1) Detroit Tigers – Stud offensive players in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the middle of their lineup are as good as any duo in the league. Jhonny “My Parents are Dyslexic” Peralta will try to remember which direction to hit the ball as he is a former stud prospect turned average big league shortstop. Carlos Guillen is coming back from yet another knee surgery this season. He is a quality second baseman, but the 35 year old is less than reliable health wise, so look for Will Rhymes to split time with Guillen and have Guillen play DH when Victor Martinez is behind the dish. Another guy to keep an eye out for at either short or second, and maybe this is just a personal bias considering I have played with and against the kid since I was 7, Danny Worth. He will never be a big offensive threat, but he is solid with the glove and in the AL Central and the Tigers lineup, he can certainly be a valuable late inning defensive replacement for Peralta or Guillen and could easily be a quality back end of the line up guy. At third the Tigers will run with one of the most versatile, least impressive tool wise, but fun to watch players in baseball, Brandon Inge. Doesn’t matter if he is at third, outfield, catcher, or any other position he is asked to play, guy will go through a wall to make a play. When V-Mart is not catching, which will be at least half the time, Alex Avila will fill in very nicely. In the outfield, they will roll out a very good young centerfielder in Austin Jackson, 37 year old Magglio Ordonez in right, and Brennan Boesch in left. Look for Ryan Rayburn to play quite a bit in right when Magglio is hurt, DHing, or simply benched for playing like a 37 year old in the post steroid era. Not accusing anyone, just show me a quality 37 year old in the league today. Now for the part of the Tigers that will win them the division, the starting staff. Is there anyone in the league with better stuff than Justin Verlander? Let me help you with the answer….HELL NO! Guy will saw you off inside with a 99 mph fastball on the hands, followed by a massive curve thrown at your eyes that ends up painting the low outside corner. And if you can unbuckle your knees enough to get in the box again, he can throw a change-up that will make you look fall forward trying to reach it you were so far off. Then they will roll out two excellent young pitchers in Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. If you haven’t seen these guys pitch, you need to watch them this season, just fun guys to see on the hill. Phil Coke is a quality #4 pitcher with Brad Penny a very up and down #5. Jose Valverde is a quality closer, Joel Zumaya could have been great had he not had the elbow trouble, but he is still really good. Joaquin Benoit and Daniel Schlereth are decent middle relievers and there are two quality prospects in Andrew Oliver and Jacob Turner that could make an impact on this pitching staff this season.
2) Chicago White Sox – Mark Buhrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Jake Peavy, Edwin Jackson…Ace lefty, pretty good righty, crafty lefty, Cy Young talent trying to re-establish his form, top tier prospect that has grossly underachieved but is a better 5th starter than 90% of the league. A very odd starting staff makes up the White Sox rotation, but in the right season, could be special. I see them being oh so close. They are not good enough to win the division, but based on individual talent, don’t be surprised if this staff leads the league in shut outs and draw comparisons to the 2005 World Series winning pitching staff. Matt Thorton is a really good closer, but will have competition by early May when Chris Sale is done filling in for Jake Peavy as a starter due to Peavy’s rehab coming into the season. Sale has great stuff and will be an excellent starter for the White Sox in the years to come. For Sox fans, pray he doesn’t become a closer or even a stud set up man, too often those guys fail when going back to a starter. He would be best off being a middle relief/spot starter and let Tony Pena, Jesse Crain, and Will Ohman handle the 7th and 8th. The outfield is solid but nothing spectacular. Carlos Quentin is not the stud he was a few years ago, but is a quality right fielder. I really like Alex Rios, but he struggled in the second half last year so no telling how he will come out this year. If Juan Pierre can get back to a .285-.290 batting average and steals over 60 bags again, he will be a very good leadoff man. A.J. Pierzynski has been just what you expect from him since joining the White Sox. He will have another .280/10/55 year, which doesn’t sound like much, but doing that while handling a staff as well as anyone does, is worthy of being called a quality catcher in my book. At third they will run with Brent Morel, a young decent upside guy that will fit in to the back end of the lineup, not going to scare anyone, but won’t hurt the team either. Alexei Ramirez is a decent fielding shortstop with some pop. He and Gordon Beckham create a double play combination that will wow people with their mediocrity. Neither will be anything great, but neither will hurt the team. Paul Konerko is their big hitting first baseman and Adam Dunn will do nothing but hit bombs at DH when he is not too busy striking out, which will happen 200 times this year. Mark Teahen, Omar Vizquel, and Brent Lillibridge are guys available off the bench that fit the 2011 White Sox perfectly…average. This is a team that would put you to sleep with their run of the mill squad, but when you wake up, they will be right in the hunt for the playoffs, losing the division by only a few games.
