AL Central Preview

The teams, questions and predictions heading into spring training.

Josh Helmuthby Josh Helmuth

With the White Sox in rebuilding mode and a couple other teams full of ripe youth, this division is Detroit’s to lose.

 

Detroit Tigers                   Predicted Finish – 1st

Amazing how team morale can go from devastation to jubilation within the same week. That wide dynamic is exactly how many fans felt following the breaking news that reported catcher/DH slugger Victor Martinez was out for the season with a torn ACL, only to hear of the signing of first baseman basher Prince Fielder days later. With MVP and CY Young winner Justin Verlander leading the rotation, sky is the limit for this year’s Tigers; the sky being World Series champs.

The Questions:

Is the outfield a liability?

You look at the outfield of Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch, and most casual fans are asking; who? Andy Dirks, who is slated for the left field slot as of today, is a rock star in the Dominican Republic right now after significantly helping his Escogido squad to a Caribbean series championship. While Austin Jackson only hit .249 last year, he hit .293 in 2010. Boesch is coming off a solid year in which he hit .283 with 16 home runs. Just because some fans haven’t heard of these guys, doesn’t make them any less legitimate. With some pop, speed, and outstanding gloves, it’s very likely these guys are stars in the making.

How powerful will the Prince Fielder/Miguel Cabrera combo be?

The best in baseball. And while I’m known for hyperbole, this time I am serious. There is little doubt these guys will drive in 70 home runs between the two of them. The only question is whether or not Miguel Cabrera will be able to adjust back to third base, the position he played in Florida. He seems incredibly motivated and has already dropped 20-25 lbs. in order to become more agile for such a defensively demanding position. Even if it costs Detroit a few more errors, it will be worth the 60 RBI’s the previous Victor Martinez replacement would have probably missed out on before signing Fielder.

Is Alex Avila for real?

Yes. He’s young. Scouting reports say he’s legit. I’m going with it.

Rundown: No way Jose Valverde repeats his magical season out of the pen. But it won’t matter. It’s a weak division and Detroit is only stronger this season. Some players that are adjusting to new teams struggle at first, but I think it’s a safe bet Prince Fielder will most likely put up a line around .270/35/100. Verlander may be a future hall of famer, and I think Doug Fister and Max Scherzer are a great number two-three punch that need to be reckoned with. The Tigers are ready to win now and will compete for the AL crown in 2012.

 

Cleveland Indians                       Predicted finish – 2nd

Picked to finish dead last by many before last season, the Indians shocked everyone and made a push for the post season well into the summer months. With some talented youth getting ready to play their first full season and some other big moves with their pitching staff, it’s time for the Indians to prove why 2011 wasn’t a fluke.

The Questions:

Will Fausto Carmona Play?

Or should I ask, will Roberto Heredia Hernandez play? Fausto (Roberto) was arrested last month in his home of the Dominican Republic for using a false identity and while no one knows when he will be able to clear his legal and visa woes, it’s not looking promising. He’s currently on the ‘restricted’ list and he probably won’t be able to return to the States for quite some time. To make matters worse, the pitcher is actually 31, and not 28 as once believed. He’s coming off a horrific year as well (5.25 ERA), so it wouldn’t shock me if fans may have seen the last of him in an Indians uniform.

Which position player is ready to fill the hype?

Grady Sizemore has been so often injured the past three years that most thought the Indians would let him walk; which they almost did. Instead, they gave Sizemore a one-year contract in hopes that he just might return to his 2008 form (.268/33/90). They also have promising youngsters in Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall in the infield. But the guy I have my eyes on for a big bounce back year is Shin-Soo Choo.

Before being hurt last year, Choo had three seasons in which he hit .300 and averaged 19 home runs. He was a rock star in Korea and one of the most reliable guys in the majors before 2011. Still only 29 years young, I’m all-in on the Choo Choo!

Rundown: Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez lead the rotation. Ubaldo isn’t the same guy that dominated in Colorado two years ago, and Masterson got a little lucky in his impressive season last year. Asdrubal Cabrera is a legitimate top tier shortstop. If the bullpen holds up and their youth matches their potential, Cleveland could make a little run.

 

Chicago White Sox                      Predicted Finish: 3rd

Fans are not happy with GM Ken Williams. Although the Sox had some luck in the beginning, winning the 2005 World Series, Williams has seemingly favored big names (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Juan Pierre, Jake Peavy etc.) over numbers and raw talent. Now they’ve elected to trade away some pieces, hire a new manager and start fresh.

