Sunday, March 24, 2013

AL Central Preview

1st Place--Detroit Tigers
2012 Record: 88-74
2012 Pythagorean: 87-75
2013 Projected: 92-70
The reigning American League champs should have no trouble winning their third straight division title in 2013. On paper, they're clearly the best team in the division and only got better over the offseason. Victor Martinez returns from a lost 2012 to join Motown mashers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the heart of the order. Letting Delmon Young walk is addition by subtraction, whereas signing Torii Hunter is simply pure addition (unless the 37 year-old falls off a cliff). Austin Jackson quietly blossomed into one of the sport's top center fielders after adopting a more patient approach at the plate and could have an Andrew McCutchen-kind-of-year. I think Alex Avila bounces back after hitting .243 with nine home runs last year, but don't see him returning to 2011 form (neither will Jhonny Peralta). The Tigers have the best pitcher on the planet in Justin Verlander and a strong rotation to back him up. Max Scherzer got off to a rocky start last year but still posted the best strikeout rate in the majors last year. What's more, he compiled a sparkling 2.53 ERA after June 13th, better than Verlander's 2.61 mark over the same stretch. I say it every spring, but this might be the year he finally takes the leap. Detroit re-upped with Anibal Sanchez for five years and $88 million, which is a bit pricey for a number three but not bad considering he's pitched about as well as Zack Greinke (who got much more than that) over the past three seasons. Don't worry about Doug Fister's spring training woes--he'll be fine. Overall, the Tigers are deeper and more balanced than last year, so I'd be shocked if anyone else wins the AL Central.

2nd Place--Chicago White Sox
2012 Record: 85-77
2012 Pythagorean: 88-74
2013 Projected: 83-79
Robin Ventura's White Sox spent most of the season in first place, only to falter at the finish line and cough up the division in the season's final week. Chicago had a quiet offseason, letting Kevin Youkilis and A.J. Pierzynski walk but keeping the rest of their roster intact. Youk will be missed at the hot corner, esepcially since his replacement (Jeff Keppinger) offers little power and average defense at best. Pierzynski's departure opens the door for Tyler Flowers to play behind the plate everyday and infuse some youth into a veteran lineup. 37 year-old Paul Konerko has shown no signs of slowing down and should continue to be a force in the heart of Chicago's order along with Alex Rios and Adam Dunn, both of whom rebounded from miserable 2011s. In the outfield, Dayan Viciedo has 30-homer potential and Alejandro de Aza is a rock solid leadoff hitter/center fielder. The rotation is headed by two aces--2012 breakout Chris Sale and former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy--both of whom must sustain their success if Chicago is going to have any chance at keeping up with the Tigers this year. The oft-injured Peavy, 31, is hardly a sure thing given that he averaged just 17 starts per year from 2009-2011. Sale, soon to be 24, is a Verducci effect candidate after approaching 200 innings in his first full season as a starter. John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Jose Quintana round out the rest of the rotation with Hector Santiago ready to step in if needed. The bullpen looks good for the most part, but Addison Reed needs to be more consistent if he wants to hang on to his closer's gig.

3rd Place--Cleveland Indians
2012 Record: 68-94
2012 Pythagorean: 64-98
2013 Projected: 80-82
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Tribe last year, but they enter 2013 with significantly more talent. They upgraded their outfield outfield by signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, signing slugging corner infielder Mark Reynolds to a cheap one-year deal and trading for Trevor Bauer, who projects to be a future ace. Cleveland is stacked up the middle: catcher Carlos Santana is primed for a breakout in his age 27 season, Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera are a great double-play tandem, and Bourn is the best defensive center fielder in baseball not named Mike Trout. All four could be All-Stars this year, and it seems safe to say the Indians won't finish second-to-last in runs scored like they did last year. Of course,  it doesn't really matter how many more times they cross home plate if Cleveland finishes dead last in ERA again. I can't say I love their rotation, which lacks a true number one and two, but the good news is that Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Tomlin have nowhere to go but up. If they can at least pitched as well as they did in 2011, then Cleveland will be in much better shape. Zach McAllister showed some promise as a rookie last year and could be a nice boon if he continues to develop. With veteran skipper Terry Francona at the helm, Cleveland now has one of the best managers of the past decade at the reins. The Indians aren't talented enough to surpass the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central but have the pieces to move above .500 for the first time since 2007.

4th Place--Kansas City Royals
2012 Record: 72-90
2012 Pythagorean: 74-88
2013 Projected: 77-85
Kansas City is loaded with young talent but made a critical blunder in trading future superstar Wil Myers for James Shields, a number two pitcher with a career 4.67 ERA pitching outside of a dome. He's not going to be the difference-maker GM Dayton Moore is expecting, so KC will have to rely on continued growth and maturity from its young core of position players. Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, and Eric Hosmer in particular all need to be better than they were last year (so does Jeff Francoeur, who followed up his strong Royals debut by reminding everyone just how bad he really is). Billy Butler and Alex Gordon just have to keep doing their thing. Whereas the Royals' starting lineup is teeming with potential and upside, their starting rotation is staffed by so-so veterans like Bruce Chen, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Guthrie. Shields is a lock to provide 220 quality innings, but I see him taking a substantial step back after moving out of the pitcher's haven known as Tropicana Field. Kansas City boasts a bullpen full of live arms, none of whom seem capable of developing into usable starting pitchers. The Royals could have a winning season if everything goes their way, but that's not going to be enough to snap their 27-year playoff drought.

5th Place--Minnesota Twins
2012 Record: 66-96
2012 Pythagorean: 68-94
2013 Projected: 67-95
The Twins were the Junior Circuit's worst team in 2011 and 2012, but lucky for them the Houston Astros switched leagues and will spare them from claiming that dubious distinction for a third straight season. Thanks to a  Harmon Killebrew-type year from slugger Josh Willingham and rebounds from Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Ryan Doumit, the Twins fielded a decent lineup last year. Speedy outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere will be missed, especially on defense. The Twins are never going to put up big offensive numbers so long as their playing half their games at Target Field. They need to be built around strong starting pitching, an asset that was in short supply last year. Breakout Scott Diamond was the only hurler to make more than 20 starts or complete more than 110 innings. Ron Gardenhire is counting on Diamond to be the ace of the staff, but Diamond is a mid-rotation starter at best. Furthermore, his complete and utter inability to miss bats (4.7 K/9 last year) makes him a likely bust candidate. Unlike last year, he figures to have some help in the rotation. GM Terry Ryan acquired Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey, and Kevin Correia to fill out the staff, and while none of those names are exciting at least they are all capable big league pitchers. That's not saying much, but it represents a clear upgrade over last year's soft-tossing crew of Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, and Carl Pavano. Minnesota fans might as well start thinking about football season, because their baseball team isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

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