Detroit Tigers Season Preview, Part 4; AL Central Breakdown

Welcome to the 4th and final installment of my Detroit Tigers Season Preview. Part 1 featured the starting rotation, Part 2 the bullpen, and Part 3 the offense. Part 4 will break down the American League Central with a quick team-by-team synopsis and then predict the outcome of the division complete with projected records for each of the 5 Central division tenants. Beneath that you will find my predictions for the other playoff teams in 2011 across the rest of baseball.

The American League Central has been a division owned and operated by the Minnesota Twins over the past 9 years. In that span, the Twins have won the division 6 times. The White Sox have been next best with 2 league titles while the Indians managed to nab one before free-falling into irrelevance after a stellar 2007 campaign.

The last three years have seen the Twins, ChiSox, and Tigers battle it out for long stretches deep into September/early October including two play-in games. 2011 should be no different as all 3 teams reloaded in the offseason and appear ready to do battle once again.

The AL Central saw a lot of turnover this offseason. Exiting the division include players like Zack Greinke, Kerry Wood, Matt Guerrier, Nick Punto, Bobby Jenks, Jeremy Bonderman and more. Newcomers such as Adam Dunn, Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and others will keep the Central competitive all year long.

So let’s take a dive into the AL Central pool, swim around the possibilities for each team, and dry off with my pick for the 2011 AL Central division winner.

Chicago White Sox – The White Sox are once again a trendy pick to win the Central. Adding Adam Dunn was a monster move this offseason that will give the Sox even more thump than they already had with Paul Konerko, Alex Rios, and Carlos Quentin all returning. They also dumped Bobby Jenks and essentially replaced him with Jesse Crain of the Twins, who is a solid reliever. Matt Thornton will do an excellent job as the closer. I expect a nice comeback year from Gordon Beckham at second base. For Chicago it will boil down to how their starting pitching holds up. John Danks is a workhorse and I love his game. Mark Buehrle is trending in the wrong direction and is more or less a .500 pitcher with a 4’ish ERA. Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson can be as lethal as they can be self-destructive and usually cannot be trusted for a full 162-game schedule. The big key is Jake Peavy’s health. He will start the year on the DL and likely won’t throw for Chicago until May. Can this guy actually hold up and return to elite form once he gets back in action? I have my doubts.

Bottom line: I like their offense a lot but think their starting pitching will hurt their chances to win the pennant. They’ll have some really hot streaks throughout the year but fall short in the end.

Cleveland Indians – The Indians really haven’t done much to indicate that they are an improved ballclub from a year ago at this time. Cleveland finished 69-93 in 2010 and will face a similar fate in 2011. I am a big fan of both Carlos’ as I think Carlos Carrasco and Carlos Santana will have breakout years. I also love Chris Perez in the closer’s role. I think he has found his home in that spot with Cleveland. If Cleveland wants to win they are going to need some outstanding pitching from guys that quite simply aren’t outstanding. Moreover, they will need Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore to spin the clock back 4 years and get back to being superstars. Hafner hasn’t played in more than 118 games since 2007 and Sizemore managed just 33 last year. Grady will likely start the year on the DL and from what I can see just doesn’t look like a guy who still has the goods. He looks beaten. Hafner doesn’t look much better for that matter. Shin Soo-Choo is dynamite but he can’t carry a team all by himself.

Bottom line: Sorry Cleveland, you’re still at least 3 years away from being solid.

Detroit Tigers – The Tigers look like a team that has the kind of intangibles to make a run at this thing. No one area appears to be a point of weakness. Adding Victor Martinez should do wonders for the batting order. Likewise, adding setup man Joaquin Benoit is the equivalent of having a healthy Joel Zumaya in the lineup for a full year (something Detroit hasn’t known since 2006) but even better. The bullpen will be a strength and the starting pitching should be as well. Starter Justin Verlander is the best the division has to offer. Max Scherzer has been rocked hard in spring ball and will need to recapture last season’s glory to help spearhead a staff that should get great contributions from its 3-5 starters in Rick Porcello, Phil Coke, and Brad Penny. For Detroit their success will be measured by and large by how healthy they remain throughout the season. If Brandon Inge, Magglio Ordonez, VMart, and company stay healthy and Zumaya comes back several weeks in and avoids the plague this team is going to be tough to beat.

