For two straight seasons it has taken 163 games to decide the winner in the AL Central. And, or two years running, the Central has been the only division in the American League to send a team to the postseason with less than 90 wins. While the 163rd game is one of the rarest and most beautiful things in baseball, it wouldn't totally surprise me if we had the pleasure of another this October. Every division except the NL East boasts at least three teams with a reasonable shot at the title. Of these, the AL Central may be the toughest to call, a supposition supported by the fact that Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections predicted a three-way tie between the White Sox, Tigers, and Twins, each with 80 wins apiece.
While I'd be mighty surprised if nobody in the division managed a .500 record, I think it's safe to say that 90 wins won't be necessary. All three of the "contenders" have abundant and apparent shortcomings.
The reigning champs, the Twins, finished 12th in the AL in rotational ERA in 2009. While they went a long way towards fixing their lineup depth problems (which became so apparent in the ALDS) by adding Orlando Hudson and J. J. Hardy, there is still an obvious hole at 3B and they are only an injury away from again deploying the likes of Brendan Harris (672 OPS), Matt Tolbert (611 OPS), and Alexi Casilla (538 OPS).
The Tigers, following their schizophrenic offseason, don't look a whole lot different from the team that it took 162 games plus twelve innings to eliminate in '09. Like Minnesota, they've got severe lineup depth problems, with automatic outs like Gerald Laird and Adam Everett, as well as unknown commodities like Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson. The bullpen is also a big question mark. Jose Valverde is an improvement at closer, but it remains to be seen how Joel Zumaya, Ryan Perry, and Phil Coke will adjust to late-inning roles.
In Chicago, one of the big issues is age, particularly on offense. The White Sox have four regulars who are 33 or older. They are asking Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones to step into more prominent roles than they have held the past couple seasons in Los Angeles and Texas, and will need at least one more strong campaign from Paul Konerko and A. J. Pierzynski. Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham be critical top-of-the-order hitters. They certainly have the talent to perform in that capacity, but not yet the track record.
When looking at three equally flawed franchises I am tempted to say that this division will be determined largely by luck (which is why the Joe Nathan injury looms so large in Minnesota). None of these teams have tremendous depth on their roster, so even minor injuries can expose significant holes. It's impossible to guess where those injuries will surface, so instead, for the purposes of my predictions, I looked at management.
My impression is that Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams have a long and fairly successful track record of keeping a team in contention through even some bad breaks. The White Sox squeaked into the postseason in '08, despite losing their best hitter (Carlos Quentin) for most of the stretch run. They won a World Series in '05, despite losing their best hitter (Frank Thomas) and a pair of closers (Shingo Takatsu & Dustin Hermanson). Last season, Williams didn't hesitate to pull off a couple of big in-season acquisitions (Jake Peavy & Alex Rios). They didn't work out so well for '09, but you had to applaud his gumption.
The White Sox have the best rotation in the division with Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Freddy Garcia, and probably the best bullpen as well (especially if Nathan is out). Pitching, of course, goes a long way when everything else is fairly evenly matched.
The Indians are a "sleeper" team in 2010. They have what other teams in their division lack, a deep lineup, and a surplus of young hitting talent on the verge of breaking into the majors. Matt LaPorta, Luis Valbuena, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana are all rookies (or near-rookies) who will have considerable opportunities this year. Lou Marson, Andy Marte, and Trevor Crowe also possess a modicum of upside.
The Cleveland pitching staff last season was an utter disaster, but it is possible to see how they could be significantly better this year. Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Chris Perez are solid pitching prospects who came over in the Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, and Mark DeRosa trades. Jake Westbrook is returning from surgery. Even so, if the Indians are to have any chance, they will definitely need one or two from the quartet of once-promising prospects to have a resurgent campaign. Anthony Reyes probably won't return until midseason, so Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Sowers, and Aaron Laffey are the pitchers to watch this spring.
Chicago White Sox 86-76
Minnesota Twins 83-79
Cleveland Indians 80-82
Detroit Tigers 77-85
Kansas City Royals 55-107
M.V.P. Candidate: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Cy Contender: Justin Verlander, Tigers
Rookie of the Year: Carlos Santana, Indians
Breakout Candidates: Delmon Young (Twins); Alexei Ramirez (White Sox); Matt LaPorta (Indians); Justin Masterson (Indians); Clete Thomas (Tigers)