Sizing up the competition in the AL Central
In recent years, the American League Central Division has been notorious for its reputation as the weakest division in baseball. Over the past several seasons, only one or two teams have been playoff worthy.
The Detroit Tigers made it all the way to the World Series last season and have been regarded as the class of the division as they currently are home to the reigning AL MVP and Triple Crown winner in Miguel Cabrera and arguably the top pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander. Outside of Motown, this division hasn’t had much to brag about lately. Sure, the Chicago White Sox were good, but some question whether their success was due to valid talent or simply the right alignment of the stars.
The Cleveland Indians finished in fourth place last season just barely ahead of the lowly Minnesota Twins. However, after a plethora of offseason moves, the Tribe is looking to put themselves back in the race in 2013. It's a tall task, but in a division where it only took 88 wins to capture the crown last season, it’s not entirely far-fetched.
The Detroit Tigers:
Starting at the top, let’s take a look at the reigning American League champion Tigers. Despite going all the way to the World Series, they, in theory, probably wouldn’t have even made it to the playoffs if it wasn’t for the collapse of the White Sox over the last week of the season. In fact, the Tigers only controlled first place in the division for seven days before taking the title. So while they are one of the toughest teams in baseball capable of winning 100 games, they had their own bouts with inconsistency last season particularly on the road where they went 38-43.
That’s not to say Detroit is not the favorite to win the division this season because they definitely are. Four-time All-Star and former Indian Victor Martinez returns after missing 2012 recovering from a knee injury, and the addition of outfield slugger Torii Hunter makes the Tigers’ lineup much better than last season. The rotation also looks to be an unstoppable force with Justin Verlander at the helm and guys like Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and newly re-signed Anibal Sanchez backing him up.
The Tigers do have their weaknesses though. Their defense with the heavy-set Cabrera and Prince Fielder manning the infield corners coupled with the limited range at shortstop courtesy of Jhonny Peralta has proven to be costly as Detroit finished the season with a .983 fielding percentage and committed 99 total errors. The Tigers’ bullpen has also been a question mark as closer Jose Valverde was released by the team after blowing five saves in the regular season and one in the playoffs despite being perfect in save opportunities in 2011. Going into spring training without a closer, Detroit will be turning to rookie right-hander Bruce Rondon, who has a 2.53 ERA with 65 saves over his minor league career. The Tigers can also turn to Phil Coke, who assumed the role of closer during the playoffs after Valverde’s poor performance in the division series and went 2-for-2 in save opportunities.
It’s also worth noting that the Indians, despite all their struggles last season, did play well against the Tigers in almost every game. The Tribe owned a 10-8 record against the eventual American League champions including a comeback stunner in late July where Indians catcher Carlos Santana and designated hitter Travis Hafner hit back-to-back home runs off Tigers ace Verlander, who was 1-2 with a 2.50 ERA against Cleveland in 2012. That 10-8 mark may not have meant much last season, but if that trend continues this season, it could be more of a factor in the division race.
The Chicago White Sox:
The reason behind the success of the Chicago White Sox last season is anyone’s guess, but it seemed to me, at least, like just the right combination of scenarios and coincidences to give them a near-division title. Like the Indians, the White Sox have a lot of questions, if not more, surrounding their team heading into 2013. Which version of Adam Dunn will Chicago get this season: the one who hit 11 home runs and 42 RBI’s in 2011 or the guy with 42 homers and 96 RBI’s in 2012? How did Alex Rios go from being a .227 hitter to a .304 hitter and will that continue in 2013? Can Jake Peavy stay healthy and duplicate his 3.37 ERA from last season? Can Chris Sale continue to perform well as a starter and become their ace? These questions and many more will be asked by Sox fans as they prepare for the upcoming season.
There are also some key components of the 2012 White Sox that won’t be a factor with the 2013 team. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is no longer with Chicago as he signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal to play for the Texas Rangers after a career season in 2012 where he hit .278 with 27 homers and 77 RBI’s. The Sox will also be without the services of Kevin Youkilis at third base. With Chicago, Youkilis hit .236 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI’s compared to the .233 average, 4 homers, and 14 RBI’s he had with Boston before being traded to the South Side. This offseason, Youkilis signed a 1-year deal with the New York Yankees following news that third baseman Alex Rodriguez would be sidelined for much of the season following hip surgery.
The Indians struggled against the White Sox last season as they only mustered seven victories out of an 18-game swing against Chicago. Success against them will be key for the Tribe in order to keep their playoff hopes alive, but that means containing and beating Indians killers like center fielder Alejandro De Aza, designated hitter and first baseman Paul Konerko and starter Sale. However, the White Sox have a lot to overcome as well if they’re going to replicate last season's success.
