As the Indians entered the regular season last year, I looked at the strengths/weaknesses of their competitors in the AL Central. I obviously underestimated the White Sox and overestimated the Tribe, but there were some things that were close to accurate. I wasn’t that impressed with the Tigers, going off the fact that their lineup was one of the most polarized in baseball in 2011. (Meaning that they had the largest differential between their best hitters and their worst hitters.) Even though I saw the Tigers as a “beatable” team, I couldn’t think of anyone within the AL Central that could knock them out of the top spot. They were vulnerable, but faced weak competition; as a result, they still managed to win the division by three games with an 88-74 record.
I think they’re in a much better position heading into 2013, and I think they’ve addressed many of the weak spots on their roster. Barring any major last minute injuries or additions, these are my thoughts on the Tribe’s competition in the AL Central this upcoming season.
Tigers - I mentioned the polarized lineup heading into 2012, but I also found their bullpen vulnerable and their starting rotation somewhat weak after Justin Verlander. Some of the things that were better than I expected – the performance by Max Scherzer in the starting rotation and the breakout season from Austin Jackson in center field. What really worries me about Detroit in 2013 is that they’ve made a few additions that makes them tough to beat. Don’t forget that Victor Martinez missed the entire 2012 season, and he’s expected to return in 2013. If he’s fully healthy, and able to find his groove, the trio of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Martinez will be extremely difficult for opposing pitchers. They also signed Torii Hunter to roam the outfield, who at the age of 37 is still a fairly dangerous bat in the lineup (particularly with the protection provided by Fielder, Cabrera, and Martinez). They re-signed their mid-season pickup, Anibal Sanchez, which will provide some additional stability beyond Verlander and Scherzer. Their achilles heel will likely be the back end of the bullpen. They’ve announced that they’ll go to a closer by committee, instead of using youngster Bruce Rondon. Can you ever think of a team that went with a closer by committee that made you think, “wow, this was a fantastic idea!”? Perhaps I’m biased due to my bitter disappointment over the Pittsburgh Pirates’ failures in the early ’90s, but I think that Jim Leyland often makes questionable decisions. I mean, all managers make questionable decisions to a certain extent, but he seems to make more than average. I’m not sure how he’ll handle a closer by committee situation. I expect the Tigers will either settle upon one player as soon as possible, call Rondon up from the minors if he’s performing well at Triple-A, or scramble to make a trade. Plus Jose Valverde is technically still available, even though they seem to no have interest in bringing him back. I still think they’ll be tough to beat, but this bullpen situation could definitely case them some headaches.
White Sox - I have to be honest, the White Sox really surprised me last season. I didn’t have faith that Jake Peavy would stay healthy for the entire season, and I wasn’t sure how Chris Sale would handle the jump to the starting rotation. Both were excellent last year though – Sale was 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA and a 1.135 WHIP, while Peavy was 11-12 with a 3.37 ERA and a 1.096 WHIP. Plus Peavy threw more than 200 innings for the first time since 2007. With improved numbers from Adam Dunn (he raised his OBP by about 40 points, and his OPS by about 230, and hit 30 more home runs than 2011) and solid performances from the veterans Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, and from Alexi Ramirez and Alejandro De Aza, the Sox were able to put up better offensive numbers. There’s no reason to expect that they’ll do significantly worse this season, unless there are multiple injuries. If Peavy and Sale remain healthy, they still pack a powerful 1-2 punch at the top of that rotation.
Royals - When the Royals traded prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay for James Shields and Wade Davis, a lot of pundits seemed to think it made them a contender (or even the favorite) to win the AL Central. I’m not sure how people could think that the addition of Shields and Davis suddenly transformed the Royals from a 72 win team to AL Central champs, particularly if Eric Hosmer continues to slump this season (plus they still have to contend with Detroit). Shields is a good pitcher, and will definitely help the Royals to win more games. Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie have the ability to be really good, but they can also be erratic. In many ways, I think about the Royals in the same terms that I think of the Indians. If everything falls into place, if everyone stays healthy and performs to their best abilities, they could end up doing much better in 2013. Adding a more consistent ace to the staff certainly helps, but the Indians had both CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 (or had both for at least part of the year) and they still only managed to finish at .500.
Twins - I’ve been trying to think about what to say about the Twins, but I just keep coming back to “welp, they’re a baseball team.” I had no idea who was even going to be their Opening Day starter (it’s Vance Worley) and they don’t have many awesome names behind him in the pitching staff. They have some nice offensive pieces, like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Josh Willingham, but they traded Denard Span and Ben Revere during the offseason. This winter, they also signed Kevin Correia, who ended up getting demoted to the bullpen by the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. I should also point out that they’ll be paying a 39-year-old Jamey Carroll $3.75 million this year. It’s not always going to be bleak for the Twins; they have some good young players in the minor leagues that will be in Minneapolis soon enough. Until they arrive though, they’re basically just doing the best that they can with what they’ve got. They may be a team to keep an eye on for fire sales this season – Willingham and Morneau could be used as trade chips, and I guess even Carroll and Correia may interest some teams.
When looking at the AL Central, I think Detroit will take the division. I’m not sure they’ll exactly run away with it (they certainly didn’t last year) but I think they’ll continue to stretch their lead over the other teams as they head toward September. As for the rest of the Central, it really could go several different directions. If the Indians get good performances from their starting pitching, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that they could finish in second or third. I feel confident the Twins will finish in last place, but the Indians, Royals and White Sox could feasibly all finish in second, third, or fourth. On paper, all three have a lot of positives; it’s just a matter of whether or not it will translate to success on the field.