2013 Major League previews: AL Central

Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012

A look at the American League Central Division clubs and projected standings for the upcoming season.

This is the second installment of a six-part in-depth view of each of Major League Baseball's six divisions for the upcoming season.

1. Detroit Tigers

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 88-74, 1st in AL Central
Pitching: 3.75 ERA ranked 9th in MLB
Hitting: .757 OPS ranked 7th in MLB

Lineup: Psyched to have added Prince Fielder last season, the Tigers' addition of the big man forced Miguel Cabrera to third base, creating the most intimidating back-to-back combo in the majors. Oh, and in case you were living under a rock for the past year, Cabrera became the first player to achieve a Triple Crown since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, leading to the AL MVP award. Not bad.

Returning to the lineup after missing a year since tearing his ACL, Victor Martinez will replace Delmon Young in the DH spot. Though it's unclear what to expect from the 34-year old Martinez coming off such a serious injury, it is hard to imagine him having a difficult time posting a better OBP and WAR than Young (.296, -0.7). Detroit also made a significant upgrade in right field by coming to terms with former Angels outfielder Torii Hunter on a two-year deal to replace Brennan Boesch, who struggled to post a .659 OPS and accumulated the lowest WAR (-1.3) among qualifying right fielders.

With few question marks in their lineup, the Tigers are set to throw out a stronger offense with a full season of second baseman Omar Infante and the continued progression of catcher Alex Avila and center fielder Austin Jackson.

Pitching: Detroit has arguably the best pitcher in the majors with Justin Verlander to lead what could be the best rotation in the American League. They are one of the few teams in baseball who have a true one through five, in that each pitcher should post numbers equivalent of what is expected in each respective slot.

Following former Cy Young Award winner Verlander in the rotation are Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello. Scherzer, whose ERA improved each month from April through September, could have his best season yet, and the club will also have a full season from both Fister and Sanchez. Porcello has performed well in Spring Training, despite all the rumors surrounding his availability. Should Porcello be traded for late-inning relief, Drew Smyly will comfortably fall in the #5 spot, giving the Tigers a lefty in the rotation.

Perhaps the only serious question looming over the Tigers is how they are going to close out games. Talented prospect Bruce Rondon is currently the favorite to initially get the chance to be the closer, but he struggled in the minors and during Spring Training to locate his slider and features a relatively flat fastball that hits the upper-90s. Frankly, I'm surprised a team with as much talent as Detroit hasn't added an established closer. Porcello is apparently out there for the taking (San Diego has been mentioned), so it's possible they will add their closer before too long. The rest of the bullpen remains fairly strong.

Outlook: Poised to repeat and build upon their success from last season, Detroit shines above every team in the Central. Only severe injuries to several key players would allow another team like the Royals or Indians to take the crown. Though the Tigers do not have a particularly strong farm system, outfielder Avisail Garcia should provide power off the bench with an appearance by third baseman/outfielder Nick Castellanos at the end of the year.

Butler
2. Kansas City Royals

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 72-90, 3rd in AL Central
Pitching: 4.30 ERA ranked 23rd in MLB
Hitting: .716 OPS ranked 15th in MLB

Lineup: Kansas City has an intriguing mix of offensive talent. Where it all fits is an enchanting question. The sure bets in the lineup are designated hitter Billy Butler and left fielder Alex Gordon. They are the only two batters who have a track record in the majors of posting batting averages hovering around .300 and on-base percentages right at .370, while both are capable of amassing home run totals around 25-30 each (though Gordon hit only 14 last year).

Other lineup pieces are a riddle wrapped up in an enigma, though they could fall in place to create a solid offense. Does third baseman Mike Moustakas improve his .296 OBP from last year while still pounding 20+ home runs? Will first baseman Eric Hosmer live up to his massive potential at the plate? Can Salvardor Perez hit over .300 again while starting 130 games behind the plate? Which Jeff Francoeur are they going to get? All are great questions. If two or three of those question marks work in their favor, the Royals potentially have an exciting lineup.

Pitching: Kansas City, like Toronto, overhauled its rotation after rotating 13 different starters that combined for a dismal 5.01 ERA in 2012. Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen, and Luke Hochevar were the only starters to make consistent appearances, none faring too well. Mendoza posted a 4.23 ERA, while Chen and Hochevar combined to cough up 60 total home runs with ERAs they would rather I not include in this article.

