The American League Central is probably the only division in baseball not truly up-for-grabs, at least not among the preseason pundit crowd (myself included); the Detroit Tigers should once again walk away with the crown. There are some interesting mid-card matchups though, especially between the Royals and Indians, either of whom could overtake the Chicago White Sox -- or crash and burn. As with yesterday's AL West preview, teams are listed in the order I predict they'll finish, and each has its lineup, fielding, starting rotation, and bullpen graded from 1st to 5th, from best to worst, in the division. I'll also summarize my reasoning for the rankings, as well as some guys I think will be key contributors.
First Place: The Detroit Tigers
The Tigers may not have the best lineup in baseball -- the Angels, Braves, and perhaps a healthy Nationals team would challenge them for that -- but they're easily the class of the division, truly elite in the middle of the order, and got better this offseason. Besides the team's two obvious big men in Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, will be back as the team's designated hitter, and Detroit upgraded substantially from Brennan Boesch in right field when it signed Torii Hunter to a two-year deal. Factor in Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks, both coming off of breakout years last season, and Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta's consistently above-average bats from premium defensive positions, and the only question mark as far as offense goes is Omar Infante, who only occasionally flirts with league average. That's a pretty good lineup.
They'll need to be good at the plate, though, considering what they'll give back in the field. Detroit might have the best offense in the league, but they almost certainly have the worst defense. The team will be playing two DHs at its corner infield positions and a guy who has been getting by at shortstop by the skin of his teeth; the corner outfield defense has improved due to Boesch's departure to the Yankees and Delmon Young's banishment to Philadelphia, but Torii Hunter's not what he used to be out there and there's some doubt about whether Dirks can handle the responsibilities of every day left fielder.
Good thing then that the starting rotation is also one of the best in baseball. Justin Verlander needs no introduction, but Max Scherzer had a breakout 2012 and is poised to play that forward in 2013, while Doug Fister just needs to keep on being Doug Fister to be one of the best #3 starters in baseball. I'm lower on Anibal Sanchez than most others, but he's a perfectly serviceable fourth arm in the rotation and it doesn't matter if Porcello or Smyly wins the fifth job. The Tigers are almost guaranteed a playoff spot regardless, and Verlander-Scherzer-Fister looks like one of the more deadly short staffs in baseball.
And that's good, because the bullpen features some question marks. The big one right now is who will close, and the correct answer should be "anyone but Bruce Rondon," because that guy has one pitch and it's a fastball he's unable to consistently command. Closer isn't the most important bullpen role to anyone but agents, fans, and media-types, but Rondon in the ninth is almost guaranteed to give Leyland headaches. This is bad, because Leyland has issues handling the pen at the best of times; however, so long as he gets somebody with secondary offerings to close, gets lucky with injuries, and stops letting Phil Coke face right handed hitters, the pen has enough talent to get by. Al Alburquerque and Joaquim Benoit are both capable setup men, as is Octavio Dotel as long as you're not trying to talk to him.
Second Place: The Cleveland Indians
This is the first real place my predictions will deviate from elsewhere. It's no secret that I liked what the Indians did this offseason; adding Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, and Michael Bourn to a lineup that already had Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana more than makes up for the departure of Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati. Drew Stubbs won't be anything special in right field, but both Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall are young players that could take a step forward. Jason Kipnis was merely a tad above league average hitter last year, but for a second baseman that's good enough to put him in the top ten in the league.
They're also the best-fielding team in the division, which isn't saying much because top to bottom the AL Central doesn't play very good defense. Still, with three centerfielders in the outfield and generally average-to-above-average contributions across the infield, it's a solid if unspectacular group of defenders with no glaring weak points, so long as Mark Reynolds remains firmly ensconced in his role as designated hitter and does not wander out on the field at first or, Heaven help you, third.
The Indians lack any sort of ace at the front of the rotation, but they're in the odd position of only being kept out of third in the division by James Shields and saved from being fifth by the grace of the Minnesota Twins; after Detroit and Chicago, the AL Central features a lot of real bad starting pitching. There's hope for the Indians, though, if Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson can bounce back, Brett Myers isn't a disaster as a starter, and Trevor Bauer makes it to the bigs on time. Scott Kazmir has apparently looked like his old self again this Spring Training while facing actual major leaguers, a mirage that will surely vanish by mid-April. I think they make up enough ground with the rest of the team that one or two big years from their starters will be all it takes to get second place in the Central.