3) Minnesota Twins – A team that does it right, plenty of home grown players and a well managed payroll. Michael Cuddyer is your typical blue collar Twin. Delmon Young looks to repeat his excellent last season and look like the prospect he was drafted to be. Denard Span is a very good center fielder, but he replaced Torii Hunter who was an incredible center fielder for a decade in the twin cities. Joe Mauer is the best catcher in the league and can do it all. If Justin Morneau can keep from sliding into second base literally head first, and not get a concussion this season, he will be a big offensive threat for the Twins and make Jim Thome the excellent complimentary bat he was signed to be last year. Alexi Casilla had a good season last year, but toed the Mendoza Line the season before, so consistency is something to fear there. Valencia should hit close to .300 with mid-teen power at third, not quite the power you want to compete against the AL East, but seems to be the way of the AL Central. I would love to tell you all about Tsuyoshi Nishioka, but I live in America and the only thing I know about Japanese baseball is if you grow a sick mustache and light shoe laces on fire you can get manager’s hot daughter…Mr. Baseball was an awesome movie. Speaking of ‘staches, maybe Carl Pavano is the reason Nishioka signed in Minnesota, he grew a ‘stache, and decided to be yet another player to have good seasons, sign a massive contract with the Yankees, only suck when playing but spending most the time on the DL, then giving them the finger by having a career year the next season. All the reasons I will forever be a fan of his. He is in the middle of the staff that includes Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, and Brian Duensing. A good fifth starter battle to keep an eye on in Spring Training will be between Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey. Matt Capps will be the closer until Joe Nathan can prove he is completely healthy, and Jose Mijares is an excellent reliever.
4) Cleveland Indians – Young, talented, and inconsistent. Not a great combination in this veteran heavy, solid division. Pronk will be looking to get back into his power hitting form while Carlos Santana looks to bounce back from a gruesome injury last season, but Lou Marson is far from the worst backup catcher in baseball. Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena will make for fun young double play combination to watch. Jayson Nix might be the worst starting third baseman in the league. I personally believe this season will be Matt LaPorta’s coming out year. I see .280/30/115 from him. A huge year compared to his .221/12/41 from last year. I guess you can call him my Jose Batista this season. I know Torsten thinks it is a guy that currently has a minor league deal with the Indians in Austin Kearns. While I don’t see him having a great year, I do see him taking the left field spot from Michael Brantley and having an excellent year in the 5 hole of this lineup. Grady Sizemore will not get back to his prime years in center, but I do think he is a top 10 center fielder in the game and will be a top 5 type player this season. Last week I told you Adam Jones should be on the starting lineup of guys you haven’t seen play. Well, meet the captain, Shin-Soo Choo. If you take his career and average it out to 162 games, he averages .297/21/95. He plays a solid right field, his career WAR is 17.8. So essentially, if you put an average right fielder into right instead of him, the team will have 18 fewer wins than with him in the lineup. Kinda impressive for a guy on a team that went 69-93 last season. Then there is the military service portion of his career. Choo is a native of South Korea, where they have a requirement for all men to serve 2 years in the military before turning 30. If you are a national athlete, you only have to serve 4 weeks, but Choo failed to show several times due to the baseball schedule conflicts making him obligated to serve the full two years. If he played baseball this year and did not serve his time in the military, he would never be allowed to enter South Korea again without being arrested. His one way out, winning gold on the South Korean baseball team at the Asian games this past off season as it would allow him to forgo his military commitment free of repercussion. How did he do? Simply lead his team to gold. Now if only his pitching staff in Cleveland had golden arms they might be able to make a run. Do they have the guys to do it? Let’s see…Fausto Carmona is the clear cut #1 with Justin Masterson being an excellent #2 guy. Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot, and your best friend’s mom round out the staff. Honestly, after Masterson, the starters are a disaster. Chris Perez is a decent but not special closer, and guys like Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, and Jensen Lewis will be coming out of the pen. They can keep the bullpen ERA to the low 4.00’s, but the starting staff will rely on them entirely too much.
