words // Brandon Richard
Tomorrow, the first pitches of the 2011 Major League Baseball season will be thrown in Washington and New York City. Prior to the first calls of “Play Ball!,” we’re taking a look at the off-season shake-ups in each division, as well as our projections for this year. Following our preview of the AL & NL West on Monday, we’ll take a look at the AL & NL Central today. Big MVP names like Mauer & Morneau in the AL and Pujols & Votto in the NL will have a strong hand in determining how each division plays out. Each division has perennial cellar dwellers, but also teams that made huge off-season moves to avoid a disappointing year. Read on below and let us know if you agree or disagree. Teams are listed as they ranked in the standings last season, with their final record in parenthesis.
American League – Central Division
Minnesota Twins (94-68) – The Minnesota Twins are one of the model franchises in all of baseball. They don’t overpay, they develop prospects, and they win a ton of games as a result. They return in 2011 looking to defend their AL Central crown and definitely have the personnel to do so. Hopefully coming back healthy this season for the Twins is first baseman Justin Morneau, who is a little more banged up than you’d like for a 29-year-old. Of course, Joe Mauer is going to give them MVP-quality play. Delmon Young should continue to play at an All-Star level, and reports have newly acquired Tsuyoshi Nishioka playing better than expected. Carl Pavano figures to give them another solid year on the mound, while Francisco Liriano is another year removed from surgery. Also back from surgery is closer Joe Nathan, who has looked good early on and will share closing duties with Matt Capps until he’s ready to go full-time. The balanced attack will give the Twins a chance to be the first team to three-peat in their division since they did from 2002-2004.
Chicago White Sox (88-74) – The Sox looked like the runaway favorites to win the Central last season, but were then hit with a ton of misfortune, including an injury to pitcher Jake Peavy. This season, the Sox will look to make the most of their abundant talent and finish what they started last year. Peavy is returning, and along with ace Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson and John Danks helps form a solid top-to-bottom rotation. The big draw here is the bats Chicago has in the lineup. They brought in slugger Adam Dunn to give them the veteran power they thought they’d get with Manny Ramirez last season. Guys like Paul Konerko, Juan Pierre, Gordon Beckham, Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Brent Morel, Omar Vizquel, and A.J. Pierzynski give the Sox a veteran lineup that should score a lot of runs and win a lot of games.
Detroit Tigers (81-81) – The Detroit Tigers were in the news a lot during the offseason, but unfortunately, that had a lot to do with the troubles surrounding first baseman Miguel Cabrera. The kicker is that despite how much bad pub he receives, he’s very productive and vital to Detroit’s chances of making a deep run. They take an offense with bats like Miggy, Magglio Ordonez and Austin Jackson, and then add Victor Martinez for a little power pop. Justin Verlander anchors a pitching staff that includes Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and added Brad Penny. Last season was very mediocre for a Tigers team facing a ton of expectations – they should factor into the outcome of the Central this year.
Cleveland Indians (69-93) – Cleveland rocks . . . or at least they used to. Last year’s Royal-like dismal season was probably a preview of what fans in that sad city should expect. That’s not a knock on the city as a whole, but an observation of how depressing it must be to be a Cleveland sports fan at times. Look, the team has shown some promise. The top half of their lineup, with a returning Grady Sizemore leading and Carlos Santana slotted at the 5, will cause some problems. However, after that, they don’t have much happening for them. The biggest concern might be that rotation, which is really lacking if they’re a team that wants to make a real postseason run. There’re some prospect arms stashed in the fold, but that’s more of an indicator for the future than it is for today.
Kansas City Royals (67-95) – The Royals are in store for another losing season, and matters weren’t helped when they traded staff ace Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers in the offseason. The good news for Royals fans is that many experts believe that the Royals have stockpiled the best farm talent in the entire league. The bad news is that, for now, you shouldn’t expect much more or less than the 67 wins from a year ago. Alex Gordon has had a disappointing four-year stretch and is entering what can be deemed a make-or-break year. Bill Butler puts balls in play, but his power leaves a lot to be desired. You don’t know what you’re getting with Melky Cabrera these days. Luke Hochevar is pegged for the Opening Day start, but a healthy Jeff Francis could assume that role by year’s end. Closer Joakim Soria is the team’s All-Star – and herein lies the problem with the Royals.
AL Central Prediction – The Twins and White Sox will battle for the division again, and this time, I think the White Sox finish off the job. The Tigers are still a team to watch out for, though – they have the talent to spoil the two-team party and perform like they were expected to a year ago.
