The American League Central in 2011


Two things about this division…

First… the Little Sisters of the Poor jokes will not play here. I get it… Cleveland and Kansas City are spending slightly more than nothing. Very slightly. That’s true. Those two teams combined are not spending what any of the other clubs in this division are spending individually.

On the other side though, that combined-payroll wiseass comment means that it’s also true that the top three teams… Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago… all have payrolls above $100 million. And while all of them are much closer to $100 million than the stratosphere occupied by New York (the Yankees, at $200-plus), Philadelphia ($170-ish), and Boston (just over $160), no other division in baseball has more than two teams spending as much.

And second… yes, I’m predicting a three-way tie.

And the reason is simple. I’m just not comfortable picking specifics for these clubs.

I expect consistent production from the Twins. Balanced club… a couple of stars… but I don’t see them running away or being able to ridiculously outperform expectations again.

The White Sox are easily the most capable of surprising everyone and turning in an effort that leads the league in wins. For while Boston, Tampa and New York might knock each other around enough to prevent any of the AL East from reaching 100-wins, in Chicago I see a team that… with everything working right… could send two big guns to the mound, has power in the batting order, and a deep enough roster to drive opponents nuts.

And Detroit… well… top notch starter and potentially the most feared hitter in the division. Add to that two very, very good offensive players. And, not just hitting… as a catcher, do not underestimate Victor Martinez and his role with a staff. Just go back and see how many pitchers have won Cy Young awards throwing the majority of a season’s starts to him. Just go back and look at Clay Buchholz emerging with him behind the plate.

None of these teams would stun me by taking the division title.

Minnesota Twins
What I expect in 2011: 88-74, playoffs

What they did in 2010: 94-68

Key personnel changes: Kept Pavano and Thome… and I’d say there is zero else to discuss here after that. (Unless you want to talk about J.J. Hardy being traded to Baltimore. I’m open to it if you are. No? Ok. Not much else here then.)

My expectations: I’m going to take the Twins to win the division. Even with a few potential MVP candidates on these teams, the only player from the AL Central I expect to get top-five mentions on ballots at the end of the year is Joe Mauer. I also believe… and I can’t believe I’m saying this either… the best combination of starting pitchers is led by Liriano and Pavano in Minnesota. (I just don’t trust Peavy until he proves he’s healthy.)

But let’s not make the mistake of believing the Twins are awesome and all that. At best, the AL Central has the fifth-best team in the American League… behind Texas, New York, Boston and Tampa. And that is at best. No one is going to run away and hide… despite the 2010 results and the return of Joe Nathan.

And yet… give the Twins some credit. Because they will run the most fluid and steady ship to be found on a 162-game journey. That is an amazing credit to Ron Gardenhire and their roster. They won’t complain about problems… they won’t get down about falling a few games off the pace… and I don’t believe they’ll be overconfident if they can extend a lead in the division. Oh yeah… the division…

The Twins destroyed their divisional opponents last year. They went 47-25 against the teams in the AL Central. (And if you aren’t sure if that’s a trend worth noting… they won 46 games in 2009, when no other AL Central club hit 40 wins against divisional opponents. In 2008 they won 43… but lost the division by one game (when Chicago won 44 in the division).)

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Last year the Twins rode Carl Pavano and a nice rotation to the playoffs. And then, as I recall, the sudden realization was that Minnesota was entering the playoffs and their hopes rested on… you got it… Carl Pavano.

It’s all nice to talk about Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau and what will or might be. In the end… same concept… Pavano.

Lots of teams have very talented players. Doesn’t always cover for weaknesses.

This is a really good team for the regular season… potentially a division winner and playoff participant. This is not a team that matches up well with anyone in postseason series.

Worth noting… while not dominating and in demand stars, the Twins do have a fair number of starting pitchers. Such a fair number that they have one likely headed to their bullpen and another on the way from the minors around mid-season. In short… they could trade for a piece or two. Just don’t expect them to get solid gold in return.

