Nothing’s Gonna Pinch This Nerve of Mine: A Look Around the AL Central

By Editorial Staff

It is no secret that the Twins have done little to improve their team this offseason; in fact, they seem to have made it a little worse.  Alexi Casilla will probably be the starting shortstop instead of J.J. Hardy next season, and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka will likely replace Orlando Hudson at second base.   While they managed to re-sign starter Carl Pavano, they allowed relievers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch to depart as free agents, without receiving any compensatory draft picks in return. The bullpen is left with little more than “ifs”:  “if” Joe Nathan can regain his dominant form coming off of Tommy John surgery; “if” Dusty Hughes really is Craig Breslow with crisper stuff; “if” Scott Diamond can be an effective replacement for Fuentes; “if” the Twins can manage to cobble together a bunch of prospects and castoffs, they might have a decent ‘pen.  The starting rotation has several question marks of its own as well.  Will Francisco Liriano take a huge step forward and begin to pitch like the ace the rotation desperately needs?  Will Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey manage to be healthy and effective all season long?  Will a 35 year-old Pavano defy the BABIP gods and post another sub-4.00 ERA season?  The same can be said for Nick Blackburn, whose career 46.7% ground ball rate and 88.3% contact rate constantly flirt with disaster.  Then there is the big question whether Justin Morneau will be back this season, or ever, though there is some encouraging news on that front. 

And if all that weren’t enough, the Twins are talking about trading their best starting pitcher. It isn’t surprising then, that the White Sox and Tigers, who have both made big splashes in free agency, are widely considered the favorites to win the division. I am not so sure about that, though, for reasons I will explain after the jump.

While I haven’t exactly been happy with the Twins’ moves this offseason, I don’t think they are in line for the sort of disastrous season that most other fans and analysts are predicting either.  This is, after all, a team that won 94 games last year, finishing six games ahead of the second-place Sox, and that’s with relatively poor seasons from the likes of Baker, Slowey, Morneau, and Mauer.  The race will certainly be much closer this year, as both Chicago and Detroit have made huge improvements to their respective clubs, but the Twins should still be in the mix.   A lot of things will have to go wrong for the club to fall out of contention before the All-Star break:  Danny Valencia needs to come back down to earth, Nishioka and Casilla both have to have rough seasons, the rotation has to be riddled with injuries, Morneau must miss most of the season, the bullpen needs to fall apart, Jim Thome has to finally start showing his age, and so on.  It’s possible that all of those things could happen, but such a run of bad luck is pretty unlikely.  All in all, the Twins have a team that should win 90-92 games, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if they defied all expectations and won 94-96.

The White Sox: The Pale Hosers are probably the favorites to win the division, but in reality, they are relying on having almost as many things go right as the Twins will have to have go wrong.  The Sox boast a few stars in Paul Konerko, free agent signing Adam Dunn, and the underrated Alexei Ramirez, but they are an aging team without much depth on their bench and little in the way of help available in their farm system.  They need Jake Peavy to be healthy, Mark Buehrle to be as healthy and effective as ever, Carlos Quentin to regain the form that made him a first-round pick of the 2003 draft, and Chris Sale and Edwin Jackson to not take huge steps backward. They also have to hope that Jesse Crain proves to be an upgrade over Bobby Jenks, which is no guarantee given Crain’s history of shoulder problems. It isn’t unreasonable to think the Sox will win 92 games this year, but if everything breaks right for the Twins (as it has more often than not over the past seven seasons), it still might not be enough to win the division.

As for their aforementioned farm system, Chris Sale is far and away their best prospect, and he will likely spend the entire season in the major leagues. The system itself is actually in pretty dire shape, after years of poor draft selections and trades meant to help the team contend in the short term.

The Tigers: The Tigers have also been very aggressive in upgrading their roster. They ditched the disappointing Gerald Laird for All-Star Victor Martinez. They have made some upgrades in their rotation as well; dumping the horrible Jeremy Bonderman for Brad Penny, and trading Armando Galarraga for some marginal prospects. They have a solid offense, including bona fide superstars in Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and perhaps a resurgent Magglio Ordonez; as well as intriguing prospects in Austin Jackson and Ryan Raburn. Their pitching staff, lead by Justin Verlander in the rotation and Phil Coke in the bullpen, looks pretty strong, and again, they have some intriguing prospects in Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth. The Tigers probably have a stronger roster and a better chance at winning the division than the White Sox, but even so, it might not be enough to beat the feisty Twins.

Like the White Sox, though, Detroit is very much in win-now mode. Their major league roster is aging and their farm system is very thin, though it is in better shape than Chicago’s. They have some strong pitching prospects in Jacob Turner, Andy Oliver, and Drew Smyly but beyond that, there is little else to get excited about.

The Indians: The Indians, well, they could be interesting if they manage to avoid injuries. They don’t have much in terms of pitching (yet — more on that in a minute), with Fausto Carmona leading their rotation for the time being, but they do have a decent offense. Or at least they could have a decent offense if Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner stay healthy. Shin-Soo Choo is probably the most underrated player in baseball. Other than that, the Indians’ roster is pretty sad.

Cleveland has an underrated farm system, probably because they don’t have many elite hitting prospects. They are deep in pitching, though, and pitching is what Cleveland seems to need most at this point. Of course, should they wish to upgrade their offense, pitching prospects can always be flipped for hitting prospects. At any rate, it doesn’t appear that the Indians will be much of a threat in 2011. If they are very lucky, they might break the .500 mark this year; even so, they will probably still finish in fourth place.

The Royals:  The Royals have the best farm system in baseball, and certainly one of the best to come along in a decade. However, their major league roster is a bit thin at this point. They traded away their ace in Zack Greinke, and the rotation looks like it will consist of Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis, and whoever wins the spring training battles between Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro, and Sean O’Sullivan. Joakim Soria is one of the best closers in baseball, but the rest of the bullpen is questionable at best. Though they have dumped off the hopelessly inept Yuniesky Betancourt, their offense is also a bit less than impressive behind Billy Butler and perhaps Kila Ka’aihue. The Royals will very likely lose 90 games again this year, but for what should prove to be the last time.