Sunday, April 1, 2012

Predicting the AL Central

The days of the "Comedy Central" are back. Last year, only one team had a winning record in the division, and most of the 2011 American League Central's cast of characters returns this year. I'm genuinely stumped as to what teams will finish in places second through fifth; any order is pretty much possible. However, it's not because of the generally accepted wisdom that they're all so terrible that it's impossible to discern who's the worst; I actually find things to like about all these teams. (Maybe I'm just an optimist.) Rather, in my opinion, the battle for second place is between four teams equally matched in pitch-perfect mediocrity. On with the predictions, then!

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73; 3rd playoff seed)
To be clear: Detroit isn't that good; they're just going to look good by comparison in this division. I see plenty of flaws in the Tigers, and they should be enough to keep the squad from going toe to toe with the Yankees and other true AL greats. It starts with what has by now become a cliché: poor defense. It's not just Miguel Cabrera at third base that worries me, though; it's Prince Fielder at first and Delmon Young in the outfield. This team is sacrificing defense for offense more than any we've seen in recent history, and I think it'll show.

Another concern, believe it or not, is the offense. Detroit scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last year, but I'm still leery about OBP drains such as Ryan Raburn (.297 last year), Austin Jackson (.317), and especially Young (.302); the fact that they all seem to be Jim Leyland favorites likewise sheds doubt on how the team is run. I'm also skeptical that Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila can duplicate their excellent 2011s.

Like the offense, the pitching is good, but not great. It starts with Justin Verlander, who, don't get me wrong, is otherworldly—but there's simply no way he has another season like he did last year. Doug Fister could be—could be—a legit number-two starter, but he's had too many fits and starts to be considered reliable. Rounding out the rotation will be a handful of youngsters (including Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello) whose promise has so far been fulfilled only with ERAs in the mid-4s.

2. Chicago White Sox (77-85)
Surprised? Yeah, me too. But I just have a feeling about the consensus pick for last place in this division. They're not nearly that bad; I for one think they're a lock for at least fourth thanks to Minnesota's futility. The White Sox still went 79-83 last year—16 games better than the 2011 Twins!—which no one seems to remember. The key to Chicago's season lies in its starting rotation, which could be the best in the division. John Danks and Gavin Floyd had down years, but they're both capable of dominating and will likely produce ERAs around 3.50. Jake Peavy, of course, is a former Cy Young winner who has lately been down on his luck, but a still-excellent K/BB ratio (3.96 in 2011!) suggests he remains capable of dominating a lineup. The X factor could be young Chris Sale, virtually the White Sox' only top-shelf prospect. Based on early reports, though, he's good enough to be worth 10 lesser ones. If he can take the league by storm, the rest of the AL Central should look out.

No discussion of the White Sox finishing second would be complete without Adam Dunn, who limped his way to a .159 (not a typo) batting average in 2011. Ironically, Dunn had been Mr. Consistency previously in his career, hitting exactly 40 home runs every season from 2005 to 2008. (Then, in both 2009 and 2010, he hit exactly 38.) That remarkable steadiness makes me believe strongly that he'll be back in 2012. (Another reason to think the White Sox aren't as bad as everyone says: they won 79 games last year despite Adam Dunn sinking their offense almost singlehandedly.) The rest of the lineup is intriguing as well, including two new names in Alejandro De Aza and Cuban defector Dayán Viciedo. (For the record, I have sadly given up on Alex Ríos.)

With only two major subtractions (Mark Buehrle and Carlos Quentin) from last year's team—which, in full disclosure, I picked to win the AL Central—Chicago's fall shouldn't be too steep. However, Sox fans should keep an eye on the trade market this summer. If Kenny Williams decides to go through with his rebuilding plan after all—dealing, perhaps, Floyd or Matt Thornton—they'll find themselves in the cellar very quickly thanks to the game's worst farm system.

2. Kansas City Royals (77-85)
For a while, the Royals were the "trendy" pick to do well in 2012—then everyone started picking them for second and it stopped being trendy. As close readers know, I am actually quite high on the Royals, but I agree with the recent sentiment professed by one AL executive: "The Royals have a ton of talent and no idea how to put it together." This is a team that underachieved last year (based on its Pythagorean record, which says they should have won seven more games than they did), which could either be a sign of bad luck or bad management. With the Royals, I suspect bad management, meaning that underperformance could carry over to this season. The injuries to key players, such as young-stud catcher Salvador Pérez and closer Joakim Soria, have also made me less excited about this team than I once was.

