Major League Baseball - AL Central Preview
In part four of our season preview we take a look at the division which, despite being home to a number of strong contenders a few years ago, is now considered the weakest in baseball – the AL Central.
1. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers suffered a Mets-esque collapse last year, eventually missing out on the playoffs after losing a tiebreaker against the Twins. With their large payroll, the Tigers must do better, and this year, they should.
Miguel Cabrera returns to spearhead the Detroit offense, following his much-publicised alcohol problems. The Venezuelan spent three months in rehab over the winter, and has put in a solid Spring Training showing. Brandon Inge will provide power from the other corner, and Magglio Ordonez should chip in with his fair share too.
Losing Curtis Granderson to the Yankees was a blow, but free agent signing Johnny Damon will go a long way to replacing his production in the outfield.
Justin Verlander should be his usual solid self on the mound, backed up by Nate Robertson and star-to-be Rick Porcello. If they can get anything at all out of Dontrelle Willis, that’ll be a bonus. At the back end of the bullpen, Jose Valverde has been brought in to replace Fernando Rodney.
With the state of the economy in Detroit, the Tigers payroll is unsustainable – their attendance last year was 20% lower than 2008, and doesn’t project any better this year. The payroll is certain to see cuts for 2011, but if the team fails to live up to expectations against this year, those cuts are likely to be more of a decimation than a simple trimming.
2. Minnesota Twins
The Twins move into Target Field looking to build on the success of last season. They won’t want to carry on where they left off, whitewashed by the Yankees in the ALDS, but more of the form they displayed in pipping Detroit to the division will be most welcome.
The big boost for the Twins came last week, when they announced they had signed Joe Mauer to an 8yr/$184m extension. They will be glad to have headed off an issue that would have overshadowed the season had it not been concluded by Opening Day. More importantly, it is a real demonstration to the fans that they are serious about the future of baseball in the city.
There was unhappy news when it was announced that closer Joe Nathan will miss the entire 2010 season, after needing Tommy John surgery. The choice of closer is perhaps the biggest question for the Twins still to answer, given they have their most set line-up in years. The starting rotation is solid, if unspectacular. A return to form from Francisco Liriano would be a big help.
A few additions around the periphery, such as Jim Thome, will give the Twins a bit of extra strength, but they are going to have to top the Tigers to make the playoffs, because neither is strong enough to get near the Wild Card. It should be a tight race.
3. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are a team who have promised so much since their 2005 World Series triumph, but have, by and large, failed to deliver.
Last year’s acquisition of Jake Peavy has further strengthened the rotation already containing Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Freddy Garcia and Gavin Floyd; this is undoubtedly their biggest strength going into 2010. J.J. Putz has looked good through Spring Training following last year’s horror show with the Mets, and is a valuable addition to the bullpen.
Gordon Beckham is looking like the real deal and should occupy the number two spot in the line-up. The addition of Juan Pierre to lead-off will give the South Siders more on-base potential, and excellent speed on the basepaths.
There was much ridicule when the Sox moved to claim Alex Rios off waivers at the back end of last season. It was certainly a risk, but there’s plenty of upside to the deal. Rios, who should be in the prime of his career, has become a by-word for Ã¢â‚¬Ëœwaste of talent’. What he needs more than anything is motivation, and if Ozzie Guillen isn’t the man to do that, it is difficult to know who is.
It’s difficult to see the White Sox winning the Central, but if they are looking in with a shout at the All Star Break, ownership has hinted there is a little bit of room on the payroll, so they could make a move that would just put them over the top.
4. Cleveland Indians
The Indians were just one game away from reaching the World Series in 2007. Three years on, they are back in full-on rebuild mode.
18 months after they boasted a 1-2 punch of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, their rotation, led by Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona, is decidedly different. The former has not pitched since May 2008, and the latter was so bad last year he ended up back in the lowest of the low minors in Arizona.
Having the ball in their hand was the problem last year, and was expected to be this year. So what has been interesting for the Tribe is how well their pitching has performed in Spring Training. Westbrook and Carmona have surprised many, as has Justin Masterson, acquired in return for Victor Martinez last year.
Grady Sizemore will return at full-strength, after a 2009 season affected by, and then curtailed by, injury. He is the key part the Indians will base their rebuild around, and rightly so. The most exciting thing for Indians fans to look forward to will be the late-season emergence of future stars like Lonnie Chisenhall and Carlos Santana.
New manager Manny Acta’s regime seems to already be doing good things, and if the pitching continues in the same vein, the Indians could surprise a few people. More likely, however, is a fourth place finish, just ahead of the Royals.
5. Kansas City Royals
2010 marks the 25th anniversary of the Royals’ first and only World Series victory, and they’re still a long way from repeating their success.
They’ve made a few moves in the off-season, bringing in Scott Posednik, Brian Anderson and Jason Kendall, who should add some strength to their line-up, but are unlikely to make a significant impact to the hopes of Royals fans.
Reigning AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke returns at the top of the rotation, looking to prove himself as bona-fide ace. Beyond Greinke, however, the pitching staff looks pretty bare.
The Royals aren’t in too bad a place, starting to put together the makings of a good team. Along with Greinke, third-baseman Alex Gordon, taken with the second overall pick in 2005, is another guy the Royals are going to have to hang on to if they are to become a contender anytime soon.
This won’t be the year that happens though; indeed, perhaps the most they can hope for is to push the Indians down into last place.