Chicago White Sox
What I expect in 2011: 88-74

What they did in 2010: 88-74

Key personnel changes: Brought in Adam Dunn and kept Paul Konerko. Only major loss was Bobby Jenks… and I say that since I wouldn’t have spent much energy chasing any of the others departing.

Here’s the funny thing about Chicago… they acquired several interesting names on minor league contracts. Started with Dallas McPherson last November. And yeah… you’re right… no one is wondering about a club signing him to a minor league deal. Earns a collective “so what?” in response. But hold on… because in February another of those minor league deals went to Lastings Milledge. And if you check out the five or six deals the White Sox made like that, where a couple could even make the roster… but more likely will be stashed in the minors… the White Sox have some strange depth.

I could absolutely see Milledge getting called up in a July bench role, playing in a couple of games, and contributing to a victory or two. Or even getting hot for a couple of weeks. I would never have signed him at all, and certainly not to a major league contract… but Chicago might have a couple of hidden cards to play as the season progresses.

My expectations: If everything goes right, this club could be very dangerous… and one to avoid in the playoffs.

Hey… I tipped the cap to Minnesota when it came to starters… but we are looking at Mark Buerhle in the Sox rotation, along with some interesting questions. Those questions include Jake Peavy a potential ace and Edwin Jackson with loads of talent and the possibility of emerging to cash in on his potential. If Peavy is healthy, then he and Buerhle are the best one-two combination in the division. And if Jackson delivers as well, then the White Sox are on their way to having a very solid group from beginning to end.

I don’t love their bullpen… Nathan could give the nod to the Twins for closer, and most would say the best closer in the division plays for Kansas City. But it does have the ability to be better than average.

And… the offense… well… Konerko and Dunn will provide a dynamite power duo. And hey… even if Dunn does strike out a ton, that just means he won’t ground into a double-play and often someone hitting fifth is going to get a crack as well.

Omar Vizquel and Mark Teahan give the White Sox depth and reliability on the bench in a division that is sorely lacking in deep rosters.

I feel very comfortable placing this club around 88 wins.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): No question… pitching.

In just about every way, the Chicago offense is better than anything else in this division. They match up nicely with speed… their power from one, two or three players is about as good as anyone in the division, and likely gets much better than anyone else when considering four or five guys… and as I mentioned about Dunn striking out, even a weakness like that could be a positive if it gets someone else an at bat with runners on base.

But the pitching.

Peavy hasn’t made more than 17 starts in two years. (16 in 2009 and 17 in 2010.) The guy is dynamite… he’s 29… low ERA and good strikeout numbers as just two openers to consider when reviewing his stats… but he scares no one from the disabled list.

Jackson is only 26… and has five teams on his resume. You can view those two opposing ideas (young age, many teams) as a good indicator of the inconsistencies of his performance. He pitched in the majors at 19. He’s made 30-plus starts the past four seasons. There is talent here.

This is a club that legitimately could match up with any other AL team in the playoffs… and win. It’s also a team that could flounder.

Detroit Tigers
What I expect in 2011: 88-74

What they did in 2010: 81-81

Key personnel changes: Signed Victor Martinez, in a move I believe could pay off huge for them. Not really changes… but you will notice names like Magglio Ordonez and Jhonny Peralta in camp this spring. Who would have thunk that?

Attention… attention please… we have a Brad Penny one-year deal winner for 2011!

My expectations: I absolutely love the Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez pairing. This is a dangerous club.

I think Justin Verlander is not only a Cy Young candidate… he’s one that could win more than 20 games.

The trouble is… you get to the question marks (and the lack of depth) very quickly in Detroit.

There’s Cabrera and Martinez and… you guessed it… Magglio Ordonez! Who would have thought two years ago that Ordonez would not only still be in a Detroit uniform in 2011, but hitting in the 3-4-5 section of their order?

As we have with the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers bring a club to the field that could approach 90-wins. Of the three though… (1) they have the least potential to actually get to 90… (2) they have the most potential for not only falling, but falling very hard.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): Last year the Tigers won 81. I have always liked Jim Leyland as a manager. Thing is… I just can’t get over how fast they went from the World Series to continuously underachieving. And to see this club rise about 8-10 games with their record seems a bit of a stretch to me when you spend any serious amount of time considering it.

