American League Central Division Preview

Minnesota Twins
The Twins seemingly got little attention this offseason outside of trading for J.J. Hardy and signing Joe Mauer to a huge contract extension. They also maybe did better than anyone as far as filling holes.

Gone is disappointing center fielder Carlos Gomez and here is shortstop J.J. Hardy, who should be very bit as good as Gomez with the glove, but with the potential to rebound offensively enough to possibly make him one of the very best  overall players in the American League at his position.

Orlando Hudson papers over a huge hole the Twins had at second base. Jim Thome is a big bat off the bench and insurance in case DH Jason Kubel has to replace Delmon Young in left field. A deep bullpen will overcome for the loss of closer Joe Nathan. Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau team with Mauer to form a terrific offensive core.

There are still holes. Maybe I’m not giving enough credit to Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano’s health or the reports that Francisco Liriano is throwing well this spring, but Scott Baker is the only starter that inspires a lot of confidence in me.

Minnesota is still putting Nick Punto into its starting lineup — this year at third base — but he just doesn’t have enough glove to make up for his awful bat. And for as well as the Twins outfield might hit, the defense will probably be terrible, possibly putting more strain on the rotation.

These are things that can be overcome, though. Especially if Minnesota adds another starter via trade later in the year and maybe a third baseman or center fielder to push Denard Span back to left. That’s why I’m picking the Twins to win this division.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Just as the St. Louis Cardinals define relative stability in the National League’s Midwestern depots, the Twins have developed a slightly similar steadiness in the American League Central. They have just inked reigning MVP and hometown star, catcher Joe Mauer to a mammoth contract. Justin Morneau is an outstanding hitter in his own right and the addition of J.J. Hardy should rejuvenate him after bursting in relative flames in Milwaukee. Jim Thome could be a solid designated hitter for a team now having to adjust to the open-air Target Field as his Cleveland, Philadelphia & Chicago days showed him how to cope with the northern elements.

Sure, losing Joe Nathan hurts. Yet, it’s better that he’s shelved now than later in the season because A) the Twins would have built momentum with him on the roster and B) psychologically, filling those shoes is much tougher than replacing an everyday player with more opportunities to get his feet wet. It’s not to say that the closer position in baseball is grossly overrated, but it is over-hyped. Losing a top-notch one places importance back where it should be all along: starting pitchers and long relievers who do the heavy lifting before the closer grabs a save.

HOWARD MEGDAL: In what is not a great division, the Twins could probably do well enough to contend. But I am concerned enough about their pitching that a 78-84 campaign wouldn’t surprise me, either.

The starters, as Chris wrote, are suspect. And with the bullpen, it isn’t losing Joe Nathan as closer that’s the problem. It is a remaining group that simply doesn’t inspire confidence.

Detroit Tigers
After saying I thought the Tigers had a chance to be the worst team in baseball before last season, it’s maybe starting to seem like I have a vendetta against Detroit or something. I would point out, though, that the Tigers lived down to my expectations after September rolled around.

I’m again down on the Motor City. Justin Verlander is great, and Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer could be. Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis won’t be.

Detroit’s hopes rest on an offense that I don’t see as being very good outside of Miguel Cabrera. Magglio Ordonez can’t have another awful first half like he did last year, Carlos Guillen can’t get hurt again and Johnny Damon can’t have his power disappear away from the new Yankee Stadium. Not while the lineup also boasts a catcher who can’t hit (Gerald Laird), two guys playing for their defensive skills (Brandon Inge, Adam Everett) and two rookies (Austin Jackson, Scott Sizemore).

That’s maybe asking too much, which is why I think 75 wins is about right for this Tigers team.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Hope is the theme for every team, but especially in Detroit. In trading the popular Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, they hope that Max Scherzer can give them even more than what Edwin Jackson did with thirteen wins in 2009. In signing free agent Johnny Damon, they get one of the more consistent leadoff hitters in the game of the last decade, who they hope can run the rather large Comerica Park left field at the age of 36. They hope that Carlos Guillen will be less of an injury concern as he becomes the primary DH. They hope that Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez are past their 2009 health issues, as well. They hope Dontrelle Willis can dig deep in the well to find the electric pitcher he once was as he takes over for the now-traded Nate Robertson as the fifth starter.

