One more day until Opening Day. If you’re like me, you’re probably having trouble concentrating on your everyday activities, knowing that the first pitch is just over 24 hours away.
As difficult as it is to wait for tomorrow, I want to get one thing out of the way today. Last year I joined the staff of Puckett’s Pond several days into the season, so I was a few days late with my AL Central predictions. Sadly, the extra time did nothing to improve the accuracy of my picks. Even though the Twins were already 1-3 by then, I still picked them to finish first place. They did not finish first place. On the plus side, I did accurately predict that the Tigers would make it to the ALCS and that two AL Central pitchers would throw no-hitters (Justin Verlander and Francisco Liriano both accomplished the feat).
So let’s see if I do any better this year.
First Place: Detroit Tigers (90-72)
Like everyone else on Planet Earth, I think the Tigers are going to win the Central. However, I do not think they will be as good as they were in 2011. Justin Verlander was amazing last year, putting up by far the best season of his career. His 2011 ERA (2.40) was more than a run lower than his career total (3.54). Not only does that underscore how incredible his season was; it also indicates that he’ll have a tough time repeating that performance. Throw in the fact that he pitched a career-high 271 innings counting the playoffs, and Verlander is due for a return to earth. He’ll still win 18 to 20 games, but he won’t carry the staff quite like he did in 2011.
Prince Fielder could be a game-changer, but so could the injury to Victor Martinez. Fortunately for Detroit, there is very little competition in this division, and they should walk away with the AL Central crown, barring significant injury troubles.
Second Place: Kansas City Royals (83-79)
The Royals have been a team on the rise for a long time. Years of stratospherically high draft picks have given them a robust core of young stars-in-the-making, but they still finish under .500 every season. This year might be the year that changes. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer made promising debuts in 2011, and they have nowhere to go but up. Billy Butler seems like a grizzled veteran on this roster, but he’s only 25, so his best years might be ahead of him too. Believe it or not, the youngsters did a pretty good job of hitting for Kansas City in 2011. They finished fifth in the league in OBP and SLG, and fourth in batting average.
If the Royals only knew how to pitch, they could be a pretty decent team. They did bring in Jonathan Sanchez to help with that aspect of their game. Sanchez had a 3.07 ERA and struck out over 200 batters in 2010. If he approaches that level in 2012, the Royals could stay in contention far longer than they are used to doing.
Third Place: Minnesota Twins (81-81)
Last year I thought the Twins were a 95 win team. Turns out they were not. I do not think the Twins are likely to win 95 games this year, no matter how rosy and optimistic I try to be. That said, this team is not nearly as horrible as all the pundits seem to think they are.
There are a lot of unknowns for the Twins this year: Scott Baker‘s elbow, Francisco Liriano actual talent level, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau‘s health, Chris Parmelee‘s ability to repeat his September performance, Jamey Carroll‘s ability to age gracefully, and pretty much everything to do with the bullpen. For the Twins to compete for a division title, nearly every one of these unknowns would have to turn out positive. That probably won’t happen. On the other hand, nearly everything would have to go wrong for them to lose 90 plus games again. I swear that can’t happen two years in a row. The more likely scenario is that about half of these things will go right and half will go wrong, which makes the Twins about a .500 team.
Realistically, if the Twins finish around .500 and in the process develop a couple of promising young players, 2012 will be a positive season for them.
Fourth Place: Cleveland Indians (78-84)
Like the Royals, the Indians are a team that always seems to be getting better. But this year might be a slight step back for Cleveland. They won’t surprise anyone like they did last year, and they have not done enough to improve themselves in order to climb into the realm of the contenders. Their bullpen is excellent, and they have some interesting young hitters led by Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana (the catcher, not the guitarist). On the mound, Derek Lowe is not going to solve their starting pitching problems. Ubaldo Jimenez might, but his performance late last year after jumping to the AL was not encouraging.
Minnesota, Cleveland, and Kansas City are probably interchangeable in the standings. All have talent, but all have serious flaws as well. They should all hover around the .500 mark this season.
Fifth Place: Chicago White Sox (65-97)
The Sox were a below average team in 2011, then they lost Mark Buehrle and Carlos Quentin, their best pitcher and second-best hitter, respectively. They also lost a lot of personality when Ozzie Guillen left for Florida – though many would argue that isn’t a bad thing. Also, as any Twins fan can attest, it’s hard to take any team seriously when they have Phil Humber in the rotation.
Clearly this is a rebuilding team. Given their notoriously weak farm system, that rebuild could take a long time.