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Wally's AL Central Pond Predictions

The 2010 AL Central was anticlimactic as the Minnesota Twins were the class of the division for much of the season. They had a dip in the summer months, but rebounded to finish in first place by 6 full games. Considering it took a 163rd game to decide the divisional crown in 2008 and 2009, that 6 game lead wound up being a fairly sizable number when all was said and done.

Fast forward to 2011 and most everywhere you look, people will claim that the Central will be a three team race between the Tigers, Twins and White Sox. You can find sources that have picked each of the three teams to finish at the top, though Chicago and Minnesota tend to be picked more often than Detroit.

Adam weighed in with his predictions on Friday and picked Minnesota. Paul and Eric published their thoughts on Saturday and also picked the Twins. Nathaniel and Josh will both be publishing the predictions in the following days, but tonight it’s my turn.

If you’ve been reading this site since February then my pick to win the division will come as no surprise.

Minnesota Twins (91-71)

Much has been made of the offseason acquisitions of the Tigers and White Sox, but for me that’s not enough for either squad to reel in the Twins. The mass exodus of bullpen veterans also will not adversely impact the Twins in 2011 as the bullpen is the easiest part of a team to rebuild on the fly and it is the easiest part of a team to augment with in-season trades.

The team once again has Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau back and healthy, and their respective returns are essentially equivalent to major offseason acquisitions. Give me a choice between Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit and the returning duo of Justin and Joe and for me its the Twins in a landslide. But that’s not all the team did to upgrade their roster. Gone is the rapidly aging Orlando Hudson. He has been replaced with a much younger, more dynamic and energetic player in Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Nathan, a full season of Matt Capps and a healthy Jose Mijares should be able to equal the late inning efforts of Crain, Guerrier and Rauch from 2010. For me, the only real question in the Twins bullpen is in long relief and to that effect I am optimistic that Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Dusty Hughes can more than adequately get the job done. Jeff Manship is the one guy that gives me pause in the bullpen, but every team has that guy at the back of the pen and the Twins have some internal options at Triple-A Rochester that can be called up and step in as needed.

Speaking of stepping in, it is the Twins depth that really sets them apart in the race for the division. Every team has to deal with injuries over the course of the 162-game season and Minnesota is the only one of the three contenders that has reinforcements waiting in Triple-A for a chance to contribute at several positions.

Chicago White Sox (87-75)

The addition of Adam Dunn should help bolster the offense but without a healthy Jake Peavy this team is a long way from a playoff contender. Of course as we all know, Peavy is far from a lock to stay healthy and even if he does, he is not likely to return to his 2007 form that made him one of the game’s best starters.

The team has a massive bullpen question of it’s own. After 5 seasons of Bobby Jenks as closer, it will now rely on one of the game’s most dominant setup man (Matt Thornton) and a 2010 draft pick (Chris Sale) to protect leads at the end of games. Jenks is far from an irreplaceable commodity but the team is taking a risk moving one of its greatest assets in Thornton into an unfamiliar role. I’m a big fan of Sale long term, but having him as the team’s Plan B closer is asking a lot of a guy less than a year removed from Florida Gulf Coast University.

The White Sox are going to score plenty of runs, but I’m not sold on their ability to prevent runs with their pitching and defense. Their offensive cornerstones, Konerko and Dunn, are on the wrong side of their offensive peaks and only Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham have yet to enter their peak seasons.

Detroit Tigers (83-79)

The Tigers have one of the game’s best hitters in Miguel Cabrera and one of the best pitchers in Justin Verlander. They also have ascending players with upside in Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer. Those four players give them a strong core to build around moving forward. Victor Martinez will help provide much needed lineup protection to Cabrera and was certainly a solid addition.

However I’ve never bought into the Rick Porcello hype machine. I believe Magglio Ordonez is close to the end of his productive and illustrious career. There’s not a lot in the rest of the lineup, rotation or bullpen that makes me think they can compete with the White Sox and Twins.

Then there is the fact that they haven’t finished with a record above 0.500 in the second half of any season since 2000 when they went 41-37. If the race is tight in the final month of the 2011 season, chances are Detroit is going to falter.

Kansas City Royals (70-92)

Predicting the Royals to reach 70 wins may seem a little optimistic, but the team has significantly upgraded it’s lineup, defense and bullpen from last season when they finished 67-95. While the full brunt of the initial prospect wave won’t hit until 2012, Aaron Crow, Jeremy Jeffress and Tim Collins give the Royals an intriguing trio of young bullpen arms to support Joakim Soria who may very well be the best closer in all of baseball right now.

Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain should arrive at various points during the season to augment a lineup that will already have Kila Ka’aihue and Alcides Escobar trying to solidify themselves as everyday major leaguers.

The rotation will be an adventure but there is some potential there and reinforcements will start arriving later this season on that front as well.

Cleveland Indians (65-97)

The Indians are several steps behind the Royals rebuilding program and they lack the quantity and quality of prospects that Kansas City has stockpiled. Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana are excellent players but they need a lot of help. The Tigers, White Sox and Twins all have more financial resources at their disposal and all three look committed to using those resources to keep a quality product on the field. All that means is that Cleveland should get used to being left alone in the AL Central cellar for many years to come.

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Tags: AL Central Chicago White Sox Cleveland Indians Detroit Tigers Kansas City Royals Minnesota Twins

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