With just over a month before pitchers and catchers report let's examine the landscape of the American League Central.
Chicago White Sox
Let's start with the Chicago White Sox, who after assuming several bad contracts are finally paying the price. A year ago, the White Sox managed a 78-82 record. They outperformed their Pythagorean by 3 wins and can't decide whether or not to rebuild.
Outside of Paul Konerko, and Alexei Ramirez there aren't many players in the lineup that have both proven themselves in the Majors and would be desirable to other organizations . Morel and Viciedo have some upside, Pierzynski is consistent (consistently a douche bag), while Dunn and Rios have both produced, but at the moment have albatross contracts.
If Sale can make a smooth transition to the rotation, he'll provide the White Sox with a solid top three with Gavin Floyd and John Danks. Jake Peavy used to be good, and I wonder if Phillip Humber ever was. The club is without a closer and the farm system is nonexistent. At this point the best case for Chicago is to continue to walk in the twilight between the light of contention and darkness of the cellar.
The Minnesota Twins, for a moment forgot what kind of market they were playing in. They were so close to contending and increased revenue thanks to a new publicly funded stadium allowed the club to bump payroll over the $100 million mark.
Unfortunately for the Twins their stars have been unable to stay healthy, while their pitchers have been unable to miss bats. (Of course, this could be an organizational flaw in pitching philosophy. Just because you developed Brad Radke, doesn't mean you've found a better recipe for pitcher development.) The Twins finished the year with 63 wins and actually outperformed their Pythagorean by 1 win in 2011.
Entering 2012, the Twins have lost their three best hitters in terms of OPS (Cuddyer, Kubel and Thome). They have brought in Josh Willingham, but at this point the only hope for the Twins to have a respectable season in 2012, is Mauer refinding his power, and Morneau to morph back into his pre-2011 version.
The Cleveland Indians were the surprise of the Central in 2011. The got off to a blazing start, but once again failed to reach .500. They finished the season with an 80-82 mark, and like everyone else in the division beside the Royals, outperformed their Pythagorean record, which for the Indians was 75-87.
The Indians have a good young infield and are hoping for healthy years from Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and Travis Hafner. If those three guys can stay healthy, the Indians could surprise people again. Of course that is a huge IF. Sizemore hasn't played more than 106 games since 2008, and Hafner hasn't played more than 116 since 2007.
The Indians have already made their "go for it" move when they acquired Ubaldo Jimenez for their two top pitching prospects last July. Their farm system is one of the worst in the game so there aren't a lot of bullets in the gun should they need to reload.
The Indians were on the cusp a year ago and looked like an up and coming team. At this point I wonder, if their aggression last summer, may have actually hurt their chances moving forward. For the Indians contention hopes hinge on the arm of Ubaldo Jimenez. If he can return to first half 2010 form, the trade looks great and they sped up their window. But if he continues post an ERA over 5 he did in Cleveland last summer, well that's good news for the Royals.
I can imagine that the Indians ground crew has already been told to push the limits in terms of infield grass length for the up coming season. Their starting staff is all about inducing the ground ball. I like Masterson quite a bit, but outside of him and Jimenez there isn't really anyone that scares me. This is especially true now that the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona has been arrested for a false identity. It is yet to be determined how this will affect his status in 2012.
Thanks to outstanding seasons by Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Alex Avila the Tigers were able to run away with the American League Central in 2011. They finished the season with a 95-67 record. But there is reason to believe that they shouldn't be a head and shoulders favorite for 2012. First, the Tigers not only outperformed their Pythagorean record by 6 wins in 2011, but they also played over their heads.
Justin Verlander is a dominate pitcher. But the pitching triple crown isn't a feat that is likely to be repeated in 2012. Verlander's triple crown was the first in the American League since 2006 and just the second since the turn of the century. Will he win 24 games, with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts in 2012? I don't think so. Don't get me wrong, he'll should continue to be one of the very best starters in baseball, but an ERA up around 3 is more likely than an ERA of 2.40.
It should also be mentioned that Jose Valverde's dominance should come back to Earth a bit after averaging just 2 Ks per walk (not a bad number, but not what you would expect from a supposed dominant closer). I'll also wager that Doug Fister doesn't continue to win 80% of his starts while posting a 1.79 ERA in 2012.
Of course the biggest reason for lowered expectations for the 2012 Tigers, would be the loss of Victor Martinez, who will miss all of 2012 with a torn ACL. I would have loved for this news to come out halfway through Spring Training, when the outside options were more limited, but I guess I'll accept the news now.
The Tigers still have time to fill the void via free agency. However, if they do elect to fill the void via trade they will have to do so with the 29th best farm system in the game. Not a lot of pieces to work with. The Tigers just have a couple of prospects that would be coveted by other organizations and outside of that there isn't much help in the pipeline on the way.
Kansas City Royals
I'm not going to talk to much about Kansas City here. There is too much for me to say regarding why we should be optimistic for 2012. But keep this in mind:
Final 2011 Standings
Detroit Tigers 95-67
Cleveland Indians 80-82
Chicago White Sox 79-83
Kansas City Royals 71-91
Minnesota Twins 63-99
Final 2011 Pythagorean Standings
Detroit Tigers 89-73
Kansas City Royals 78-84
Cleveland Indians 75-87
Chicago White Sox 75-87
Minnesota Twins 62-100
When you consider this the Royals don't need to make up 24 games in 2012. They need to make up 11. Just 11. Do you think the Royals have a better roster now than they do a year ago at this time? I certainly do. Do you expect the Tigers to perform as well as they did a year ago? It's possible. But after losing Martinez, I don't think anyone would be shocked if they regressed. There is blood in the water and there is reason to believe that Kansas City is in for an unforgettable summer.