UCB Project: American League Central

Each month the United Cardinal Bloggers try to do a network-wide blogging project. For the month of March, our project is to preview the season. So this week at Redbird Dugout and other UCB sites will be preview week. Since I’ve already done the NL Central in a whole series, I will skip that one as I head around baseball. Last night I touched on the AL East and today I will tackle the AL Central.

Last season the Minnesota Twins took the division lead in mid-August and then cruised their way to the title, only to lose to the Yankees in the playoffs. Aagain.

As far as the division has historically gone, there wasn’t much change in that either. For the last few years, the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers have had their time at the top while the Indians and the Royals find themselves as nearly perennial cellar dwellers. But will that change in 2011? We shall see.

5. Kansas City Royals (69-93)
For the Royals, that isn’t likely to change this year. However, the future is looking bright. It was an offseason that saw them deal away their ace pitcher and former Cy Young Award winner Zach Grienke to the Brewers for a haul of prospects. The Royals are very young, with second baseman Mike Aviles as the team’s oldest player and he just turned 30 a week ago.

While they have a glut of prospects in their system getting ready to come up, they aren’t quite ready for prime time this season. Though I do expect them to make some noise, I don’t see them with the pitching staff to contend regularly or even compete to be .500. With Grienke gone, they’ve lost their stopper. They added Jeff Francis to add a veteran voice to the rotation, but Francis is coming off a rough year in Colorado and historically he’s always pitched better in Coors Field than he has anywhere else.

What they need to answer is whether or not their potential success can turn into actual success over the coming seasons. That’s something that the Royals have tried and failed on before, hopefully for Royals fans they will get a shot in the arm in the coming years.

4. Cleveland Indians (76-86)
The Indians didn’t really lose anyone during the offseason, yet added some depth, so they should improve in 2011. That said, they still don’t have a team that is worthy of contending in this division. Grady Sizemore is injured, though coming back early in the season, and entering what is likely his final season in Cleveland. Carlos Santana proved himself to be a capable catcher last season and Shin-Soo Choo could be one of the most underrated players in the major leagues.

In their rotation, they have five solid (if not spectacular) starters. Fausto Carmona has the potential and has shown it, but can he be their ace? That’s always the question with young pitchers. The team does have a solid closer, though, with former Cardinals reliever Chris Perez getting the ninth inning call. So if the Indians do take a lead into the ninth inning, if Perez can repeat his success from last season they should be able to pull out the victory.

Cleveland is still working on their rebuilding, but really not. they have a lot of the pieces they need to contend, but they aren’t complete. I don’t expect them to contend for the division, not with the shape of the other teams ahead of them.

3. Detroit Tigers (87-75)
Detroit made some solid signings in the offseason as they bring in Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit. They also signed Brad Penny who, if he can stay healthy, could be a valuable addition to that starting rotation.

The Tigers are once again a very capable team and could make another playoff run this season. That will require a healthy year from Brad Penny, the successful conversion from reliever to starter for Phil Coke, and Max Scherzer finally reaching his potential. Should that be done, the Tigers will definitely challenge for the division title.

Their question mark will be how Miguel Cabrera responds. After spending the 2009-2010 offseason in rehab for alcohol abuse and staying clean through the 2010 season, Cabrera was cited for suspicion of drunk driving before spring training this year. Can Cabrera hit the Tigers to wins while battling his personal issues? It’s easier for young players, and Cabrera is reaching the point where he isn’t young in baseball years anymore.

2. Chicago White Sox (88-74)
To me, the White Sox and the Tigers are two very comparable teams. They added Adam Dunn in the offseason and his legitimate power threat in the middle of their lineup should definitely boost the offense. With Paul Konerko coming back to play again and if some of their young talent in the lineup continues to improve they can be the division champs.

Their question mark seems to be in the pitching staff. Jake Peavy is back after having shoulder surgery last season. He will need to return as a top half of the rotation starter to help out John Danks and Mark Buerhle. In the bullpen, longtime closer Bobby Jenks is gone and their setup guy, Matt Thornton, will get the chance to be the closer. New signing Jesse Crain is expected to take Thornton’s role. While Thornton put up better numbers than Jenks did last season, can Thornton take the pressure of being the closer? White Sox fans are hoping yes.

1. Minnesota Twins (90-72)
I expect it to be a very close three-team race once again for this season’s AL Central crown. The Twins were depleted in free agency as they lost a total of 7 players to free agency, most of those from the bullpen. Luckily, the major players will be back for the Twins and that is good news. Their rotation remains intact and Justin Morneau‘s return should be a boost for the offense.

I see two major questions for the Twins entering the season. Their bullpen will be juggled around between new signings and young talent. Joe Nathan makes his return after receiving Tommy John surgery last spring. How the players adjust to their new roles on the club will be key for the Twins.

Then you also have the infield defense. Going into 2011, the infield combination has not played very much together. Morneau spent most of last year on the DL after sustaining a concussion, Japanese player Tsuyoshi Nishioka is expected to play second base with Alexi Casilla at short and Danny Valencia at third. How quickly they adjust and learn each other will be important for the team’s early success.