Bottom line: If healthy, the Tigers win the division by a handful of games, if not, they finish 3rd…again.

Kansas City Royals – Now that’s what I’m talking about KC! I love watching what the Royals are doing. GM Dayton Moore has sold any and every viable piece he can find for prospects and now sits with the undisputed best minor league system in all the land. Gone are Greinke, Alberto Callaspo, Yuniesky Betancourt, David DeJesus, Jose Guillen, Scott Podsednik and others. In are immensely talented players such as Jeremy Jeffress, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain. Lurking just below the surface are minor league stars such as Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, and a whole lot more. All is not lost at the major league level as they have one of the game’s best closers in Joakim Soria and Billy Butler is a legit hitter. Once the young guys start parading their way through the beautiful confines of Kauffman Stadium the die-hard Royals fans will emerge from their “losing is a disease” induced slumber and get behind this team in a big way. Kansas City is a great baseball town that longs for yesteryear. The Royals may stink it up yet again this year but are much further along than division-mate Cleveland and will make some real noise in just a few short seasons.

Bottom line: The top 3 in this division need to get their licks in while they can because KC is coming on strong.

Minnesota Twins – The Twins deserve a lot of credit. Even if they can’t win a dang game come playoff time, they usually have the right to be there. They have been a model of consistency in a difficult division. Manager Ron Gardenhire is absolutely as good as it gets. His teams are never out of the hunt no matter how perilous things may look. The big question looming over Target Field is: how will the revamped bullpen fare? Mainstays Crain and Guerrier are gone while standout fill-ins Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes have also found new homes. The Twins always seem to find a solution but how effectively they can get the ball to Joe Nathan in the 9th will be a huge key. The good news is that Nathan is back and ready to start the year as the team’s closer fresh off of Tommy John surgery. The Twins also brought back Carl Pavano to anchor a staff that features Francisco Liriano, the unheralded Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and either Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey. They have a solid if unspectacular rotation. Justin Morneau has slowly made his way back from a lingering concussion and will lean on Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, and Japanese import Nishioka to help ease his burden offensively. I expect Morneau to be just fine and make the oversized Target Field look manageable.

Bottom line: If the bullpen holds up, they will take the Tigers down to the wire, if it doesn’t, the division is the Tigers’ to lose.

Projected Final Standings:

Rank Team Record Snippet
1. Detroit Tigers 91-71 first division crown since 1987, book it
2. Minnesota Twins 88-74 Gardenhire gets upstaged by Leyland, falls short
3. Chicago White Sox 86-76 starting pitching kills the deal but man can they hit
4. Kansas City Royals 68-94 turn ‘em loose, let the young kids play
5. Cleveland Indians 67-95 oh boy, not much to be excited about here

 

I believe the difference this year is going to be that the Tiger stay healthy enough to get it done. I suggest sand-bagging Zumaya until after the All-Star Break so Detroit can have him for the stretch run. Cabrera wins the MVP and Verlander finishes top 2 in the Cy Young while the rest of the squad carries their weight. It’s going to be a fun year in Motown.

American League Playoff Teams:

AL East Winner: Boston Red Sox

AL Central Winner: Detroit Tigers

AL West Winner: Texas Rangers

AL Wild Card: New York Yankees

National League Playoff Teams:

NL East Winner: Philadelphia Phillies

NL Central Winner: Milwaukee Brewers

NL West Winner: Colorado Rockies

NL Wild Card: Florida Marlins

For the other segments of my season preview, click the links below:

Part 1: Starting Pitching

Part 2: Bullpen

Part 3: Offense

For a more intriguing prediction piece, click here.

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