Plus… and please, don’t let it happen… if something does happen to Miguel Cabrera, the club is toast.

Cleveland Indians
What I expect in 2011: 72-90

What they did in 2010: 69-93

Key personnel changes: Tough to gauge this one… on first glance, Austin Kearns and Orlando Cabrera are decent flyers for this club to be taking… and on second glance, they are one-year flyers, and if either player performs decently in 2011 he will almost certainly pack his equipment and look elsewhere for 2012. So… are those really improvements? Nah.

My expectations: What’s not to like about Grady Sizemore? I mean seriously… team up an emerging Shin-Soo Choo and Santana and there are some nice things on offense. Actually… some might say potentially good things, and I wouldn’t argue that point.

And we’re adding players like Cabrera and Kearns?

Sure… nothing to be bowled over by… but better clubs have made do with less.

The problem is… there is just nothing really memorable… frightening… or even reliable here.

Pitching. Fausto Carmona? Are you really comfortable relying on Carmona?

Yeah… thought so.

And if not Carmona… hitting… Travis Hafner continues to get at bats.

Ok… an undeserved shot at Hafner. After all… good on-base percentage. In 2009 and 2010 he cleared .270 in batting average.

The thing is… the shot was directed at that memorable… frightening… reliable concept. And Hafner’s top marks over the past three seasons are: 118 games played (2010), 16 home runs (2009), 50 RBIs (2010)… and are you seeing my point? Even when he played in 152 games in 2007 he hit only 24 home runs. He hasn’t been dangerous since he was 29 years old in 2006. I wish him the best. Hope he gets into 140-plus games and tears the cover off the ball. I don’t expect him to do it though.

It’s a club you want to cheer for… Justin Masterson is a good guy and I always felt he was a class act. It’s not a club ready to win that often.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): At best, the Indians have an ok club. But they are no better than third or fourth best in the division in any area you want to measure… offense, defense, speed, starting pitching, bullpen, and the list goes on. They aren’t really bringing along much youth this year (at least not a ton you aren’t aware of already) and don’t have much money available. (And the money part doesn’t really matter… since they won’t be in contention and have nothing they should be willing to trade that would involve taking on money.)

On top of everything else… the only player most other teams will be interested in that the Indians would trade is Grady Sizemore. Let’s say he proves he can stay healthy, becomes productive, and teams line up in late June to talk about him. If the Indians trade him, I’m not sure how they will be capable of showing improvement of any kind in 2011.

Kansas City Royals
What I expect in 2011: 68-94

What they did in 2010: 67-95

Key personnel changes: Gil Meche is gone and Zack Greinke has been traded.

Hmm… an addition by subtraction theme?

Well… considering they dumped Yumiesky Betancourt, there was at least one transaction where they got rid of a player and they will benefit this year because of it.

Melky Cabrera… ok… that’s it… Cabrera? In Kansas City? I’m done. Let’s wrap this one up.

My expectations: Wow… this club stands to get outplayed in every way a baseball team can be outplayed. I hate their batting order… hate their defense… and if you are willing to take a wait-and-see approach to their starting pitching, you are significantly more patient than I.

You may recall, if you’ve read all of my preseason reviews, that I said I had the American League way too many games over even and that interleague play wouldn’t solve that disparity. The Kansas City Royals may help close that gap for the season.

I don’t have much knowledge of their farm system, but everything I hear is that 2012 is going to be the start of something special for the Royals. In 2013… 2014… they might get over into winning record territory and possibly even have some runs at division titles.

That’s awesome. In the future.

In 2011, the team will try every bit of your patience.

Where it could all go wrong (or, I suppose, right): About the only thing would be bringing up prospects and playing the young guys. Seriously… Melky Cabrera is a big name on this roster. They will not be playing very good baseball that often.

Joakim Soria… great. Bruce Chen as one of your best starters? Umm… yeah… makes you believe that an elite closer matters.


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