AL Central

Onward to the AL Central, home of the one-game playoff for postseason entry (2010 record in parenthesis):

Minnesota Twins (94-68) — All-Stars Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau are now back after missing a combined 243 games last season, re-joining a team that won their division by six games.  In just half a season of playing time, Morneau put up 5.3 WAR, hitting .345/.437/.618 with elite defense.  Delmon Young, still just 25 years old, and just broke the 25-homer and 100-RBI plateaus for the first time, while hitting .298.  Replacing Orlando Hudson’s defense with Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s bat at second base will be a little bit of a net loss, but manager Ron Gardenhire always seems to put forth an effective defensive squad to go with a staff behind ace Francisco Liriano that pitches to contact. Projected wins: 90

Chicago White Sox (88-74) — The consistency of their veteran bats is remarkable.  Alex Rios will take few walks, but hit his 20 home runs, steal 25-30 bases, and provide above-average defense in center field.  First baseman Paul Konerko, at age 35, has averaged 30 homers and 94 RBI since joining the Sox in 1999, and just last season put up the highest slugging percentage of his career.  Free agent acquisition Adam Dunn has never been a full-time DH before, but hit 40 bombs on the nose in four consecutive seasons, before dipping down to 38 in both 2009 and 2010 in Washington.  In US Cellular’s hitter-friendly park, and without having to worry about his negative defensive contributions, he should be a lock for 40, and come closer to 45.  Since moving to shortstop from second base, Alexei Ramirez has become a plus fielder, and although he would rather die than take a walk, his .280+ average, with 20/20 potential, ranks him as possibly the best shortstop in the American League.  The rotation is fronted by the steady Mark Buehrle and John Danks.  This is a talented team, and if they can keep slugging outfielder Carlos Quentin healthy for more than the 120 games he’s averaged from 08-10, Chicago can do some serious damage. Projected wins: 87

Detroit Tigers (81-81) — The one thing that Miguel Cabrera has been able to do, year after year, despite a number of very serious off-field incidents, is hit.  Since his first full season, in 2004, he’s hit .317/.392/.558, moving from the outfield, to third base, to finally being etched in stone at first upon his trade to Detroit.  He’s received MVP votes in every season he’s played, and through age 27, his most similar statistical comparisons are Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, and Ken Griffey, Jr.  Not bad company.  But for the Tigers to factor into the AL playoff puzzle, someone around him must step up — Cabrera led the league in intentional walks last season with 32, 18 more than that of runner-up Joe Mauer. Be it aging outfielder Magglio Ordonez (whose days of above-average power are long behind him) or recently-added DH Victor Martinez (whose bat was special as a catcher, but his .302 average and 20 homers in 2010 don’t look as mind-shattering now that he’s not behind the plate) who takes pressure off of Cabrera, Detroit doesn’t have the staff depth or a solid enough back of the bullpen to support such a one-man show.  Projected wins: 78

Kansas City Royals (67-95) — The Royals are out of the basement!! This, of course, is more of an indictment of Cleveland’s roster than it is a glowing report on Kansas City, but it does look like the 15-year rain cloud hovering over this franchise is finally beginning to give way to bluer skies filled with good, young players.  First basemen/DH-types Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue post fantastic walk rates, and either could get on base in their sleep — although neither projects to hit more than 25 home runs or be anything more than abysmal in the field.  More corner infielders are in the pipeline, as third baseman Mike Moustakas and first baseman Eric Hosmer are the top two prospects in the Royals’ vaunted system, and Moustakas should be up by the All-Star break, with Hosmer not far behind (and yes, Kansas City should explore trading Butler to a DH-needy team, as he should outhit his team-friendly four year, $30 million contract extension that just kicked in this season).  After treading water with sub-par veterans for years, Royals fans should finally let themselves get excited…just not for 2011.  Projected wins: 68

Cleveland Indians (69-93) — Who hits well on this team?  Who pitches well? Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo is the only player in the lineup with a positive recent track record in the batter’s box.  Carlos Santana, an absolute hitting machine who masquerades as a catcher, got on base at a .401 clip his rookie year, but was limited to just 46 games between his June call-up and season-ending knee injury in August.  Questions surround rookie centerfielder Michael Brantley, who has speed, but nonexistent power.  Brantley, along with young first baseman Matt LaPorta, has not shown much in limited big league at-bats. And those are the positives in the batting order.  Second baseman Orlando Cabrera has had only one above-average hitting season in his 15-year career.  Left fielder Austin Kearns hit only 26 home runs in over 1000 at-bats in his three years in Washington, before bouncing between the Yankees and Indians last season.  The rotation is led by Fausto Carmona, a sinkerballer with back-to-back 5.40+ ERA seasons in a pitcher-friendly park before last year’s rebound down to 3.77.  Behind him sits an assortment of inconsistent youth, none of whom have started 30 games in a season before.  Projected wins: 64

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