Friday, February 17, 2012

AL Central Preview

1st Place-Detroit Tigers
2011 Record: 95-67
2011 Pythagorean: 89-73
2012 Projected: 97-65
Word on the street is that they signed some guy named Prince Fielder for a lot of money, and I guess it's supposed to make the team a little bit better.  In all seriousness, Detroit now has two of the best hitters in baseball between Prince and Miguel Cabrera, the most lethal heart-of-the-order tandem since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.  Even without Victor Martinez, the duo has ample support in Alex Avila (coming into his prime), a resurgent Jhonny Peralta, Austin Jackson (no way he bats under .250 again) and Delmon Young, who got in a groove after Minnesota traded him to Motown and should threaten 25 dingers and 100 RBI in 2012.  No, offense shouldn't be too much of a problem for the reigning divsional champs, and I hear they have a pretty good pitcher in Justin Verlander, too.  Some regression is to be expected there, but the flamethrower should be good for roughly 20 wins and an ERA around three.  Max Scherzer is entering his age 27 season, and I still like him after a disappointing 2011.  Doug Fister was untouchable down the stretch after coming over from Seattle and looks like a great number three starter, while Rick Porcello should be a solid number four.  Jose Valverde (a perfect 49 for 49 in ave chances last season) will come back to earth next year, and the Tigers can only hope he doesn't completely fall off the map like Brad Lidge did after his perfect season with Philadelphia in 2008.  If he does, I'm sure Joaquin Benoit can step in and fill the void.

2nd Place-Cleveland Indians
2011 Record: 80-82
2011 Pythagorean: 75-87
2012 Projected: 82-80
Cleveland got off to a hot start in 2011 but faded over the summer and were out of the race by September.  Injuries to Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore crippled the lineup, and midseason import Ubaldo Jimenez floundered down the stretch.  Expect Choo to bounce back to his .300 20/20 ways, but Sizemore and Pronk haven't been relevant in nearly half a decade so they can't be counted on to rebound in 2012.  On the bright side Asdrubal Cabrera developed 25 homer power last year and proved he was capable of anchoring the middle of the lineup, whereas Carlos Santana continued to blossom into one of the best hitting catchers in the bigs (don't let the .239 batting average fool you; this guy can mash).  The Tribe will also benefit from a full season of Colorado's former ace at the front of the rotation.  Jimenez might never recapture the dominance from his glorious first half in 2010, but he's also just as unlikely to replicate his poor follow-up campaign.  I think he'll grow more comfortable with his American League competition this year, and that he'll win around 15 games with around 200 strikeouts and an ERA in the upper threes.  The rest of the rotation is just so-so; Justin Masterson was a hidden gem in 2011.  I wouldn't be surprised if he outpitches Jimenez this season and he should be a good number two, but Josh Tomlin is mediocre at best and Derek Lowe has nothing left at this stage in his career (if his ERA is below five at the All-Star break, I will eat a pile of dog crap).  Kevin Slowey's not terrible, and Fausto Carmona will probably find his way into the starting five by June.    I think Cleveland has just enough talent to finish over .500, but needs another quality starter and bat to seriously threaten the Tigers.

3rd Place-Kansas City Royals
2011 Record: 71-91
2011 Pythagorean: 78-84
2012 Projected: 79-83
The record wasn't great last year, but there are signs of hope in Kansas City.  The organization's top ranked farm system has provided Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer (whom Eric Karabell believes is the next coming of Joey Votto), Mike Moustakas and the better-late-than-never Alex Gordon.  All are fine young hitters but the team lacks a true centerpiece to build the lineup around, somebody who can threaten .300-30-100.  A few years ago it looked like Billy Butler could be that guy, but I fear he may be another Nick Markakis.  Hosmer seems to have the potential, but since he's just 22 I don't think he'll reach those heights for a few more years.  Jeff Francoeur was a revelation last year, but there's no way he repeats that performance in 2012.  The lineup will miss Melky Cabrera, too.  The rotation is very shaky, but could be okay if Jonathan Sanchez returns to 2010 form and Aaron Crow can make a smooth transition from reliever to starter (time will tell for him, Daniel Bard, and Neftali Feliz).  Bruce Chen's alright, too, but the rest of the staff is a mess.  The bullpen replaces Crow with a high-risk, high-reward replacement in Jonathan Broxton, who many thought was the best closer in baseball 20 months ago, and still has Joakim Soria to finish out all those nailbiter wins.  This is a team on the rise that could threaten .500 this season and should be a playoff contender in the not-so-distant future.

4th Place-Chicago White Sox
2011 Record: 79-83
2011 Pythagorean: 75-87
2012 Projected:77-85
Ozzie Guillen's replacement, the more low-key Robin Ventura, takes over a team that received disappointing seasons from just about everyone not named Paul Konerko or Mark Buehrle last year. Adam Dunn, who some (myself included) thought had a legit shot at a 50 homer season playing half his games in the Cell, managed to swat just eleven in what was one of the worst offensive seasons for any player ever. He just has to be better, right? Alex Rios stunk up the joint, and the notoriously streaky hitter suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of 30 and is quickly turning into Vernon Wells, but I have a sneaky feeling he rebounds in 2012. Many pegged Gordon Beckham as a breakout candidate last spring after he wrapped up 2010 with a nice second half, but instead he posted a paltry 72 OPS+ in 150 games last year (talk about a long leash!).  The former Rookie of the Year candidate has deteriorated since his promising debut, but he's still just 25. Perhaps this is the year he puts it all together? Carlos Quentin, much like Nelson Cruz in that he's a slugging outfielder who just can't stay healthy, is gone, but I feel that bounceback seasons across the board should compensate for his loss.  The same can not be said about Buehrle, though, who leaves a gaping hole at the top of Chicago's rotation.  John Danks will have to be the ace of the staff even though he's a number two guy at best, and other than him there's not much to like about their starting five.  Gavin Floyd is okay, Jake Peavy is past his prime and Philip Humber pitched well at times last year, but that's not going to be good enough.  The franchise claims to be rebuilding, so it could be a while before the Sox are relevant again.

5th Place-Minnesota Twins
2011 Record: 63-99
2011 Pythagorean:62-100
2012 Projected: 74-88
This team was so good for the majority of the past decade, it seems unfathomable to me that they nearly piled up 100 losses last year.  With Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both absent for extended periods of time last season, the Twins just couldn't scrape together enough offense to win baseball games.  Michael Cuddyer can only do so much, you know?  But he's gone this year, so if the M&M Boys can't stay healthy then this team will really struggle to score runs.  They have some speed at the top of the order between Ben Revere and Denard Span, and Josh Willingham was a nice pickup, but offense will never be this club's strength as long as it plays half its games at Target Field.  The rotation needs Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano to pitch like they did in 2010, or else it's going to be another long season in Minnesota.  Scott Baker could be the best pitcher on this team if he can just stay healthy (a big "if" considering he's topped 30 starts just once in his career), and you can't trust Jason Marquis and/or Nick Blackburn as far as you can throw them.  Going with Matt Capps as a full-time closer won't end well, and I wouldn't be surprised if he loses the job or gets traded by the July deadline.  On the bright side, I think it will be almost impossible for the 2012 Twins to be worse than last year's squad, so there's nowhere to go but up!

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