It is pretty simple, the American League Central is the worst division in baseball. The Cleveland Indians were even capable of finishing as the runner-up in this division without so much as winning half of their games. Naturally, it has been since the Detroit Tigers unlikely World Series run in 2006 that the AL Central has been represented by the wild card slot, which has grown to be increasingly dominated by the east. There also may not be a division that seems like any more of a sure thing this season, with the trailing teams do very little to catch last year’s American League runner-up in the Tigers.
Not very long ago, 2005 to be exact, the Chicago White Sox were crowned World Series Champions when they defeated the Houston Astros in four games. That was a team build around its leadership and was able to surprise people in October, including defending World Series winning Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. That leadership came primarily from two places. Veteran ace left-hander Mark Buehrle, who has two career no hitters on his resume, has since left the team to join the new-look Miami Marlins in Florida. Ironically enough, star and media play-thing manager Ozzie Guillen also left the team this offseason in favor of the Marlins. Former White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura is stepping into the managerial role, and even with a recent resurgence of power hitting Paul Konerko, Chicago has little if any chance of making another dramatic playoff run.
In six of the last eight seasons, the basement of the AL Central has been filled by the Kansas City Royals. Sure, the recent past is not very attractive for the Royals, but the near future shows promise. They have spent the past few seasons recognizing that they had little hope of making the postseason and began a five year plan of sorts. In 2008 they built a lavish new ballpark that will bring up ticket billing to benefit future finances, and is going to host the 2012 MLB All-Star Game in July. Infielder Eric Hosmer is a big part of that bright future with 2012 being his sophomore season. He is aided by veterans Yuniesky Betancourt and Billy Butler, both still effective ballplayers, but with uncertain futures. While the coming seasons are looking better for the Royals, their time is not here just yet.
Dead last in this division a year ago, the Minnesota Twins seem primed for an upswing, but will not be able to cross the void into contention. The issue with Minnesota going into the 2012 season is their reliance on uncertainty. Simply, if Justin Morneua is finally able to stay healthy, if Scott Baker can develop his potential into 12 to 15 wins, and if Joe Mauer has another great rebound season like we have seen in the past, then they are an above average team that could give chase for one of the Wild Card positions. If all or any of these fail, so with them will the franchise, something that long time manager Ron Gardenhire cannot afford to let happen at this stage in his career.
Since its formation as a division in 1994, no team has won the AL Central more than the Cleveland Indians. That said, 2011 was, as 2012 promises to be, a year filled with exhilarating mediocrity. The strength and demise of the Indians is that they are a team capable of getting hot and putting together a winning streak, but those streaks can work both ways. The player to watch for in the division is a young starter for Cleveland named Justin Masterson. The 26 year old, 6’6″ righty is a wealth of potential that will amount to something someday, assuming he can stay healthy and get a fair amount of starts. The other reason to watch the Indians this season is to soak in the talent of arguably the best infielder in the American League in Asdrubal Cabrera. He is not only a sound hitter and aggressive base runner, but is the best defensive short stop the league has seen in a very long time.
News Flash: the Detroit Tigers should win the American League Central. Last year, they hovered in second and third in the division for a long time, then riding eventual league MVP Justin Verlander’s ten game winning streak into the playoffs with 95 total wins for the season. On top of Verlander, who led the league during last year’s Cy Young campaign in wins, ERA, and opponent batting average, the Tigers return Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera played arguably a bigger role in Detroit’s success in 2011 playing first base and leading the league in batting average with his .344 effort. The rest of the returning club, including playoff hero starter Doug Fister, is ready to make another ALCS run, their third under Jim Leyland. Detroit also brings in one of the biggest names in free agency this offseason. They recently signed Brewers slugger Prince Fielder to a long term contract worth a total of $214Million over nine years. Fair to say that the Tigers are primed to win, and they want to do it now. Frankly, they can and should be among this year’s early World Series favorites.