Questions:

How will new manager Robin Ventura do?

Your guess is as good as mine. As a Sox fan myself, I was hoping they would go after Bobby Valentine or Terry Francona. Instead they hired Ventura, who even though was one of the best third baseman Chicago has ever had, has zero experience managing a club. He’ll have quite a long leash this first year since he’s close to Ken Williams, and the fact they’re ‘rebuilding.’

Will the vets finally hit?

If there was any one team in the ‘bigs’ that could have used a better hitting coach, or simply hired more of them, it was Chicago. They bring in Adam Dunn who had the worst year for a veteran in the history of baseball (.159 avg, 11 home runs), Juan Pierre couldn’t steal bases because he couldn’t get on base—he forgot to hit as well—and then you have Alex Rios who only hit .227 all season. Bru-tal.

All reports are confident that Rios will return to his norm, hitting around his career average of .275, but I still wouldn’t consider him elite. And while many think Dunn is just that; done, I do not. He’s been too consistent over his career. He was in a new city with lots of pressure and had never gone DH full-time. He was also incredibly unlucky with his BABIP (batting average of balls in play). The Sox are going to give Dunn some time at first base in 2012 to help is ‘feel’ for the game, and he has been working out his swing tremendously this off-season. I can see Dunn hitting around .240/25/80.

Rundown: The rotation has potential, but with the absence of Mark Buehrle, someone is going to have to step up. I think that guy will be John Danks. Chris Sale could also make an immediate impact with his transition from the bullpen. Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo are also stars in the making in the outfield. Paul Konerko is still aging, but his swing isn’t. I expect another great year from him as well. Losing Sergio Santos might hurt and I still don’t trust Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel in the infield. The Sox will be competitive, but a playoff run is hard to conceive.


Minnesota Twins                        Predicted finish: 4th

Talk about a team with potential. They had that last year until they visited the disabled list nearly 30 times. Yes. 30. Times. Which leads us to the only real question…

Questions:

Are they healthy?

Even though he says he hasn’t had bad headaches in months, it’s not clear if Justin Morneau will ever play again like the perennial MVP candidate he once was. Shortstop Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka had some bad luck with a broken leg at the beginning of last season, but also didn’t live up to the hype after returning from the DL. Joe Nathan was never able to get back to the mound like the days of old and Joe Mauer was out with many ailments, including what they were calling ‘bi-lateral leg weakness.’

From the aforementioned list above, the only guy I’m confident that will return to normal is Mauer. The guy is a future Hall of Famer and can rake like no other. He’s a career .323 hitter and the Twins are going to give him a lot of time at first base to keep him and his legs healthy.

Rundown: Losing Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer hurts; especially Cuddyer, who could play multiple positions. While I don’t love the infield of Jamey Carroll, Alexi Casilla and Danny Valencia, the youthful outfield has a lot of potential in Ben Revere, Denard Span and Josh Willingham; definitely serviceable at the very least. Minnesota could compete for 2nd or 3rd in the division, but with no true ‘ace’ at the top of the rotation, it will be really hard to make any type of post season.

 

Kansas City Royals                     Predicted Finish: 5th

I know, I know, picked dead last again, right? While I’m picking them 5th, I still expect a strong, competitive squad that’s only going to get better as the year progresses.

Questions:

Are the prospects ready to break out?

No doubt about it. Last year K.C. was ranked the number one farm system in the game by MLB.com, and the fruits of their labors are starting to show.

Eric Hosmer is a budding star. In just his first year, he went .293/19/78. Those lines will only go up in 2012. Mike Moustakas is fo’ real at third base. Alex Gordon finally broke through in a big way last year in the outfield, and Billy Butler hits for a great average and is a doubles machine.

To make things more interesting, they have one of the best catching prospects in baseball with Salvador Perez, the hyped-up Johnny Giavotella at second base, and in the outfield they’re going to give Lorenzo Cain the starting centerfield spot. Cain is super fast and if he can get on base he will produce a ton of runs.

Rundown: With arguable the most talented youth in the sport, there is going to be some exciting baseball in Kansas City this year. It wouldn’t shock me to see this team win close to 80 games, but with any very young team, there are going to be mistakes. Joakim Soria and Jonathan Broxton will lead a prominent bullpen, but in the end it’s the starting rotation that I don’t trust.

 

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