PhillyPhanatics.com’s Major League Baseball previews continue with the American League Central.
(Link to prior previews: AL West)
If I asked you whether there was a mortal lock, guaranteed sure-fire division winner in Major League Baseball in 2012, how would you respond? Last year, I would have said the Phillies. This year, while I’d still pick the Phillies to win their division, the NL East – with the exception of the Mets – looks like it has 4 teams with a realistic shot at the postseason.
If I took you to the AL Central, however, would we agree that there is one team that stands so far above the rest?
Ron Opher examines this and other questions in PhillyPhanatics.com’s AL West preview
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2011 record: 95-67, 1st place
Season outlook: The playoff cinch award for 2012 has to go to the Detroit Tigers. Not only did they win their division by 15 games in 2011 and boast the Cy Young and MVP (the same guy, Justin Verlander), they added one of the best RBI men in the game in Prince Fielder to a lineup that already has all-world player Miguel Cabrera. Miggy moves back across the diamond to third to accommodate Fielder at first – who fulfills a childhood dream to play the same position for the same team as his father Cecil did some 20+ years ago.
Some of the enthusiasm should be tempered with the loss of DH Victor Martinez for the season with a torn ACL, but this team has the best lineup, the best rotation and the best bullpen – by a lot – in the division. Nobody can touch Valverde-Benoit-Dotel-Coke in the Central and possibly not even in the AL throughout. The Tigers look like they are on a collision course for a date with the Angels in the ALCS.
Projected finish: 1st place
2011 record: 80-82, 2nd place
CL Chris Perez
Season outlook: The Cleveland Indians made a great run last season, but ironically just as they added Ubaldo Jimenez at the trade deadline, costing them a pitcher who may outpitch Jimenez this season (Drew Pomeranz in Colorado), the wheels fell off. While the Indians finished second, they were 15 games behind the Tigers and had the 8th best record out of 14 AL teams.
The young lineup looks to have continued improvement from SS Asdrubal Cabrera, who had a breakout season in 2011 (25-92-.273, after hitting 18 total home runs in over 1600 plate appearances in the prior 4 seasons). Catcher Carlos Santana is coming off his first full season (27-79, ,351 OBP) and is likely to join Buster Posey (whom I compared Santana to in my 2011 AL Central preview) as the only catchers in the majors to bat cleanup in 2012. On the mound, it was Justin Masterson who had the breakout season (12-10, 3.21 ERA after going 6-13 with a 4.70 ERA in 2010).
You get the idea that if these guys are for real and continue to improve, they are going to get above .500 and be in contention for the expanded wildcard system if they can’t catch the Tigers.
If Shin-Soo Choo (who sank to 8-36-.259 in 2011) can stay healthy, he should get back to his .300 hitting ways. Choo hit .300 of better each season from 2008-2010. Michael Brantley and Shelley Duncan are also up-and-coming players in Cleveland’s outfield, while Travis Hafner and Derek Lowe will provide veteran leadership.
Then again, any team that has to play Casey Kotchman every day at 1B (and bat him any higher than 8th or 9th) can’t be all that good. Matt LaPorta may ultimately reclaim that position. Fausto Carmona – now known as Roberto Hernandez Heredia – is in visa limbo, and Grady Sizemore (back surgery) is once again injured.
Projected finish: 2nd place
Chicago White Sox
2011 record: 79-83, 3rd place
Key additions: none
Season outlook: The Chicago White Sox begin a new chapter in 2012, after a disappointing third-place finish in the AL Central in 2011. That chapter includes the departure of longtime manager Ozzie Guillen (who took over the Miami Marlins), who has been replaced by another popular White Sox alum, Robin Ventura.
The team – like their cross-town rivals the Cubs with Jeff Samardzija – is gambling on the successful conversation of Chris Sale from a reliever to a starter. They’re also gambling on the emergence Alejandro De Aza as a leadoff hitter after he failed multiple times with the Marlins, on Dayan Viciedo and Brent Morel (who, along with DeAza, each have less than 500 major league at bats) to hold down full-time major league jobs, and in turn gambling that they won’t miss veterans like Carlos Quentin and Juan Pierre.
Turning the page on a finishing a distant third in 2011, when more was expected, will be important collectively as well as individually.
