I know that may sound like an insane statement, especially when you consider Detroit (Verlander! Fielder! Cabrera!), but I’m less than impressed heading into April. So why does every AL Central team leave me shrugging and saying “meh?”
Indians – When you take away their hot start last season, the Indians were just an “okay” team for the second half of 2011. “Okay” and even poor teams can certainly make improvements (just look at Arizona’s improvement from 2010 to 2011). Even though the roster remains mostly unchanged outside of the loss of Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez, it’s still a situation that could turn out very good, or very bad. If everyone that is not named Grady Sizemore remains healthy for the majority of the season, and performs well, the Indians could easily win 85 games or so. One of the speakers at our local February SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) meeting did a statistical analysis of the Tribe and concluded they would win 85-88 games. For that to happen, you need more production from the outfield and first base, as well as an Ubaldo Jimenez that looks more like the 2010 version. A lineup that includes a healthy Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana, and Travis Hafner could be a very dangerous lineup indeed. If Jimenez can’t find his stuff, if Derek Lowe falls apart mid-year, if people figure out Josh Tomlin…there could be problems. Injuries and issues with the bullpen, one of the strengths of 2011, could also sink the Tribe’s ship. Just prior to the season, I’m usually disgustingly optimistic, or ready to give up before Opening Day. This is the first year in a long time that I honestly feel like I have no idea how the Indians will perform this year. I’m ready to toss a coin, because I feel like good luck health-wise could go a long way.
Tigers – I have to admit, when I saw that the Tigers acquired Prince Fielder all I could think was, “Oh, crap.” While the Fielder-Miguel Cabrera tandem is kind of terrifying to the fans of their opponents, in many ways Fielder just replaces and slightly improves upon the injured Victor Martinez. In 2011 Fielder hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 home runs, while Martinez’s 2011 numbers were .330/.380/.470 with 12 home runs. Fielder will provide much more power, although Comerica Park, his new home field, has much larger center field dimensions than Miller Park. (Comerica is 420 to dead center, 370 to left-center, 365 to right-center, 345 to left, and 330 to right; Miller is 400 to dead center, 371 to left-center, 374 to right-center, 344 to left and 345 to right). Last season, Fielder hit 15 home runs to right, 19 to center, and 4 to the opposite field. It’s possible that Fielder may lose a few of those center field shots. As for the rest of the offense, last year Detroit had the most polarized offense in baseball; in fact, the most polarized lineup in modern baseball history. If that holds true again, it’s a problem that a big chunk of their order is essentially a wasteland. When it comes to pitching, obviously Justin Verlander will continue to pitch like Justin Verlander. (Although he may have a slight regression since he was off the charts last season). I also think that Jose Valverde and Jhonny Peralta may be due for slight steps backward. The infield defense may be shaky as well, with Fielder at first, Cabrera at third, and Peralta at short (plus the whole left side may suffer since Peralta and Cabrera aren’t exactly known for their range). The Tigers were 95-67 last season though, so even a slight regression may still be enough to conquer a weak AL Central. One thing I’ll hold on to – when the Tigers traded for Miguel Cabrera in 2008, everyone thought it was game, set, match before the season even started. The Tigers struggled for much of the season to hit .500, proving that sometimes even the most hyped teams fall short.
Royals – For years, my family has put together a “guess the standings” contest, where we try to predict the final standings of each division. We still do this, even though our guesses have migrated to our SABR chapter’s official contest. There are many years that my dad thinks that *this* is finally the year the Royals pull it together and contend. This year, I was almost ready to make the Royals my surprise pick in the Central. While they have what could be a very formidable offense, I still don’t think their pitching is enough to sustain them throughout the season. Plus, the news that they will be without closer Joakim Soria due to his Tommy John surgery leaves a hole in their bullpen. They added Jonathan Broxton and Jonathan Sanchez in the off-season, but I still don’t think it’s quite enough to help a pitching staff that was ranked 27th in ERA and 23rd in strikeouts in 2011. (Although perhaps they’re considering using Sanchez as a weapon, to break their opponents’ fingers with wild pitches.) I don’t think they have enough pitching to put them over the top, but their potent offense could make them a dark horse for contention.
Twins – Much like the Indians, the Twins could be considered another roll-the-dice type of team. If Justin Morneau can return as a full-time healthy player, with no lingering effects from his concussion, and if Joe Mauer can remain healthy, the pair could be quite a 1-2 punch in the Twins lineup. The Twins’ weakness appears to be their pitching staff; Carl Pavano is their #1 pitcher and Opening Day starter, even though he led the majors in hits allowed in 2011. In fact, I think this is a very accurate quote about the Twins and their rotation – “Minnesota has a rotation of No. 3 and No. 4 starters. Pavano happens to be the best of them.” The Twins were 63-99 last year, so they would have to undergo a phenomenal turnaround to see contention in 2012. While they could end up much improved with a healthy and productive offense, that pitching staff will be their downfall. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable with Matt Capps as my closer either.
White Sox – I honestly have no idea what to make of the White Sox after this off-season. They lost Ozzie Guillen before the end of the 2011 season, which meant they had an opportunity for a fresh start from a managerial standpoint. Then they went with the somewhat surprising rookie manager choice of Robin Ventura. This article has a nice summary of the challenges that face the White Sox, and Ventura; it also points out that managers with no prior management or coaching experience don’t necessarily fare well in their freshman campaign. The White Sox lost Mark Buehrle to the Marlins (and Ozzie Guillen) so it’s one less veteran innings-eater in their rotation. It seemed like they were ready to head into rebuilding mode when they traded closer Sergio Santos to the Toronto Blue Jays, but a short time later they signed pitcher John Danks to a lengthy extension. Since they talked about flipping Danks for prospects initially, it got to the point that I had no idea what they were up to. They could surprise, but at this point I’m so confused as far as their long term plans go, I’m not expecting much from them this season.
A few weeks ago I participated in an AL Central preview post at the SweetSpot affiliate Cubs blog, A View from the Bleachers. There was no prior collusion between any of the bloggers; yet the predictions from the Tigers blogger and I seem to align. He predicted 93 wins from the Tigers, and said they would win the division by 5 games. I predicted 88 wins from the Indians. So even though I made that prediction from a logical, sane perspective, for some reason I’m still not anxious to stick to it. Again, this brings me back to the fact that I’m just not enamored with any of these teams at this point. I want so badly *not* to pick the Tigers to win the division. Not because I necessarily dislike them or anything, but just because I always hate to go with a team that I feel has been overhyped. When I try to think of a team that could legitimately challenge the Tigers for first though, I continue to come up empty. Therefore, I feel like I should just go full-homer fan and go with the Indians. Because while this season could easily end up like the second half of last year, or like the Indians somewhat dreadful spring training performance (which can, sometimes, show what type of season your team will have) it could also end up being surprising and good. I’m not sure why I’ve turned optimist today, but I guess I’m going to stick with it for now!