The SPACE BETWEEN: American League Central Preview

Posted: March 11, 2011 by The Cheap Seat Fan in MLB
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The AL Central has been under lock and key for the last few seasons, with all rights coming through Minnesota. The back-to-back division champions have had the steadiest core of any (successful) team in the division, and because of that they have been the class of the middle of the AL. To contrast every bit of consistency in the Twin Cities, there has been frustration in Chicago and Detroit. After each reached the World Series (with Chicago winning in 2005) in the middle of last decade, they have battled inconsistencies from their benches and superstars, and haven’t been able to mount much of an attack at dethroning the champs.

2010 Final Standings

1. Minnesota Twins (94-68)
2. Chicago White Sox (88-74)
3. Detroit Tigers (81-81)
4. Cleveland Indians (69-93)
5. Kansas City Royals (67-95)

The tides are shifting here. The Tigers and White Sox both made aggressive changes to their existing rosters, but if anything characterizes the Central and its potential, is what is missing and what could be. Each team in the division has an impact player whose participation is in question. The Twins’ Justin Morneau is returning from a concussion, which is always risky. The White Sox Jake Peavy could be the best pitcher in the division, but is still on the mend from multiple arm surgeries that have kept him from making his full impact since joining the Sox two years ago. The Indians are in a similar situation with the continual return of Grady Sizemore, and the Royals are waiting for their entire future to show up via the minor leagues. However, Tigers’ issue could be the most severe. They are dealing with yet another off field alcohol-related legal issue from MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera, whose presence, or lack thereof, could change everything. There’s a lot to be revealed in the Central, and how these clubs look now could be completely different by the end of the summer.

Cabrera's bat almost landed him an MVP a year ago, but his legal issues may keep him from making a repeat performance.

ALL DIVISION TEAM

Catcher: Joe Mauer-Minnesota Twins

First Base: Miguel Cabrera-Detroit Tigers

Second Base: Gordon Beckham-Chicago White Sox

Third Base: Brandon Inge-Detroit Tigers

Shortstop: Alexei Ramirez-Chicago White Sox

Left Field: Delmon Young-Minnesota Twins

Center Field: Alex Rios-Chicago White Sox

Right Field: Shin-Soo Choo-Cleveland Indians

Designated Hitter: Adam Dunn-Chicago White Sox

Starting Pitcher: Justin Verlander-Detroit Tigers

Starting Pitcher: Francisco Liriano-Minnesota Twins

Starting Pitcher: Carl Pavano-Minnesota Twins

Starting Pitcher: Fausto Carmona-Cleveland Indians

Verlander routinely surpasses both 18 wins...and 100 mph on the gun.

Bullpen Righty: Matt Capps-Minnesota Twins

Bullpen Lefty: Rafael Perez-Cleveland Indians

Closer: Joakim Soria-Kansas City Royals

BEST PLAYERS

1. Miguel Cabrera-Tigers
2. Joe Mauer-Twins
3. Justin Verlander-Tigers
4. Paul Konerko-White Sox
5. Adam Dunn-White Sox
6. Joakim Soria-Royals
7. Victor Martinez-Tigers
8. Justin Morneau-Twins
9. Alexei Ramirez-White Sox
10. Shin-Soo Choo-Indians

Shin-Soo Choo is a great talent (.300/20/90) on a team where it doesn't get to make a big difference.

There is a ton of top shelf talent here at the top of this division, although it is gathered mostly on three rosters. Cabrera and Mauer are among the top five players in all of baseball, with 2009 MVP Mauer being by and far the best catcher in the game. Cabrera had the best statistical season of any player in the AL a year ago. Verlander has had three seasons of at least 18 wins in the last four years. Dunn could quickly become the biggest power threat in the AL. Soria is one of the top closers in the game, picking up 43 saves in 67 Royals wins a year ago.

LINEUP

1. White Sox
2. Tigers
3. Twins
4. Indians
5. Royals

The White Sox jump over the Twins here with the addition of Adam Dunn to be a top-notch power threat in the middle of an already powerful lineup, and will be a high on-base threat for Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez and Carlos Quentin to have on base in front of them. The Twins struggled late last season, with Morneau out of the mix, despite a strong close from Mauer, but are still one the best orders in baseball. The Tigers boosted their order tremendously by adding in Victor Martinez to protect Cabrera, and a healthy Magglio Ordonez is entering yet another contract year, so he’ll be going for it all this summer.

