Happy Monday everyone. I have returned from a weekend in Wisconsin, where I stayed with some friends in Menasha (hometown of Eric Hinske), and saw some hockey at Lambeau Field. While I had no vested interest in the hockey game, other than to cheer against the Badgers (who were playing Ohio State), it was my first trip to the legendary Lambeau so it was cool to see the stadium. I was wearing my Vikings jacket, so needless to say I caught a lot of flack from drunken 'Sconnies. It was a lot of fun though.
Anyway, on to today's post, in which I thought I'd take a look at the AL Central. For the past five years, this division has generally been considered one of the weakest in baseball. When the Twins have been consistently been solid, but never spectacular, during that timespan, the rest of the crop has been spotty at best. The Tigers and Royals have switched places as the American League's worst teams, the Indians have continually fallen short of expectations, and the White Sox seemed to inevitably collapse on a yearly basis up until last season.
Now, suddenly, you take a look at the teams in this division as they enter spring training '06 and you are looking at perhaps baseball's strongest division. The AL Central isn't as star-studded as many others, but there are four legitimate playoff contenders here, and I don't think that can be said about any other division in the Majors, except for maybe the NL Central.
It starts with the White Sox, the defending World Series champions. I haven't been totally impressed with Chicago's off-season, but they haven't made themselves much worse even if the trades don't pay off. Even if Jim Thome can't stay healthy, Brian Anderson should adequately replace Aaron Rowand in the outfield, who they gave up in the deal. Even if Javier Vazquez is not effective, they have plenty of other arms capable of picking up the slack in the rotation. I don't see how the White Sox can possibly play as far over their heads again as they did last year, but they are still a solid team who will be tough to beat.
The Twins have made significant improvements this off-season. The additions of Luis Castillo and Rondell White should pump some life into an offense that was DOA last season, and it is hard not to expect some type of improvement from guys like Justin Morneau and Shannon Stewart. Plus, Torii Hunter hopefully will be healthy all season and Joe Mauer has a full season of experience under his belt. Even minor improvement on offense makes the Twins extremely dangerous, as their pitching staff is as dominant and deep as any in the Majors.
The Tigers don't seem to be getting much hype, but this to me this is a team that seems poised for a breakout. If Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez can stay healthy all year (which is of course, a relatively big "if"), they potentially have a very strong offense. Chris Shelton and Curtis Granderson emerged as solid young contributors last year, and of course veterans Dmitri Young and Pudge Rodriguez can be counted on to produce. The pitching rotation is sneaky good. The addition of crafty veteran Kenny Rogers is huge in my mind, as he could play a very important role on a staff that features some really talented young arms in Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Justin Verlander. The bullpen is questionable here, and it might be the only thing that holds this team back.
The Indians have not had a very impressive off-season in my mind. That said, I expect them to be a better team this year than they were in '05. Why? Because I can't imagine so many of their hitters coming out of the gates so dreadfully slow. Victor Martinez hit .207/.290/.329 in April last year, and .213/.268/.333 in May. Travis Hafner hit only five home runs in the first two months of the season, but hit 11 in September and was getting MVP talk as a DH. Jhonny Peralta hit .222/.294/.444 in April. The point is that all these guys are excellent players who ended up having great seasons, but they all struggled mightily out of the gate and by the time the team made a ferocious charge late in the season, it was already too late. I don't expect the team to repeat their early struggles this year; they should be a factor all year long. They downgrade a bit in the rotation by replacing Kevin Millwood and Scott Elarton with Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson, but they have a fairly strong bullpen.
Of course, the hapless Royals will almost certainly remain at the bottom of the division this year, and it seems that they are going to be there for a long time. They employed an interesting strategy in bringing in some veterans with a history of winning in the off-season, guys like Doug Mientkiewicz, Reggie Sanders, and Mark Grudzielanek. Unfortunately, none of these guys were exactly major reasons why their teams won (although Dougie's ability to catch the final out on a throw from the pitcher in the '04 World Series was truly heroic). Kansas City could post an even more wretched win tally this year than they did last year, as they are going to be getting beaten up on regularly by some pretty damn good teams.
For the first time in quite a while, the champion of the AL Central is going to deserve some serious credit this year, because it will be the team that beat out three other high quality ballclubs.
One other note: Peter Gammons posted his MLB preview article (Insider required), and it is the top story on ESPN.com's baseball page today, along with a big picture of Joe Mauer. The article is fairly Twins-heavy. Gammons polled managers, coaches and scouts and compiled a few lists of players to watch this year. Francisco Liriano was rated #2 behind Florida's Jeremy Hermida as rookies who will be "difference-makers" (Kubel also collected an honorable mention on this list). Mauer was ranked #1 of players poised to have a breakout year (although he wasn't exactly shabby last year; nothing wrong with hitting .294/.372/.411 as a 22 year-old catcher). Gammons also names the Twins as one of his six teams to watch this year.