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Thursday, April 5, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: AL Central

After emerging as the "mystery team" in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, the Detroit Tigers now have their sights set on more than just repeating as division champs.  The core of their team already included one of the best positional players in Miguel Cabrera and last year's American League MVP Justin Verlander.  With Prince on board the team hopes they'll be contenders for the next several years. The rest of the division will be fighting for seconds as all of them have serious concerns.  Kansas City is a team on the rise but their young rotation isn't ready to lead them.  Chicago says it's rebuilding but is stuck with some albatross contracts that prevent them from going all-in at anything.  Cleveland is probably one pitcher short of being taken seriously making their performance in the first two months critical for their playoff chances. Minnesota has a little bit of everything from injury concerns to aging players that the team cannot or will not move.  If you like high scoring games with little regard for the team's overall record then this is the division for you.

Chicago White Sox
2011 Record: 79-83
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $98 million
Highest Paid Player: Jake Peavy - $17 million
Best Player: Paul Konerko just keeps on ticking.  He's second all time in franchise history in HR, RBI,  and will be second in total bases by May.
Best Pitcher: John Danks had a bit of a down year in 2011 but some of that may be attributed to injury, Ozzie Guillen, and bad luck.  His peripherals remained strong and he's an excellent bounce back candidate in 2012.
Say Hello To: Simon Castro RP, Delwyn Young UT, Dan Johnson 1B, Kosuke Fukudome OF
Wave Goodbye: Mark Buehrle SP (Mia), Juan Pierre OF (Phi), Omar Vizquel INF (Tor), Sergio Santos CL (Tor), Tony Pena RP (Bos), Jason Frasor RP (Tor), Carlos Quentin OF (SD)
Biggest Questions:
1. Is Adam Dunn done?  Dunn seemed like the perfect fit for the Cell since it's a great home run park, he's a home run hitter, and he can DH. Instead he had one of the worst seasons of all time and despite walking 75 times he managed only 11 home runs and a putrid .159 batting average.  He's looked good in spring training making me optimistic there's still some left but it's clear the Sox aren't getting what they paid for.
2. Who's the next guy to go?  Sox management traded a boatload of players and even manager Ozzie Guillen in the offseason.  Expecting them to continue to dismantle in an effort to rebuild the worst minor league system in baseball would be wise.  John Danks has been rumored to be available but the price remains too high as of now.  Danks, Floyd, and even Peavy if he's pitching well could be moved this summer.
3. How bad is the farm system?  It's really bad.  Baseball Prospectus ranked the top 100 prospects in the minor leagues and the Sox had zero on the list.  On the Up and In podcast, Kevin Goldstein says it's the worst he's ever seen and when he asked other scouts to name a top prospect none came to mind. It's bad but at least it can't get worse. 
Expectations: Realistically this team could finish anywhere from second to fifth.  If Dunn and Rios rebound then this offense can be pretty good.  The bullpen lacks depth and so does the rotation.  While Northsiders will be crying about how bad the Cubs are, at least Sox fans have the potential to be entertained by exciting - albeit not necessarily good - baseball.
Beckham is a great defensive player but
his offense is still lacking.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. De Aza CF
2. Rios RF
3. Ramirez SS
4. Konerko 1B
5. Dunn DH
6. Fukudome LF
7. Pierzynski C
8. Morel 3B
9. Beckham 2B
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Danks
2. Peavy
3. Floyd
4. Sale
5. Humber
CL: Thornton

