While we in the media have devoted most of our winter bandwidth to the usual dramatics in the American League East, it’s another, lesser division that just might provide us with the most compelling pennant race. That "other" division is the AL Central.
Last season, the Twins barged to the flag by six games and won 94 games in the process. In two of the past three seasons, however, it took 163 tilts to decide the division champion, and in 2006 the race was decided by a single game.
So despite last year’s level of separation between the Twins and all comers, there’s a recent history of tight races in the Central. The 2011 season may provide us with yet another one.
Barring the decidedly unexpected, the Twins, White Sox or Tigers will win the division this season. To unscramble this three-team fray, let’s take a look at what each team’s record should have been in 2010 based on runs scored and runs allowed.
Why pay attention to run differential? During the season in question, wins and losses self-evidently matter more than runs scored and runs allowed, but when it comes to projecting future performance, records based on run differential are more illuminating.
As you can see, the Twins’ "earned" margin of victory was the same as it was in the actual standings — six games. In essence, those are the baselines from which these teams undertook their offseason maneuverings.
The Tigers are coming off a .500 season, but they’ve added Victor Martinez, who will give them an impact bat at DH and occasionally catcher. Brad Penny, provided he stays healthy (hardly to be assumed), improves the back end of the rotation, and Rick Porcello is a good bounce-back candidate.
Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander could contend for the MVP and Cy Young, respectively. On the downside, there’s quite a bit off drop-off in the rotation after Verlander, and the bullpen leaves much to be desired.
Elsewhere, the lineup may have a few too many holes in it. Specifically, the Tigers could struggle to get adequate production from second, third, short, and left. Overall, the Tigers should be modestly improved, but they likely haven’t made up enough ground on the Twins and White Sox
As for the defending champs, they return (most notably) Joe Mauer, the best catcher in baseball, and emerging ace Francisco Liriano.
Much, of course, depends upon the healthy return of Justin Morneau, who’s still battling his way back from post-concussion syndrome. He’s expected to be ready for Opening Day, but will he be able to assume vintage form right away?
Closer Joe Nathan is coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery, and, in the near term, he’s as much of an unknown quantity as Morneau.
For the first time in team history, the payroll should reach nine figures. In related matters, the Twins have added import shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka to the fold and re-signed Jim Thome and Carl Pavano.
Nishioka projects as roughly league-average with the bat (which makes him an asset at short) and as a capable defender. Thome is coming off an outstanding season, and Pavano gives the Twins a creditable presence in the rotation behind Liriano.
The Twins, though, do have problems. Production from second base and third base will be concerns, but the bigger worry will be the middle-relief corps. Gone from last year’s squad are Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain (now with the White Sox), Brian Fuentes and Matt Guerrier. In 2010, those four combined for 206-1/3 innings and an ERA of 2.97. Suffice it to say, those innings will be sorely missed. Even if Brian Duensing works out of the pen (thereby hurting the Twins’ rotation depth), the bullpen in front of Nathan could be highly, highly problematic.
No team in the division has improved itself as much as the White Sox have. Chiefly, that’s because of the Adam Dunn signing.
Dunn gives the White Sox a badly needed upgrade at designated hitter (Chicago DHs last season combined to hit a miserable .247 AVG/.332 OBP/.396 SLG) and a badly needed source of left-handed power. Dunn will hit something close to 40 home runs, get on base at a strong clip and fill a yawning hole in the Chicago lineup.
Paul Konerko is back, and while he figures to come down a bit from the lofty heights he reached in 2010, he’ll remain a productive middle-of-the-order threat. Overall, Chicago will hit lots of home runs.
They’ll have bullpen problems (though perhaps not to the extent that Minnesota will), but the strength of the rotation in tandem with an offense that could lead the AL in home runs more than compensate.
Overall, give the narrow edge to the Sox in the AL Central. The safer bet is that yet another photo finish might be in the offing.