In 2011, the Tigers won the AL Central handily by 15 games, after a hot start from the Indians made Cleveland look like the team to beat. This year, the Tigers are the clear favorite, but is any team prepared to challenge them?
Best Case Scenario: The Tigers leave the rest of the Central in the dust, the back end of their rotation solidifies behind Justin Verlander, and they sniff 100 wins before storming into the AL playoffs as the clear favorite to capture the pennant on the back of an offense that leads the AL in runs scored.
Worst Case Scenario: Verlander’s legendary durability is tested, the Fister-Porcello-Scherzer trifecta behind him doesn’t step up to pick up the slack, and defensive issues rear their head as the division surprisingly remains a competitive race until late September.
Kansas City Royals
Best Case Scenario: The team’s young talent starts to mature ahead of schedule, and Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon lead the lineup while a series of young arms jump-starts the rotation and allows the team to contend for a division title, although they’re ultimately likely to fall short to Detroit.
Worst Case Scenario: The rotation, like many of the players that constitute it, is mediocre, while the team’s youth ultimately is its downfall as the Royals return to the familiarity of the division cellar in the dog days of summer.
Storyline to watch: The team’s looking internally to replace closer Joakim Soria, who will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While Jonathan Broxton may have closing experience, Greg Holland offers more upside and simply brings better stuff to the role, so it’ll be interesting to see whether Ned Yost gives him a chance.
Best Case Scenario: Mauer and Morneau return strong and help the team stay within spitting distance of the Tigers and possibly push for a Wild Card berth.
Worst Case Scenario: 2011, pt. 2. The M&M Bros combine to play 151 games again, the defense disappoints and causes the low-strikeout rotation to get burned on balls in play, and they’re out of the picture by June.
Storyline to watch: The health of Morneau, 30, who appeared in only 69 contests in 2011, missing the lion’s share of the campaign to concussion issues.
Best Case Scenario: Ubaldo Jimenez justifies the team’s trading their two best pitching prospects to get him, and Cleveland tries to make a run reminiscent of their first couple months of 2011. Ultimately, they’ll fall short, just like 2011.
Worst Case Scenario: No Cleveland pitcher steps up and the rotation is a mess, and Manny Acta spends all year trying to find a way to effectively balance the deployment of offense-minded pieces (Chisenhall, Kipnis) and defensive players (Carroll, Hannahan) with little offensive upside. The club could finish last in the division for the first time since they were 7th in the 7-team AL East in 1991.
Chicago White Sox
Best Case Scenario: Adam Dunn and Alex Rios bounce back in a big way to add some thump to Paul Konerko in the middle of the lineup. Chris Sale converts from relief to join John Danks, a healthy Jake Peavy, and Gavin Floyd at the top of the rotation, and all three step up to counteract the loss of Mark Buehrle, perhaps the most consistent pitcher in baseball over his decade-long tenure with the Sox. Even if all that breaks right, I see them finishing third in the division, and there’s not much help on the way, as they also have the worst farm system in baseball.
Worst Case Scenario: Dunn and Rios continue to freefall while collecting a combined $26.5M from the team, while Peavy’s injury problems continue and the team eagerly awaits a $4M payout just to get him off their hands next offseason. The only excitement the standings provide is the race for the first pick in the 2013 draft, likely to feature the Sox, Orioles, A’s, Mariners, Mets, and Astros.
Storyline to watch: Top prospect Addison Reed joins the bullpen, and could immediately receive closing consideration. It’s pretty telling that the team’s best prospect is a reliever, but Reed’s got some excellent stuff and could hang on to the stopper’s role for some time.
General Division – Team
Most improved: Detroit Tigers
Least improved: Chicago White Sox
Most likely to surprise: Kansas City Royals
Most likely to disappoint: Cleveland Indians
General Division – Individual
Best Hitter: Miguel Cabrera, 3B, DET
Best Pitcher: Justin Verlander, SP, DET
Top Rookie: Addison Reed, RP, CHW
Comeback Player: Jonathan Sanchez, SP, KC
Top Newcomer: Prince Fielder, 1B, DET