Now that Johnny Damon has signed with the Tigers, we can go ahead and evaluate the AL Central. I'll cover the teams alphabetically, and then give my predictions at the end.
Chicago White Sox (no relation):
The Sox made all of their big moves during the season, picking up Jake Peavey at the trade deadline, and claiming Alex Rios off of waivers, getting him for nothing other than the commitment to his contract. He was terrible in Chicago last year, batting below .200 with a .530 OPS. His ability to bounce back is a big key to Chicago's season.
Peavey comes in as the second man in the rotation, behind Mark Buehrle, who struggled last year after his perfect innings streak ended mid-way through his next start after his perfect game. Buehrle should start opening day, but could be in the middle of a lot of drama this year as he is discussing retirement. Peavey goes from the N.L. to the A.L. and from the best pitchers' park in baseball to a pretty good hitters' park. I'm not sure he'll continue to be an ace under those new circumstances. In his favor is that he misses bats. The rest of the rotation is solid, with John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Veteran Freddie Garcia (an original Blue Sock) and second-year player Daniel Hudson will battle for the fifth spot. Look for Garcia to win the role, at least out of spring training, because Ozzie Likes him and likes veterans. Hudson will be in the bullpen. But Hudson will likely be in the rotation by the all star break, although he may need a stint in the minors to stretch out.
The line-up has added Juan Pierre from the Dodgers to lead-off and play left field, Andruw Jones for the "regular" DH spot, and Mark Teahan, who will be the regular third baseman, moving rookie sensation Gordon Beckham to second. Regarding Pierre, look for him to have a big year. When Podsednick was at the top of his game, Ozzie sent him about every other time he was on first base. If Pierre stays healthy and in the lead-off spot all year, with his walk rate and hit rate, he could easily steal 75 bases.
Also look for Paul Konerko to have a good year. He had a rough patch in '08, but started to bounce back last year. He's at a crossroads in his career and has something to prove. If Ozzie sticks with him, he'll hit 30 again, and drive in 100.
One thing to look at during the season: look for the Sox to be in the running for Adrian Gonzales if and when he goes on the trade block.
The Indians will not be good this year. They have some young talent, and Manny Acta seems like the right guy for this spot, but they don't have any pitching. The rotation is a complete mess, with Jake Westbrook, coming off injury, as the possible opening day starter. They have a bunch of arms, but none of them that good. Justin Masterson, acquired from the Red Sox (no relation) may be the best bet of the young guys, and I guess it's possible Fausto Carmona could return to his 2007 form.
The best case scenario for the Indians would be for Kerry Wood to get off to a good start as the closer so that he can be trade bait at the deadline. If that happens (and that's a big if) look for Chris Perez to take over as the closer.
The big thing for the Indians this year is whether or not they decide to trade Grady Sizemore. He's signed at a relatively cheap $7.5 mil. for 2011 and a club option for $8.5 mil. in 2012. Considering what Carl Crawford will get, Sizemore would be an attractive consolation prize. All of this assuming he bounces back from an injury plagued 2009, but I expect he will. (Of course I'm still bitter that he basically ruined any shot the Blue Sox had at the bgal championship last year.)
Without question, the most interesting off-season in the division. (The Twins are a close second, and may have been first had they gotten their deal done with Mauer.) It certainly appeared the Tigers were dumping salary when they traded Edwin Jackson and Curtis Granderson at the winter meetings in a blockbuster three-way deal, but now, with the signing of Johnny Damon, I'm not so sure. They basically swapped Jackson and Granderson for Max Scherzer, who should take the #3 starter spot, Austin Jackson, who will take Granderson's spot in center, if he makes the team, and two quality bullpen arms in Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke.
The big question, of course, was this their plan all along, or did they change course when Damon became available? I have to think it's the latter; there's no way they could have predicted Damon would be available, right? Either way, the rotation is at least a wash with Scherzer for Jackson (and maybe a long-term upgrade), and Damon had a better year than Granderson last year. Throw in Jackson, and the outfield is better both this year and long term. Finally, the bullpen received two solid upgrades. And that was before they signed Valverde to take the closer role from the departed Fernando Rodney. Rodney had a lot of saves, but did not pitch that well. Valverde is an established closer, albeit in the weak N.L. west and central.
The big issue for the Tigers is whether their two rookies, Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore, neither one of which has had a single at bat in the major leagues can make the team and be regular contributors. The Tigers are proceeding as if they will.
Kansas City Royals:
Like the Indians, the Royals will be bad. They have better pitching, with Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria leading the rotation and the pen, but their clueless moves, like trading for Yuniesky Betancourt and adding Jason Kendall, will kill their chances. Billy Butler is solid, but can't carry the offense by himself. Maybe the most interesting part of this team is the transition of oft-maligned reliever Kyle Farnsworth into a rotation candidate.
The Royals need a bounce back from newly signed Rick Ankiel (maybe he could help the rotation) and need Alex Gordon to finally reach some of his potential.
The Twins have had a pretty good run of playoff appearances and look to be the class of the division and the team to beat. The big question for the Twins is whether or not they can lock-up Maurer long-term. Look for that question to dominate the Twins' news until they sign him, even though they should be talking about the new outdoor stadium opening this year.
The Twins solidified their weakness up the middle with the additions of J.J. Hardy (via trade of Carlos Gomez) and Orlando Hudson (via free agency). This should firm up the defense (with Span in center and Mauer behind the plate they are very solid up the middle) and the outfield with Gomez gone and Span entrenched in center. Delmon Young will get another chance to show he can be a power hitter. If he doesn't have a good start, however, look for Kubel to take over in left and newly signed Jim Thome to take over at DH. That's a very lefty-leaning line-up, though, with most of the power from Thome, Kubel, Mauer, and Morneau, all from the left side.
As usual, the Twins have good pitching. The rotation should include Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn. Francisco Liriano should get the fifth starter spot, but Glen Perkins is in the mix, if he's not traded to the Reds. Of course, the bullpen will be anchored again by Joe Nathan and a bunch of other unheralded, but effective relievers.
I think the new additions to the Twins will make the difference in the division and I'm picking them over the Tigers. The Sox theoretically have a better rotation, but the Twins have more depth, and depth in the rotation is huge. If Mauer's contract isn't too much of a distraction, I don't see any reason to pick against them.
This will be a close division at the top, with the Tigers and the White Sox competing with the Twins. If their is one wild card, it could be Kenny Williams, who is very aggressive and could pull off a big trade (like for Gonzalez) and change the division. Absent that big move, I like the Tigers for second and the White Sox a close third. The Indians and Royals will be a distant fourth and fifth. It probably doesn't matter, but I'll pick the Indians to stay out of the cellar.
Up next: AL West
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