2013 Season Preview: A.L. Central

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This is the second piece in a week-long series in which the staff of Rising Apple makes their predictions for each of the six divisions for the 2013 MLB season.

The American League Central Division is quite the curious case. While most teams made flurries of transactions going into 2013, it remains by far the weakest division in baseball and the one whose outcome is the most clear-cut. The race for second place is wide open, but the singing of “Bless You Boys” has already begun in Motown.

Chicago White Sox

Sep 29, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) delivers a pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago somehow managed a second-place finish with a cast of little-known players in 2012, but they fell behind the other teams in the Central in the offseason. The only significant move the White Sox made was signing veteran Jeff Keppinger to a 3-year, $12 million deal. Meanwhile, gone are free agents Francisco Liriano, A.J. Pierzynski, and Kevin Youkilis, as well as starter Philip Humber, who threw a perfect game in Seattle last April.

The Sox managed to avoid a complete exodus as they held on to key free agents Jake Peavy, Gordon Beckham, and Dewayne Wise. Peavy avoided significant injury time last season and turned in 32 starts, and at 32 years of age this season he should still be the anchor of the staff for another year or two. Beckham is light-hitting but young and plugs the hole at second base nicely. Wise is old but a defensive mainstay (his catch to save Mark Buehrle’s perfect game in 2009 ranks up there with the best) and has a decent bat off the bench.

Budding ace Chris Sale transitioned nicely from reliever to starter in 2012, winning 17 games with an ERA at 3.05. Southpaw Sale, who turns 24 at the end of the month, is under contract until 2017, and has the potential to become the next face of the franchise once borderline Hall-of-Famer Paul Konerko retires.

Chicago’s biggest wild cards are the single-minded Adam Dunn at the plate and last year’s Opening Day starter John Danks, who went down with a shoulder injury nine starts in. Dunn led the American League in both walks (105) and strikeouts (222, one shy of Mark Reynolds’s single-season record) in 2012. The White Sox tolerated the Big Donkey’s all-or-nothing swings last year because he managed 41 home runs, but they would have been satisfied with anything after his dreadful .159-spot with 11 dingers in 2011. With Dunn, the only question is how many times the ball will make contact with his bat, and for the Sox to have any prayer this season, it will have to be quite frequently. As for Danks, with the White Sox’ rotation as flimsy at it is, he will need to turn in a season reminiscent of his 2010 (15-11, 3.72 ERA) in order for them to stay afloat.

Rookie to Watch: Jared Mitchell, OF – The former two-sport star at LSU lost 2010 to an ankle injury, but he made it up to Triple-A Charlotte by the end of last season. While not one for power, Mitchell shows strong on-base instincts, even if his strikeout numbers are high. Ten games into Spring Training and the 24-year-old is tearing it up with an OPS over 1.200. He’ll likely be sent back to Charlotte for the start of the season, but if he graduates finishing school early, he could make it to the majors by mid-summer and establish himself in the Sox’ outfield for years to come.

Final Analysis: At age 37, Paul Konerko can’t do it forever, and Chris Sale is just one guy on the mound. If he who hesitates truly is lost, then Chicago will pay for their hesitation this offseason with a fourth place finish in 2013.

Cleveland Indians

Feb 22, 2013; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians third baseman Mark Reynolds (center) congratulates right fielder Nick Swisher (33) after he scored on a double by left fielder Michael Brantley (not pictured) as manager Terry Francona (right) yells to him during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

While Toronto made the splashiest moves of the offseason, Cleveland bought in bulk to fill in some of its holes. A three-team blockbuster in December brought in a pitching trio of Matt Albers, Trevor Bauer, and Bryan Shaw from Arizona, and outfielder Drew Stubbs from Cincinnati. The Indians also made moves on free agent outfielders who were at some point connected to the Mets. Former Yankee Nick Swisher returned home to Ohio, with the help of an All-Star Buckeye delegation, signing a 4-year, $56 million contract. And Michael Bourn, who stayed on the market longer than anyone expected, inked a deal in February, taking $48 million over 4 years to call the Cuyahoga his home.

But perhaps the most important acquisition the Tribe made was the hiring of former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona as manager. Francona took a year off to do some broadcast work after being let go following Boston’s epic collapse in 2011, and as long as the fried chicken and video games stay out of the clubhouse, the two-time World Series champion should be a significant upgrade over Manny Acta. Additionally, Cleveland is not likely to die as hard post-All-Star Break as they did in 2012.

