The 2011 AL Central was a tale of two halves. The Minnesota Twins were ravished by injuries, and “completed” for the league’s worst record instead of a third straight Central crown. The Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians played the opposite game early in the year, going from the outhouse to the penthouse and battling for the top of the division, until the Chicago White Sox entered the fray as well. But then the Tigers woke up, and never laid their heads down again.

2011 Finish

  1. Detroit Tigers (95-67)
  2. Cleveland Indians (80-82)
  3. Chicago White Sox (79-83)
  4. Kansas City Royals (71-91)
  5. Minnesota Twins (63-99)

Propelled by Justin Verlander’s unstoppable run that ended up with 25 wins and becoming the first dual MVP/Cy Young winning starting pitcher since 1986, as well as batting champion Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers went unconscious. They built up a 38-16 in August & September, and won the division by 15 games. All the while, Chicago’s huge offseason signing Adam Dunn had perhaps the worst season in MLB history (high strikeout total than batting average), the Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau missed a total of 173 games for Minnesota, the Royals caved in to their youth and the Indians couldn’t keep up for the long haul.

Now a year later, the Tigers still have their foot on the gas, and adding slugger Prince Fielder to their attack and enter the season in better shape than they ended the last in. How will the rest of the division cope? Will it still be up for grabs like it was for the first half of its story a year ago, with one the newly rehabbed and matured teams snatching the ring? Or will the defending Champs pick up where they left off, plus some?

All Division Team

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins

First Base: Prince Fielder, Tigers

Second Base: Jason Kipnis, Indians

Third Base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

Shortstop: Astrubal Cabrera, Indians

Left Field: Alex Gordon, Royals

Center Field: Austin Jackson, Tigers

Right Field: Shin-Shoo Choo, Indians

Designated Hitter: Billy Butler, Royals

The rich got a lot richer with Fielder coming to Detroit...in every possible way that statement can be applied.

Starting Pitcher: Justin Verlander, Tigers

Starting Pitcher: John Danks, White Sox

Starting Pitcher: Justin Masterson, Indians

Starting Pitcher: Doug Fister, Tigers

Bullpen Righty: Joaquin Benoit, Tigers

Bullpen Lefty: Tony Sipp, Indians

Closer: Jose Valverde, Tigers

Best Players

  1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
  2. Justin Verlander, Tigers
  3. Prince Fielder, Tigers
  4. Joe Mauer, Twins
  5. Jose Valerde, Tigers
  6. Paul Konerko, White Sox
  7. Eric Hosmer, Royals
  8. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
  9. Alex Gordon, Royals
  10. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians

Mauer is a .323 career hitter with three batting titles all before the age of 30.

Lineup

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

The Tigers run away with this even after losing their second best bat for the year in Victor Martinez. It’s hard to believe that Fielder could leave Ryan Braun behind and find a better guy to hit behind, but he has done it in Cabrera. Add Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young and Brendan Boesch to the mix and it’s scary in the D. The Indians have Kipnis and Carlos Santana primed to have big breakthrough seasons. The Royals now have two legit power bats in Hosmer and Mike Moustakas that are ready to launch their developing lineup into a new level of productivity this year.

Rotation

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

Verlander is the class of AL pitchers, and Doug Fister found the perfect ballpark for his ground ball-inducing style in Comerica. The Indians have a lot of depth in their rotaton, and if Ubaldo Jimenez can recapture his NL form, they will be formidable match for the Tigers. Francisco Liriano has looked like he shook off whatever curse he had last year this spring, and would be a big boost for Minnesota’s fortunes if he keeps it up.

25 wins, a no hitter, a Cy Young and an MVP; Verlander turned his 2011 alone into what stands for a great career for most.

1-2 Punch

  1. Tigers (Verlander & Scherzer)
  2. Indians (Jimenez & Masterson)
  3. White Sox (Floyd & Danks)
  4. Royals (Hochevar & Sanchez)
  5. Twins (Pavano & Baker)

Verlander himself may be better than most of the other combos in this division, but Scherzer is capable of greatness himself, if not consistency. The same goes for Jimenez, and Masterson is developing into one of the game’s best. Hochevar and Sanchez have huge ceilings and could be one of the most surprising duos in the game. If the White Sox keep Danks and Floyd together all season, the payout could be great, but that’s a big if.

Bullpen

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

Valverde didn’t waste a save opportunity last season and returns to anchor a Tiger bullpen with a lot of quality arms. Chris Perez’s health is big for Cleveland, and Chicago’s pen will have a lot of guys settling into new, if not still temporary roles. The Royals pen had a chance to be a real strength, but potential Tommy John surgery for Joakim Soria may have them scraping for another year for consistency.

Tablesetters

  1. Tigers (Jackson & Boesch)
  2. White Sox (De Aza & Ramirez)
  3. Royals (Gordon & Giovantella)
  4. Indians (Brantley & Kipnis)
  5. Twins (Span & Carroll)
 

There are a lot of unconventional duos atop lineups in this division, but each has strong potential. Boesch will benefit from hitting in front of Cabrera & Fielder, and if Austin Jackson raises his on-base percentage past…. He could lead the AL in runs scored. De Aza has the potential to be a Juan Pierre clone, and if Minnesota cuts Denard Span lose more in an attempt to raise his trade marketability; he could put up big steal numbers. Gordon led the AL in doubles last season, and added 17 Steals as well.

Heart of the Order

  1. Tigers (Cabrera/Fielder/Young)
  2. Royals (Hosmer/Butler/Francouer)
  3. Indians (Choo/Santana/Hafner)
  4. Twins (Mauer/Morneau/Willingham)
  5. White Sox (Konerko/Dunn/Morel)

Pairing a Cabrera, who has averaged 35 homers over the last five years, with Fielder, who has averaged 40 a summer over the same time, is flat terrifying. It places the middle of Tigers order at the top of all of baseball just from its 3-4 alone. Hosmer is primed to be among the great hitters in the game already, and Carlos Santana brings nearly as precocious of a stick to Cleveland as well. The perhaps no lineup is more dependent on “ifs” than the White Sox on Dunn, and the Twins on both Mauer and Morneau.