The Kansas City Royals:
An argument can be made for the Royals having some of the best young talent available today. Between left fielder Alex Gordon, third baseman Mike Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer and designated hitter Billy Butler, Kansas City has the potential to be one of the most potent offenses in the division. Their bullpen also has some of the top relievers in baseball with Greg Holland, Aaron Crow and Nate Adcock among others. However, the Royals have just been incapable of breaking out of their losing ways and have not had a winning season since 2003.
General manager Dayton Moore is hoping to change that this season as he and the Royals orchestrated a mega trade with Tampa Bay, which sent pitchers Wade Davis and James Shields along with shortstop Elliot Johnson to Kansas City for prized outfield prospect Wil Myers, left-handed pitching prospect Mike Montgomery, third base prospect Patrick Leonard and starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi. The addition of Davis and Shields along with the signing of free agent right-hander Ervin Santana will help a struggling Royals rotation that finished 2012 with a combined 5.01 ERA, but whether they can break out of a decade-long skid remains to be seen.
If the Indians want to contend this season, they’ll need to own winning records against the Royals and the Minnesota Twins. In 2012, the Tribe struggled against Kansas City going 8-10 against them. In their final matchup of the season, however, Cleveland won a 15-3 blowout, which included a 10-run fifth inning. The Indians also started the season well against the Royals as they swept Kansas City’s three-game opening home stand. To stay in the race, the Tribe will have to hold that same dominance against the Royals and any other lesser competition they meet in the upcoming season.
The Minnesota Twins:
Oh how the mighty have fallen. The once-toast of the 2000’s, the Minnesota Twins have endured their second straight season in the very depths of the cellar of the American League as they finished the 2012 campaign with a 66-96 mark. Not pretty for a team who’s grown accustomed to the reversed version of that record in recent years. While their lineup does have some sluggers, their pitching staff has virtually imploded over the last couple seasons.
Former Twins starters Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey have embarked for better opportunities after becoming unreliable for Minnesota due to inconsistency and injuries. Closer Matt Capps is now with the Indians under a minor league contract. In fact, young left-hander Scott Diamond may be about the only saving grace of that whole staff. To put their desperation in perspective, Minnesota signed veteran reliever and former Indians great Rafael Perez in hopes of converting him into a starter. Keep in mind that Perez hasn’t started one game in his Major League career and is coming off nearly a full season on the disabled list for a shoulder injury.
While their pitching staff is in a shambles, their lineup is one of the better ones in the league. The trio of catcher Joe Mauer, first baseman Justin Morneau and recently acquired left fielder Josh Willingham hit a combined .282 with 64 home runs and 244 RBI. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe and alternate catcher Ryan Doumit can also provide some pop. However, the Twins did lose center fielder Denard Span and right fielder Ben Revere in trades this offseason.
Since it seems all too likely that Minnesota will repeat their cellar dweller performance in 2013, the Indians need to capitalize as much as possible. The Twins owned a 12-6 record against the Tribe last season, which is something that cannot happen again. One of the Tribe’s victories against Minnesota last season was a complete game shutout tossed by veteran starter Derek Lowe. Indians pitchers will have to find a way to shut down Morneau and Willingham, who combined for 10 home runs 39 RBI against the Tribe last season.
As expected, the majority of the baseball community has already handed the 2013 AL Central crown to the Detroit Tigers. However, the Indians and Royals have made significant improvements to their rosters this offseason and could potentially put pressure on the defending American League champions. Some even go so far to say the Central will be a four-way race between the Tigers, Indians, White Sox and Royals. This seems unlikely, but who thought the A’s would rise up and take the AL West title last season or that Baltimore would rocket their way out of the basement in the AL East and nearly beat the Yankees in the playoffs?
But that’s baseball, where stats and past performance cannot truly predict any team’s destiny. Who knows, maybe the Indians can be this year’s Cinderella story.
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First, I am very happy that for the first time in a long time we have a real starting 9. No, Damon in LF, no Kotchman at 1B and no platoon of DD and JM. Heck, we even have bench depth this year with guys who might be starting during other years. I really like Aviles as a super sub, Ryan Rabun at utility man, and I am pretty high on Lou Marson as backup. I think if he can add some power, show the discipline at the plate he showed last and throw runners out like 2011 he could be a very solid back up. The kind that could give Santana alot of rest and allow him to spend some time at 1B and DH to keep him strong the whole year. One thing we need is a lefty bat off the bench. We have some interesting options such as young slugger McGuiness and super vet Jason Giambi. As well as former top prospect Hermidea, switch hitter Chord Phelps, a nice back up outfielder in Cisco and I could see Tim Fedroff as a surprise. He brings youth as well as good contact skills that could be a real boon to a club with so many free swingers.
I also really like the mix of young guys such as Stubbs, Brantley, Kipnis, Santana, Chisenhall, Marson, McGuiness with vets such as Bourn, Swisher, Ascab, Aviles, Reynolds and maybe even Giambi.
