For the past few seasons, the American League Central division has been one of the most competitive in baseball thanks to the three-headed monster of the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins.
With the addition of slugger Prince Fielder, the Tigers are still among the best squads in baseball. However those days could be numbered thanks to the precarious health of Minnesota stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Throw in the new White Sox era that has begun with the departure of outspoken manager Ozzie Guillen (who’s now managing the Miami Marlins) and suddenly the Tigers’ path to a division crown doesn’t look so easy.
If the White Sox and Twins are on the downswing, then the reinvigorated Kansas City Royals are definitely headed in the opposite direction. After years (more like decades) of irrelevance, the organization has amassed some of the game’s brightest young stars for a run at the playoffs.
Somewhere in-between all of this are the Cleveland Indians, who went all-in last season when they acquired ace Ubaldo Jimenez from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for the organization’s top prospects. This led to a surprising end of the season run for the Indians that turned heads all around the league.
Chicago White Sox
It was an open secret that Guillen’s act as manager had worn out its welcome on the South Side of Chicago. When General Manager Ken Williams replaced him with former White Sox player Robin Ventura it signaled a new day for the organization, or at least for the management.
The current roster still includes the 2011 underachievers Alex Ríos, Adam Dunn and Gordon Beckham, along with a bullpen that has a lot more questions than answers. The pitching staff will rely on Opening Day starter John Danks, Jake Peavy, and youngster Chris Sale to give the Sox a competitive edge.
National sports media, such as “Sports Illustrated” and ESPN, have low expectations for the club. However, this of course makes for great “We’re going to surprise some people” stories for the Sox at the start of the year. The potential does exist for a playoff run if the team can hit the ball this season, but don’t be surprised if the White Sox are out of the race by the All-Star break.
Thanks to a fast start, the Indians stood out as one of the biggest surprises of 2011 before ultimately fading at the end of the season and missing the playoffs. That breakout run has the confidence running high in Cleveland this year, with open talk of challenging the Tigers becoming the norm.
However if that’s to happen, last season’s acquisition of former All-Star Jimenez has to start paying off. The organization gave up major talent to gain the Dominican pitcher, and he went 4-4 with an ERA of 5.10 in his 11 starts for the team. While the offense won’t be dominant, it has some solid pieces in outfielder Shin Soo-Choo, DH Travis Hafner and potential breakout star Dominican catcher Carlos Santana.
In order for the Indians to live up to their expectations it will come down to the pitching staff, including Jimenez, Opening Day starter Justin Masterson, newly acquired Derek Lowe and a strong bullpen.
Any discussion of the AL Central this season starts with the Tigers. In fact, any discussion about baseball at all this season should start with the Tigers. Thanks to the high-profile, high-dollar and high-risk (considering the length of the deal) signing of slugger Prince Fielder this offseason, the division could already be in the bag for the Tigers.
Manager Jim Leyland is in an enviable situation with the reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and Dominican All-Star closer José Valverde, who didn’t blow a save last season. Along with an offense that sports Venezuelan MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera and the aforementioned Fielder, the Tigers have created one of the best batting duos in the game.
With this kind of stockpiled talent on the roster, the Tigers’ story this season isn’t about whether they can compete, but rather can they live up to their expectations?
Kansas City Royals
For the first time since 1985, the Royals have a legitimate chance to compete for a playoff spot and should be considered among the best young teams in baseball. That reality can be attributed to a stocked farm system that has produced key contributors for this season in first baseman Eric Hosmer and pitchers Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery.
The hype took a bit of a hit in spring training with injuries to Mexican closer Joakim Soria, who will be out for the year with Tommy John Surgery, and Venezuelan catcher Salvador Pérez, who was placed on the 60-day DL. Luckily, there’s certainly enough talent on this roster to compete for a Wild Card slot if the youngsters can consistently play at a high level throughout the season.
After losing 99 games last season, it became apparent that the Twins rely on their “Big Three” – catcher Joe Mauer, first baseman/designated hitter Justin Morneau and outfielder Denard Span – as much as any team in baseball. All three players missed significant parts of last season and manager Rod Gardenhire’s squad never adjusted to the void they left behind.
As a result, the Twins are changing tactics this year by almost exclusively employing Morneau as a DH with rookie Chris Parmelee taking over first base. The team will also be praying to the baseball gods that Mauer stays healthy and plays more than 82 games like he did last season.
While yes, things look rough on paper for the Twins, fans should keep in mind that over the last decade this team has played their best baseball when they were the considered the “underdog.”
D.B. Mitchell is a freelance writer who covers sports, politics and pop culture. Follow him at @DB_Mitchell.