This shouldn't be taken as a full-fledged division preview. Doing that would include full depth charts, along with player projections, and probably some analysis of each team's advanced prospects and money on hand. I've read many of those over the last few months, and I'm not sure how I'd improve over any of them. Instead, looking at things from 30,000 feet, here's how I see the division:
The Clearly Strongest Team - Minnesota
We continue to hear about how the Twins win with pitching, defense, and fundamentals, only that isn't really true anymore. The Twins were 4th in the AL in runs scored last season, thanks to Mauer's sublime season and strong performances from their cadre of white corner guys. Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel combined to hit 60 homers, and Mauer and Morneau pitched in with another 58. Other than Denard Span's .392 OBP, they didn't get much from anybody else, but when your catcher turns into Albert Pujols, you can mask a lot of Gomezes and Casillas. J.J. Hardy is potentially a huge upgrade for them, and I like that they've added Thome to their slow white guys with power club. Of course, every time the Twins play the Royals, we'll still hear about that hit and run they pulled off in the 6th inning, as opposed to the three-run homer from Kubel that actually won the game.
The pitching staff is good, but in an odd way. The gap between the Twins ace, Scott Baker, and their #5 guy, Francisco Liriano (or maybe Nick Blackburn) is small. Here are the rough WAR projection estimates for their rotation: Baker (3.5), Slowey (3.0), Pavano (2.5), Blackburn (2.5), Liriano (2.0). Liriano, I suppose, has the most upside of the group, but he's also the only one who is really likely to be at or below replacement level. It must be very tranquil watching the Twins with that rotation. They are what they are, a .550 team day in and day out.
I'm as anti-Twins as anyone you'll find. I find the media presentation of them annoying (and it's only going to get worse now that they've locked up Mauer, which was the greatest sweetest loveliest most pure most holy moment in recent baseball history) and generally inaccurate. It's mostly just a personal quirk. The Twins have benefited greatly from the AL Central's general ineptitude. In 2008, outside the division, the Twins went 45-45. In 2009, they were even worse, going 41-49. That includes interleague games.
That doesn't mean that they haven't deserved to win the division or anything like that, it just means that they tend to get hyped up as something of a model franchise, which they aren't. Close, but not quite.
The Three Bears - Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland
The Twins and the Royals have been the constants of the division for most of the decade. We know the Twins will be kinda good (rarely great) and we know the Royals will be bad. The White Sox, Tigers, and Tribe? We have no idea. Just look what each team has done since 2007:
(records through 162 games only, division winners in bold)
The Tigers have been the best of the bunch overall, but have the least to show for it. The Indians have imploded twice, and traded away multiple veterans, twice. The White Sox, well, they've been typically enigmatic. All three teams live on the edge and to an extent their fates are intertwined, given how much they play one another.
The White Sox aren't that different from the Royals. They're basically what the Royals would be if Davies had turned into what we thought was possible a few years ago and if Meche was still healthy and at his earlier levels. They had a good pitching staff last season, and are likely to have one this year. They have had a number of good bullpens. Their position players, however, just haven't been very good. Their runs allowed totals from '08 and '09 are nearly identical, but in 2008 they scored 811 runs, a figure that dropped to 724 in 2009.
The Tigers are somewhat similar. The Tiger offense has been in decline for three straight years, but last season they randomly shaved 112 runs off their runs allowed tally, thanks to a huge turnaround from Verlander, the emergence of Porcello and Jackson, and slightly better defense. A year older afield, they really look like the Royals now. I hate their lineup, and they'll need huge campaigns from Scherzer and Porcello to win.
Then there's Cleveland, who is headed in an entirely different direction. In 2007, they allowed 704 runs. In 2008 that figure jumped to 761. In 2009, it bounded to 865. A good bullpen has eroded, and there's basically no one left standing in the rotation. Sure, the Indians were forced to trade away Sabathia and Lee, but they've also seen Fausto Carmona completely disappear, watched Jake Westbrook spend nearly two entire seasons on the DL, and lost the services of Paul Byrd back when he was decent. Had merely Westbrook been healthy and Carmona not turned into one of the worst starters in the game, the last two seasons could have turned out differently. Interestingly, Cleveland's runs scored figures have been pretty stable (811, 805, 773).