National League – Central Division
Cincinnati Reds (91-71) – The Reds are on a mission to prove that last season’s division crown was more than a fluke. To do so, they’ll have to do more showing up when the bright lights are on. Cincy ran through teams with sub .500 records, but was amongst the league’s worst in terms of beating teams .500 and above. The sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies didn’t really seem to indicate that they belonged in the series. So with that experience under their belts, they’re back with a chip on their shoulders and talent that can return them to the post season. Reigning NL MVP and batting champ runner-up Joey Votto leads a potent lineup that also includes Drew Stubbs, Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce. If young pitchers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto can stay healthy, along with their top-tier defense, the Reds will have what it takes to make a serious run.
St. Louis Cardinals (86-76) – The Cardinals and their faithful fans had a positive outlook for this season over the winter until two major occurrences disrupted not only this season, but possibly the future of their organization. First, they were unable to strike a deal for a new contract with perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols by his self-imposed deadline. Then, in late February, it was revealed that pitching staff ace Adam Wainwright will miss the entire year after needing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. So it’ll be up to former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, youngster Jaime Garcia and the rest of the Cards’ staff to pick up the slack. There’s some concern about the hitting around sluggers Pujols and Matt Holliday, but St. Louis brought in leaner Lance Berkman to help carry some of the load. Whether or not Berkman can stay healthy and be as productive as he was as an Astro remains to be seen.
Milwaukee Brewers (77-85) – The Brew Crew didn’t react to a sub-par 2010 season by sitting on their hands – they went out and made huge splashes by trading for hurlers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to join Yovani Gallardo in the rotation. They also signed Takashi Saito and Sean Green to shore up the bullpen, while recently adding a spark to their lineup with the acquisition of outfielder Nyjer Morgan. Power is their strong-suit, with bats like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks in the fold. They addressed the pitching, but can the brutal defense be improved enough for them to contend? How will Greinke’s early rib injury impact his season?
Houston Astros (76-86) – The Astros are pretty much stuck in one of those transitional phases where you don’t expect them to be the worst team in the division, but their competitive years seem to lie somewhere in the future. With the departures of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last season, a new era has officially been set forth. There’s some talent in the fold, so the long-term outlook isn’t so bad. Right fielder Hunter Pence and speedy center fielder Michael Bourn join Carlos Lee to form a formidable outfield that can be built on. A pitching staff fronted by Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but it’ll be respectable enough to land the ‘Stros some wins in a “growing pains” type season.
Chicago Cubs (75-87) – Teams with Top 3 payrolls typically aren’t pegged to be underdogs, but the Cubbies aren’t really on anybody’s radar when naming contenders. However, they do have the talent to make a playoff push and surprise some of the critics. How do they get there? For starters, their big-salary players have to live up to those dollar amounts. We’re talking Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano has the potential to be a true difference maker for a pitching staff that needs him to be exactly that. Last season, the temperamental “Big Z” went 8-0 from August 14th until the end of the season, posting an ERA of just 1.24 and allowing only one homer. Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez was the only pitcher with a lower ERA in that same time span. In short, you shouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs miss the postseason again, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they make it either.
Pittsburgh Pirates (57-105) – I’m one of those sports fans that occasionally enjoys the misery of other fanbases for no good reason. I liked the Curse of the Bambino – it was fun to see the new ways Boston would manage to blow it season to season. The Curse of the Billy Goat & Steve Bartman are the gifts that keep on giving, unless you’re actually a Cubs fans. Then there’s the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are currently on an incredible 18-straight losing season skid. Odds they erase that misfortune this year? Not very good. The Pirates should see a slight improvement, just because of the young talent they reel in from being horrible every year and also because of bringing in new manager Clint Hurdle, but it won’t be enough of an improvement to land them a winning season. Unlike the previously mentioned teams, there’s no curse in Pittsburgh – they’re just bad, with no light at the end of the tunnel in sight. Unless you’re counting watching Andrew McCutchen go to work as light, because he’s poised to be one of the league’s best.
NL Central Predictions – This division is one of the toughest to predict in my opinion. You have four teams with a realistic shot at the postseason and no clear-cut favorite. I’m not too concerned with the Greinke injury yet – and I think those additions, along with Yovani Gallardo and a hard-hitting offense will help the Brewers take the Central at the finishline. The Reds and Cardinals should remain in contention until the very end and have a say in who brings home the Wild Card.