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MLB Baseball Preview 2013: American League Central

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The MLB Baseball preview 2013 continues with the AL Central. Tabbed as baseball’s weakest division yet again, the AL Central could turn some heads by season’s end.

No, it’s not likely to produce a wildcard entrant nor is it likely that 60 percent of the division finishes above .500. But this division does have one of the league’s best on paper and a handful of froggy teams. Oh, and a bottom-feeder.

DETROIT TIGERS

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Strength: Like the Nats in the National League, it is hard to narrow this one down as their lineup contains the best hitter in the world, another elite bat directly bat behind him and they added Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez to that Miguel Cabrera-Prince Fielder combo. Alas, it is their incredible rotation that wins out in the end as it contains the best pitcher in the world four more strong arms for teams to fight through should they be lucky enough to have their series fall outside of a Justin Verlander start.

Max Scherzer broke through after a tough April and many believe there is another level to his game. Anibal Sanchez got comfortable after some shakiness during his first five as a Tiger and carried it through the playoffs en route to re-signing with the team this winter. And then Doug Fister is the sleeping giant – quite literally at 6’8 – as a strained left side was the only roadblock to an excellent season for him. All of this says nothing of 24-year old Rick Porcello who looked like a new pitcher this spring and we’ll soon see if it was just Grapefruit League noise or something legitimate.

Weakness: The bullpen weakness is less about the fact that they don’t have a traditional closer who they can rely on, but rather because of the feared misuse of the assets they do have, namely Phil Coke. Once it became clear Bruce Rondon wasn’t ready to be part of the club, Coke ascended to the role of de facto closer based on the fact that manager Jim Leyland wants someone to rely and Coke was nails in the playoffs. There is just one issue. And it’s a small massive one: he can’t get right-handed batters out. It’s ok, not like there are too many of those in the game. Righties have a career .802 OPS against him and it’s on the rise after a 1050 in 115 PA last year.

Al Alburquerque – not a fake name – should get a real chance at becoming the full-time closer. He has devastating stuff and has shown the ability to get both righties and lefties out over the course of 57 MLB innings.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Six full months out of Scherzer at his May through October level from last year will yield Cy Young consideration. He continues to fill in the pieces of his game and he is on the cusp of stardom.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Hunter had the best season of his career last year by Fangraphs WAR at 5.1 as he was a positive in all three facets of the game: hitting, defense, and base running. At 37, I would bet quite a bit that he doesn’t repeat that level in 2013. However, he is a replacing a rightfield situation that produced the lowest WAR in baseball so he doesn’t need to be the 2012 version to be a major boon for the Tigers.

Prospect to Watch: Nick Castellanos headlines a thin system and his ascent through the minors may start with a repeat of Double-A as he struggled a bit there last year (.678 OPS) after destroying High-A (1014) during his first 55 games of 2012. A natural third baseman, Castellanos began working in the outfield last year as he is all but perma-blocked at the hot corner by the Cabrera person.

Prediction: 93-69 (Division Champions)

CLEVELAND INDIANS

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Strength: They did an excellent job adding to their lineup for 2013 with the free agent signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to go with incumbents Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Michael Brantley. That is a formidable top six that can hang with anybody in the league and they got rid of Shin-Soo Choo! There is some upside within their bottom three, though some big “ifs” for the trio to be a force. If Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs stop striking out at a 30 percent clip and perform at peak level, they can both be borderline All-Stars. If Lonnie Chisenhall hits like he has in Triple-A (.808 OPS in 418 PA), he gives the Tribe another great hitter. Of the three, Chisenhall is the most likely to fulfill his “if”.

Weakness: The rotation is laden with question marks. I like the acquisition of Brett Myers as a stabilizing influence, but it hinges on Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson regaining most of their previous top form if they really want to contend all year long. The trade for Trevor Bauer was excellent, but he clearly wasn’t ready in 2012 and there’s no telling if he will be in 2013. If he doesn’t markedly improve his command, I can guarantee that he won’t be ready.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Of the top six hitters, Brantley gets the least amount of attention which is fair considering he hasn’t done much just yet. However, he made some advancement last year including a near 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. I expect him to build on his 2012 with another step forward this year at the age of 26.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: This is more of a “stays flat” than declines, but the status quo would be a major disappointment and that is Masterson. I just don’t see him remedying his lefty woes any time soon which puts such a burden on him against righties. His future is back in the bullpen.

Prospect to Watch: It’s definitely Bauer. All of their other high-impact youngsters are years away right now. We could see some mid-level prospects come up and contribute, but Bauer is only potential stud on the horizon for 2013.

Prediction: 82-80

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

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Strength: Similar to the Indians, the top six of this lineup looks great. Where the two differ is that this one requires a bit more projection including a rebound for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas maintaining his production for a full season, Salvador Perez playing his first full season (career high 76 games), and Alcides Escobar packing a bit more punch with his .293 batting average from last year. Veterans Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are poised for another pair of huge seasons, though. The potential is here, but then again it has been for a few years now without yet coming to fruition.