Goldilocks: Kansas City
The Royals are in decline. Seriously. The big league team hasn't stalled so much as its decayed. Here are the team's run differentials during the Dayton Moore Era:
The Royal offense has slowly eroded under Moore's stewardship, dipping from 706 runs scored in '07 to last season's total of 686. Meanwhile, a deep, Twins-esque pitching staff briefly appeared, but has since vanished. Despite Greinke's tremendous season, the Royals still allowed 842 runs in '09. (In '07, that total was 778.)
The last two years, the Royals have managed to finish in 4th (well, it was a tie last year) finishing above Detroit in '08. Still, they are indisputably in possession of the lowest upside roster in the division. Although Brian Bannister has been a nice surprise, the likely decline/absence of Gil Meche and the lack of a step forward from Kyle Davies has really hurt the pitching staff. Even with an improved performance from the bullpen and Luke Hochevar, a return to the modest success of the 07-08 teams is the upside. When your best case scenario involves three of managements "solutions" getting hurt, you know you have a bad team.
My Pick: Cleveland
This isn't an analytical pick. Cleveland isn't the best team in the division right now, and if you played this season a bazillion times, they'd finish in third or fourth the most. No, this is a prediction, which is totally different. A prediction and a guess. Hey, I'm a slave to the conventions of the genre. I think Minnesota is the best team in the division, but I think that Cleveland will win the division.
1) I really like their lineup. Just take a look for yourself. Unlike the rest of the division, there's not a single "WTF?" there. Most teams in the Central have two. This is a lineup that can score 800 runs easily, and might do better if a few things break their way. The defense, moreover, should be decent and might be better than that.
2) The pitching could be mediocre. A good lineup plus mediocre pitching equals "contender" in the Central folks. I'm obviously banking a lot on Westbrook coming back and having a full, solid season, as well as former Red Sox Justin Masterson taking a step forward. Bullpens are bullpens.
3) Karma. Does luck regress to the mean? The Indians disappointed big time for three out of four seasons. Was it Eric Wedge? Was it the pressure? Was it the curse of Cleveland? The 08-09 teams look worse because of the midseason trades they made, so they aren't as far off as they might seem. This is not an analytical position, but I feel like this is the year Cleveland is randomly a little better. Hey, it tends to happen to Chicago and Detroit.
4) As you noticed above, I'm something of a Twins hater. This is mostly anecdotal, but seemingly everyone hated playing at the Metrodome. It was a bizarre place to play back in the 1980s, and was even weirder to this generation of players, who came of age in the HOK retro park era. I wonder if the Twins haven't lost a real advantage, now that they don't play in a strange environment. Half their team are slow sluggers and the other half are all batting average types. How will Target Field play? You could make a case that both power and cheap batting average will take a hit, thanks to exposure to the elements and the lack of rock hard astroturf. Who knows, maybe the opposite will happen. The Twins haven't been above .500 on the road since 2006, the last time they were actually an elite team.
I am not confident at all that the Cuddyer+Kubel combination will be as good in 2010 as they were in 2009. I am not confident that Joe Mauer will be as good either. (Historically great seasons are rare.) The pitching staff looks more stable, but again, it is a mediocre group. The Twins need Nick Blackburn to maintain his level of success, and they need Liriano and Pavano to stay healthy and non-sucky. How would you feel about that on your team? Losing Joe Nathan isn't as big a deal as some have made it out to be, but it does move them closer to a bullpen meltdown scenario. You know that drill. One injury plus one randomly bad performance and suddenly we've got bigger problems.
So here's my prediction:
White Sox (top three all very close)
- Kansas City