The AL Central is a difficult division to predict. The Indians have some talent, but choke. The Twins have some talent, but it’s always hurt. The White Sox have some talent, but the organization is run ass-backwards. Kansas City has a ton of young talent, but usually somewhere between drafting, the minors and the majors they find a way to fail. The Tigers have decided to spend on talent, and are everybody’s darlings, but they have massive flaws, as well. Any one of four teams could finish last.
In any other year I’d start this with another team. But after the Minnesota Twins lost 99 games last year and did absolutely nothing to improve the team because of the health concerns of its two highest-paid players, I’ve got to peg them for fifth place. I’m a Minnesota guy. I feel like I know this team better than any other. And I’m not going to spin sunshine and roses for you.
Denard Span missed a good portion of the season with concussions. Danny Valencia played every day, but his range at third base went from adequate to inferior from 2010 to 2011 and his luck at the plate was poor to say the least. Jamey Carroll was brought in because the 2011 shortstop tandem of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Trevor Plouffe just couldn’t figure out how to play defense last year. This year Nishioka will be starting the season in AAA and Plouffe has been moved to the outfield in hopes of freeing his power potential.
Alexi Casilla has not played 100 games in any season of his career, but the Twins have penciled him into the second base spot. Morneau missed half of the last two seasons due to surgeries and concussions and has developed a reputation for being injury prone. He’s an amazingly hard worker so if he can come back he will come back, but he has a lot of doubters. Mauer is said to be stronger and healthier right now than he was at any point in time last year so that has to be a huge plus for the team, but with $23 million a season obligated to him it’s pretty hard for me to believe they will catch him more than 100 games in a season after bringing in free agent Ryan Doumit. Last year’s backup, Drew Butera, was quite possibly the worst hitter in all of baseball. He and JR Towles will be available in AAA if more depth is needed behind the plate. Doumit also will see some time at first base and designated hitter — he’s much more accomplished as a hitter than as a catcher.
The team has lost DH Jim Thome and outfielders Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. Their offensive replacements are Doumit, Josh Willingham, who is very good at getting on base and has 25-plus homer capabilities, and Ben Revere, who is a spectacular fielder, as judged by his defensive play of the year, according to MLB and ESPN. Revere also has a great minor league track record as a hitter and base stealer. For the sake of the Twins and their fans I hope it starts translating soon. Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson and others will attempt to crack the lineup at some point, but the Twins’ entire offense, defense and season rely on their stars getting and staying healthy. It’s not a safe bet.
The same is true of the pitching staff. Four of the five main starters were on the disabled list at some point during the 2011 debacle. None of those guys won 10 games. Francisco Liriano has looked good this spring, but he regressed big time in 2011 after being a top 15 starter the year before. Carl Pavano was consistent, but he gave up the most hits of any pitcher in all of baseball last year. He and other pitchers were hurt by shoddy defense. Scott Baker showed flashes of dominance, but ended up injured for most of the second half of the season. Nick Blackburn, whose first two seasons showed glimpses that he could become an inning eating fourth starter was batting practice last year while battling injuries. And Brian Duensing, the 2010 savior, was okay against lefties, but he turned average right-handed batters into all-stars. He has been moved into the pen.
The Twins acquired Jason Marquis to be the fifth starter this season and to hopefully eat 200 innings. I personally don’t see it happening as he’s not getting any younger and his career stats aren’t all that impressive. Anthony Swarzak and Liam Hendricks will also being given a chance at the fifth starter spot with Marquis and Baker staying in Florida for some extended spring training.
Swarzak will most likely be with the club in the bullpen as the emergency starter and long reliever. Watching him pitch I can see shades of former Twins star reliever Matt Guerrier. Joel Zumaya was the key bullpen signing, but he got injured again and will miss the season. Glen Perkins had the best year of any pitcher on the team last year with a 2.48 ERA and his fastball clocking routinely at 95mph or higher. If he does it again he will establish himself as one of the elite left-handed relievers in the game. Matt Capps has been terrible every other year for the last four. By that standard he should have a decent season. He was also pitching with an injury for much of last season, but even when 100% healthy he is a pitch to contact closer, which makes something about Oxy and Moron come to mind.
The team’s best prospects are a year or more away from making a significant impact so the 75-87 Twins of 2012 will be improved over the 99 loss team, but 12 games under .500 will still keep them in last place.
Paul Konerko has defied father time and become a better hitter for average and on-base percentage has he has gotten older. He’s also driven in a ton of runs and played solid first base through the years. Gordon Beckham has done less at second base for Chicago than David Beckham has at making soccer relevant in America. Alexi Ramirez is a solid hitter with pop, but a mediocre glove at shortstop. Brent Morel didn’t show much at the plate last year and displayed even less in the field.
