By Eriq Gardner
The AL Central isn’t the strongest division this year. The Minnesota Twins are accustomed to outperforming expectations on an annual basis, but this year, they start out as the favorites. The strongest competition comes from the Detroit Tigers, who will need a couple of aging veterans to hold up, and the Chicago White Sox, who have resisted full-scale rebuilding, sensing an opportunity to surprise given the lack of quality teams in the division. After trading the team’s best stars last season, the Cleveland Indians are certainly in rebuilding mode. And what can we say about the perennial woeful Kansas City Royals? A huge shocker if they were to make any noise.
Here’s a closer look at each of the teams:
The Twins will be moving into a new ballpark, Target Field, this season. It’s hard to figure out exactly how the new field will play, but given the cold weather and park dimensions, it could lean toward being a pitcher’s park.
The team features a very underrated staff of pitchers who pound the strike zone and won’t give up too many walks. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and even Carl Pavano are sabermetric-friendly starters with great strikeout-to-walk rates that foreshadow improving ERAs. After an extraordinary performance in winter league ball and spring training, Francisco Liriano is primed for a comeback season and may be key to any playoff run. The injury to Joe Nathan opens some questions about the team’s relief pitching. At the very least, all the team’s pitchers will get support from an improving defense with the additions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson in the middle infield.
At the plate, the team is extremely well-rounded, featuring the game’s top catcher in Joe Mauer. A core group of Mauer, Justin Morneau, the underrated Jason Kubel, and quietly efficient Michael Cuddyer provide good power and on-base skills. The additions of Hudson and Jim Thome in the off-season should further augment one of baseball’s best offenses outside the AL East.
The team is managed by the always crafty Jim Leyland, who will need to overcome some issues such as age and a lack of depth to remain competitive.
Miguel Cabrera leads the offense. Some off-the-field troubles made headlines this off-season, but he’s always been a steady producer. The big question will be who produces behind him. New addition Johnny Damon will get on base and score a lot of runs. But the team’s success will largely depend on whether veterans like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen can come back from disappointing seasons and whether youngsters like new 2B Scott Sizemore and new CF Austin Jackson can step up.
On the pitching side, few young pitchers are better than flame-throwing Justin Verlander. There’s no reason to expect anything less than dominance from him. But the team will need more. Much of the team’s pitching success last year came from a great campaign by Edwin Jackson, who was shipped out in a trade for Max Scherzer, a hard-throwing righty with great strikeout rates but also an injury history and some struggles with going deep into games. Rick Porcello had a great rookie season and projects as a solid mid-rotation guy, or better. Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman make up the back end of the rotation; hold your breath.
Chicago White Sox
Let’s start out with the big questions: Will Jake Peavy remain healthy? Can Alex Rios rebound? How quickly will emerging star Gordon Beckham adapt to second base? Will Bobby Jenks remain the team’s closer or does that role eventually go to elite set-up man Matt Thornton? What happened to the strong fantasy potential we saw from Alexei Ramirez in 2008? Does Juan Pierre at 32 have enough wheels left to be productive? Will Carlos Quentin recover from a post-breakout injury season? You could make a case for any of these answers going either way.
If all goes well, the team certainly has a good shot to contend. Beyond the majors sits some highly touted, major league-ready prospects, including catcher Tyler Flowers and starter Daniel Hudson. And the starting rotation is deep. John Danks is listed as the team’s #4 starter, behind solid fantasy options Mark Buehrle, Peavy and Gavin Floyd. Not too shabby.
Nobody is expecting a great deal from Cleveland this year, which might actually benefit the team. The club has experienced a lot of injuries over the years and were forced to shed superstars like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez.
For the team to take everyone by surprise, Grady Sizemore will need to come back and be healthy. From watching spring training, several scouts aren’t certain he’s 100% yet. Shin-Soo Choo was a great story last year. After years of teasing potential, Choo had a 20/20 season in 2009 with nearly a .400 OBP. Many of the team’s younger hitters, such as Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, and Asdrubal Cabrera, could take steps forward.
The Indians’ major weakness is its starting pitching. The fact that the team holds no pitcher owned by at least 50% of fantasy leaguers should say something. Maybe it’s because Cleveland has the kinds of pitchers (Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook, and Justin Masterson) who produce more real-life value than fantasy value: groundball artists instead of pitchers who whiff a lot of batters. That might be by design: Cabrera is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
Kansas City Royals
The last time the Royals won a division title was in 1985, when starting pitching stud Zack Greinke was just two years old. It would be great to point to reasons why the team has any hope of turning it around soon, but we can’t find any evidence that would accomm
odate such optimism. Even local writers scratch their heads about whether the team has a plan.
The Royals have gone against the conventional wisdom about the value of getting on base, recruiting low-OBP retreads such as Rick Ankiel
, Yuniesky Betancourt
, and Scott Podsednik
. Billy Butler
is the one potentially elite offensive player on the roster right now. They’ll need big contributions from Alberto Callaspo
, David DeJesus
and the recently profiled Alex Gordon
just to remain mildly competitive.
Of course, Greinke will give the team a good chance at victory every time he takes the mound. The rest of the rotation is suspect, though. Gil Meche needs to rebound from a disappointing year and mounting injuries, while Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies will be lucky to post league-average performance at the bottom of the rotation. The one wild card is Luke Hochevar, a talent former number-one pick who could benefit from further development and some better luck on balls in play this season.
The big storyline to follow in Kansas City may be what happens with Greinke and closer Joakim Soria. Might the team decide to trade either in the middle of this season? The Royals would get a ton in return, especially if Greinke is dealt. The smarter money’s on Soria being the one who goes, though.