Unlike last season, when the Twins ended up winning the AL Central by a comfortable six games over the White Sox, the AL Central is shaping up to be a much more competitive division in 2011. While the Twins resigned both Jim Thome and Carl Pavano and will get Justin Morneau back from injury, the Tiger and White Sox made moves that will help them compete with Minnesota this season. Expect a three team race, while the Indians and Royals should have years similar to last season, when they won 69 and 67 games respectively.
The Tigers finished last season with a disappointing 81-81 record. They played well at home in Detroit, going 52-29 at Comerica Park, but played horribly on the road, finishing with a record of 29-52. The Tigers, however, should be better this upcoming season. They added slugging catcher Victor Martinez to an already solid lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera (2nd in AL MVP voting in 2010), Carlos Guillen, Brandon Inge, Austin Jackson and a hopefully healthy Magglio Ordonez. Their rotation should also be improved, as starters Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello started to pitch better at the end of last season and will be a solid 2-3 after ace Justin Verlander (18-9, 3.37 ERA in 2010). If they can play more consistently away from Comerica Park, expect them to compete.
After winning the division last season and returning most of that team, the Twins should be considered the favorite to win the AL Central again in 2011. They have a dangerous lineup that includes two of the best hitters in baseball in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Solid hitters also surround them in the lineup: Delmon Young, Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Jim Thome, and Jason Kubel. Third baseman Danny Valencia, who hit .311 in 299 at-bats last season as a rookie, could experience a bit of a sophomore slump now that pitchers have seen him before, but the Twins still have enough hitting to produce runs. The Twins rotation will be the same as last season, with Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano at the top. After a horrendous 2009 season, Liriano bounced back and had a great 2010 season. Can he produce the same type of numbers again this season as Minnesota's ace? The key to the division could be closer Joe Nathan, who saved 47 games in 2009 but missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery.
The White Sox are upping their payroll roughly 13 percent for 2011, signaling that Chicago's south side franchise wants to take the AL Central title from the Twins this year. They retained slugger Paul Konerko and also added country-strong Adam Dunn (who hits absolute taters). Both of them will need to have great seasons for the Sox to win the division, as there are question marks throughout the rest of the lineup. The White Sox are still depending on the always questionable AJ Pierzynski behind the plate, they don't really know who is going to step up and take the third base job, and their corner outfielders (Juan Pierre and Carlos Quentin) aren't the most reliable tandem. The middle of their infield is solid, with Gordon Beckham at second and Alexei Ramirez manning shortstop. Their rotation is also one of the best in the American League, with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson and a hopefully healthy Jake Peavy. If they pitch up to expectations and Konerko and Dunn stay at the level they played at last season, expect to Sox to compete with the Twins for the division title.
Here's how I think it will play out:
1. White Sox