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Baseball Nation previews the AL Central

Liam Hendricks is a pointy son of a gun, ain't he?   Photo credit
Liam Hendricks is a pointy son of a gun, ain't he? Photo credit

Here's the second part of the Baseball Nation roundtable, in which our two authors talk about every division in baseball. Part one, about the AL East, can be found here.

Rob Neyer: I'll bet there are two A.L. Central things about which we can agree ... Who's going to win, and who we can't imagine winning. Yeah?

Grant Brisbee: Agreed. I remember last year, the scuttlebutt was that the Tigers were going to win the division by 40 or 50 games, but I wasn't so sure. They had holes, some of them the size of Delmon Young. This year ... nope, they're probably going to win the division by 40 or 50 games.

And the Twins will languish at the bottom, but at least they'll be morally pure. Because as Winston Churchill once said: Strikeouts are fascist.

Rob: Heh, yes. The Twins, I think, are an interesting object lesson in the power of one competent baseball executive. They kept winning with small payrolls, and we were supposed to think they had somehow come up with an anti-sabermetric way of winning, based purely on scouting. But the minute Terry Ryan left, they stopped winning. Was it all him? Probably not. He's now been back for a spell, and they're still making odd moves. But I'm okay saying that if you don't spend money or pay attention to 21st Century baseball analysis, eventually you're going to lose. A lot.

Enough about the Twins. If they're lucky they'll finish fourth. You're right: Much more than last year, this year should be the Tigers' year. At least in their division. Because this year they open the season with Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez, and Torii Hunter. All big improvements. If I've got a quibble, it's that nearly all of their every-day players are past their primes; even Miguel Cabrera is probably going to fall off a little bit. So I don't really see a run-scoring juggernaut here. But they'll score enough, especially considering their solid rotation. In the absence of catastrophic injuries, the Tigers should win the division by at least five games, and perhaps a lot more.

Grant: Enough about the Twins? Man, now I have to delete this incredible breakdown of Liam Hendriks I was working on. Gimme a sec ...

I think the Tigers would be a much sexier pick if all of those improvements were active improvements they made over the offseason. Like, if Victor Martinez were on the Phillies, and the Tigers somehow managed to trade Delmon Young for him, or if the Anibal/Infante trade were made this January instead of last July, you would hear a lot more about how a pennant-winning team improved dramatically. It was kind of a stealth reloading. And the more I think about it, the more the Torii Hunter deal was one of my favorites of the offseason, especially considering the miserable corner-outfield defense the Tigers have had to watch lately.

Rob: Yeah. I'm not ready to say the Torii Hunter deal is brilliant, but a) he was better with the Angels than I expected, b) he represents a huge improvement for the Tigers in 2013, and c) as long as Mike Ilitch is rocking the curly rug, it seems that money will be absolutely no concern for management. So why not sign a 37-year-old outfielder who can still play?

What's more fun than writing off the Twins and anointing the Tigers is trying to figure out which club will take advantage if, against most of the odds, Detroit falters. And I'm hoping you will help me work through this one, because so far I don't have any good ideas...

Grant: I think about the Long Island Ducks more than I do about the Chicago White Sox. I don't know why. Of all 30 teams, the only one that I need a Post-It note to remember is the White Sox, so let's start there. It'll be good for me.

(The Long Island Ducks signed Ian Snell, by the way.)

In the FanGraphs starting-pitcher rankings, the White Sox had the fourth-best rotation in the AL. I'm sure that changes a bit with John Danks out to start the season, but it's a solid front five even with Axelrod filling in. Assuming they stay healthy. Which, considering that one of the top pitchers is 80 pounds, has a funky motion, and has already complained of elbow fatigue (Chris Sale), and another one is Jake Peavy (Jake Peavy), health has to be a major, major concern, especially since they're using one of the backup plans with Danks out.