For example, blaming last season entirely on Adam Dunn is unfair. But blaming a lot of it on Dunn, who is due $44 million over the next 3 seasons, is appropriate.
Dunn posted a hideous .159 batting average in 496 plate appearances. He hit a career low 11 home runs, after hitting 38 or more in each of the prior 8 seasons. Amazing, Dunn’s OBP was .292 – horrible by his standards, but actually slightly better than Raul Ibanez‘s .289 OBP in 2011. Dunn managed more walks (75) than hits (66) in 2011 – which is next to impossible to do. In short, he was a 6’6″, nearly 300 pound decoy.
Dunn managed to somehow protect Paul Konerko in the lineup enough to get Konerko his second consecutive 30-100-.300 or better season. Konerko continues to be the brightest spot on a team that will have to figure out how to get by without innings-eater Mark Buehrle (who followed Guillen to Miami as a free agent). Buehrle was not spectacular by any means, but it’s fair to consider him the “glue” of the White Sox staff in prior years.
Now the Pale Hose will try not to become unglued in 2012.
Projected finish: 5th place
Kansas City Royals
2011 record: 71-91, 4th place
Season outlook: The surprise team in the AL in 2012? I was a lot more sure of it until their closer went down in spring training and needs Tommy John surgery. No, I’m not talking about Ryan Madson and the Reds – who suffered the same fate. It’s Joakim Soria and the Royals I’m talking about.
The Royals have a great nucleus of young position players in Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas. Lorenzo Cain, acquired in last season’s Zack Greinke deal, looks to join that group and provide a spark in center field. Gordon is the oldest of that crew, at age 28.
A big wildcard for Kansas City now that they’ve lost Soria is whether Jonathan Broxton will return to dominance, or whether his best days are behind him. Broxton is unbelievably only 27 (3 years younger than Jonathan Papelbon, for example), but the mileage on his arm proved too much last season. If Broxton falters, Aaron Crow (all all-star in his rookie season last year) is the only other high-quality arm in the Royals’ pen.
The rotation is also very iffy. One-time Phillie Bruce Chen is the “ace.” Chen has posted back-to-back 12-win seasons, with ERAs of 4.17 and 3.77, respectively. He’d probably be a #3 or 4 starter on a championship-caliber team, but he has found his form at age 35 on his 10th major league team.
Luke Hochevar (rhymes with “underachiever) had the best season of his career in 2011. It was 11-11, 4.68 ERA, but it was still by far his best season – and his 198 innings are a big deal (nearly 40% increase above his prior best).
If you think I am being harsh on Hochevar, consider that he was the #1 overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft. Then again, he’s no Brien Taylor.
The innings issue is important with the Royals’ bullpen being so thin. Jonathan Sanchez (acquired from the Giants) rounds out the top 3, and has a terrific strikeout arm, but is simply not economical with his pitches, averaging a whopping 4.8 walks per 9 innings, to go with his 9.4 strikeouts per 9 innings over his career. Sanchez helps, but is really not a fit for a team like Kansas City, which could use more innings-eaters in the middle and bottom of their rotation to stay out of their middle relief as much as possible.
Projected finish: 3rd place
2011 record: 63-99, 5th place
CL Matt Capps
Season outlook: The Minnesota Twins, perennial AL Central contenders, fell flat on their faces last season, finishing with the worst record in the American League.
First, there was the injury bug that bit the Twins. Joe Mauer was limited to 82 games. Former AL MVP Justin Morneau never really recovered from his 2010 concussion, appearing in only 69 games, with a 4-30-.227 line.
But that wasn’t the only reason for the Twins’ dismal 2011.
I had also pointed out in my AL Central preview for 2011 that the exodus of 4 talented bullpen pieces would be a huge cause for concern. I picked the Twins to slip to second place – obviously, I underestimated the bullpen impact, along with overestimating a return to form for Morneau.
Will they rebound? That remains to be seen. They’ll have to do it without Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel – each of whom landed in the NL West – and are being replaced in the lineup by Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit. Realistically, the Twins are part of a tightly bunched 2-5 group in the AL Central, but a return to former glory at the top of the division is a longshot.
Projected finish: 4th place