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Brian Phillips' 2013 Baseball Preview: A.L. Central

The American League Central

Welcome to part 2 of my 2013 Major League Baseball preview. In our first chapter I anointed the Blue Jays AL East Champions, and buried the Yankees and Red Sox. It's going to be a strange year in the east.... That said don't look to the Central for change. Things seem easier to grasp there.

1. Detroit Tigers

Measuring the 2013 Motown squad is easy. They're better. It's easy to see why. Victor Martinez is back after missing 2012 with a knee injury. I expect it'll take a few weeks for him to find his bat, but I'm optimistic long term. Lucky for him the Tigers can wait for V. Mart. Miguel Cabrera is coming off the first triple crown season since 1968 and is right in his prime. Prince Fielder is in his second American League season... and showed little sign of discomfort last year. I expect the two of them to have monster years.

Sure the Tigers still look a bit suspect defensively, though free agent right fielder Torii Hunter should help a bit and the Tigers' outstanding staff can cover up a lot of deficiency. Justin Verlander is money every five days. Doug Fister is as consistent as they come, though he was a bit wobbly in the first half last year with some nagging injuries. Anibal Sanchez doesn't garner nearly the respect he deserves, and Max Scherzer will break out big time in 2013 (see below.)

The Tigers' pen is a concern. At this point rookie Bruce Rondon will close. That's a lot of pressure for a kid. 

They'll Hot Rod In Motown If....

- The Tigers can play good enough defense.

- A clear starter can emerge in left field. I'm looking at you Andy Dirks.

- The men in the pen can quickly settle into defined roles.

- Torii Hunter can contribute offensively.

The Car Could Break Down If...

- Rondon can't seize the closer role.

- The Tigers boot the ball around too much.

- Victor Martinez struggles to regain 2011 form.

- Alex Avilla can't shake off a disappointing 2012.

Bottom Line

95 Wins

Fantasy Target

Scherzer. High strike out rate. Better control. This is your last season to nab him at anywhere near a bargain.

Fantasy Turd

Avila. His productive 2011 was luck driven. I see him producing closer to last season's numbers.

2. Chicago White Sox

A year ago the consensus on the White Sox was generally not positive. General Manager Kenny Williams had cleaned house a bit, and big 2011 free agent signing Adam Dunn was coming off one of the worst offensive seasons for a regular in major league history. The Sox surprised though, leading a good deal of the year, hanging in until the end, but coming up three games shy of the division champion Tigers. 

Over the winter the White Sox gave us almost nothing to talk about. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who had obliterated a previous career high with 27 home runs and a solid .278 batting average signed with the Rangers, leaving the Sox with rookie free swinger Tyler Flowers as their starting catcher. Journeyman infielder Jeff Keppinger signed from Tampa and looks to be Chicago's every day third baseman (spelling trouble for fading prospect Brent Morel.) That's really it. It was a uneventful around the South Side stove. 

The Sox hope pitcher John Danks can put an injury marred year behind him, and that the resurgent Jake Peavy can handle 30 or so starts again. Former closer Chris Sale proved to be dominate in his first year as a starter and comes into 2013 the staff ace. The bullpen looks a lot like last year. Chicago can't afford another year of shape shifting roles out there. 

The Viciedo, De Aza, Rios outfield was very solid last year. Wrist injuries are a red flag, especially for older players like first baseman Paul Konerko. Sure DH Adam Dunn launched 41 home runs last year, but his contact rate makes him a hack for the ages. Don't look for a repeat of 40 plus dingers, and expect an average around .200. Up the middle short stop Alexi Ramirez was a nice power/speed combo. Second sacker Gordon Beckham meanwhile really needs to take a step forward. Keppinger? Chicago prays that Morel can finally figure it out.

The Sox Will Be Stain Free If....

Konerko bounces back from the wrist.

- Adam Dunn can figure out how to hit at least .230

- Alex Rios doesn't repeat his great one year awful the next four year pattern.

- Young closer Addison Reed holds that gig all season.

- Peavy can deliver those 30 + starts.

- Rookie catcher Flowers can make huge step forward. He's it. The job is his.

Smelly Sox If.... 

- Dunn continues flailing. There's got to be a less painful way of hitting 41 home runs.

- Konerko's wrist is the beginning of the end.

- Flowers isn't ready.

- The bullpen becomes an adventure.

