I’ve covered the NL West, AL West, and NL Central in my six-part 2012 baseball preview. Now it’s on to the most predictable division, where the only horse in 2011’s one-horse race made the division’s only major acquisition. My AL central analysis:
Most Improved Team
The Tigers may have improved their roster the most with the acquisition of Prince Fielder, and the Twins may improve their record the most just because it’s hard for a mildly competent team to lose 99 games in the AL Central two years in a row. But I’m giving this honor to the Royals, not for any specific acquisition (though I love them selling high on Melky Cabrera and taking a chance on Jonathan Sanchez), but because they’re loaded with young talent ready to explode in 2012. Felipe Paulino struck out almost a batter an inning in ’11 and could emerge as the team’s ace, Eric Hosmer hit 19 homers as a rookie and will take another step toward elite slugger status if he learns to take a walk, and Mike Moustakas might break out at third base in 2012. If Alex Gordon truly became an MVP-caliber player last year at age 27 (which is a big if), this could be the year the team crosses the .500 mark.
Least Improved Team
In my research for this preview, I scrolled through months of transaction logs and, besides manager Robin Ventura, could not find a single recognizable name traded to, or signed by, the White Sox. They added pitcher Nestor Molina, who’s not likely to break camp with the White Sox this year, in a trade for reliever Sergio Santos, and picked up prospects in dumping Carlos Quentin’s contract on the Padres. Their most fruitful move will likely be Chris Sale’s transition from the bullpen to the rotation, but the win or two that will yield will be more than offset by the year their older players will age while the rest of the division’s young players age on the other side of the curve. I see 65 wins, but even that could be optimistic.
Much ado has been made of the Tigers’ shaky infield defense when Fielder plays first and Miguel Cabrera tries to return to third (Jim Leyland may want to talk to Kevin Youkilis first), particularly when a groundball pitcher like Rick Porcello needs outs. I think this is a legitimate concern, but the Tigers will lose more wins due to regression from players like Justin Verlander, Jose Velverde, and maybe Alex Avila, who had career years in ’11. Still, all these factors working against Detroit are unlikely to hurt them enough to give the division to another team. Brennan Boesch will be healthier, they’ll have Doug Fister for a whole year, and the rest of the division seems years away from contending.
If there’s one exception to that last statement, it’s the Indians, who won 80 games in 2011 (albeit with the run differential of a 75-win team) with a lot of youth around the roster. They added usable parts in Casey Kotchman and Russ Canzler, along with Ryan Spilborghs and Dan Wheeler, without giving up much of anything. If Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenall take major steps forward, Justin Masterson repeats his 2011 success, and Ubaldo Jiminez can find any of what made him so great in 2010, this team will break .500. I just think that’s too many ifs to make them the pick. To wit:
1. Detroit, 86-76
2. Cleveland, 83-79
3. Kansas City, 79-83
4. Minnesota, 71-91
5. Chicago, 65-97