AJ Pierzynski is as consistent as they come behind the plate. He calls a good game. His throwing arm was never great but he’s always going to bat at least .270 with a little bit of pop and he’s a clutch hitter. The designated hitter is Adam Dunn whose 2011 was so bad that if he can just get back to below average he will almost assuredly be a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. Unless Mauer and Morneau are healthy for the Twins or Carl Crawford reverts to his Tampa Rays days, he’s got a pretty good shot to win it.
Alejandro Alberto De Aza will be the starting centerfielder. He’s one of the guys the Sox are building around for the future. Alex Rios is the definition of a bust. Every day he’s not on the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster, their general manager should get closer to the Hall of Fame for having been able to dump that huge contract. Dayan Viciedo is another young prospect from Cuba that hasn’t shown the ability to translate to the Major League game. Maybe this is the year for him to click, but even if it is it won’t be nearly enough.
Rumors have been flying around about starting pitchers John Danks and Gavin Floyd being traded away at some point, most likely at the All-Star break. Jake Peavy was one of my favorite pitchers in the National League when he was younger, but now he’s not young, he’s not healthy and he’s not cheap. They couldn’t trade him unless he was pitching like Dwight Gooden circa 1984-85, and even then they’d have to take less because of how much money he makes.
The White Sox are following a pretty common pattern around baseball by moving excellent relievers into the starting rotation. This year’s candidate is Chris Sale. But for every time that move is successful, two converted starters go back to the bullpen and one is ruined forever. I love his stuff, but how that will translate into starting is a huge question. Can he pitch more than 120 innings? Phil Humber came out of nowhere last year … so much so that 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA seemed like he should have gotten Cy Young award votes. The fact is that he’s a three-time failed prospect that had a very solid fourth or fifth starter-type season last year. He could do it again because he has a pedigree, but his track record suggests he will probably be cut by June 1st.
The Bullpen is filled with players who have major flaws. Jesse Crain is probably the most reliable of them all. But while he was a closer in the minors, he has never proven to be a pressure player in the majors. Will Ohman and Matt Thornton have quality arms but their heads often seem to get in the way. I think the White Sox are the worst team in this division, but the Twins can’t beat anyone from the AL East, so I think the Sox will finish with a 77-85 record and in fourth place – though I wouldn’t be shocked them do a lot worse.
I feel kind of dirty putting the Kansas City Royals here for a lot of different reasons. They are the Royals. Losing is what they do. They have a ton of young talent and they did enough to improve their depth this offseason. So they should be competitive. But they are the Royals. It’s frustrating, but for every good thing I can think of about this team, I keep tempering it with “They are the Royals.” Is this the season they put it all together and blow away the American League? NO! No it’s probably not. … Maybe? No, I’m pretty sure not. See what I mean?
Anyway, Eric Hosmer showed that he was a legit prospect. He needs to work on his glove and his mastery of an at-bat, but situational hitting is an art. You can learn it over years of repetition, but only a few are truly born with that gift. Hosmer has the pop and the talent to do it. If he can improve his on base percentage from .334 to .365 or higher the Royals will score runs by the truckload because this offense doesn’t have a real weak spot. It’s not the Yankees, or anything, but it’s an outstandingly tight unit.
Second baseman Johnny Giavotella didn’t how a lot with his bat last year, but he’s a good at bunting and the hit-and-run and he is improving with the glove. Alcides Escobar was supposed to be a star shortstop. He’s not, but he’s got a great glove and he’s a solid base stealer. Mike Moustakas is one of those supremely talented kids that everyone has heard about from Kansas City. This year he will get every opportunity to be the offensive force he has been projected to be at third base. Billy Butler was born to be a DH, but his heart is set at playing first base. He must not watch tape of his defensive shortcomings. However, at the plate he is a hitting machine, who can easily put up 40 doubles and 20 homers. With a little tweak here and there and some work in the gym he could raise that to 30 bombs. He has a wonderful swing. He clogs the bases like Konerko but Konerko is 40. Billy isn’t 30 yet so I think aiming for the 30 homers is more important to the team than the 40 doubles.
Catcher Salvador Perez will miss several weeks after having surgery to fix a meniscus tear. But he remains an intriguing prospect. I didn’t see his .331 coming even though he was a minor league all star throughout his seasoning years. Backup Brayan Pena is also a quality catcher.
Leftfielder Alex Gordon last year had 200 hits, 23 homers and 87 RBI. He has finally become the hitter that he was projected to be as a prospect. He’s a few years late and he’s playing a different position, but Gordon has finally arrived. He’s projected as the leadoff hitter because he has some speed and he gets on base, but he could be challenged for that spot if centerfielder Lorenzo Cain can come on this year. Gordon is a prototypical number three hitter. And while I don’t see him as a 200 hit guy in 2012, the speedy Cain, who is replacing the surprising Melky Cabrera, does play very good defense and is considered a legit five-tool prospect.