Cleveland Indians
2011 Record: 80-82
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $67 million
Highest Paid Player: Travis Hafner - $13 million
Best Player: Asdrubal Cabrera had his breakout last year and Carlos Santana may be the best hitting catcher in baseball this season but Shin Soo Choo is a better all around player than both of them. The Indians need him to regain his 2010 form to help their push for the playoffs.
Best Pitcher: Ubaldo Jimenez can be a monster when he's got his head on straight.  Look at his first two months of 2010 as proof.
Say Hello To: Derek Lowe SP, Matt Pagnozzi C, Andy LaRoche 3B, Robinson Tejeda RP, Chris Ray RP, Jeremy Accardo RP, Kevin Slowey SP, Ryan Spilborghs OF, Dan Wheeler RP, Casey Kotchman 1B
Wave Goodbye:
Kosuke Fukudome OF (ChA), Chad Durbin RP (Atl), Jim Thome 1B (Phi), Luis Valbuena 2B (Tor)
Biggest Questions: 
1. Will Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona) pitch this season?  Over the winter the arrest of one of the Indians top pitchers sent shockwaves throughout the organization.  Their #3 starter would not be allowed entrance into the U.S. until a new visa was issued and cleared. Now it appears he'll be suspended once he arrives. Without the luxury of spring training and the added layoff, it's unlikely he'll be pitching before the All Star break. This is a big blow for a team who I was bullish on their chances as a wild card contender.
2. Can Justin Masterson repeat his surprising success? Throughout his career Masterson had issues getting left-handers out which is why Boston left him in the bullpen.` Left-handers still gave him trouble by hitting .291/.331/.415 line but he really buckled down on righties to the tune of .210/.300/.259. If he can continue to annihilate righties he's got a chance but any lefty heavy lineup has the potential to make for a short outing.
3. Is Grady Sizemore finished? Sizemore was perhaps the best all around player in baseball 2005-08 but knee injuries have derailed his career.  He's no longer capable of playing centerfield and he's no longer an above average offensive player. It was fun but the ride appears to be almost over.
Expectations: There's a lot of young talent on the roster which is good when you're looking to make the next step. Issues remain in the outfield and rotation, though.  This team has the potential to finish above .500 and scare some really good teams but making the playoffs will need to wait another year.
With his required service time in the S. Korean army no
longer an issue, Choo can now return to being one of
the most underrated players in the game.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Brantley CF
2. Cabrera SS
3. Choo RF
4. Santana C
5. Hafner DH
6 Duncan LF
7. Kotchman 1B
8. Kipnis 2B
9. Hannahan 3B 
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Masterson
2. Jimenez
3. Tomlin
4. Lowe
5. Gomez
CL: Perez

Detroit Tigers
2011 Record: 95-67
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $132.5 million
Highest Paid Player: Prince Fielder - $23 million
Best Player: Miguel Cabrera is one of the five best players in baseball. Last season he led the league in doubles, batting average, on base percentage, and had his fifth straight season with at least 30 home runs.
Best Pitcher: When he's on Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball.  He was the American League Cy Young and MVP last year.
Say Hello To: Gerald Laird C, Octavio Dotel RP, Collin Balester RP, Eric Patterson OF, Prince Fielder 1B
Wave Goodbye: Magglio Ordonez OF (FA), Carlos Guillen UT (retired), Brad Penny SP (Japan), Joel Zumaya RP (Min), Wilson Betemit INF (Bal), Ryan Perry RP (Was)
Biggest Questions:
1. If Victor Martinez comes back how will the Tigers adapt their defensive alignment?  Luckly for Detroit (or unluckily) they won't have to worry about this until 2013.  Miguel Cabrera will try to play third (try) while Prince mans first base.  I'm not particularly optimistic Cabrera can handle the hot corner but if he's playable over there Victor will be the DH and backup first baseman next year.
2. Will the defense cost the team runs? Oh yes, definitely. I feel bad for Doug Fister and Rick Porcello, two pitchers who rely heavily on their infielders turning ground balls into outs.  This has the potential to be the worst infield defense we've seen in years. At least Austin Jackson is still in center which should make Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander feel a littler better.  Just go for the strikeouts, guys.
3. Is Alex Avila the long term answer or just a placeholder?  Before last season the Tigers were hoping for the former but probably assuming the latter.  Now they believe he'll be the man behind the plate for a long time after last season's .295/.389/.506 line. That may not be sustainable but at least they know he's not dead weight back there. 
Expectations: The Tigers spent money this offseason to ensure they'll be repeating as Central Division champs.  As long as Verlander stays healthy they'll have a chance in any playoff series.
Probable Opening day lineup:
Despite improved stuff Rick Porcello could see a significant
jump in his ERA with that "defense" the Tigers plan to employ.
1. Jackson CF
2. Boesch RF
3. Cabrera 3B
4. Fielder 1B
5. Young LF
6. Raburn DH
7. Peralta SS
8. Avila C
9. Santiago 2B
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Verlander
2. Scherzer
3. Fister
4. Porcello
5. Smyly
CL: Valverde