While the offense has improved significantly, the Indians failed to seriously address their starting rotation’s problems. The anchors of last year’s staff, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, had ERAs of 4.93 and 5.40, respectively. Daisuke Matsuzaka may ascend to the majors at some point, but who knows which Dice-K we’ll actually see. Young Trevor Bauer may have some success in his first full season, but he’s just one guy; his finger alone can’t dam up this dyke.

Rookie to Watch: Trevor Bauer, P – The centerpiece of the three-team December deal, Bauer had a spectacular year between Double- and Triple-A in the Diamondbacks organization before getting four starts in September. The 22-year-old makes a habit of tossing the ball from foul pole to foul pole during warm-ups, so you can imagine what kind of pitching power that could translate to. With Cleveland’s brittle top of the rotation, don’t be surprised if Bauer establishes himself as the staff’s anchor by mid-summer.

Final Analysis: Long-suffering Indians fans have waited 64 years to see their team earn the right to be called World Champions. In 2013, that wait will be extended to 65 years. While Cleveland will finish second in a top-heavy division, they will be miles behind the Tigers and won’t even sniff the Wild Card due to the strength of multiple teams in the AL East and West. But hey, at the end of October the Indians’ drought will be able to pick up its Social Security check, so it’s not all bad.

Detroit Tigers

Oct 18, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland (left) , owner Mike Ilitch (middle), and general manager Dave Dombrowski pose with the American League championship trophy after game four of the 2012 ALCS against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. The Tigers won 8-1 to sweep the series and advance to the World Series. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit’s offseason strategy was one of addition by subtraction. Gone are two keys to the Tigers’ recent success, reigning ALCS MVP Delmon Young and closer Jose Valverde. Ask most Tiger fans, however, and they won’t miss these two clowns one bit. The bulky Young took less than a million to sign with Philadelphia in January, and “Papa Grande” remains on the market after a dreadful postseason. While substantially older, Torii Hunter provides much more cover in the outfield than Young could ever dream of doing, and even though the Tigers have struggled to find a good closer internally this spring, they would have to be beyond desperate to bring back Valverde.

Detroit has been in the habit of spending big during the last couple offseasons. Last year it was Prince Fielder and his $200 million+ deal, and this winter it was mid-rotation starter Anibal Sanchez on the receiving end of a 5-year, $88 million contract. This seems an early reward for a pitcher who sported a 3.74 ERA in 12 American League starts after being brought over from Miami, but moreover it is an excessive deal for a pitcher who is a third starter at best. Sanchez got lucky through a combination of the bull market across the majors this offseason and an aging owner, 83-year-old Mike Ilitch, who is desperate to win now. The Tigers’ free-spending ways may come back to bite them in 2014 when Justin Verlander, who says he would “like to experience” free agency, hits the open market. Ilitch will be forced to, as my friend Tom says, either double the price of Little Caesar’s Hot-‘n’-Readys and pay through the nose for Verlander, or risk letting go the dominant pitcher of his era. Either way, there are going to be some ticked off consumers of Mike Ilitch products by the middle of the decade.

Included in Detroit’s key additions is Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. While he doesn’t bring much defense (he spent most of 2011 as a DH), V-Mart hit .330 in his last full season and will provide another big bat that brings more insurance behind the Triple Crowned Miguel Cabrera and Fielder in the Tigers’ order, much more insurance than Young ever did.

Rookie to Watch: Bruce Rondon, P – Detroit’s heir apparent at the closer position had an unreal year in 2012, ascending all the way from high Single-A to Triple-A and sporting a 1.53 ERA between the three levels. The 22-year-old Venezuelan has had a rough Spring Training to this point, so he’ll likely begin 2013 back in Toledo, but if the Tigers’ other closer options don’t fare any better, and if they can’t find someone like Brian Wilson in the free agent market, Rondon may be up to the Motor City by May. Once there, the fireballer may struggle initially, but Tiger fans who put up with Valverde for years will be patient and let him take his time. He’ll be their full-time closer by the end of the year.

Final Analysis: While personal philosophy prevents me from saying the Tigers are World Series or bust in 2013, they are still far and away the favorites to win the AL Central. Like last year, they will have significantly underachieved if they don’t win their division.