The AL Central figures to be the least exciting division in baseball in 2012. The Tigers are clearly the favorite to win their second consecutive division title, and with the addition of Prince Fielder, they should clinch it fairly early. The Indians and Royals have some nice pieces in place for the future, but this is the Detroit’s for the taking.
1. Detroit Tigers – Don’t be surprised if Detroit ends up with the best record in baseball this year. They went 50-22 in a weak division last year, and nobody else in the AL Central really got any better, so they should end up with somewhere around the same divisional record. They have three quality arms following last year’s Cy Young winner and MVP Justin Verlander in the rotation, and closer Jose Valverde is coming off a flawless 2011 campaign where he converted all 49 of his save opportunities. Prince Fielder will hit behind Miguel Cabrera, making this the best 3-4 hitting combo in the league. When you have the star power that the Tigers do and you mix that with guys that know their role on the team, you have yourself a World Series contender, which is exactly what the Tigers are. If Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello all perform well this year, there’s no reason this team can’t win over 100 games.
2. Cleveland Indians – The Tribe are coming off an 80-82 season, an 11 game improvement from 2010. Look for Cleveland to continue to improve this year. An 85 win season should be considered a successful one. If Ubaldo Jimenez can return to his 2010 form, the Indians will have a nice little 1-2 punch with Justin Masterson emerging as a potential ace. The rest of the rotation includes veteran Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, and Jeanmar Gomez, but expect prospect Alex White to slide into the rotation if somebody gets injured or struggles. The offense has some nice pieces in place as well, with Carlos Santana poised for a big year and 2B Jason Kipnis looking to pick up right where he left when he was called up at the end of the season last year. It is extremely important for the Indians that OF Shin-Soo Choo stays healthy all year. If he does, expect him to have an all-star caliber year. If Cleveland can keep their key guys around, look for them to overtake the Tigers as the division’s elite in a couple years.
3. Minnesota Twins – The Twins went from division winners in 2010 to bottom dwellers in 2011, largely due to the injuries of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. The injury concerns of those two remain in 2012, so their health will be the key factor in how the season plays out in Minnesota. If one or both of them miss a significant amount of time, the Twins could be looking at another season in the cellar of the AL Central. Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, and Nick Blackburn have shown to be very inconsistent in the past few seasons, and there are some concerns in the bullpen as well. But keep in mind, the Twins have a manager that is one of, if not the best at the small ball game. Ron Gardenhire has done a phenomenal job over the last decade in getting the most out of his small market ball club. But as good as Gardenhire is, Mauer and Morneau are the most crucial part to the Twins success. If they stay healthy, they should produce at a high rate and could get their team to a .500 record. If they miss time, it’ll be another ugly season in Minnesota.
4. Kansas City Royals – There is a lot of young talent on this Royals team, with 1B Eric Hosmer being the future of the franchise, assuming the Royals don’t trade him. OF Lorenzo Cain and 3B Mike Moustakas will look to make a name for themselves this year in their first full season in the bigs. The veteran leadership needs to come from DH Billy Butler, OF Jeff Francoeur, and OF Alex Gordon, who finally broke out in 2011 after being drafted 2nd overall in the 2005 draft. Kansas City should get solid outings from Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, and Jonathan Sanchez on most nights, but the bullpen will probably get a lot of work on days when these three aren’t starting. Luckily for the Royals, they have a bullpen that should be able to keep them in games. Since I’ve been old enough to recall, the Royals have always been awful. Most likely, this year won’t be any different, but they are one of those teams that you can see being competitive in the coming years if they can keep their key players around.
5. Chicago White Sox – 2012 will be a rebuilding year for the White Sox. Veteran LHP Mark Buehrle followed Ozzie Guillen to Miami, they shipped way power hitter Carlos Quentin to San Diego, and speedster Juan Pierre signed with the Phillies in the off-season. They named former White Sox great Robin Ventura as their manager, and you have to expect some growing pains there, as this is his first gig as an MLB manager. When starters John Danks and Gavin Floyd established themselves in the rotation four years ago, there was a lot of hype that they would become a dominant 1-2 punch for years to come, but instead they’ve been nothing more than consistently mediocre. The bullpen lacks depth, falling off after closer Hector Santiago and setup man Matt Thornton. The lineup is filled with aging sluggers like Alex Rios, Paul Konerko, and AJ Pierzynski. There aren’t any noteworthy prospects in the organization either, which means the White Sox could be looking at a rebuilding period that will last longer than just 2012.