Coming over from Tampa Bay in a trade that drew quite a bit of skepticism based on the amount of minor league talent they surrendered (top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi), James Shields and Wade Davis will fit at the top of a newly-formed rotation. Shields has formed himself into a solid #2 starter over the past two years, while Wade Davis shined in the bullpen last year for the Rays. Both represent a definite upgrade, while being followed by Ervin Santana from the Angels, Jeremy Guthrie, and Chen or Mendoza.

Kansas City returns most of those who combined for a 3.17 ERA out of the pen last year. Greg Holland will once again close out games after replacing Jonathan Broxton and will be followed by Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow.

Outlook: One can't help but wonder why the Royals were willing to give up so much of their future in the offseason to compete for this year and not go one step further in truly fortifying their team. I'm taking a major leap by predicting the Royals to finish second. I do not, however, think they will make the playoffs.

I expect Hosmer to take a major leap forward and Perez to have an exciting season, but the Royals missed out on a chance at making another addition to their pitching staff. Granted, they probably tried and failed to get a team to take on Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar to open up a spot. The Royals will put out an improved but flawed rotation, whose starters could combine to cough up 130+ home runs. All of their projected starters combined to surrender 132 home runs last year, and that is taking into account Davis, who only threw 70 innings out of the Rays' pen.

3. Cleveland Indians

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 68-94, 4th in AL Central
Pitching: 4.78 ERA ranked 29th in MLB
Hitting: .705 OPS ranked 22nd in MLB

Lineup: After shipping right fielder Shin-soo Choo to the Reds, Cleveland went out and nabbed Ohio native Nick Swisher, DH Mark Reynolds, and waited until spring training was underway to bring along speedy center fielder Michael Bourn. Swisher and Reynolds immediately became the best power hitters for a team whose home run leader last year was catcher Carlos Santana with 18.

Cleveland's lineup offers a number of players who can get on base, led by Bourn in the leadoff spot, and Swisher, Santana, center fielder Michael Brantley, and Jason Kipnis, who should easily post on-base percentages over .340. My favorite player in the lineup is Kipnis, who I think has a chance to cement himself as one of the best second basemen in baseball. He offers speed, patience, and power, as does Cleveland's offense as a whole.

Pitching: What the Indians produce in offense they lack in pitching. Intriguingly, the Indians made several moves to fortify their lineup but did very little outside of signing Brett Myers and taking a flyer on Scott Kazmir to improve their rotation. Justin Masterson could positively improve by moving closer to his 2011 numbers (3.21 ERA in 211 innings, 11 surrendered home runs), but their rotation offers little else. Ubaldo Jimenez is a shell of his former self in a trade the Indians would probably like to have back. Myers will move back into the rotation after serving as closer for both the Astros and White Sox last year, but nobody should expect him to touch an ERA sub-4.50.

Zach McAllister is an intriguing young starter who could put up #3-type numbers but nothing more. The Indians were able to grab uber-talented prospect Trevor Bauer in their three-team trade with the D-backs and Reds. The right-hander will most likely be a significant contributor in their rotation beginning in late-May. Until then, the Indians will keep him in the minors to ensure they gain an extra year of control over his services later. To reach his full potential, Bauer will have to hone his command issues.

Cleveland offers fairly strong options in the latter innings with Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith, but the rest of the bullpen will have to step up from last season to improve as a whole.

Outlook: The Indians have the offense to compete, but their Achilles heel is and will remain starting pitching. Francisco Lindor and Dorssys Paulino represent two strong shortstop prospects in the minors, and they could use Paulino in a deal for pitching if they find themselves in the race in July since their farm system offers little in that area.

4. Chicago White Sox

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 85-77, 2nd in AL Central
Pitching: 4.02 ERA ranked 19th in MLB
Hitting: .740 OPS ranked 10th in MLB

Lineup: The biggest loss to the lineup was the departure of catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Rangers, who belted 27 home runs, more than double what he had posted the previous two seasons combined. Taking his place behind the plate will be 27-year old Tyler Flowers, who will struggle to hit for average but brings enough power to amass 15-20 home runs. Chicago boasts plenty of other power bats in first baseman Paul Konerko (26 HR in 2012), left fielder Dayan Viciedo (25), DH Adam Dunn (41), and right fielder Alex Rios (25).

