Arguably the worst division in baseball a few seasons ago, the American League Central has grown in stature the previous two years. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005, and the Detroit Tigers rose from obscurity to win the American League pennant last year. Furthermore, both the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians look to be competitive. Despite the lackluster Kansas City Royals, this may be the best division in baseball.
The Reason for Hope: Luck was not on the Cleveland Indians’ side last year. They outscored their opponents by 88 runs, but finished with a 78-84 record. Their Pythagorean record, calculated using their runs scored and runs allowed, said they should have won 90 games. Luck will even out this year for them and vault them to the top of the division.
The Cause for Concern: Concerns abound in the rotation after ace CC Sabathia. Jake Westbrook has an excellent sinker, but he’s only a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Cliff Lee and Paul Byrd are, at best, fifth candidate options, while Jeremy Sowers and his slow-paced stuff may get knocked around once hitters adapt. The Indians will find themselves hard pressed to match up against the stronger rotations in the American League.
Prediction: First place, with 96 wins
The Reason for Hope: A lot of their pitchers took huge steps forward last year. Justin Verlander won 17 games and the Rookie of the Year Award, while Nate Robertson had an ERA better than Curt Schilling. However, it’s Jeremy Bonderman that got Tiger fans excited. He struck out 202 batters in only 214 innings and had the peripherals to bring his ERA to the low 3s rather than 4.08. All five pitchers in the rotation could easily average 15 wins.
The Cause for Concern: Young -- and in the case of Kenny Rogers, very old -- pitching has the tendency to be inconsistent. There could be excellent seasons from all five members of the rotation or a couple of them may show their age, which would be problematic in this division.
Prediction: Second place, with 92 wins
Chicago White Sox
The Reason for Hope: Their offense powered 236 home runs last year, 26 more than the vaunted New York Yankees. A big reason for their production was the four players eclipsing the 30 homer mark: Jim Thome, Joe Crede, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko. All four could combine to hit .290/130/420, which would be a tremendous middle of the lineup.
The Cause for Concern: The rotation did not have a starter whose ERA was below 4.00 last season. In a division where Johan Santana and Sabathia lead their respective staffs, that spells trouble. And it doesn’t get better from there. Mark Buerhle and Javier Vazquez both threw too many innings in their early to mid 20s, which has caused declines once they reach what should have been their primes.
Prediction: Third place, with 90 wins
The Reason for Hope: The Twins are built upon star power. Santana is the best starting pitcher in the major leagues, while Joe Nathan is a top 3 closer. Both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau ranked among the best at their respective positions last season. These talents may be enough to carry a team, even one in a strong division.
The Cause for Concern: While there is plenty of top-end talent, the Twins find themselves lacking in depth. Morneau, Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, and Torii Hunter combined for 455 runs driven in, 60% of the Twins’ 754 runs scored. There are too many guys in that lineup contributing little to nothing, like Rondell White and Nick Punto.
Prediction: Fourth place, with 88 wins
Kansas City Royals
The Reason for Hope: If you’re looking for hope at the major league level, it’s going to be difficult to find some. Mark Teahen provides one slither of optimism, as he hit above .300 the final four months of the season. And Gil Meche may prove he’s worth the $55 million contract the Royals gave him because he’s similar to pitchers Jason Jennings, Chris Carpenter, and Jason Schmidt through their Age 27 seasons.
The Cause for Concern: Many of the players that figure to be on the Royals’ 2007 roster just shouldn’t be starting on a true major league team. Angel Berroa has a claim as the worst player in the major leagues, while Emil Brown and Reggie Sanders are both role players who happen to take the field every day.
Prediction: Fifth place, with 65 wins
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