The thing I like most though is the potential. If things go our way we could be better then the Tigers. Problem is they just need to keep status quo and we need alot of things to go right.
The potential is there though almost everywhere on the diamond. Sure, Masterson and Ubaldo are question marks but they have dominated MLB hitters before. We got a steady innings eater in Meyers as well as very interesting you pitchers such as Carrasco, McCalister, Buaer and Kluber. Even Kazmir and Dice K have not only been good pitchers but Cy Young caliber good in the past and its not like either one is 40 years old.
Then the lineup has alot of guys who could have break out seasons. From Stubbs to Chisenhall to Brantley, Kipnis and Santana. Those are some exciting young players who have the talent to all become above average major league ball players. Some even All Stars.
We also have a much improved defense and added even more depth to our bullpen which is very important with our questionable rotation. If the rotation finds itself and the bullpen is as good as I think everyone should watch out.
All this with the added leadership of Francona, his staff and bringing in vets and players with playoff experience could lead to a very good team.
The one last thing I really like is speed. I think its underrated and can help in ways that are not seen in a box score. Having Stubbs, Bourn, Ascab, Kipnis all in a row should be a really fun dynamic to watch. Then we have another speedy guy smack dab in the middle of the lineup with Brantley. I know he didn't do well with steals last year but I think this guy could steal 16-21 bases a year without a problem. Mike Aviles had 16 steals last season and although he is not in the same league as Bourn Stubbs and Kipnis he could be a nice pinch runner to bring into the game which should enhance our team even more.
The Tigers will be hard to beat but the talent is there. No matter what I think this is going to be a fun team to watch. With young guys coming into their own, characters like Swisher, power like Reynolds, the outfield defense and speed on the basepaths. I also think we might really see how good Chris Perez is this season when he should have more games to save.
Soto is starting the first game and was a starter last year in Akron. Could be that I haven't been following all the info in the offseason, but it seems that he's still a starter. Barnes appears to have moved out of that category, though I've read in some places that they still might look at him as a starter down the road.
I think with Hagadone, it is a durability issue. He wasn't a starter in college and has never logged even 100 innings in a season.
I did not know that, and it makes me wonder whether the Indians have been way too quick to relegate guys with good arms to the bullpen (e.g, Hagadone, Soto, Haley). One of the consequences of that is that we have an embarrassment of bullpen riches.
For the Tribe, if they can stay close till June/July, and their pitching sorts itself out, well, that could make it much tighter.
Tigers have to be the favorites, but I believe this division will be a lot closer than people think.
That all being said, you still have to get through their starting pitching and shut down their sluggers if you want to beat them, which will be a tough task for anyone.
I personally think....
1. Detroit (92-94 wins)
2. Cleveland (88-90 wins)
3. Kansas City (81-83)
4. Chicago (78-80)
5. Minnesota (68-70)
I'm intrigued to see how KC's rotation works out with their recent additions (Shields, Davis, Santana, re-signing Guthrie), they definitely have potential but that lineup isn't going to make it easy for them to score.
Verlander averaged just under 7.1 innings pitched per game. Fister 6.1. Sanchez averaged 6.1 while with Detroit. Scherzer lasted less than 6 innings per game as did Porcello.
So the Tigers have to get through 3-4 innings on average with their bullpen. If the bullpen blows up, the starters could get a lot of NDs.
Then there is the defense. Cabrera is a great hitter, but he's an average (at best) defender with a limited range at 3B. Fielder is a dog defensively at 1B. And we know of Peralta's issues at SS. They also lost Delmon Young at DH. I guess they gain V-Mart there, but his power fell off the last time he played. Still a good hitter, but a knee injury can prevent hitters from coming back fully - especially their first season back as they adjust.
So the Tigers should be the favorites, but they are not invincible. Scherzer's career so far has shown that he yo-yos. Strong ERA is followed by a respectable one akin to the mid-4s that he had back in 2011. Fister is good, but his walk numbers creeped up last year in fewer innings - so patience from hitters could see his numbers go up. Verlander is obviously fantastic and I think Sanchez is quite good, though a large drop off from Verlander. Though notice how the run support drops off when Verlander pitches. This isn't uncommon when you put out a big time Ace.
Still, that pitching staff isn't scary apart from Verlander. The top end of the lineup is strong, but I'd argue that our lineup this year will be more consistent throughout.
In short, I hope the Tigers think they can run away with it, because I don't think they can. And they have underperformed more than once, including last year. That team should have won around 95 games with their talent and Verlander should have won 20+.
All they need to figure out is how to get a lead, which should be much easier with this new lineup, and hold it until the later innings. That's where the starting pitching comes in. If they can step up, look out!
And the best rotation in the division anchored by Verlander with Fister and Scherzer 2-3.
Who's going to beat these guys?