Bottom Line

83 Wins

Fantasy Target

Viciedo. Barely 24 years old and coming off a 25 home run season, the kid is still lasting long in drafts. Not next year.

Fantasy Turd

Dunn. His 2012 second half was really putrid. He won't hit better than .210 this year. 

3. Cleveland Indians

We're all guilty of overvaluing managers. You don't win without talent. That said the Cleveland Indians' hire of former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona in the off season inspires confidence. What inspires more confidence however is that the Indians added....... talent. 

The bad news first. Their new crop of off season acquisitions all display the same prodigious talent for swinging without making contact with the baseball. In 2012 this year's Tribe newcomers whiffed at an alarming rate: Drew Stubbs (166), Michael Bourn (155), Nick Swisher (141), Mark Reynolds (159). For Stubbs and Reynolds it would have been worse had they logged a full season of at bats. Both have 200 plus strike out seasons in their pasts. Hell Reynolds still owns the all time single season record (223 in 2009). I don't know if the Indians will break the all time team mark of 1,529 (2009 Arizona Diamondbacks featuring..... Mark Reynolds), but I'll bet they lead the majors this season. 

The good news is a meek hitting Cleveland squad has been transformed into one with some pop, and Bourn and Stubbs give the Indians legitimate speed and stolen base efficiency. Nick Swisher provides clubhouse leadership intangibles previously lacking. Returning second baseman Jason Kipnis is a budding star, and catcher Carlos Santana made tremendous strides in the second half of 2012 without much around him in the order. Things are looking up along the shores of Lake Eire. 

On the hill the rotation remains a concern, though in the long run the Diamondbacks will rue the day they traded mercurial prospect Trever Bauer to the Indians. The kid has everything, including plenty of attitude. If he develops the way scouts say he can the Indians will put up with it all day. The pen looks solid, though as I write closer Chris Perez has been shut down with some shoulder tightness. If the flakey Perez can't answer the bell the Indians have an able understudy in Vinnie Pestano. 

Large Stretch Run Crowds Will Cheer....

- Trevor Bauer emerging as a contributor on his way to ace status.

- Drew Stubbs improving his contact skills and cashes in on his blazing speed.

- Reynolds hitting 32 plus home runs.

- Third base man Lonnie Chisenhall emerging as a contributor.

- A Carlos Santana full season break out. 

An Empty Late Summer Progressive Field Will Host....

- A lousy rotation getting it's brains beaten in.

- One flailing swing and a miss after another.

- An unfortunate Kipnis sophomore slump. 

Bottom Line

78 Wins

Fantasy Target

Santana. That second half, featuring a positive walk to strike out ratio and 20 dingers will lead to a break out 2013.

Fantasy Turd

Stubbs. So many tools, but when you dig into the numbers he doesn't profile better than .230.

4. Kansas City Royals

The last time the Kansas City Royals were in the post season was 1985. They won the World Series that year behind 21 year old Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen. Saberhagen is now 48 and retired 12 years ago. An entire generation has grown up in KC without seeing their local team play beyond the first weekend of October. 

In the intervening years there have been a few winning seasons sprinkled on a sea of losses. The last time the Royals were on the positive side of the ledger was 2003. When you lose and lose and lose you draft early and the Royals have loaded up on top picks. On their roster right now are four top three selections including the 2006 number one overall, pitcher Luke Hochevar. 

And that's really where they're at in KC. If this club is going to compete these top picks have to deliver. Hochevar has been an unmitigated disaster, and comes into the spring having to fight for a spot in the rotation. Eric Hosmer (third overall 2008) had a lousy 2012, but the uber prospect is only 23, and was battling injury last season. Don't look for him to be a dominate power hitter however. He doesn't hit the ball in the air nearly enough. On the other corner third baseman Mike Moustakas (second overall 2007) showed some pop last year, but he needs to improve his approach, taking some more walks and turning his middling contact rate into some harder hit balls. Outfielder Alex Gordon (second overall 2005) is, at the age of 29, who he is; a guy capable of throwing up 20 home runs and hitting .280. He's not a star, but a solid contributor. Royals fans can still feel optimistic. Hosmer, Moustakas, and Gordon are all going to contribute. (I'm writing Hochevar off). Catcher Salvador Perez turns 23 in May and is poised to become a super star. DH Billy Butler should turn in something close to .300/25/100. 

