MLB Divisional Previews: AL Central

This is the fourth installment in our series of MLB Divisional previews.  Teams are broken down into categories (“Contenders”, “Rebuilding” and “Stuck in the Middle”).  At the bottom is my predicted finish for the division.  See my “primer” article for any questions or clarification.  As mentioned before, if you would like to see a full write-up on your favorite team, sound off in the comments and we’d be happy to oblige.

Contenders

Chicago White Sox

Why they could win the division: Starting Rotation

Assuming Jake Peavy is 100% at some point early in the season, the Sox easily have the best rotation in the division, and possibly one of the best in all of baseball.  They don’t really have a legitimate ace or a big 1-2 punch, but they are very talented 1 through 5 and will keep the team in nearly every game.  John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson are all on the verge of breaking into the upper echelon of AL starters and Mark Buehrle will throw his usual 200 solid innings.  The question is, what will Peavy be able to bring to the table?  With the four mentioned above, it won’t need to be a lot.  If he can stay healthy and be anything close to what he was in San Diego, this is a rotation will be very good top to bottom.

Why they might not: Bullpen

Out are Bobby Jenks, JJ Putz and Scott Linebrink.  In are Jesse Crain and lefty Will Ohman.  The losses of Jenks and Putz hurt, but having Chris Sale in the pen for a full season will help to offset that loss.  Still, there are a lot of unproven parts here.  None of the current members of the pen have ever been a full-time closer.  Lefty Matt Thornton looks to be first in line for the job.  He has been one of the best setup men in baseball the past few years.  Sale and second year man Sergio Santos should slot into the setup roles front of him.  Both have electric stuff, but are also very inexperienced.  Crain will provide help, but he had a tendency to give up a lot of fly balls and US Cellular Field is one of the most homer friendly parks in the majors.

Don’t believe the hype: 3B Brent Morel

Morel looks to be the front-runner for the job at third.  He’s excellent defensively and has hit well in the minors, but look for him to struggle offensively this season if given the lion’s share of the at-bats at the hot corner.  He doesn’t have a ton of power and his plate discipline is just okay.  The Sox will be happy if he can be solid defensively and not be an automatic out on offense.  He should be a good player down the line, but this year will be a struggle.

Gordon Beckham could pass David Beckham as the most famous Beckham in the world this season.

Game on: 2B Gordon Beckham

I had Beckham tagged for a big breakout last season as well.  He came out hot and then dropped off the face of the earth.  His mechanics got very sloppy and he spent the majority of the season around the Mendoza line.  Then in the second half, after some mechanical tweaks, he caught fire again.  His July and August numbers looked much more like what everyone was expecting.  If he can keep his mechanics in check and push through the rough patches, he’s in for a big season.  Mark him down for a .300 average with 20-25 homers.

Slipping: 1B Paul Konerko

The guy was absolutely sensational at the dish last season.  His numbers were MVP worthy and he held together the offense virtually by himself for parts of the season.  He was a free-agent this winter and was brought back on a three-year, 37.5 million contract.  At 34, it’s not reasonable to expect last year’s production for the life of that contract, but a return to his previous levels would certainly hurt the Sox offense.  Between Chicago’s World Series Championship season in 2005 and this past season, Konerko has produced one excellent season and three injury-riddled ones.  As with many aging players, the key to keeping him productive is keeping him healthy.

Minnesota Twins

Why they could win the division: M&M Boys

When C Joe Mauer and 1B Justin Morneau are healthy, this is probably the hardest offensive combo to navigate in the division.  They are both excellent hitters and annual contenders for the AL MVP award.  However, the health of Morneau is in doubt after multiple concussions.  He’s still not 100% and the odds of him playing a full season at this point look to be slim.  However, Minnesota showed last year that they can win the division without him, so don’t pencil them in for second place just yet.

Why they might not: Starting Rotation

The talent is there, but there are just no sure things in this rotation.  Francisco Liriano was fantastic last season, finally rediscovering his pre-Tommy John form.  However, he’s still an injury risk with his violent mechanics.  Carl Pavano pitched very well for them last season, but he has been anything but consistent over his career.  Will he go into the tank again after getting a new contract like he after signing his last contract?  Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker have both shown considerable talent, but both have also struggled with injuries and inconsistency.  The fifth spot looks to be a battle between Nick Blackburn, who got hit all over the yard last season, and Brian Duensing.  The ability of the rotation to stay healthy and consistent will be a big key to their season.