Ultimately, what will doom this upstart Kansas City team will be its starting pitching—or lack thereof. Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sánchez, while plausible components of a playoff rotation, cannot be the leaders of one. Indeed, it's largely the same fraternity that turned in a 4.44 ERA last year. The Royals won't be truly competitive until these old faces are replaced with fresh arms—i.e., in 2013, when Aaron Crow, Mike Montgomery, and Danny Duffy could each be bursting onto the Cy Young scene.

However, the hitting could be really fun to watch; Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas should continue to develop, but count on Jeff Francoeur falling back down to earth. Alex Gordon will be an interesting test case, too; having just signed him to an extension, the Royals need him to put up gaudy stats again. Without Gordon producing, it's hard to see the Royals having a potent enough offense to offset all those runs they'll allow.

4. Cleveland Indians (75-87)
Cleveland got a lot of attention in 2011 by being a decent team for most of the year, but its Pythagorean win-loss record (75-87) reveals that the Indians didn't really deserve the hype. Like the Athletics, this is another club that just seems like a hodgepodge whose whole will fall short of the sum of its parts. It seems like for every talented young player they boast, there's another who's just filler or a former high-ceilinged prospect whom the Indians just can't let go of. For example, standing next to Asdrubal Cabrera (.273/.332/.460) on the diamond will be third baseman Jack Hannahan, a 32-year-old Oakland and Seattle castoff who played in the minors in 2010. Catcher Carlos Santana (27 home runs last year) is offset by Michael Brantley (.266/.318/.384). And while I like the Casey Kotchman signing (he may not hit .306 again, but he's always been underrated; his spectacular defense makes his typical .270 average tolerable), Shin-Soo Choo absolutely must bounce back from a lost season to make the middle of that order scary.

Indians' pitchers count three big names among their ranks—Ubaldo Jiménez, Derek Lowe, and the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona—who are actually pretty bad pitchers these days. Ironically, they should count on getting quality starts out of only one member of their staff—the relative unknown Justin Masterson. If the other three rediscover whatever it was that brought them greatness in the past, watch out. I'm not saying it will happen (and, with a fourth-place prediction, I'm actually saying "fat chance"), but a foursome of Masterson-Jiménez-Lowe-"Carmona," all at their prime, would be a formidable challenge for the Tigers. And, if nothing else, they have a solid bullpen. Too bad that matters the least when determining excellence over 162 games.

5. Minnesota Twins (67-95)
I'll be honest; I have no idea what to make of the Twins this year. I don't even think Twins fans know what to make of them—the face and tone of the franchise has changed so suddenly in the past year. Many picked Minnesota for another division title in 2011 without much thought—and then injuries swept through their clubhouse as contagiously as the bubonic plague. With the Twins returning much of the same talent this year, one is tempted to think that they could just play 2012 as a do-over of 2011. Unfortunately, it never works out that way.

The most compelling argument against the Twins putting up any kind of a fight this year is the lineup's complete lack of power. Of its projected regulars, only four Twins can be expected to achieve double-digit home run totals: Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Danny Valencia, and Josh Willingham. Morneau and Mauer, however, epitomized the 2011 Twins by continuing to be hampered by injuries that have permanently altered their careers. If they miss time again in '12 (and, at this point, you have to assume that will be the case), the Twins will trot out seven power-less sticks in every lineup. (Many of these non-home-run-hitters are also non-walk-takers, resulting in an atrocious team OBP of .306. Heck, even Valencia's power came with a .294 OBP in 2012, raising the question of whether it's even worth it.)

A decent, very Twins-esque rotation (i.e., six number-three starters with no true ace) could be seen as a saving grace. But in order to rescue an offense this anemic, it would need to be six number-one starters. Still, the Twins have won with teams similar to this one in the past. But they've lost big with similar teams too, and much more recently. Until they prove otherwise, in a division where someone has to finish last, Minnesota seems like the safest bet.

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