Kansas City Royals
2011 Record: 71-91
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $58 million
Highest Paid Player: Billy Butler - $8 million
Best Player: Alex Gordon was anointed as the savior the day he was drafted. It may have taken several years, but last year was the season everyone hoped for. The Royals like it enough to extend him through 2016.
Best Pitcher: Joakim Soria would be the answer here but he's out for the year. Jonathan Sanchez has the most talent on the roster and the Royals are hoping he can harness his abilities and become more consistent.
Say Hello To: Jonathan Broxton CL, Max Ramirez C, Jose Mijares RP, Greg Golson OF, Kevin Kouzmanoff 3B
Wave goodbye: Jesse Chavez RP (Tor), Jason Kendall C (FA), Jeff Francis P (FA)
Biggest Questions:
1. Is this finally the year? Nope, not yet. Their time is getting closer by the day with the kids finally earning their way up, though.  Eric Hosmer showed great potential last season, Alex Gordon had the breakthrough season everyone expected from the get go and Billy Butler is solidly one of the games top two designated hitters.  
2. When will the pitching improve?  The Royals were flush with pitching prospects two years ago and now they have more questions than answers for each.  Will Aaron Crow be a career reliver? Can Danny Duffy take that next step?  Is Luke Hochevar really one of the five worst pitchers in the majors? If the answer to the first two of these is yes then it doesn't really matter what Hochevar turns out to be because the Royals need four good starters not just one or two.  This could be the defining year in the team's rebuilding process.
3. What should the team do about Alcides Escobar?  After being a key component in the Zack Greinke trade, Escobar isn't going anywhere despite having a career .294 career on-base percentage after two full seasons.  That's just a tick above Rafael Belliard territory and the jury's still out on how good his glove is.  The Royals will probably give him more chances until he starts to get more expensive through arbitration. If he's not hitting - or fielding like Ozzie - by then he's not worth keeping around.
Expectations: The Royals can hit.  They led the league in doubles last season and should be among the league leaders again.  Further maturity from Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas could push this team up to the leaders in home runs also. If the pitching was halfway decent they'd be contenders but a winning record should be the goal.
It's may be fair to say how Escobar goes so will the Royals
in 2012. The team needs him to hit to score runs and the
pitching staff will rely on him to solidify the infield defense.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Gordon LF
2. Cain CF
3. Hosmer 1B
4. Butler DH
5. Francoeur RF
6. Moustakas 3B
7. Getz 2B
8. Pena C
9. Escobar SS
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Chen
2. Hochevar
3. Sanchez
4. Mendoza
5. Duffy
CL: Broxton

Minnesota Twins
2011 Record: 63-99
2012 Estimated Team Salary: $98.5 million
Highest Paid Player: Joe Mauer - $23 million
Best Player: Joe Mauer is one of the greatest catchers off all time.  The Twins need him to stay healthy.
Best Pitcher: Francisco Liriano has a career rate of 8.9 strikeouts per 9 innings.
Say Hello To: Josh Willingham OF, Matt Maloney RP, Jamey Carroll INF, Ryan Doumit C, Phil Dumatrait RP, Jason Marquis SP, Sean Burroughs 3B
Wave Goodbye: Joe Nathan CL (Tex), Michael Cuddyer 4C (Col), Jason Kubel OF (Ari), Jeff Gray RP (Sea), Kevin Slowey P (Cle)
Biggest Questions:
1. Is Joe Mauer able to stand the rigors of catching every day?  This is the question that the Twins brass has been struggling with for three seasons now.  Mauer's susceptible to bumps and bruises but it's the leg injuries that scare the Twins.  Using him at first base and DH a couple of times a week is the best way to keep him fresh and keep his bat in the lineup.
2. Will Justin Morneau ever be the same?  Ugh, for the Twins' fans sake, I sure hope so.  It all started with a hit by pitch to the head in 2005 and then in 2010 (see here). Last season he had a ridiculous line of ailments that prevented him from ever getting in a groove.  The Twins don't know what they have here but if healthy he's a difference maker.
3. Who are the top candidates to be traded this season?  Since we know the Twins won't be in contention this year there are likely moves to be made to help in the future.  Scott Baker seems likely to have suiters if he can get healthy.  Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham could be traded as well. I think Denard Span is the most likely to be moved, however. This would open up a spot for Ben Revere and/or Aaron Hicks as they vie for a prominent role for next season and beyond.
Expectations: Every team in this division has hopes of finishing with a winning record and competing for a wild card berth except one: the Twins.  This team is in a really ugly situation that can only be fixed with a grueling overhaul in the minor leagues.  It's going to be an ugly couple of years but at least they've still got Joe Mauer.
Where's the love? Joe Mauer is one of the 5 greatest
offensive catchers of all-time.
Probable Opening day lineup:
1. Span CF
2. Carroll SS
3. Mauer C
4. Morneau DH
5. Willingham LF
6. Doumit RF
7. Valencia 3B
8. Parmelee 1B
8. Casilla 2B
Probable Rotation/Closer
1. Liriano
2. Pavano
3. Hendricks
4. Blackburn
5. Marquis
CL: Capps
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