Don’t believe the hype: SS/2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka

What will the Japanese import will bring to the table?  I honestly have no idea.  It sounds like the Twins are going to use him at second because of his weak arm, which is not good because that puts Alexi Casilla at short where he has very little experience.  Nishioka had an excellent season last year in Japan posting a .346/.423/.482 line.  However, he struggled mightily with injuries before that.  If you are expecting those numbers to translate favorably stateside, you are in for a disappointment.

Slipping: DH Jim Thome

He played absolutely out of his mind last season.  Basically, he was the reason the Twins were able to absorb the Morneau injury and still win the division.  Still, he’s 40 and he struggles again lefties.  If Morneau goes down again and the Twins have to expose Thome as a full-time player, don’t expect the results to be as favorable this time around.

Detroit Tigers

Why they could win the division: Star players

The heart of the lineup and front of the rotation are as good as any team in the division and right up there with the best in baseball.  1B Miguel Cabrera is an absolute monster.  He’s in the same class as Albert Pujols.  RF Magglio Ordonez and C/1B Victor Martinez both have very good plate discipline and solid power.  Together those guys will form an excellent 3-4-5 in the middle of the lineup.

The rotation is headlined by the electric Justin Verlander.  He throws smoke (average fastball 95 mph), has an excellent change and curve, and mixes in a slider that was very effective last season.  He’ll be followed in the rotation by Max Scherzer, who has breakout written all over him.  He struggled early last season and was eventually demoted.  However upon his return, he was absolutely brilliant.  He’s got very good velocity, a hard biting slider and improving change.  These two could be the best 1-2 punch in the division.

Why they might not: Complementary players

As good as the heart of the order and front of the rotation are, the rest of the lineup and rotation is that mediocre.  Aging veterans and low ceiling youngsters fill out the rest of the lineup around Cabrera, Martinez and Ordonez.  CF Austin Jackson might be the one exception, but I’m expecting a serious regression from him this season as his high average was the product of a lot of luck (.396 BABIP).

The rotation will be rounded out by young Rick Porcello, oft-injured Brad Penny and former reliever Phil Coke.  Porcello was rushed to the majors and has predictably struggled.  He gets a lot of grounders, but struggles to miss bats.  Penny has been solid when healthy, but that hasn’t happened very often lately.  Coke has never started in the majors and hasn’t done it period since 2008 at Double-A.

Don’t believe the hype: SP Rick Porcello

Porcello, once a much hyped prospect, was rushed to the majors and has predictably struggled.  His best pitch is a heavy two-seamer, and he showed progress with the changeup last season, but he doesn’t have a consistent breaking ball.  He gets a lot of grounders, but he just doesn’t miss enough bats as evidenced by his poor K-rate.  At this point, his upside is looking more like a middle of the rotation starter than the ace he was projected to be coming up.

Max Scherzer should play an excellent second fiddle alongside Justin Verlander.

Game on: SP Max Scherzer

This might be more of a “Quantum Leap” situation depending on how you look at Scherzer’s performance last season.  In any event, I’m seeing a big step up this year.  For being such an excellent prospect, the hype was relatively mild on Scherzer.  He really didn’t receive a ton of press until he annihilated Triple-A hitters during a 53 inning stint in 2008.  His stuff is top-notch and if he can keep the walks and homers under control, there’s a big season to be had here.

Rebuilding

Cleveland Indians

What to like: Young hitters

There’s some nice young position players here to watch.  LF Michael Brantley, part of the CC Sabathia trade, looks like he should get a full season’s worth of at-bats in leftfield this year.  He’s got good plate discipline and excellent speed, and could be a solution as leadoff hitter here eventually.   1B Matt LaPorta, another piece from the Sabathia deal, should get the majority of the at-bats at first this year.  He’s got good power, but he’s had trouble replicating his minor league numbers in the majors so far.  SS Asdrubal Cabrera and 2B Jason Donald (assuming Orlando Cabrera doesn’t steal his job) should form a solid middle infield.  However the crown jewel here is C Carlos Santana.  He’s the real deal with impact power and great plate discipline.  He should be penciled into the heart of the order for the next decade or so.