5) Kansas City Royals – They traded their Cy Young pitcher to the Brewers, they are holding hope their prize prospect Alex Gordon will find himself in left field, and they round out their outfield with contending team rejects like Jeff Franceour and Melky Cabrera. Mike Aviles can be an excellent player, and I think he will be this year, for a shortstop, only he will be playing third and not really impress anyone from there. But by mid-season, the Royals will be out of it, and they will bring up their next stud third base prospect Mike Moustakas and trade Aviles or Chris Getz to a contender to play second base for them. Detroit would be a great fit for either of them in my book, and they have a couple decent pitching prospects the Royals could use. Alcides Escobar will be a good fit for the Royals they received as part of the Grienke trade. Billy Butler would start at first on my players you have never heard of team, maybe I should stop talking about them and just create a post breaking down that team, with Kila Ka’aihue looking to earn the DH spot out of spring. Also keep an eye out for Eric Hosmer to break into the bigs this year and make an impact. Who is left on the staff after Gil Meche retired and Grienke was traded? Not much. Luke Hochevar is a quality pitcher, but nowhere near ace worthy. Then you run with guys like Sean O’Sullivan, Vin Mazzaro, Bruce Chen, Kyle Davies, and Jeff Francis. Haven’t heard of half those guys, don’t worry, me neither, had to look up depth charts to even see who the other starting candidates were. The starting staff will be ugly, but surprisingly the bullpen is very good. Joakim Soria is the best closer you have never….that is it, I am gonna write another blog of the “guys you have never heard of” starting lineup. Robinson Tejada, Jesse Chavez, and Blake Wood can certainly get guys out.
AL Central Offensive Player of the Year – Sin-Soo Choo – On what you will see is a cellar heavy award division; Choo will finally become the household name he deserves to be. He will push the Indians into a playoff race in early August, only for it to slip away from them and land them second to last in the division. But in those couple weeks people are actually paying attention to the Indians, Choo will be on fire, setting career highs in long balls and RBIs.
AL Central Pitcher of the Year – Justin Masterson – Buhrle and Verlander would be too easy to choose. Justin Masterson will not have a great win total as he will be playing for the Indians, but look for the baby faced kid not to straighten out his hat, but straighten out his stuff for 16 wins and an ERA under 3.00. He has excellent stuff and is learning how to be a pitcher. He can keep his team in the game, and if the Indians offense has the breakout they are due to have, and Perez shuts the door at a consistent rate, Masterson could be an out of nowhere big time pitcher.
AL Central Offensive Rookie of the Year – Eric Hosmer/Mike Moustakas – These two will be in the heart of the Royals lineup for years to come. Neither will start the season with the big club, nor will either threaten a league rookie of the year award, but both will leave you talking about them by the end of the season and make Royals fans confident in next year….until they realize next year it is still just a bunch of guys with a ton of hype that do not translate to wins..
AL Central Rookie Pitcher of the Year – Aaron Crow/Mike Montgomery/John Lamb – Yes, three pitchers from the Royals. I would not at all be shocked if the Royals end the season with 3 rookies in the starting rotation, if not more. Believe it or not, the team has a good core, it is just a matter of keeping the right guys around, and these three starters could really be a strong staff behind Hochevar.
AL Central Surprise Player of the Year – Kila Ka’aihue – He plays for the Royals, Billy Butler is the “star” of the team, Alex Gordon is the washed up prospect they still have hope for, Moustakas is the next player to come up with big time expectations. But Kila will do just that, kill a ball. Guy will hit 30 home runs and become the most feared regular DH in the AL Central.