Yet, therein lies the rub. Every team hopes they can avoid significant injuries to any player, let alone their top of the order hitters. However, to keep up with the relatively healthy Twins and Chicago White Sox, they’re rolling the dice with a lot of veterans who are going to need rest to be effective for a long season.

They better add another hope; nothing happens with Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Joel Zumaya and Miguel Cabrera.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I’m in line with Chris and Jason, though I still hope Gerald Laird turns into a useful hitter, and I think Austin Jackson could justify the Granderson deal as soon as this year. 2011 is more likely, however.

Chicago White Sox
CHRIS PUMMER: Like everyone else in this division, the White Sox have question marks. Like everyone else, their fate may be staked on a few players performing to their abilities. Unlike everyone else, the players the Sox are counting on will have to come back from bad seasons to carry the team to the playoffs.

Carlos Quentin and Jake Peavy lost lots of time last year because of injuries, while Alex Rios just looked lost. However, each of those players could be borderline superstars if they return to form they showed as recently as 2008. In Rios and Peavy the Sox have a lot of money riding on them putting their careers back together.

If they can’t, the Sox are mediocre all over the field outside of sophomore second baseman Gordon Beckham. Paul Konerko is a capable first baseman at this point. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez hasn’t shown he can hit well and field well all at the same time. Mark Teahen might just be a worse, more expensive version of the Rob Mackowiak experiment that ended badly on the South Side a few years ago (though nobody intended for Mack to play every day when he arrived). Juan Pierre’s upside is slightly below average. And while A.J. Pierzynski might be among the top 5 catchers in baseball, he’s nowhere near the top tier that includes guys like Brian McCann and Mauer. The rotation DH situation is a joke.

The pitching staff will be good. A healthy Peavy teamed with Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd are among the best starting four in baseball. The Sox even have lots of depth for the fifth spot, where Freddy Garcia will pitch until his shoulder gives out and prospect Daniel Hudson is ready. Even AAAA-hurler Carlos Torres might be capable of turning in an ERA just over 5.00 if called on to fill the spot. And the bullpen is a solid collection of established (Matt Thornton), though maybe overpaid (Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz) guys, with a couple live arms (Tony Pena, Sergio Santos) thrown in there for good measure. And Scott Linebrink is rich.

It’s all for second or third place if Quentin and Rios can’t recover.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports summed it up perfectly in his spring training piece about the Southsiders; they’re a cast of misfits, trying to make this thing work. It’s another team of ‘hope’, only that they may not have as many health issues as Detroit.

The thing about this hopeful team is that they are four years removed from one of the most overlooked World Series wins in recent memory. Manager Ozzie Guillen was rather frank – when isn’t he? – when stating that he has the best rotation in the division, but was “very, very, very bad defensively. Very bad.” Having both got them the title in 2005, and they believe they have it again due to the defensive makeover they went under this offseason; Alex Rios as the everyday CF, Carlos Guillen at right, Andruw Jones & Mark Kotsay platooning left/DH duties, Mark Teahen at third, Gordon Beckham at second.

Yet, if they can’t get that timely power to help out Mark Buerhle, Jake Peavy, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Freddy Garcia, they can’t consider catching Minnesota or Detroit.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Consider me more optimistic on the Sox. With that starting four, the offense could easily be enough if some of the reclamation projects return to form. I think Chicago is the division favorite.

Cleveland Indians
CHRIS PUMMER: I’ve long soured on the Indians’ way of team building. Yes, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee would have been in the final years of their contracts this season, and Cleveland did get some talent back for them. But this winnable division could have been the Tribe’s for the taking.

