Everyone Chasing Tigers In AL Central
By Craig Gifford
The Detroit Tigers are hands-down the team to beat in the American League Central Division.
That statement is one that is next to impossible to argue and very few people, if any, have. Check out any web site or magazine making predictions for 2012 and essentially every one of them has Detroit as the top team to beat in the division. That shouldn’t be hard to understand as the Tigers won the Central by 15 games last year and improved in the offseason. They will be difficult to catch.
What is up in the air is exactly which of the other four teams, including the Cleveland Indians, has the best shot of achieving the impossible and staring down Detroit this season. The problem is Cleveland, Kansas City, Minnesota and Chicago are all in very similar situations. All four teams can go into the season with some optimism. If things break just the right way for any one of the four, it could be an extremely fun summer for the team’s fans and that club could be playing meaningful baseball well into September. By the same token, if things don’t break the right way, all four teams could be in a world of hurt and swapping veterans for future stars at the trade deadline.
The Indians, of course, were the closest of the also-rans to Detroit last summer. However, they weren’t all that close in the end, finishing second by a whopping 15 games. Still, the Tribe got out of the gates fast, were within a game of first at the All-Star break and were still breathing down the Tigers’ necks when the calendar flipped to September. A boat-load of injuries and young players hitting the late-season wall derailed Cleveland from making a true charge at the end, going out with a whimper.
This year, the Indians are more prepared for injuries, having stockpiled the minor league system with reserves who have Major League experience. If the Tribe is turning to those players, however, it will be a long season. The Indians need their big guns to stay healthy and produce like they can. The team needs Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner and Michael Brantley to stay off the disable list this year. It needs the young guys like Brantley, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis to take the next step in their progression toward being the very good big league players they all are capable of becoming.
The Indians need the rotation to fulfill its vast promise with Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin continuing to mature into front-line starters. Cleveland has to have Ubaldo Jimenez pitch more like the All-Star Game starter he was in 2010 rather than the injured, mechanical mess he was last year.
These are all break the Indians need to have go their way to compete with the Tigers. They are all realistic. On the other hand, it is realistic that the Indians don’t get some, or even any, of this to happen and would be doomed to a miserable year. That’s unlikely. Some will happen. Cleveland needs it to be closer to all for a run at a division crown.
Much like the Tribe, the Twins are hoping for a return to health and past abilities from some key players. If first baseman Justin Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer can rebound from nightmare 2011 seasons, riddled with injuries, Minnesota has arguably the best one-two punch in the game on offense. Those two alone, when right, can carry a team to contention. Same goes for starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. He seemed like a break-out star as a 22-year-old rookie in 2006 when he went 12-3, with a 2.16 ERA. He has not fulfilled his promise and saw his ERA plummet to 5.09 a year ago. If the Big Two do their thing and Liriano matures into a real ace, the Twins have the makings of a dangerous team. If those three are out or ineffective, the Twins have little hope of anything more than a repeat last place finish.
The issue for the Royals, also similar to the the Indians, is they are very young. Kansas City has a lot promising players. However, many pundits believe they are a year away from truly being a threat to Detroit’s throne. Offensively, Kansas City could be very tough. It is the pitching that may hold them back another year. If their pitching exceeds expectations, the Royals could arrive a year early and be the out-of-nowhere darlings of 2012. If their pitching continues to struggle or young players, like first baseman Eric Hosmer, don’t progress, it could be very long year for Kansas City.
The White Sox may be the biggest conundrum of all. They entered 2011 as the overwhelming favorite in the Central Division. Poor play from free agent acquisition Adam Dunn and the usually big-bopping Alex Rios hurt Chicago immensely, dropping the team below .500 and into third place. It led to the firing of Ozzie Guillen and the hiring of rookie manager Robin Ventura. That’s perhaps where the questions begin. Can the long-time White Sox third baseman be successful in his first shot managing a team at any level? From there, it’s on the field. Chicago jettisoned ace pitcher Mark Buehrle, power hitting Carlos Quentin and closer Sergio Santos. Still, if Dunn and Rios bounce back, they join mainstay Paul Konerko as a lethal middle-of-the-order combination. If starter Jake Peavy can rediscover his Cy Young form of old, there is enough pitching for the Sox to be interesting. Take those players away and Chicago looks like a team that will be in all-out rebuild mode by midseason.
Whatever happens this season in the AL Central, it will be interesting. With so many more questions than answers for every team outside of Detroit, it is hard to say which team has the leg up, if any, on being the closest to nudging the Tigers off their perch. Cleveland certainly has shot, if it get the breaks. Then again, so do three other teams.
Photo: Associated Press