Mar 7, 2013; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson (14) against the Atlanta Braves during a spring training game at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

AL Central Predictions

Every spring, it is always fun to make pointless and meaningless predictions on the outcome of the upcoming baseball season. Regardless of the total lack of importance in the grand scheme of things, it always fun to see how things turned. Bragging is order for those predictions that turn out correct and the mistakes are quickly ignored and forgotten.  This is the final installment in a series of six divisional predictions. Click here for a look at the NL Easthere for the NL Central, here for the NL West, here for the AL East, and the AL West is here. Let’s have some!

Feb 23, 2013; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) celebrates with first baseman Prince Fielder (28) after hitting a solo home run against the Toronto Blue Jays during the bottom of the third inning of a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

AL Central

The Central is a division with an obvious top team and another team that is clearly on the bottom. The three franchises in the middle are very close. All have warts and all have their positives. The team that has the most things go its way will probably finish in second and challenge for a wild card spot. Any of these three teams could have things go terribly awry and slide down in the standings. One of these three middle teams could be the surprise team of the 2013 season.

5) Minnesota Twins: The Twins just have too many unproven commodities at too many spots around the field to be a serious challenger. They do have three proven stars in Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Josh Willingham, but little around them. Trevor Plouffe shows some promise with his power in 2012 but the Twins need him to maintain that power and increase his contact. Minnesota will be relying on young players like Aaron Hicks in center, Chris Parmelee in right, Brian Dozier at second, and Pedro Florimon at short. That is a lot of question marks. The rotation is no better. Vance Worley, acquired from the Phillies for Ben Revere will start Opening Day but an unimpressive list of names will follow in the rotation. Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Liam Hendriks, and Cole De Vries are not names that will stir up much anxiety in opposing hitters. Scott Diamond is scheduled to return April 12th, so that will help the rotation but not enough. Glen Perkins will close and Jared Burton will be the primary set-up man. The rest of the bullpen is manned by a bevy of unknown names. It just isn’t possible for the Twins to threaten in this division, despite the star power at the top of the roster.

4) Chicago White Sox: Now for the blind dart throwing. The White Sox are here because they are relying on players who have already started on the downward swing of their careers, or are close to it, or are wildly inconsistent. Paul Konerko has had a fantastic career and should be considered an all-time great White Sox player but he is 37 years old. He saw a slight drop in production in 2012 and that trend is likely to continue this season. Adam Dunn bounced back from his awful 2011 with a normal 2012 but the fear that he can fall apart will always follow him now. Alex Ramirez is consistent but he too is starting to grow older at a demanding position so there is no promise he will continue to produce as he has in the past. Jeff Keppinger has spent most of his career as a utility-type player but now will man third on an everyday basis. Alex Rios, Alejandro De Aza, Gordon Beckham, Dayan Viciedo, and Tyler Flowers all have the potential to have terrific seasons but have not been consistently good. The top of the rotation is as good as any team’s with Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. After that, it isn’t quite so attractive. Gavin Floyd is a solid veteran but Jose Quintana and Dylan Axelrod are not proven entities yet. Chicago hopes John Danks can recover quickly from surgery and can contribute sooner rather than later. The bullpen stacks up pretty well. Addison Reed should continue to grow into the closer’s role. Matt Thornton, Nate Jones, and Matt Lindstrom make the the relief corp a deep, experienced one. If Chicago’s aging players can maintain for another season and if most of the up-and-down players are more up than down in 2013, then the White Sox should be in the thick of things down the stretch. The Sox will be competitive but do they have enough depth to carry them up standings?

