Last Spring, I wrote a capsule for every other AL Central team for the purpose of sizing up the competition. The 2011 White Sox didn't figure to run away with the AL Central unopposed, but they were serious contenders and it was important to get a handle on just how many games they'd need to win to take home the division crown.
Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, I came to the obvious conclusion; Tte Indians and Royals were re-tooling, the Tigers would give it a go, but once again the year would come down to needing to beat Minnesota.
It's not just the fear of being horribly, impossibly wrong that drives me away from doing the same this year, but a sense that the White Sox progress in 2012 should be measured as Paul Konerko described; in terms of righting their own performance before worrying about besting that of others. Before focusing on how many games the Sox need to win, it needs to be established that they can win games, and have a way to continue doing so going forward.
The Twins are in a similar position. They'd gladly go through a 75-win season that let them know they can rely on C Joe Mauer, 1B/DH Morneau, SP Liriano, and CF Denard Span going forward, or at least offered more clarity on the subject. Reading optimistic season previews from Twins bloggers reveals the two fan bases to be cruel parodies of one another, their glowing words about Liriano's improved control induce snickers until I realize I have Adam Dunn's spring training stats loaded up in another window.
The Indians and Royals are in similar boats, but boats generally regarded to be newer and of higher quality.
Cleveland has excellent young pieces in 2B Jason Kipnis and C Carlos Santana to add to RF Shin-Soo Choo but have had too much misfortune to make a serious push. 1B Matt LaPorta has pretty much busted, 3B Lonnie Chisenhall's takeover of the starting 3rd base slot isn't on schedule, SS Asdrubal Cabrera earned an extension based off of his recreation of Alex Rios' 2010 season (one big May and a lot of treading water), and an aggressive move to cash out pitching prospects for a ready-to-contribute ace brought back the mystery that is now SP Ubaldo Jimenez.
Things would be easier for them is DH Travis Hafner or CF Grady Sizemore could for a while.
Kansas City emerged as an offense to be reckoned with in 2011 (team wRC+ was 102). That was propped up by career years from OF Melky Cabrera and RF Jeff Francouer, but also only enjoyed proto-versions of future mainstays 1B Eric Hosmer and 3B Mike Moustakas. So their games should be exciting and scoring-filled, but relentlessly scoring-filled, because the rotation is in a state of wait.
The positional prospects from "the greatest farm system ever" are filing in well enough, but it'd be nicer if SP's Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, and even Jake Odorizzi were in the rotation ringing in the new order. As it is, Duffy just broke into the majors last year and still is getting a hold on being effective, Montgomery struggled plenty in AAA last season, and Odorizzi is 22--and at a normal development stage for a 22 year-old. Until then, it's the chaff of SP's Bruce Chen, Jonathan Sanchez, and Luke Hochevar. CL Joakim Soria and C Salvador Perez getting hurt won't help.
Both teams are going through periods of discerning who can be effective for them in the long-term, or simply waiting on prospects in some cases with the Royals. The failure rate, and the cost of using space-fillers doesn't kill the Indians, Royals, or even the White Sox, but it sets the ceiling for these guys in the high-80's for their win total, and the problem is that the Tigers could easily blow that away.
A huge finishing kick by Detroit carried them to a 95-win season, and lent a bit of credence to the AL Central. It hid the fact that the division was so tame that a team as woe-ridden as the 2011 Sox could hang within 5 games of the lead for nearly five months despite hardly ever being over .500.
That kick also came thanks to multiple career years--if not career years, certainly cases of maxing out potential--from CL Jose Valverde, C Alex Avila, SS Jhonny Peralta, SP Doug Fister, and SP Justin Verlander. Not that Justin Verlander isn't outstanding, just that 250 innings of 2.40 ERA probably represents the best he can do...hopefully. In an effort to counteract that falling back to Earth for a few guys, Detroit added 1B Prince Fielder. That will probably work.
The Tigers can make this division race a trivial exercise by taking the win cut-off over 90 games, and Fielder gives them the offense to do that. The rotation could mysteriously abandon them, or fielding a miserable infield defense and exposing some of their boppers to injury could trip them up, but no team is in the position to dictate the terms of the division like Detroit. There's a race if they allow it. The discussion begins when they start to flounder.
That's a pretty sad and deferential attitude to take toward the Tigers, so it's good that the season will start, and begin to completely subvert all our assumptions about the state of baseball soon.
Tags: AL Central, Alex Avila, Alex Rios, baseball, bruce chen, carlos santana, Cleveland Indians, danny duffy, denard span, Doug Fister, Francisco Liriano, grady sizemore, jake odorizzi, jason kipnis, jhonny peralta, joakim soria, Joe Mauer, jonathan sanchez, justin morneau, Justin Verlander, Kansas City Royals, lonnie chisenhall, Luke Hochevar, mike montgomery, Minnesota Twins, Paul Konerko, Prince Fielder, salvador perez, shin-soo choo, travis hafner, ubaldo jimenez, White Sox