That would have been especially true if Grady Sizemore can bounce back from what was a poor year by his standards. Shin-Soo Choo is a good hitter, so if Travis Hafner can stay healthy and Asdrubal Cabrera has finally put it together and keeps it together, the Indians still have a good offensive team. A couple of prospects from a group that includes Matt LaPorta, Luis Valbuena, Michael Brantley or Lou Marson establishing themselves would have been gravy.

This rotation will sorely miss Lee, though. Jake Westbrook is coming back from injury, Fausto Carmona is coming off something bad that must have happened to him, and Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot and David Huff all have a lot to prove. The bullpen is just as suspect as the rotation.

Will the Indians be better in 2011 and 2012 because they threw in the towel early for 2010? We won’t be able to guess that for a couple years. But nothing is sadder than quitting.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Did you know that “Harry Doyle” was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past weekend? That might be the best thing out of Cleveland all season long, sadly. It’s very possible that the Tribe can sink below the Royals this year because there’s not a pitching staff to speak of that can make up for potential power outages on offense.

This team is starting several unknowns for either experience or health reasons. Michael Brantley, Luis Valbuena, Matt LaPorta and Lou Marson have less than two years of MLB experience combined. Injuries limited Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore in 2010, though Hafner has the mental battle of trying to regain his 2005 & 2006 form, as well. Jake Westbrook missed all of 2009 and Fausto Carmona has taken a step back since his 19-8 season in 2008.

Cleveland has made one too many talent-depleting trades in the last two years and it’ll be quite a while before they can recover from them.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Is Justin Masterson really the number one starter? I mean, I like him, but the number one starter? He’s not even the number five starter on my fantasy team in a deep league, and I had a terrible draft.

Kansas City Royals
CHRIS PUMMER: To go back to the theme of quitting, that’s probably what most Royals fans wish GM Dayton Moore would do right now. The farm system he’s allegedly rebuilding has yet to bear much fruit worth tasting. That’s why Scott Podsednik, Jose Guillen, Yuniesky Betancourt, Rick Ankiel, Jason Kendall and Chris Getz all have starting jobs on this team.

With Gil Meche injured, the rotation is Zack Greinke and a bunch of guys the Royals hope will put things together. The bullpen is Joakim Soria and a bunch of guys the Royals hope put it together. The manager is Trey Hillman, a guy the Royals hope … awww … forget it.

Here’s hoping Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Greinke all get to play for a team that cares about winning games someday.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Billy Butler is the perfect baseball name, isn’t it? It just sounds as if he was never meant to be anything else by a ballplayer. If you’re searching the internet to find out who he is, I can’t blame you. The Royals’ descent back to the familiar cellar kept his name from the national conscious, though he’s the kind of hitter you may love on your team. In all but three games last season, Butler hit at a .301 clip, .853 OPS, 21 homers, 93 RBI and a .492 slugging percentage. That’s not exactly going to invoke images of Missouri’s other first baseman (Albert Pujols), but he’s a guy you need to know more about.

Because for the love of light blue alternate jerseys, there’s not much else to know.

Zack Greinke is the truth, as the kids say. It’ll be nice to see Gil Meche bounce back from an injury-hampered 2009 campaign to give opponents someone else to worry about on the mound. It’ll be even better if the Royals can muster some offense beyond Butler. Maybe Rick Ankiel and Scott Posednik can give this squad a bit more pop and speed until Alex Gordon hits the field a month or so from now.

After falling phenomenally short of the “next Tampa Bay Rays” moniker they were given last year, you may find that there’s not much to talk about with this team. I genuinely hope they prove me wrong because they have a pretty good player on the right side of the diamond.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Jason is right on Butler, of course, and I continue to have a morbid fascination with Alex Gordon’s career, which is strange, since I don’t look at car accidents when I ride past them.

I keep rooting for these small-market, poorly-run teams like Kansas City and Pittsburgh to get it together. The Pirates, at least, finally seem like they are on the right track. The Royals? Well, it seems like the great Joe Posnanski might never get to cover his hometown team in the World Series. And that is a baseball tragedy,

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