Adding Dunn (38 or more homers for the last 7 years) gives the White Sox an intimidating lineup.

ROTATION

1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Tigers
4. Indians

5. Royals

The Twins were in a tailspin concerning pitching depth until Carl Pavano resigned. His return gives them a slight matchup advantage over the White Sox, but if Peavy comes back anywhere close to full strength, his addition to the Mark Buerhle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Edwin Jackson group of healthy Sox starters gives them a clear advantage here. Consistent full seasons from Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer in Detroit give them a strong three-man top of the rotation with Verlander as well.

1-2 PUNCH

1. Twins (Liriano & Pavano)
2. White Sox (Buerhle & Peavy)
3. Tigers (Verlander & Scherzer)
4. Indians (Carmona & Masterson)
5. Royals (Hochevar & Francis)

As mentioned, before the White Sox duo takes over number one here if Peavy’s health is not a concern any longer. However on the right day, Liriano can be as unhittable as any pitcher in baseball. Carmona and Masterson have potential as well, but will need support from their questionable lineup to make a real difference.

BULLPEN

1. White Sox
2. Twins
3. Tigers
4. Indians
5. Royals

Soria has saved 92% of his chances in the last three years, 2nd in baseball.

This is an odd mix of groups here, as no one bullpen is particularly great. The division’s best closer, Soria, isn’t even enough for the Royals staff to be better than the worst unit in the division, as they annually have trouble getting a lead to him. The Sox have long-time setup man Matt Thornton taking over as closer, but rookie Chris Sale could make a case for the role as well. Joe Nathan returns from an elbow injury that kept him out the entire season a year ago, but if he’s healthy, no closer in baseball was more prolific than him from 2004 to 2009 (246 saves).

BENCH

1. White Sox
2. Twins
3. Royals
4. Tigers
5. Indians

The Sox have plenty of experience and versatility on their bench in Omar Vizquel, Mark Teahan and Dayan Viciedo. The Twins feature Jim Thome and his 589 home runs as an insurance policy/DH in the wings. The Royals don’t match up well in many areas, but a bench with Mitch Maier and Wilson Betemit gives some support if any of their starters run cold.

3-4-5 HITTERS

1. White Sox (Konerko/Dunn/Rios)
2. Tigers (Ordonez/Cabrera/Martinez)
3. Twins (Mauer/Morneau/Young)
4. Indians (Choo/Hafner/Santana)
5. Royals (Butler/Ka’aihue/Francouer)

This is an era where four of the five teams have a source of great strength. However, with the addition of Dunn, the Sox have 78 2010 home runs in their lineup, with Rios in the fifth spot after turning in a rebound season of .284 average, 21 home runs and 88 RBI of his own. The Tigers have a TON of hits coming from Cabrera alone, but V-Mart and Ordonez surrounding him for a full season makes this order a nightly terror. This is all before mentioning the two former MVPs the Twins have in Mauer (who has three batting titles and Morneau, and former number one pick Delmon Young. In Cleveland, a full season of Carlos Santana could make him the only clear challenge to Mauer as an offensive threat at catcher.

TABLESETTERS

1. White Sox (Pierre & Beckham)
2. Twins (Span & Nishioka)
3. Tigers (Jackson & Rhymes/Guillen)
4. Indians (Sizemore/Brantley & A. Cabrera)
5. Royals (Aviles/M. Cabrera)

Beckham started off slow last season, but hit over .300 in the second half, and if he does close to that for a full season behind Pierre (who’s 68 steals led the AL last year) the Sox will have plenty of runners in scoring position all year for their heavy hitters to bring in. Denard Span is a major terror in Minnesota, that could put up the type of season Pierre did a year ago himself. The same goes for Austin Jackson if he cuts down on his strikeouts (170) from his rookie year.

DEFENSE

1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Indians
4. Tigers
5. Royals

Span covers tons of ground in center field, and Mauer is a Gold Glove presence behind the plate, that leads a quick infield mix that plays perfectly with their group of ground ball-inducing pitchers. Pitcher Mark Buerhle brought home a Gold Glove last year, and Ramirez could earn one this year.

SPEED

1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Royals
4. Tigers
5. Indians

In Span, Alexis Casilla, Danny Valencia and even Mauer, the Twins are great at manufacturing runs on the bases. Pierre, Rios and Ramirez give the Sox strong running group as well. Alcides Escobar will add a top-notch speed threat in Kansas City, and as his contact improves, so will his stolen base totals.