The bullpen will get Chris Perez back to start the season and also features Vinny Pestano and Rich Hill. Rich Hill's back! He's a reliever now, so maybe he'll make it through to June. The rest of the pen is generic relief arms (Joe Smith might actually be the most generic player in MLB) or young guys getting a look, so we'll see how they do, but the only bullpen they're better than on paper in the Central belongs to the Twins.
Third Place: The Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are the team most prognosticators, systems and pundits alike, are going to pick to finish second in the Central, and I think they'll come very close to doing so -- within a game or two of the Indians. They have a lineup with a lot of swing to it: lots of players that could be very good … or horrible. Alex Rios, for instance, keeps bouncing back and forth between good and bad seasons, and Adam Dunn now looks like a marginally better Mark Reynolds than the guy who was the mainstay of those Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals clubs. Paul Konerko is 37 years old, and last year was probably not just a down year but the beginning of an actual, precipitous decline. I find it highly unlikely that Jeff Keppinger will hit .325 again, and none of Alejandro De Aza, Dayan Viciedo, Tyler Flowers, or Gordan Beckham seem poised to take the next step.
Fielding isn't this team's strength, either. Alexei Ramirez is a slick-fielding shortstop, but most of the other regulars are average to below average in the field. Keppinger isn't a dedicated third baseman but instead a "super-utility" type guy who is only the everyday 3B because the Sox have literally no one else to credibly man the position; he should at least be an upgrade over the departed Kevin Youkilis, however. Viciedo is a converted third baseman who spent most of last year in left, and was competent there considering it was left field; De Aza has all the physical tools to play center field but not particularly good instincts, and Alex Rios has the arm strength to play right, but not always the consistency to use that arm properly. Still, besides Ramirez, none of these guys overwhelm you with their ability to play the field.
The pitching situation for the White Sox is much rosier. I have my doubts about Chris Sale's long term viability as a starter without a devastating arm injury, but he's pitched like an ace so far and the White Sox have committed to him being in their rotation for the next half-decade. Jake Peavy isn't what he used to be -- which the White Sox should have anticipated, seeing as when they dealt for him he was out for months with an injury -- but he's slowly getting back there, and should be a decent number two. Jose Quintana came from nowhere to have a breakout 2012; I'm notoriously suspicious of pitchers who do that, so I expect regression from him, and Gavin Floyd has been disappointing for a year or two now considering how his career started -- but they're more than fine as far as third and fourth starters go.
The bullpen is a quiet strength for the White Sox, assuming it's used properly, with both Matts Lindstrom and Thornton and Jesse Crain as big contributors. Addison Reed will be the closer; he had a merely all right 2012, but should be fine. The Sox bullpen also features Donnie Veal, whose name is actually Donnie Veal.
Fourth Place: The Kansas City Royals
The Royals have a problem: they're all in, but they're not very, well, good. Their lineup is the strength of the team, and in fairness to it there's a couple of good young players there -- Mike Moustakas, for instance, along with the slightly older Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Eric Hosmer's a bust, though, unless he can figure out how to fix his swing and hit left-handed pitching. Catcher Sal Perez has been great in limited action, but I'd be very surprised if his offensive production continues with a full workload this year. Lorenzo Cain probably won't hit any better than he did last year, Alcides Escobar is marginal at the plate, and Chris Getz and Jeff Francouer are both running jokes.
On the field, Francouer continues to coast on his reputation from years gone by as his instincts and range decline; Getz and Escobar are no better than mildly above average defensively, which doesn't really change even if Getz loses his job for the similarly uninspiring Irving Falu. As a whole the unit is competent to slightly better than such. They're very similar to the Indians in that regard, but since the Indians play better outfield defense, they got the nod over Kansas City.
Nowhere is the difference between perceptions inside the Royals organization and outside of it more starkly contrasted than the Kansas City rotation. The Royals have dropped more than a third of their team payroll into starting pitchers not named James Shields, and come away with Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Bruce Chen, Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar. I'm a huge Jeremy Guthrie fan, but if he's your number two starter, your team is not a playoff team in 2013. James Shields saves this unit from being Twins- or Astros-level terrifying, but one pitcher isn't going to get a team to the playoffs, and the price that Kansas City paid for him -- mainly Wil Myers and Jake Odorozzi -- combined might have made the 2013 Royals better than James Shields or Wade Davis will, with the advantage of being inexpensive and under team control for the foreseeable future. And again, Luke Hochevar: why?