The team is going to have issues getting on base at a consistent clip, however. The only two batters who project to get on base above an average of 34% are 37-year old first baseman Paul Konerko, center fielder Alejandro De Aza, and Rios, whose year-to-year production fluctuations raise some eyebrows. From 2008 through 2012, Rios' year-by-year OPS is as follows: .798, .691, .791, .613, .850. To put it simply, you don't know what to expect. The pessimists are convinced the trend for a bad season will continue this year, but there's just no telling. Painting a broad brush, the White Sox lineup is set up to live or die by the home run. It does not bode well for consistency.

Pitching: Starters Chris Sale and Jake Peavy opened up eyes all around baseball by providing a stellar 1-2 punch at the front of the rotation in 2012. Sale made a seamless transition from the bullpen to post a 3.05 ERA with 192 strikeouts through 192 innings, while walking only 51 batters. Peavy stayed healthy for the entire season for the first time in a Sox uniform and the first since 2007, as he racked up 194 strikeouts through 219 innings with a 3.37 ERA.

Both come with a caveat. After his July 15th start, Sale wasn't nearly as effective, surrendering 10 runs over the next two starts and finishing August and September with ERAs of 3.55 and 4.11. Questions surrounding Peavy's health and ability to toss another 200+ effective innings remain after he had a less effective second half in 2012. Jose Quintana, Gavin Floyd, and John Danks will round out the rotation, with the latter facing serious shoulder concerns.

Addison Reed will close out games this season and should improve upon his sometimes shaky rookie season. While Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain are fairly solid pieces, the rest of the bullpen may have a tough time staying consistent.

Outlook: With a poor farm system, the White Sox have limited resources to pull from should they face injuries to their rotation or lineup. Despite having led the Central for 117 days last season before losing 10 of their final 12 games to concede the division to the Tigers, the White Sox do not look like a team poised to sit at the top of the division in 2013.

5. Minnesota Twins

Overall W-L Record in 2012: 66-96, 5th in AL Central
Pitching: 4.77 ERA ranked 28th in MLB
Batting: .715 OPS ranked 18th in MLB

Lineup: Left fielder Josh Willingham had another quietly spectacular season in 2012 by belting 35 home runs with an .890 OPS for the Twins. That secured his spot as Minnesota's most productive hitter. Joe Mauer will also return to lead the Twins offense in hopes that they can boost the rest of the lineup above mediocrity.

It's not particularly looking up for 2013. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe flexed his arms to muscle 24 home runs last year, but it is questionable that he can improve upon his .235 batting average and continue to hit for that kind of power. First baseman Justin Morneau has not hit like he didd in his past while strugging to stay healthy the past three seasons. His health would go a long way in allowing the Twins offense to become respectable this season. Prospect Aaron Hicks (one of my personal favorites) was just named their Opening Day center fielder and has a chance to make plenty of noise this season by providing speed, power, and patience at the top of the order.

The rest of the lineup is pretty forgettable, though the Twins boast a number of impact bats in their minor league system ready to make the jump over the next few seasons.

Pitching: Move along, there is nothing to see here. All kidding aside, the Twins could not get any consistency out of their rotation last year outside of lefty Scott Diamond, who had a 3.54 ERA over 27 starts. 11 other pitchers made a start, though none reached 20.

Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey, and Kevin Correia join the Twins to form some semblance of a consistent rotation in 2013. With Diamond, a flurry of other pitchers could see time in the fifth spot, including Liam Hendricks, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, and Sam Deduno. The most intriguing fifth option is Kyle Gibson, who could establish himself sometime this season with his solid arsenal.

Minnesota's bullpen remains a question mark, as well. Glen Perkins will return to close out games, followed by Jared Burton in the set-up spot, but it may be another season to forget for the pitching staff.

Outlook: The Twins rival the St. Louis Cardinals in having a bevy of both impact pitching and hitting talent in the minor leagues. Gibson and Hicks figure to have an impact this season. Third baseman Miguel Sano, center fielder Byron Buxton, starter Alex Meyer, and right fielder Oswaldo Arcia all have All-Star potential, though they remain 2-3 years from their MLB debut.



Link to earlier article in this series:
2013 Major League previews: AL East



Pierce Jefferson can be reached via email at piercerjefferson@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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