Feb 22, 2013; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana (41) during a third inning at bat against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

3) Cleveland Indians: This offense has a chance to be a run producing factory. The Indians really added to the hitting side of the game heavily this past off season. Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs, and Michael Bourn will bring a nice mix of power speed to the line-up. Cleveland also features three up and coming players who are breakout candidates for this season. Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Michael Brantley are all young players with experience, yet just hitting their prime. Throw in young Lonnie Chisenhall, who has yet to produce as the Indians have hoped, and the Indians have a nice, young core from which to build. This does not even include shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who just might be the best offensive shortstop in the league not named Jose Reyes. The biggest question mark for Cleveland though, is the starting rotation. It is the starting five which could derail this train. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brett Myers, Zach McAllister, and the surprising Scott Kazmir make up a very high risk/high reward staff. Except for the young McAllister, the other four have all showed flashes of brilliance in the past but it is unknown if any can return to that level of performance. What this staff is able to do will go a long way to determining what the standings will look like in the division. The bullpen features some real talent in Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith. If the rotation can get the game to the 8th or 9th with a lead, the pen should be able to nail down the wins. Despite the fact this team has two of my  favorite names in baseball (Asdrubal and Ubaldo), they are placed right in the middle of this division. Whether they go up or down will be determined by what happens on the mound in the first five innings of every game.

Mar 5, 2013; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler (16) grounds out during the fourth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

2) Kansas City Royals: Okay, call me a homer. I don’t care. It is time for the Royals to make a dent in this division. This is the most all around talent Kansas City as assembled in decades. The rotation is completely revamped. Not a single pitcher who started at the beginning of last season in the rotation in 2012 is there now. The Royals signed Jeremy Guthrie after a fine final two months with the team in 2012. They traded minor leaguers (not one of which will start the season in the majors, by the way) for Ervin Santana, James Shields, and Wade Davis. Luis Mendoza gets the nod as the 5th starter. This rotation of seasoned veterans should pitch deeper into games than the 2012 version, taking pressure off a much used, but effective,  bullpen. The offense is young and hungry. Led by veteran hitters Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, the Royals will look to score a lot of runs. Budding stars like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez all show great promise at times. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar are good defensive players with developing offensive skills. How successful the Royals’ offense is will be influenced by the improvement of their young hitters and if veteran cogs Jeff Francoeur and Chris Getz can offer any kind of positive production. The bullpen has been terrific over the past two seasons. It is anchored by closer Greg Holland, with Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow as primary set-up men. Erstwhile starters Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen will also help in relief. If the Royals rotation can stay healthy and effective, and the young hitters take a step forward in development and production, then Kansas City should emerge as the primary challenger to the Detroit Tigers.

1) Detroit Tigers: This is an absolute no-brainer. The Tigers have the best two hitters in the division and the best starting pitcher in the Central, maybe the top 2 pitchers. Detroit mixes those established stars with emerging talent to form a formidable foe. Prince Fielder and last season’s MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera head up a strong offense. Austin Jackson is on the verge of stardom. Hitting machine Victor Martinez is back as DH after sitting out the 2012 season, and veteran Torii Hunter will offer valuable leadership in right field. Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, and  Alex Avila offer solid, if not flashy, production. As good as the offense is, the pitching may just be better. Former MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander is one of the top 2 or 3 pitchers in the majors and is backed up by the extremely talented Max Scherzer. These two will provide a heavy handed one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Solid options Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez provide a deep and effective rotation. Rick Porcello is coming off a fantastic spring and will man the 5th spot. The Tigers do have a couple a glaring weak spots. One is an infield that lacks much range at all, and the other is a bullpen with no shut down closer. At this point, no one is sure who the closer will even be. Rookie Bruce Rondon has had a rough spring and has been optioned to AAA. Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, and Al Alburquerque could all get the opportunity to save some games.

Summary

Things would have to go terribly wrong for the Tigers not to win this division. The biggest issue that is so hard to predict is health. If one of those next three teams can stay relatively healthy and perform at an optimal level for most of the season, that team would probably separate itself from the pack to challenge Detroit. Each season, a surprise team emerges to make the playoffs. It is not out of the realm of possibilities than either the White Sox, Indians, or Royals could be that team in 2013.

Tags: AL Central Chicago White Sox Chris Sale Cleveland Indians Detroit Tigers James Shields Justin Verlander Kansas City Royals Miguel Cabrera Minnesota Twins

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