The bullpen is a very solid unit though, with a whole lot of very good right-handed relief arms -- Kelvin Herrera, who you may remember from the recently concluded World Baseball Classic, along with Aaron Crow and new closer Greg Holland -- and sole lefty Tim Collins, who was on Team USA. This is where Luke Hochevar will probably end up to start the season and where he should remain, but considering the Royals are still asking the sun, the moon, and more than half of the stars for Hochevar in trade it's generally accepted that they still see him as a starter long term and that he's going to be the first man into the rotation if someone gets hurt. Which would be surprising, if not for everything else about this team's decision making.
Fifth Place: The Minnesota Twins
The Minnesota Twins were very bad last year and are going to be very bad again this year, because the Minnesota Twins are currently building baseball teams in one of the oddest ways I've ever seen. The Royals make great organization decisions -- who to draft, how to develop them -- and then completely fall apart on the major league level; the Twins, well, it's unclear what the Twins are up to at any level of their operation. The Opening Day lineup for Minnesota is going to feature the likes of Pedro Florimon, Jr., Jamey Carroll, and perhaps Dustin Mastroianni if the Twins are super-concerned about keeping Aaron Hicks from being a Super 2. Drew Butera is skulking about and will get lots of playing time; Josh Willingham is the only player in the lineup that combines a great bat with the ability to stay healthy, though I'd love to see Joe Mauer kick the injury problems that have plagued him the last two years. Justin Morneau is, sadly, done as a top-tier first baseman. The Twins should have dealt him already, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him on the move relatively soon to a team like New York. Trevor Plouffe has a ridiculous name and won't come close to 24 home runs again.
Most of the Twins defenders are average to below-average at their positions. Ron Gardenhire's teams have always been odd in that they seem convinced they're playing great defense, while they're actually middling at best. See also: Gardenhire's love of Nick Punto, who is below average at no fewer than four positions. Considering the team just traded away both of its center fielders, they'll want Hicks up as soon as possible to stabilize that. Florimon should be decent defensively (he's certainly not going to hit) and Plouffe and RF Chris Parmelee can handle themselves competently. Josh Willingham should be a DH at this point in his career, but Ryan Doumit is already there, so Willingham has to play left.
The real reason the Twins are going nowhere fast, though, is the pitching. The best pitcher on the 2013 Twins is probably Vance Worley. Reread that sentence a couple times, maybe look up his Baseball-Reference page, let it sink in. The Twins rotation will look something like Scott Diamond, Kevin Correia, Worley, Cole de Vries, and post-Tommy John surgery Mike Pelfrey, with special guest appearances from Liam Hendricks and Samuel Deduno. If the Houston Astros keep Bud Norris all season, the Houston Astros will field a better rotation, and probably overall staff, than the guys Minnesota is going to put out on the mound. It's almost unbelievable that the Twins went out and assembled this rotation by choice, instead of contracting it like a disease.
The bullpen isn't much better. Glen Perkins, who Team USA fans saw MORE THAN ENOUGH OF, THANK YOU during the WBC will be closing, heading a staff whose defining skillsets seems to be some combination of "not striking dudes out" and "walking dudes." The long reliever is projected to be Ryan Pressly, a Rule 5 draft choice who hasn't pitched above AA. Relievers Jared Burton and Casey Fien look to be the only bright spots on the entire 25-man roster, as far as pitching is concerned.
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I've chosen the Cleveland Indians to finish second in the division, which might seem a bit odd because going by my own rankings they are an inferior team to both the White Sox and the Royals in some key areas, most noticeably the starting rotation. I don't think the Royals' rotation is actually better than the one fielded by Cleveland with the exception of James Shields, however -- certainly not good enough to make up for how much better I think the Indians' hitters are going to be than the ones in Kansas City. As for the White Sox, I see them finishing within one to two games of Cleveland. At that point, I think the manager becomes a very real influencing factor, and I don't think there's a wider gulf in experience and know-how right now then the one between Cleveland's Terry Francona and Chicago's Robin Ventura. I think Ventura's management, especially of his pitchers, will cost Chicago a few games it would otherwise have won, and I don't see Francona making the same mistakes behind the bench for the Indians.
In the end, I don't think it will matter for fans outside of the AL Central who finishes second or third, because I think the Wild Cards will come from the coasts. Monday, however, we examine a much different monster: the American League East, which is fully in play from top to bottom.