Jeff Francoeur resurrected his career last year and he has the talent to consistently put up the numbers he did in 2011 year. Will he? Who knows. But there’s no pressure on him in Kansas City, or at least not yet. The team even has a bench. The Royals brought in Kevin Kouzmanoff to challenge at third in case Moustakas needs more seasoning. Yuniesky Betancourt is back as an insurance policy at short.
The Royals’ rotation received the surprise gift of the century when journeyman lefty Bruce Chen, who has been in and out of the major leagues since 1894, came to Kansas City and went 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA, beating some very good teams in the process. He has been doing something right to stay in the big leagues as long as he has and I think he’s going to legitimately repeat the kind of starts he had last year. The Royals must also believe, based on the two-year contract he signed. Chen will start opening day.
Luke Hochevar is projected by many sites to be the team’s ace, but here we go with the de facto tag again. The Royals don’t have an ace. Hochevar is a great third starter for a team. Jonathan Sanchez, however, has ace-like stuff. But he’s had trouble putting it all together — think Francisco Liriano with a cheaper psychologist’s bill. When Sanchez was on with the Giants, there were some scouts who said he had better stuff than Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum. But his head and his mechanics would get in the way. He’s a lefty so he will always get a chance. In Kansas City he doesn’t have pressure and he can shine as “the guy” if he wants and can handle it. I don’t think he’s a 20-game winner for the Royals in 2012, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if he pitches the team into contention in the Central. If he wins fewer than 12 games, I’ll be disappointed. Can he put his mind right? That’s the question that keeps this team the Royals of the 1990s and 2000s and not the Royals of the George Brett and Bret Saberhagen days, at least for now.
The rest of the pitching staff is a work in progress, particularly in the bullpen with closer Joakim Soria missing the season with Tommy John surgery. For now the team will go without an anointed closer. If that changes, one option is Greg Holland, who was lights out last season. Jonathan Broxton is another option. He was an excellent gamble for the Royals coming off of elbow surgery. If he comes back 100 percent the Royals could still have a strong bullpen.
The Royals also have picked up the once-dominating-and-now-enigmatic Jose Mijares, who can be amazing when he looks more like an athlete than a rhinoceros. His weight issues and lack of “want to” got him booted from Minnesota. My guess is that he has a season just good enough to earn another contract … and then upset management in Kansas City just like he did in Minnesota.
This team has the talent to exceed this projection, but with questions on the pitching staff, this is where I’ll peg them for now at a safe 81-81. The plus-minus on that, however, is 10 games either way because, after all, they are still the Royals.
The Cleveland Indians aren’t perfect and one of their pitchers doesn’t know his name, or when he is coming back to the team. Roberto Hernandez Heredia, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, has resolved identity fraud charges and he’s worked out a pay cut with the Indians. He’ll likely be back with the team at some point this season. But a similar case involving Miami Marlin Leo Nunez, now known as Juan Carlos Oviedo, resulted in a lengthy suspension for the player.
Things like this sicken me more than even steroids. Identity fraud post Sept.11 is risky and stupid and something Heredia will have to go through at whatever pace the situation is resolved. It’s too bad. He’s not a great pitcher, but he’s a good one who can gut out tough starts and occasionally be brilliant. Because of his issues the Indians had to trade for former Twins pitcher Kevin Slowey, who was 0-8 with an unholy 6.66 ERA last season while battling injuries and attitude problems. Justin Masterson, on the other hand, finally put it together while looking like an ace at times. Ubaldo Jimenez, formerly of the Rockies, is an ace that looked like an Indian last year. I expect him to revert back to top form and give the Indians a very nice one-two punch at the top of the rotation.
Josh Tomlin was a winner last year. He wasn’t dominating, but he won, and as he gains maturity could become a very solid third starter. The Surprise pickup of Derek Lowe looks like a minor genius move now with the Carmona/Heredia fiasco. Lowe is a proven vet and an inning eater. His 9-17 record last year shows he’s no longer a top of the rotation guy, but his guile and his influence on the rest of the staff will make him a wonderful pickup. Tony Sipp, Chris Perez and company make up a solid-but-not-spectacular bullpen.
The interesting thing for me with this team is its offense and defense — well, to be more precise, the Indians’ lack of defense and potentially amazing offense. Catcher Carlos Santana had a pretty lousy year with a .239 batting average, but his on-base percentage was .351 and he hit 27 homers. In 2012 I see all of these numbers getting bigger and better. He’s a switch-hitter who will be given plenty of at bats at first base and designated hitter.
Casey Kotchman is an excellent defensive first baseman who will help this team a great deal. While I don’t see him repeating last years offensive numbers he’s going to be toward the bottom of the lineup, and he makes second baseman Jason Kipnis a lot better. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera wasn’t an MVP candidate because the Indians were, at best, mediocre last season, but his numbers were excellent. I love this kid’s bat and grit. His glove sometimes gets forgotten, but he’s really improved that too. I don’t think he improves on the 25 homers from last season, but the .273 batting average should be closer to .300 this year.