Pierre led the majors with 68 steals in 2010, his third season surpassing 60 thefts.

MANAGER

1. Ron Gardenhire (Twins)
2. Jim Leyland (Tigers)
3. Ozzie Guillen (White Sox)
4. Ned Yost (Royals)
5. Manny Acta (Indians)

Gardenhire has led the Twins to six division titles in nine years on the job. The 2010 AL Manager of the Year is respected amongst his peers as a great strategist, and he’ll have the Twins ready to defend their throne against the revamped troops in the division. Jim Leyland has a spot in Cooperstown awaiting him one day, and despite his sometimes questionable tactics, Ozzie Guillen pushes his clubs hard and has results to show for it (2005 World Series as proof).

ROOKIES/*PROSPECTS

1. Chris Sale (Pitcher, White Sox)
2. Tsyuoshi Nishioka (Second base, Twins)
3. *Mike Moustakas (Third Base, Royals)
4. Danny Valencia (Third Base, Twins)
5. *Eric Homser (First Base, Royals)

Sale made it to the Majors just a few months after being drafted last year, and is already in the mix for the closer role for a contender in Chicago. Make no mistake; he is the long-term answer in the ninth inning. Nishioka hit .346 last year in the Japanese Pacific league and is the most experienced “rookie” in baseball. Moustakas & Homser are both top 10 overall prospects, and the jewels of the Royals incredible stash of talent in the minors, but only Moustakas could potentially make an impact this season for KC.

FINANCES

1. White Sox
2. Tigers
3. Indians
4. Twins
5. Royals

The White Sox have the most money to improve their standing if need be during a close pennant race, but with big contract commitments in place already, they could be potentially stuck with what they have. The Tigers are committed to aggressive spending right now to compete, and they could have the advantage in willingness to spend, if not actually funds.

IMPACT ADDITIONS

1. Adam Dunn (White Sox from Washington)
2. Victor Martinez (Tigers from Red Sox)
3. Joaquin Benoit (Tigers from Rays)
4. Alcides Escobar (Brewers from Rays)
5. Lorenzo Cain (Brewers from Rays)

While the new sluggers in the division get the headlines, the two young talents joining the Royals are also two of the big stories of the year, if only for the fact they were the bounty obtained for the dealing of Zach Greinke from the Royals. They are the first glances of the youth movement the Royals are on the verge of beginning, and have to pan out to justify the talent they were obtained for. Escobar has the ability to be among the best defensive shortstops in the game very soon.

PREDICTION

1. WHITE SOX
2. TWINS
3. TIGERS
4. INDIANS
5. ROYALS

A year ago the White Sox came up six games short after failing to finish a deal to acquire Dunn at the trade deadline. Instead they held on to Edwin Jackson who they acquired to help make the deal for Dunn, and instead signed him later on. Although they missed out on the playoffs last year perhaps because of this failure to act, their patience paid off and now they have both. Also, they returned two of their primary veterans in Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski and moved out Bobby Jenks. All of these moves will improve chemistry, which is just as important as the talent increase. The bullpen has to prove its worth and Peavy must regain his health, but Chicago has what it takes to win the Central either way.

The Twins health issues in addition to their loses in their bullpen (three critical losses) in addition to their uncertainties across their entire infield knock them down a notch, and the Tigers are still too shallow in the pitching department to mount a major threat on first place all summer. Both clubs however could play a role in the Wild Card picture. The Indians are just hoping for good health from their big money guys, but seem to be a team with no direction right now. The Royals have a direction, but it’s not going to take off for another year when they bring up their riches of talent in the minors (nine of the top 100 prospects in baseball).

Follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan for more on this and all other areas of the game.

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Comments
  1. DonPhenom says:

    The blizzard of Oz as the #3 manager in the Central? Can’t agree with that one my friend. His ability to take the distractions and heat off his players with his antics is nothing short of genius. Also, I should see Matt Thornton on that all division team. He’s a MONSTER.

    • I think Ozzie is effective, but can also be destructive if he goes overboard on the antics. The only reason Thornton didn’t make it is that since he went to closer I can’t list him as just a left-handed setup guy any more. Far as closers go, Soria is a top 5 in the game-level guy.

  2. […] The SPACE BETWEEN: American League Central Preview To contrast every bit of consistency in the Twin Cities there has been frustration in Chicago and Detroit. After each reached the World Series (with Chicago winning in in the middle of last decade, they have battled . […]

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