Rob: Yes, and Danks's injury does ding Don Cooper's reputation, if only a little. Solid pitching staff, but gosh is that one unexciting lineup! Here's the projected nine, last names only, and stop me when you see an MVP candidate. Hell, or just an All-Star candidate ... De Aza, Keppinger, Rios, Konerko, Dunn, Viciedo, Ramirez, Flowers, Beckham.

There aren't many (any?) terrible players in there, but there aren't any great ones either. I just have a hard time getting excited about a lineup that doesn't make me want to watch a White Sox game at all.

The Royals, on the other hand ... Okay, so maybe they don't have any MVP candidates either. But Alex Gordon's better than anybody on the White Sox and the Royals do have three or four young players with All-Star potential. Even if I hadn't grown up on George Brett and Amos Otis, I'm pretty sure I would choose the Royals over the White Sox every time for my baseball pleasures this season.

Grant: I still like Alexei Ramirez a lot, and I'm sure that whatever happened to him last year was a blip, but, jeez, he's 31 now? When did that happen? And I'm the same age now as John Travolta when they shot "Pulp Fiction"? Go home time, you're drunk.

But I have the Royals over the White Sox too. As strange as it sounds, I see a template for their success in how they demolished the Cactus League. Almost all of the young hitters looked like world-beaters, and they got a couple of good performances from some starting pitchers. They didn't need all of the starting pitchers to click -- James Shields and Bruce Chen (since bounced from the rotation) were kind of bad -- but Santana was promising, Guthrie was promising ... don't know if they're contenders, but they aren't the morass of misery they've been over the past couple of decades.

Rob: Yeah, I think a winning season for the R's isn't actually a stretch at all. I remain unconvinced that trading Wil Myers for 84 wins was a good idea. But there will be some high points this year for the Royals, and they might well be relevant in August. Which will be ... different, anyway.

The Indians might be different this season, too. It was certainly different to see them signing two of the better free-agent hitters on the market last winter. I mean, who saw that coming? But it's really hard to get excited about a team that hasn't done anything at all to address its dreadful starting pitching, other than hoping and praying.

Grant: Maybe I'm wrong, but I get a Jay Bruce vibe from Wil Myers. As in, he's going to be a good player, and probably for a long time, but he'll never be that, "OHHH, MAN, HOW COULD YOU LET HIM GO" kind of name that follows an organization around for years. In Giants terms (which is the only way I can relate to the outside world) more Garry Maddox than George Foster.

It's hard to be too critical of the Indians for not spending money on Kyle Lohse, considering that they spent plenty of money to get Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. But, boy, it sure would have been swell if they were the ones to get Kyle Lohse. The Brewers were a great fit, other than the small detail of giving a first-round pick to a division rival, but the Indians were the best fit. It wouldn't be fair to criticize them, though. They spent money, even when there wasn't exactly an attendance surge from last season to justify it.

They'll miss Choo, of course, but I'm surprised by how much quality they pack into the lineup. Bourn at the top, with Santana, Swisher, and Asdrubal ... if they can get a breakout year from either Kipnis or Chisenhall, they won't need a good pitching staff to be relevant in September. They'll just need an average one. I guess the question is how close to average are they? Probably not that close.

Rob: You're right, the lineup is actually pretty good. Dare we suggest it's the second-best lineup in the division, pending an Eric Hosmer comeback? But when your Opening Day starter is Justin Masterson and things fall off quite a bit after him ... I don't really blame the Indians for spending money on outfielders, but if they don't find some starting pitchers in the next two or three years, that's a lot of money down the crapper.

My hopefully standings:

1. Tigers
2. Royals
3. Indians
4. White Sox
5. Twins

(and I have Indians ahead of White Sox because I hate the White Sox uniforms)

Grant: I'm tempted to put the Royals atop the standings just to stop the groupthink. But, of course, it has to be the Tigers. My projections:

1. Tigers
2. Indians
3. Royals
4. White Sox
5. Spiders
6. Twins

Houston is getting all the press as the team that can bust 110 losses, but I see the bottom of MLB as a three-team cluster, with the Astros, Marlins, and Twins all fighting for the #1 pick next June.

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