Jack Hannahan is their projected starting third baseman, but they picked up Andy LaRoche to compete with him. I look at this as the weak spot for the team as neither is what I’d like to see as my starter. Jose Lopez will get some at bats at all four infield position and may recapture his past power and glory, but I don’t see it as likely. Travis Hafner isn’t a pretty man (his nickname is Pronk, a cross of project and donkey) and he’s been pretty unhealthy for the last few years. But when he’s healthy he’s excellent at getting on base and driving in runs with some massive power. The Indians’ offense will sink or swim on his bat. I hope he stays healthy, but I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t, yet again.
Michael Brantley is fast, has a little pop, and could, if all the stars align, become a very solid leadoff hitter or a great number nine hitter. Grady Sizemore came back at a reduced price. This would likely make him a fan favorite, if he were able to stay healthy. But he’s already out, likely for at least a couple months. Noticing a trend here? Sizemore is supremely talented. He’s an excellent outfielder with the skills to put up 30 homers and 30 steals, but he’s been on the disabled list so much in recent years it’s getting hard to envision seeing those talents maximized again. Shin-Soo Choo is a very good defensive outfielder with a little pop and speed. I’ve seen him projected as the fifth or sixth hitter in the Indians’ lineup.
In the end, I think Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera lead the attack on offense while Masterson and Jimenez compete for a Cy Young award during an exciting 2012 season where the Indians finish 87-75 while narrowly missing the playoffs.
The Detroit Tigers dominated the AL Central last year and with their offseason additions, they are without question the best team in the division this year. I see a 96-66 team.
Alex Avila is a superstar catcher in the making. The acquisition of Prince Fielder was a shock to me and to a lot of the baseball world. After losing the production of Victor Martinez due to a season-ending knee injury this offseason, Fielder’s bat is going to be a godsend. The question it briefly created was who would play first base and who would be the designated hitter between Fielder and maybe the best hitter in all of baseball, Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers solved that problem by moving Cabrera back to third base. The defense on the corners is going to be far from spectacular, but every team hopes to get offensive production from those spots and you won’t find a better tandem in all of baseball.
Second baseman Ryan Raburn isn’t outstanding, but he’s projected to be the number nine hitter and he hit 14 homers last year. Jhonny Peralta had a great 2011 season. While I don’t see him repeating last year, I think between the pair, the production will be similar. Peralta and Raburn, however, also will be less than stellar defensively.
Delmon Young is projected to be the leftfielder. He came alive for Detroit after the Twins traded him for almost nothing. Young is going to be a driving force, either in the outfield or at designated hitter. If Young DHs, then Andy Dirks will likely start in left field. He does nothing for me, but if he catches the ball and doesn’t embarrass himself no one will be fretting.
Austin Jackson is an outstanding defensive centerfielder, but the Tigers keep batting him leadoff which doesn’t make any sense to me. He doesn’t take walks, he doesn’t hit for a high average and he doesn’t have a lot of pop. Jackson has changed up his swing in hopes of cutting down strikeouts. If he doesn’t, he should be an eighth or ninth hitter in Detroit.
Brennan Boesch could have a breakthrough year in 2012. He doesn’t have the traditional speed I’d like out of a leadoff hitter, but I think he’d be a huge upgrade over Jackson. The Tigers don’t need to steal a ton of bases at the top of the lineup. Just get on base for Cabrera and Fielder. They drive in runs – it’s what they do.
The pitching staff is anchored by Justin Verlander, who was the best pitcher in baseball last season. He spent 2011 looking a lot like a Don Drysdale kind of Hall of Famer, not just because of his “stuff” but because of his mentality. He won the CY Young award last year again and he won the MVP (which is a blog for another day). He is the toughest competitor in baseball. It would be ridiculous to think he could do better in 2012, but if he’s healthy he won’t do a lot worse. Maybe he drops off to 20-10?
Doug Fister was an outstanding pickup who has massive upside. Max Scherzer won 15 games last year and wasn’t brilliant. I think he improves. Rick Porcello had a bad season with a 4.75 ERA and still won 14 games. This is the AL Central and I see him winning 15 games this year, if not more. In camp, Duane Below, Drew Smyly and Andy Oliver competed for the fifth spot in the rotation . Smyly got the nod. Oliver, though a top quality prospect, was demoted. Below will start the season in the bullpen.
Closer Jose Valverde did not blow a save last season. Joaquin Benoit is a capable setup man. Behind them, Brayan Villarreal, Luis Marte, Collin Balester, veteran Octavio Dotel and others will compete for innings out of a pen that appears less than set as opening day approaches.