This is probably the easiest division to handicap. The Tigers look to be one of the top two or three clubs in the AL. I think the Royals are good enough to contend for a wild card spot and the ChiSox should be competitive. Here are the team-by-team breakdowns:
1st place: Detroit Tigers
The bullpen is somewhat unsettled right now; Leyland likes a bona fide closer, and right now it looks like Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit will split duties. And the defense is average. Otherwise, this is a very strong club. Offensively, Detroit boasts the best 3-4 combo in the game in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Victor Martinez looks like he’s fully recovered and Austin Jackson is coming into his own as a leadoff hitter. But the rotation might be the best in baseball. Of course, Justin Verlander is vintage, but Max Scherzer has developed into an ace in his own right. Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello round out a young, deep rotation. This team can cruise to the division crown.
2nd place: Kansas City Royals
GM Dayton Moore might regret trading uber-prospect Wil Myers in a few years. (Heck, he might regret it by next month.) But the haul coming back from Tampa (James Shields, Wade Davis) is part of a comprehensive overhaul of the 2012 starting rotation. Only Jeremy Guthrie remains from last season, and he was only a midseason addition to the ’12 team. Shields gives the club a legit #1; Davis pitched well out of the ‘pen last year and still has plenty of upside; Guthrie and free agent import Ervin Santana should provide plenty of quality innings. The offense will be led by a core of homegrown talent: Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer. The bullpen is filled with power arms and the farm system is still stocked. These Royals could be here to stay for the next several seasons.
3rd place: Chicago White Sox
Not to brag, but I predicted last year’s turnaround on the South Side and many of the same pieces return this season. Chris Sale emerged as an ace and Jake Peavy recovered his pre-injury form. The offense will miss A.J. Pierzynski’s bat, but Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, and Paul Konerko will keep the scoreboard operator quite busy. But there are question marks. Will Robin Ventura’s motivational magic continue? Can Tyler Flowers hold down an everyday spot in the lineup? How much will John Danks be able to contribute? Will Sale suffer any setbacks after last year’s increased workload? Expect the Sox to hover around .500 all year. Better than the worst clubs in the division, but not quite elite.
4th place: Cleveland Indians
I actually like their offseason quite a bit. Michael Bourn changes the complexion of this club, giving them the dynamic leadoff batter they haven’t enjoyed since Kenny Lofton’s heyday in the mid-90s. They probably overpaid for Nick Swisher, but I expect him to thrive as the big fish in this small pond. And the addition of manager Terry Francona might be the most important piece. Tito is a proven winner and he’s a player’s manager. I’m rooting for him. The rotation is still a bit of an enigma. Justin Masterson is maddeningly inconsistent…and he’s supposed to be the ace? And you never know what you’re going to get with Ubaldo Jimenez. Two years from now when Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco are anchoring the rotation, Cleveland might be able to contend for the division crown. But not until then.
5th place: Minnesota Twins
I really like Ron Gardenhire and I hope he’s able to pull a rabbit out of his hat here. But I have a feeling this is his swan song in the Twin Cities. This team is simply bereft of pitching. Scott Diamond was a nice little story last year, but come on. When Vance Worley is your offseason headliner, you know you’re in for a long summer. Mauer will probably contend for another batting title and Justin Morneau looks to be healthy (finally). He and Josh Willingham make a formidable middle of the order. But I just don’t see how this team can contend with the other teams in this division. It ain’t happening.