Not so much: Starting Rotation

Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco are both intriguing young arms, but other than that, there’s not really much of interest on the major league roster.  Fausto Carmona had a solid bounce back year in 2010, but he’s probably trade bait if he can keep that up through the first half of this season.  Unfortunately most of the pitching talent in the minors looks to be at least a year away.

On the way: SP Alex White

He’s right handed and doesn’t exactly possess ace stuff, but he mowed down hitters at both High-A and Double-A last season.  He might not be a #1 starter, but he should provide help for a rotation that sorely needs it.  It looks like he will start the year at Triple-A and could be up by mid-season.

Game on: C Carlos Santana

I usually temper expectations for young hitters, so you know when I really gush about one, it’s for real.  This guy has to be one of my highest rated bats in some time.  He’s got everything you look for offensively and he plays a position of very high value (catcher).  I’m thinking .290/.400/.500 this season and I don’t think that’s really a stretch.  He could be Joe Mauer with 30+ homer power in his prime.

Kansas City Royals

What to like: Farm System

This system is #1 in the league, and by a good margin.  It’s got star power at the top and excellent depth to boot.  The headliners are 3B Mike Moustakas and 1B Eric Hosmer.  Moustakas, a converted shortstop, struggled in his first season of pro ball in 2009, but rebounded in a big way in 2010.  He earned a bunch of minor league awards and made it all the way to Triple-A.  He’s got excellent power and should be up sometime this season, assuming he hits well at Triple-A.  Hosmer struggled in 2009 as well and also rebounded big in 2010.  He’s got good power and excellent plate discipline for a young player.

C Wil Myers is moving to the outfield and his bat certainly looks good enough to play there.  They also have four excellent left handed starters who should start the year at Double-A.  As stated above, the system is deep and talented.  I don’t want to hex it, but the Royals have the makings of something special here.

Not so much: The major league roster

Outside of DH/1B Billy Butler and maybe RP Joakim Soria, there are really no established players who are going to be here for the long haul.  That makes this season is all about thinning the herd and figuring out who they should keep around to play with the youngsters that are on the way.  SS Alcides Escobar and CF Lorenzo Cain, both acquired in the Zack Greinke deal, should be long-term answers at their respective positions.  Outside of those two, the Royals need to take a long look at players like Alex Gordon, Chris Getz and Kila Ka’aihue and see what they can bring to the table.

On the way: 3B Mike Moustakas

He should be the first to hit the majors.  He hits left handed and since he’s a converted shortstop, you know he’s got the range and arm for third.  He hit 36 homers last season in 118 games between Double-A and Triple-A, so the power is for real.  He’s only 22, so don’t expect him to light the world on fire right away, but if he develops properly, he could be one of the best third basemen in the league.  The upside here is very big.

Don’t believe the hype: SS Alcides Escobar

He was a big-time prospect in the Brewers system, but his two best tools are his defense and base running.  He’s not much of a power threat and he’s still developing his approach at the plate.  He’ll probably struggle at the dish again this season, but expect incremental improvement.  The key here is to know what to expect, as he’s not going to be Alex Rodriguez or even Jimmy Rollins in his prime.  Think Alexei Ramirez with less power and more steals.  He’s got great range at short and could eventually contend for Gold Gloves.

Is this the year Billy Butler puts it all together?

Quantum Leap: DH/1B Billy Butler

Yahoo! Columnist Brad Evans is repeatedly chastised for his continued obsession with Butler.  Since Butler’s days in the upper minors, Evans has hyped him incessantly and defended him regularly.  But Brad, I’m not going to be one to pile on here, because I have seen what you have seen.  Butler has a great approach at the plate.  His BB and K rates continue to get closer together and he hits for an excellent average.  He’s shown good, not great power, but one of these years some of those doubles are going to start clearing the wall.  This could be that year.  His floor is probably .300/.380/.460, but the upside is more like .320/.400/.500.

Predicted Finish

1.  Chicago White Sox
2.  Minnesota Twins
3.  Detroit Tigers
4.  Cleveland Indians
5.  Kansas City Royals

Next up: NL West

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