Dunn is showing signs of turnaround this spring from his horrendous 2011 debut on the South Side.

Depth

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

Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago give the Tigers two very versatile players to plug in all over the place, and Gerald Laird is an important pick up to spell Avila, who wore out at the end of last season. In KC, Yuliensky Betancourt, Chris Getz and Mitch Maier will all provide sparks to KC, all before they dig into their substantially deep minor league crop as well. Kosuke Fukodome could be an important sub in Chicago.

Defense

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

The Royals feature a Gold Glover in Gordon in right, as well as rightful winners (in my opinion) from a year ago in the right field and shortstop in Jeff Francouer and Alcides Escobar. They can cover the field well at every position. Chicago runs out a very good infield defense, headed by Alexei Ramirez. The Tigers crutch will be an underwhelming defense to match the output their offense puts on the board.

Escobar is one of the game's finest defenders at any position, and was the top prize gained for Zack Greinke.

Speed

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

The young Royals have young legs as well. Gordon, Escobar and Johnny Giovantella can move. Even Hosmer stole 10 bases as a rookie, so KC is not afraid to find ways to take the extra base. De Aza and Ramirez can be firestarters in Chicago, as can Denard Span, Ben Revere and Jamey Carroll for the Twins.

Manager

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

Giving Jim Leyland an abundance of talent is almost always the recipe for success, and he’s got as much this season as he’s ever had in Detroit. The Twins are coming off of a brutal 2011, but Ron Gardenhire is among the absolute best minds in the game, and if he has a healthy team, they could be a big surprise. Robin Ventura will go from ESPN College World Series commentator, to head of the Sox bench this year.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Addison Reed (Pitcher, White Sox)
  2. Salvador Perez (Catcher, Royals)
  3. Mike Montgomery (Pitcher, Royals)
  4. Jacob Turner (Pitcher, Tigers)
  5. Chris Parmalee (First Baseman, Twins)

Reed sits in the mid to high 90’s and projects as the future closer of the team since Chris Sale has moved to the rotation and Sergio Santos was traded away. Perez hit .331 in a brief call-up at the end of the season, but after tearing his MCL this spring, it will be until after the All-Star break that he can return.

Finances

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

The Indians have been aggressive in improving their roster since their surprising start, and stay, around the top of the Central last year. While they didn’t make a big splash in the winter market, they don’t seem to be afraid to go after whatever they may need. The Tigers have 3 players making $20 annually now, but being as close as they are to a title, they probably won’t be shy about future smart moves either.

Jimenez landing in Cleveland was a product of the Indians' new found aggressive approach on to the market.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Eric Hosmer, Royals
  2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
  3. Luke Hochevar, Royals
  4. Brendan Boesch, Tigers
  5. Danny Valencia, Twins

The future is nearly now for the Royals and the first wave of their extremely talented minor league crops are poised to make an impact in KC this summer. Hosmer is looking more and more like a Joey Votto-type and could have his first type of season the former MVP as made routine this summer. Moustakas will see benefit from his many plate appearances a year ago, and Hochevar was quietly one of the most successful second half pitchers in the AL last year.

Impact Additions

  1. Prince Fielder (Tigers from Brewers)
  2. Jonathan Sanchez (Royals from Giants)
  3. Josh Willingham (Twins from A’s)
  4. Jonathan Broxton (Royals from Dodgers)
  5. Derek Lowe (Indians from Braves)

Fielder’s winter patience paid off in the form of a massive nine year, $214 million dollar deal that instantly changed the AL forecast. Sanchez has a ton of potential, and the hard throwing lefty will bring championship experience to the young Royals.  The steady Willingham (20+ homers four of the last six years) should fit into the middle of the Twins lineup nicely as a replacement for All-Star Michael Cuddyer.

PREDICTIONS

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

Last year, the Tigers closed the gap on the Indians in July, and ran away in August. This season however, they should have such difficulties. But a team that returns virtually everyone else, along with an improved bullpen and a 50 homer candidate in Fielder, it is primed to have one of the best seasons in franchise history. However, it won’t be a path that they walk to easily, because nearly every other team in the division has improved in its own, if yet a bit more understated, way.

The Indians have revamped their approach via balanced moves and growth from within, and have very few weaknesses on their roster. It’s just a matter of having the rare favor of health on their side and a breakthrough season or two. With a bit more endurance, they could easily push for the division crown. The Royals have been moving along gradually, but they have some exciting young talent in the works and could easily be this year’s Arizona Diamondbacks and pull the upset special of the summer. However, the loss of Joakim Soria is a major speed bump in that effort, yet if any team could pull a big surprise move in the AL this year, it’s them.

If Dunn, Alex Rios and Alexei Ramirez can wake up before the White Sox go into full fire sale mode this summer, they could easily make some noise in a hurry. And take all of those same sentiments, change the names and apply them to the Twins, and the same situation applies.

But in the end, there’s no uncertainties around the team that returns the League’s MVP and Cy Young rolled in one, starts five current or former All-Stars, one of the game’s best managers and have the confidence of being the returning division champs as well. The time is now for the Detroit Tigers, and they have far less hurdles to the top than any other Central club does…and a lot more weapons to fight their way there with. The Tigers roll this year.

Come back next time as I turn my sights on the toughest division in all of sports: the AL East. Who will have the chops to breakthrough in what is sure to be the game’s best drama yet again?

 In the meantime, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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