The rotation looks better, but at a high cost. The Royals sent 2012 minor league player of the year Wil Myers to Tampa to get James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields is a strike out per inning horse and settles in as KC's ace. Davis had a fine year last year..... as a reliever. The Royals want him to start however, and his career there has not been good. Jeremy Guthrie finished 2012 strong after The Royals somehow convinced the Rockies to take walk machine Jonathan Sanchez for him. Struggling Ervin Santana comes over from the Angels, but his best days are behind him. Bruce Chen again looks to round out the rotation... I have nothing to add to that. The bullpen is very young with Greg Holland penciled in as the closer. High K, but high walk Holland means adventure awaits. 

It'll Be Tubular Like 1985 If....

- New pitching acquisitions finally give KC some stability there. 

- Hosmer and Moustakas ratchet up the improvement.

- Short stop Alcides Escobar repeats a fine 2012. 

- Perez stays healthy for a full year. 

- The bullpen doesn't create a lot of drama.

- Center fielder Lorenzo Cain shows he's more than potential. 

It'll Be A Bummer Like Every Other Year If....

- Jeff Francoeur stinks as much as he did last season.

- Davis doesn't adjust to rotation return.

- Cain doesn't seize the moment.

- The bullpen flounders. 

- Santana continues to serve up gobs of home runs.

Bottom Line

77 Wins

Fantasy Target

Shields. If you're the sort that likes to wait a bit on pitching, the ex-Ray will probably be in a draft position to return value.

Fantasy Turd

Cain. He's been a minor break out candidate for awhile now. Problem is he doesn't get on base enough to cash in on his speed. 

5. Minnesota Twins

How quickly we forget. In 2010 the Minnesota Twins turned in their second of two straight AL Central titles. Since then they've stumbled to a pair of last place finishes. This year I don't see any way to avoid a third. 

Their return trip to the cellar starts on the mound. If you follow this club you know that as an organization the Twins value strike throwers. That's all well and good, but the Twins' inability to find and develop high strike out pitchers is becoming a real problem. This year they enter the season with a rotation of Scott Diamond, Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Liam Hendricks and Mike Pelfrey. None of the five can even match the American League average for strike outs per nine innings. Worley comes closest at just over 7. Opposing batters know the Twins will be around the plate, and not throwing particularly hard. 

Up the middle the Twins look weak as well. Journeyman utility guy Jamey Carroll is Minnesota's starting second baseman. It's not a good sign when a regular on your club is setting a career high in plate appearances at the age of 39.  Still, Carroll can probably hit .260 which is way better than rookies Pedro Florimon (short stop), and Darin Mastroianni (center field). In most organizations both would be in AAA. Mastroianni may not make it to opening day with the Twins as he has resurgent prospect Aaron Hicks breathing down his neck. Watch those two this spring.

The good news is former AL MVP Justin Morneau was able to log 500 plus at bats last year. Sadly he remains a shadow of his pre concussion self. Joe Mauer is a nice player, but his monster 2009 seems a distant memory now. The $184 million dollar deal that took effect in 2011 is looking worse and worse, and has six more seasons to run. I don't want to be such a drag here so I'll counter that third sacker Trevor Plouffe gives 20 plus home run power and should continue to improve. Ryan Doumit is a nice versatile man to have around. Josh Willingham is a legit thumper. Glen Perkins seems to have found himself in the closer role. 

The Twins Will Not Be As Horrible As I Fear They Will Be If....

- Morneau and Mauer are huge and healthy.

- Ryan Doumit can stay healthy and relieve Mauer of an acceptable number of days behind the plate.

- Pitching prospects Trevor May, Alex Meyer, and Tommy John surgery grad Kyle Gibson can come up at some point and for the love of God strike someone out. 

The Twins Will Be Horrible If...

See above.

Bottom Line

62 Wins.

Fantasy Target

Doumit. Not sexy, but if he gets enough at bats he can approach 20 home runs to go with a .275 average. I'll take that in the catcher spot. 

Fantasy Turd

Willingham. Don't get me wrong. I like him, but his home run to fly ball ratio was a bit high last year. Don't pay for 35 dingers. Look for 25 to 27 on a bad team in a huge park.

Pencilstorm would like to encourage all you fantasy nerds to get out of your Mom's basement for once and join Brian P. and Colin G. for a MLB opening day party at the Treebar Monday April 1st. Reds vs Angels- First pitch 4pm.

Brian Phillips is a longtime jock for the legendary Indi-rock station CD102.5.