averaged almost 9.5 K/9 IP throughout his career... along with almost 5 walks. Heís not very hittable, but still struggles on account of all the free passes. Journeyman Bruce Chen had a decent year in 2011 and gets by with smoke and mirrors, while Felipe Paulino put things together after a trade from the Rockies last season. Aaron Crow was supposed to be the 5th starter, but after a potentially season ending arm injury to Joakim Soria will now stay in the bullpen, likely to close. Mike Montgomery is the clubís top pitching prospect, though he struggled in triple-A in 2011, though to be fair it is in the PCL; most of the Royals other top pitching prospects are at least a year away from really contributing.
Ultimately the Royals have too many holes to contend in 2012, as their offense features sinkholes like Escobar and Francoeur, as well as well as relatively unproven young players like Cain and catcher Brayan Pena.The rotation is not a strength, and while prospects like Wil Myers could have an impact, things shape up better for 2013 or 2014.Key Additions: Jonathan Broxton RP, Jonathan Sanchez SP
63-99 (619 RS, 804 RA)
Poor Minnesota. After finishing no worse than third in the division, and no worse than 79-83 (once) since 2002, 2011 was a disastrous year, as just about everyone was hurt, especially the M & M boys, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. Morneau has been injured for much of the past two seasons and has lingering post-concussion symptoms; he may never be able to resume his career in the same way, to the point where he has talked about possibly retiring. Mauerís injuries were (hopefully) less permanent, but heís also 6í5Ē and has caught some 750 games in his career, so no potential injury is small.
The Twins problems go beyond those two players though, and figure to continue into 2012. The teamís best hitter in 2011, Michael Cuddyer, is gone to Colorado, while their second best hitter, Jason Kubel is now a Diamondback. Those were the only two Twins to post an OPS of .730 or better last year. The clubís defense, once a strong spot, has also fallen off dramatically. Josh Willingham and Jamey Carroll are new additions in right field and at shortstop; they can be generously categorized as poor and old. Ryan Doumit, another addition who will back up Mauer and probably see more action at catcher than a backup normally would, is also a defensive liability. Danny Valencia, Alexi Casilla and Ben Revere round out the starting lineup, they are all reasonable defenders but don't profile to have much upside with the bat.
The pitching, as seems to be the perpetual case with the Twins, isnít bad, but isnít filled with any names that set the heart afluttering. Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis are pencilled in at the moment. However Pavano, Marquis and Blackburn donít strike anyone out, so unless Minnesota is able to convert balls into outs itís going to be another long and painful year.
Key Additions: Jason Marquis SP, Josh Willingham OF, Ryan Doumit C, Jamey Carroll INF, Joel Zumaya RP,
Key Subtractions: Michael Cuddyer OF, Jason Kubel OF, Joe Nathan RP, Kevin Slowey SP,
It will take a minor act of God for the Tigers to not win the division this year, and 10 games is probably a reasonable handicap. The Royals and the Clevelands could push to finish above .500, though I think neither team is quiiiite there yet. It wouldn't suprise me if the Tigers won 95 games again, just given how many times they'll get to face their division; they have the best pitcher and two of the best three hitters in the division, as well as probably the best rotation and lineup overall. As we speak Justin Morneau is 3/30 in spring training; unless he and Joe Mauer starting performing like MVPs again the Twins season could be downright ugly.
Also, the White Sox are really amusing.