Weakness: The Royals have the best single pitcher between these two teams – by a landslide with James Shields – but he alone isn’t enough to make up the difference in lineups as he is followed by a group of question marks. I happen to think Wade Davis will prove to be a legitimate starter in his transition back out of the bullpen. Meanwhile, Ervin Santana can’t possibly give up another 39 homers, can he? I’ve never been a Jeremy Guthrie believer nor does Luis Mendoza inspire much beyond a shoulder shrug.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Take your pick. The two partial seasons Perez have earned him in a slot into the young group of up-and-coming catchers. After showing a pure hit tool in 2011, he added power in 2012, and now we are just hoping for 162 – well 145 for a catcher – of the two combined.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: As much as I like Shields, and appreciate what he brings as a legitimate #1 starter, his career outside of a dome (3.33 home ERA/4.54 road ERA) is cause for concern. Part of it is Tropicana Field playing as a pitcher’s park, but his departure from the stellar Tampa Bay defense is also alarming. I don’t see him imploding whatsoever, but he isn’t likely to push toward the 3.25 xFIPs he has posted each of the last two years.

Prospect to Watch: The team’s reticence to give the talent-superior Johnny Giavotella a legitimate look at second base over Chris Getz is downright maddening, but perhaps former #4 overall pick from 2010 Christian Colon can thwart the mighty Getz, he of a career-high 672 OPS last year. Colon had a brief look at Triple-A last year so he will get some more seasoning there to start this season, but he should be ready for a call-up this summer.

Prediction: 80-82

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

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Strength: Nothing about this team jumps off the page at you, but the lineup is strong especially after they seem to have finally found a fixture at third base in Jeff Keppinger. He’s no All-Star, but their situation at the hot corner has been so poor that this is a major upgrade. Meanwhile, the heart of the lineup featuring Alex Rios, Paul Konerko, and Adam Dunn is nicely supplemented by the underrated Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo.

Weakness: This team has zero depth starting with their weak bench and filtering down to their farm system. Thankfully they are among baseball’s best at keeping their guys healthy because they can ill-afford any injuries.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Viciedo, affectionately called The Tank, blasted 25 homers in his first full season last year at age 23 and he has legitimate 35-homer power. He is a free-swinger (22 percent strikeout rate), but he is a force in the bottom half of their lineup.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: It’s been a slow decline as he has aged brilliantly, but Konerko is in the twilight of his 15 year career with the White Sox. He had a sharp decline in the second half of last year posting a 771 OPS after raking to the tune of a 932 in the first half. Hopefully that isn’t indicative of a new level of production for Konerko. Descents can come quickly at age 36-37 so while Konerko should remain productive, he may no longer be a dominant force.

Prospect to Watch: What is a Chicago White Sox prospect?

Prediction: 74-88

MINNESOTA TWINS

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Strength: Strengths are a bit thin in the Twin Cities, but they do have some real pop in the middle of their lineup spanning from Joe Mauer in the two-hole to Ryan Doumit batting fifth with Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau in between. This quartet will get some things done, but the rest of the lineup leaves a lot to be desired. There is some upside with guys like Aaron Hicks and Chris Parmelee, but there is a reason they are projected for such a tough season.

Weakness: They are plentiful, but the biggest black hole is their rotation. Vance Worley was a nice acquisition as part of the Ben Revere trade. He can be a capable piece at the backend of a rotation. He was their Opening Day starter. And while they did acquire some hard-throwing prospects in the Revere and Denard Span trades, they are a long way out and so their 2013 rotation is still a group of soft-tossers that don’t inspire much confidence.

Player/Pitcher on the Rise: Hicks was a surprise addition to the roster out of Spring Training as he is just 23 years old and hasn’t yet played Triple-A. The dynamic outfielder plays excellent defense with great speed and his bat is on the rise. He is praised for his ability to take walks – a trait I love in a young player – but some of his patience has been deemed passivity. He will need to overcome that quickly in the majors or he will be eaten alive.

Player/Pitcher on the Decline: Cole De Vries gave up far too many home runs (1.6 per game) to come away with just a 4.11 ERA. If he pulls that again 2013, his ERA will be approaching 5.00 almost assuredly. He actually did some nice things beyond that, but his tendency to pound the zone means he has to amp his command within it if he wants to avoid further trouble.

Prospect to Watch: Most of their best prospects are a year, if not two away right now, but Kyle Gibson is someone who should push to join the rotation this summer. He doesn’t have overwhelming velocity, but he is the first of those pitchers who will change the face of the Twins’ pitching as he isn’t actually allergic to strikeouts.

Prediction: 63-99

PREVIEWS: AL EAST | AL CENTRALAL WEST | NL EAST | NL CENTRAL | NL WEST

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