Friday, March 25, 2011

MLB 2011 Preview: AL Central

My MLB 2011 season preview continues with the AL Central.  This is quite the interesting division, with 3 teams battling for playoff contention, one team mismanaging tons of incredible young talent, and another team with no real direction at all (just like their football and basketball teams).  Here are the capsules for each team:

It is no secret that my most hated franchise in professional sports is the Chicago White Sox.  That's why it kills me to say that they have assembled a team that can make a deep run into the playoffs.  Owner Jerry Reinsdorf opened his wallet to keep longtime Sox firstbaseman Paul Konerko on the South Side and sign Adam Dunn to hit the ball out of the too small craphole that sits next to the Dan Ryan.  They join a lineup with the ever-improving Alexei Ramirez, the rejuvenated Alex Rios, and the healthy Carlos Quentin.  All jokes aside on the joke that is the Cell, this is a dangerous lineup that can use speed and the long ball to beat you into the ground. Dunn is a great addition to a lineup that already had a bunch of power (and Sox fans, don't talk to me about "Ozzieball." It never existed to begin with). The pitching staff is solid as well, as John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson will silently put together one of the better rotations in the league.  The embattled Bobby Jenks is gone as closer, replaced by a capable reliever in Matt Thornton and the young beanpole Chris Sale.  The Sox are a great team up and down and have a good shot to make it back to the World Series, which they won in 2005.  I can only hope that Satan's child Ozzie Guillen and GM Kenny Williams kill each other via Twitter.  Otherwise, fans of the lesser Chicago team are in for a fun season on the South Side, as long as the injury bug stays away.

1B Miguel Cabrera's most recent DUI mugshot
The Detroit Tigers blessed with the same choking power as my Chicago Cubs.  No matter how well they start a season, they always seem to blow it by September.  Their 2011 season rides on the ability of star first baseman Miguel Cabrera to stay on the field and out of legal trouble.  The best hitting first baseman this side of Albert Pujols had issues with alcohol, including an physical altercation with his wife and a DUI right before spring training.  There has been no word on possible suspensions from Bud Selig and Tigers fans are hoping that it stays that way.  If it does, Detroit is in for a nice season.  They had quite a bit of payroll to play with over the offseason and used it to sign Victor  Martinez and Brad Penny.  Martinez is an excellent addition to an underrated lineup and will provide some nice protection for Cabrera.  Austin Jackson will look to take a step forward as a leadoff hitter and base stealer, and Magglio Ordonez has been one of the most consistent BA hitters in the past decade.  The starting pitching should also be in for a good season.  The pitching has been a letdown in Motown since the Tigers were in the World Series, but this season looks to be different.  Ace Justin Verlander continues to get better, Max Scherzer and his different colored eyes should have another good season, and Rick Porcello got his act together by the end of last season.  Add in Brad Penny, converted reliever Phil Coke, and a very good bullpen and the Tigers staff will be able to keep games close.  This is a team that has the talent to make the playoffs.  They just need to get out of their own heads and just play baseball.

The Minnesota Twins are a wonderfully consistent team.  They make the playoffs year in and year out, even when everyone in the league counts them out. However, they just can't seem to get out of the first round, alot like the Oakland A's of the early 2000's.  Ron Gardenhire is a great manager who builds his team the right way - solid pitching and defense.  A good lineup doesn't hurt either.  Lead by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, the Twins can hit with any team in the AL.  Unfortunately, Morneau has had some injury trouble in the past few seasons, including a concussion he still is getting over.  Last season, Jason Kubel and Delmon Young, who finally looked like the player they traded Matt Garza for, stepped up and led the Twins into the playoffs. New second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka has come on nicely in spring and should be able to provide some power if Morneau is missing at the beginning of the season.  On the pitching side, the rotation is led by Francisco Liriano.  It was great to watch him have an excellent season in 2010 after he was riddled with injury  following an incredible rookie season.  Minnesota will look for Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey to keep eating up innings and holding down the back end of the rotation. My concern is that resigned pitcher Carl Pavano will have a disappointing season, as he pitched way above his previous level in 2010.  Joe Nathan is back in the closer's spot, and though that may not last long, Matt Capps can step in as he did last season.  While injuries are a concern for any team, they can especially kill the Twins this year.  Morneau is still battling concussion symptoms, Mauer has had back issues, and Liriano and Nathan have notorious histories with injury.  A healthy Minnesota squad could finally make it into the ALCS, but the injuries have me backing off this team.

