Things have certainly changed in this division. The once powerful White Sox and Twins appear to be rebuilding, the Indians and Royals are vastly improved while the Tigers have gotten even tougher. Don’t base your expectations on what you used to know about the AL Central, as this is a new animal.
Chicago White Sox
Notes: This lineup only boasts one proven, above-average hitter, that being an aging Paul Konerko. AJ Pierzynski, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn aren’t what they used to be by any means, although they have the potential to channel their former selves. De Aza will leadoff, which could be interesting, but there’s little else to get excited about at the plate. Danks and Floyd are good starters, but Peavy can’t stay healthy to save his life, Humber is up and down and Chris Sale has limited experience (but at least he offers upside). The bullpen could be strong with three quality arms at the back end. Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Addison Reed are very nice. Ohman and Bruney are quality veterans to go along with prospects Santiago and Axelrod.
Notes: The Indians boast a solid lineup. While only Carlos Santana can be described as stellar, Cabrera and Choo are excellent, Hafner and Kotchman are solid while Kipnis and Brantley will surprise people. They should score a lot of runs this season as they have no “automatic outs.” The rotation is interesting. Masterson is solid, but there are some question marks behind him. Ubaldo Jimenez needs to get back to form, as does Derek Lowe. Josh Tomlin is effective while Jeanmar Gomez is an unproven youngster. The bullpen should be solid, despite a lingering injury to Chris Perez. Vinnie Pestano was quietly awesome in 2011, while Tony Sipp and Joe Smith are very reliable. Veteran Dan Wheeler adds to the quality depth.
Notes: Wow, if this were a real report card, the Tigers would be an honor student. Even without Victor Martinez, the Tigers lineup will be outstanding. Jackson and Boesch will thrive in front of Cabrera and Fielder. Delmon Young, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta will continue to drive runners in. Verlander, Scherzer, Fister and Porcello make up an awesome 1-4, while high-ranking prospect Andrew Oliver should win the 5th starter job. The bullpen is good, too. Despite Valverde being overrated, Benoit, Dotel and Coke are all very good. This team can do it all.
Kansas City Royals
Notes: The Royals’ lineup is a risk/reward bunch. Alex Gordon is coming off his first truly good season, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas look promising but don’t have a big body of work yet and Jeff Francouer needs to prove last year wasn’t a fluke. We know Billy Butler can hit and that Alcides Escobar can’t, but there isn’t much else to bank on. If all goes well, they can score a lot of runs. If it doesn’t, they will be in big trouble. Hochevar, Sanchez and Paulino are good starters, Bruce Chen is surprisingly solid and Danny Duffy is your typical 5th starter. Losing Joakim Soria for the year with Tommy John surgery hurts the bullpen. Jonathon Broxton will get the first crack at closing games, but if anything goes awry, look for talented youngster Greg Holland to get a chance. Effective righty Aaron Crow appears to be moving back to the bullpen after an experiment to get him in the rotation.
Notes: What was once a perennial contender, the Twins are a shell of their former selves. The fact that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau can’t stay on the field has a lot to do with it. Denard Span seems to have stalled out in his development while Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel walked in free agency. Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit will try to replace them. Ben Revere and Danny Valencia need to progress as hitters to help this team be successful. Carl Pavano is a terrible “ace” and Francisco Liriano seems to have lost “it.” Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis are all fill-the-rotation types that are serviceable but uninspiring. Matt Capps is a marginal closer and is probably the second best reliever on the staff, behind setup man Glen Perkins. Burnett, Duensing and Swarzak fill the ‘pen out.
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox
No other team has the top-to-bottom talent to beat a relatively healthy Detroit ball club, so I see this as a clear race for second place. The Indians should score enough runs to get the job done. Kansas City is an intriguing team. They could be surprising in 2012 if the youngsters pan out and the pitching holds up, especially the bullpen. If the Tigers stumble, these teams, the Indians and Royals, have the ability to catch them. Minnesota is a mess, they can’t stay healthy and they are mostly a squad of average players (outside of a healthy Joe Mauer, a healthy Justin Morneau and an effective Francisco Liriano). The White Sox are in full-on rebuilding mode, so don’t be surprised to see them try to deal who they can at the deadline for prospects. The problem, most other teams don’t want their broken down, overpriced parts. That situation is in total disarray.