2011 MLB Preview: A.L. Central

FORT MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 27: Infielder Jim Thome #25 (left) and first baseman Justin Morneau #33 of the Minnesota Twins talk just before the start of the Grapefruit League Spring Training Game against the Boston Red Sox at Hammond Stadium on February 27, 2011 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The Twins are the two-time defending champs, but after a pair of busy offseasons, both the White Sox and Tigers think they've got what it takes to step up. Is this Minnesota's year once again, or will we crown a challenger?

In my unscientific opinion, I find that the American League Central usually doesn't get a lot of respect. The Tigers made a World Series appearance in 2006, and the White Sox won it all in 2005, but still, the Central is looked at as the division that will produce an inevitable first round flop. Regardless of how you feel about the division's best team, though, there's no denying that there's usually a fun regular season race, and 2011 is again shaping up to be something special. Forget the ALDS. September in the Central won't be boring.

We start with the Kansas City Royals, who look like they'll be bringing up the rear. Everybody is aware of the talent they have in their minor league system. Nary a day goes by that some writer doesn't peg the Royals as a team to watch in 2012, and some of that talent is going to find its way to the big league roster this season. Still, there's no getting around the fact that the Major League product looks bad. That Luke Hochevar is getting the nod on Opening Day tells you pretty much everything you need to know. The Royals aren't going to score many runs, nor will they prevent them.

Sitting above the Royals but below the top three are the Cleveland Indians. The Indians have been pegged by some as an A.L. dark horse, and guys like Carlos Santana, Shin-soo Choo and a possibly healthy Grady Sizemore make you want to buy in. Looking at the rest of the roster dashes the illusion. The pitching staff of nobodies will perform better than its raw name value might suggest, but it still won't be good, and a competitive season would require nearly every talented young player to perform at or near his peak. Almost, Cleveland. Just not this year.

And now we find ourselves staring at three teams of strikingly similar levels of ability. The Detroit Tigers have their established ace in Justin Verlander. They have their troubled yet dominant MVP-caliber bat in Miguel Cabrera. Max Scherzer lends superb support in the rotation, and Victor Martinez lends superb support in the lineup. The rest of the picture is anything but impressive, though, which leaves the Tigers vulnerable. They project to have a very Tigers season. They'll perform well enough to hang in the race, but not well enough to be on the national radar. That could win them a winnable division. I just don't think that it will.

The Chicago White Sox will basically return much of last year's team, only this year's team will have Adam Dunn on it. That'll provide a substantial offensive lift to a team that last season gave many of its DH at bats to Mark Kotsay. With an improved lineup, a deep starting staff and a promising if top-heavy bullpen, the White Sox appear prepared to mount a serious charge to the top. No, they don't measure up to the Red Sox or Phillies, but they don't have to. They only have to measure up to the Twins and the Tigers, and they're in a pretty good position. Be wary, however, of regression from Paul Konerko, as first basemen usually don't sustain major offensive gains at 34.

Finally, that brings us to the Minnesota Twins. I've got the Twins as the favorites, but do understand how narrow the gap between themselves and their contenders really is. Either of the Central's top three teams could easily win this thing, given a few breaks. I just have the Twins in front because I think they very barely have the best collection of talent. The obvious first thing to mention is that they should get most of a full season from Justin Morneau, back from last year's severe concussion. Joe Mauer and Jim Thome will support him at the plate, and though the team lost its starting middle infield, I have faith in Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka to serve as capable replacements. With the same strike-throwing pitching staff that the Twins have had for what feels like a decade, they'll keep their opponents at bay. No, the Twins aren't great, but they're good, and maybe good enough.

Projected American League Central Standings

1. Minnesota Twins      87-75
2. Chicago White Sox    85-77
3. Detroit Tigers       84-78
4. Cleveland Indians    75-87
5. Kansas City Royals   66-96

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