3B prospect Mike Moustakas should find his
way into the MLB in 2011
The Kansas City Royals have been a laughing stock for quite a while now.  They have been horribly mismanaged and have not handled a number of promising prospects well.  They have traded away their talent every year at the deadline and just dealt their Cy Young pitcher Zach Greinke to the Brewers.  The good news is that all the trading is starting to show and their youth (rated #1 by Baseball America) may be ready to step forward.  Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler, and Kila Ka'aihue are ready to prove themselves in the big leagues.  Ka'aihue has been tearing up the spring leagues and has absolutely raked in the minors, making many wonder why he wasn't brought up sooner.  Moustakas is a very promising third base prospect and Butler has been solid for the past few seasons.  Pitcher Mike Montgomary is waiting in the AAA Omaha and is primed to be the team's next ace.  While all of this is so promising, 2011 will still be a tough year in KC.  The pitching is very weak after losing Greinke, Gil Meche, and Brian Bannister. The top of the rotation consists of Jeff Francis, washed up from Colorado, and Luke Hochevar, who is coming off a long DL stint after a 2010 ERA near 5.  Closer Joakim Soria will be a bright spot in a forgettable bullpen.  The Royals are in for yet another losing season, but Royals fans (are there any out there) should not dispair - there is hope for the future.

The Cleveland Indians have done an excellent job taking on the image of Cleveland sports. Just like the Browns (one trip to the playoffs since 1999) and the post-LeBron Cavs, the Tribe have succeeded in toying with the hearts of Cleveland fans.  2 pitchers who won Cy Young's with the Indians (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) are now aces on other, much more successful teams, and former catcher and fan favorite Victor Martinez has returned to the division with the Tigers to torture the Tribe. Worse, the prospects the Indians received in all those trades have not panned out as they had hoped.  As for 2011, the Indians will be giving a lot of time to developing that young talent into a team that can return to the top of the Central.  Catcher Carlos Santana should continue to improve after a good 2010, though it was shortened by injury.  CF star Grady Sizemore will hopefully be able to put in a full season, while Shin-Soo Choo also looks to come back as the Indians' best hitter.  LF Matt LaPorta, prize of the Sabathia trade, and Michael Brantley will be given every opportunity to finally fulfill the promise they have.  Up and down starting pitcher Fausto Carmona will lead a young rotation, which does have some good young arms in Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Mitch Talbott.  Since they are my dad's favorite, I really hope that a new front office can right the ship that has allowed a ridiculous amount of great players to leave town (or traded them away).  The Indians will spend 2011 preparing for the future, but can really only hope to battle the Royals for fourth in the division.  On the bright side, the Marlins aren't a desirable destination, so no Indians will be taking their talents to South Beach.

This will be a 3 team race in 2011 and will go down to the wire, as it has done for the past few seasons.  Don't be surprised to see 2 AL Central teams playing a game 163.  As for a winner, I think the White Sox improved the most over the offseason.  The addition of Adam Dunn and the continuing development of their pitching staff will carry them into the postseason.  If they can't come through, it will probably (God-willing) end Ozzie Guillen's reign of Terror in Chicago.  The Tigers are my wildcard pick for the AL.  While many think that the wildcard team will come out of the East, I think that the Tigers have the ability to stick with any other team in the AL.  The Twins have a shot, but as I said, injuries will keep them out of the postseason.  My Pick for the AL Central: The Chicago White Sox, with the Detroit Tigers winning the AL Wildcard.

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