Thursday, February 14, 2013

AL Central Should Be More Competitive

                New Royals pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis

The American League Central was baseball's worst division by far last year. The Tigers are coming off back to back to back division crowns, and they were the AL champions last season. While they are the most talented team in the division, they had to rally to win it. The White Sox lead most of the year, but faded down the stretch. The Tigers went 18-12 and the White Sox stumbled to 13-18 in September. Detroit only won 88 games, the lowest amount for a division winner last season.

The Tigers should be the class of the division again. They are led by strong bats in Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and the return of Victor Martinez. They also added Torii Hunter, and still have emerging young players in Alex Avila and Austin Jackson. Their pitching staff is led by ace Justin Verlander, and they bring back Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello to form a strong rotation. Their bullpen is decent, although they lack of closer with Jose Valverde's departure. They could go with a bullpen by committee led by Phil Coke.

If the Tigers have a weakness its probably their defense, although it should be improved this year. Hunter, Jackson, and whoever plays left should form a good defensive outfield. Their infield defense is still a liability. Cabrera moved to third to make room for Fielder last season. Shorstop Jhonny Peralta is better known for his bat than glove. Jim Leyland will have to sort out his bullpen as well.

The White Sox lost AJ Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis in the offseason, and they will be more reliant on Paul Konerko, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn. Konerko is still a really good hitter, but is now 37 years old. Dunn and Rios are inconsistent from year to year. The Sox still have a strong rotation led by Jake Peavy and Chris Sale. Their bullpen was somewhat shaky last year, though. The Sox should still be competitive this year, but they will need everything to go right to pass the Tigers.

Dayton Moore made some moves to shore up the Royals pitching this offseason. He re-signed pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who was acquired midseason. He traded for former Angel Ervin Santana, who is coming off a down year. That been said, Santana had strong seasons in 2010 and 2011. The big trade was with Tampa Bay, when they acquired James Shields and Wade Davis for a package of prospects led by Wil Nieves. Nieves may turn out to be a hell of a player, but the Royals add two good pitchers in return. Shields should be the best pitcher the Royals have had since Zack Greinke was traded. Shields has won 31 games over the last two seasons.

The fifth spot will be a competition of holdovers in Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar, and Luis Mendoza. Hochevar was a first round pick for the Royals, but has yet to live up to it. This season could be his final chance in KC. The Royals also have a good young mix of arms in the bullpen. Greg Holland took over as closer after the trade of Jonathon Broxton, and saved 16 games. Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, and Aaron Crow all had solid seasons last year.

The Royals feature an everyday lineup where everyone is under 30, including veteran right fielder Jeff Francouer. DH Billy Butler made his first All Star team, hitting .313 with 29 homers and 107 RBI's. Alex Gordon followed up his breakout 2011 with another solid season. Gordon hit 51 doubles and won his second straight Gold Glove in left field. Catcher Salvador Perez missed the first half due to injury, but played really well when he came back. Shorstop Alcides Escobar hit .293 and played exceptional defense. The Royals are hoping that Lorenzo Cain and Johnny Giavotella will lay claim to center field and second base this year, after up and down seasons last year.

For the Royals to make a surprise run, they will need Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to live up to their potential. Moustakas was their first round pick in 2007 and Hosmer was their first round pick in 2008. Hosmer endured a sophomore slump after a strong rookie campaign. At age 23, he has plenty of time to turn it around. Moustakas had a solid first half, but only hit .215 in the second half. He did hit 20 home runs and play solid defense, though. If these two players live up to their potential, the Royals could have a pretty good offense.

The Indians made a lot of moves this offseason. They hired former Red Sox manager Terry Francona to be their skipper, replacing Manny Acta. Cleveland also added Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Jason Giambi, Trevor Bauer, Brett Myers, and Daisuke Matsuzaka this offseason. They did part ways with Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, and oft-injured Grady Sizemore and Roberto Hernandez(aka Fausto Carmona). At this point, Choo was the only significant loss. The Indians also bring back Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Mickey Brantley; who are all improving as players.

The Tribe's pitching was suspect last year. They will need better years from Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez if they want to compete. Jimenez has been a huge dissapointment since coming over from the Rockies in mid-2011. He lost a league high 17 games last year, and has a 5.32 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP since joining Cleveland. The Indians have several candidates to fill out the rotation, including holdovers Zack McAllister, Josh Tomlin, and newcomers Myers, Matsuzaka, and Bauer. The bullpen is in good shape with Chris Perez and Vinny Pestano, and they refer to themselves as the "Bullpen Mafia."

I do not see the Twins doing much this year, though. They still have All Star catcher Joe Mauer, but they have a weak supporting cast. I do think the Tigers will have more competition this year. The Sox should be decent, and the Indians and Royals greatly improved themselves. Cleveland was actually 44-41 before the All Star break last year, but went 24-53 after the All Star break. Their front office made some major changes, hired a proven manager, and added several talented players. The Royals also have a lot of emerging young talent. With the second wild card, it's possible one of these teams could make a run at it, and possibly make the postseason. Nobody expected the Orioles and Athletics to make the playoffs last year.

                                   New faces in Cleveland

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