A year ago, the Tigers were the overwhelming favorite to rise above the rest in a division that, in terms of winning percentage, has been one of the weakest in baseball in recent years. The Tigers lived up to the predictions, though perhaps not to the degree of dominance so many expected. They won the division crown with just 88 regular-season wins, outlasting the White Sox in the final stretch.
Once again, the Tigers, who went on to take the AL pennant before a World Series sweep at the hands of the Giants, will be the overwhelming favorite when the 2013 season begins next week. And once again, they've improved themselves considerably on paper, getting Victor Martinez back healthy, adding Torii Hunter and ensuring Anibal Sanchez will be in the rotation for a full season.
But things have not exactly been quiet in the Central in recent months. The Indians, surprisingly, landed arguably two of the top five position players available in the free-agent market in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, high-profile players to go with their new high-profile skipper, Terry Francona. The Royals, hungry to augment a young lineup with a ton of upside, swung a blockbuster trade for James Shields and Wade Davis, while also adding Ervin Santana to the starting five and re-signing Jeremy Guthrie.
While the White Sox weren't exactly aggressive in the winter market, they were legit contenders for all but two weeks of 2012. They ought not be overlooked. And while the Twins might not be counted as contenders at present, they do have a healthy Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau on hand from the get-go, so they might be able to shake off the sting of consecutive 90-plus loss seasons and improve the depth of the division.
Right now, it's a division that belongs to the star-studded Tigers. It's up to the others to push them off the pedestal.
With a new season on the horizon, we polled our AL Central beat writers -- Indians reporter Jordan Bastian, Tigers reporter Jason Beck, Twins reporter Rhett Bollinger, Royals reporter Dick Kaegel and White Sox reporter Scott Merkin -- and asked them to rank the clubs in the four major categories and assess their contention status. The results are as follows:
The Indians should be big of bat and fleet of foot; the Royals could become an elite offense if Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both reach their potential; the White Sox showed last year what it means to have Paul Konerko and a productive Adam Dunn in the heart of the order; and the Twins' middle-order trio of Mauer, Morneau and Josh Willingham is imposing. But Detroit is undoubtedly the top of the class here, with a Nos. 1-5 -- Austin Jackson, Hunter, reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Martinez -- group that is about as good as it gets.
Our selection: Tigers
The Tigers are unmatched here, too. Justin Verlander has been, hands down, the AL's best pitcher over the last three seasons, building on his legend every fifth day. With Doug Fister healthy after last year's oblique issues, Max Scherzer having come into his own in the second half of '12 and Sanchez back in the mix as a more-than-capable No. 4, the Tigers have a rotation built for October.
Our selection: Tigers
The Royals relief crew had the sixth-best collective ERA in the game last year, and this was all the more impressive considering they were called upon for more innings than any other AL unit. With Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins in the back end, Kansas City boasts a strong assemblage of power arms who can rack up strikeouts. An improved starting staff should help the bullpen solidify all the more. The Indians, with Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano forming an effective eighth-ninth tandem, also rate highly.
Our selection: Royals
The White Sox rated well in error count and advanced metrics last year, and the Royals have the makings of what could be a strong defensive cast. But our crew gave the Indians the nod here, largely on the might of what could be an elite, athletic outfield of Bourn in center and Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs in the corners.
Our selection: Indians
So, what's the overall outlook for the five AL Central clubs? Here's our collective take on it:
Tigers. Detroit was the best and arguably got better. The Tigers have a big question mark in the ninth inning, but they have a lineup that should build leads and a starting staff that should protect them. This is a club built for the World Series, but there is still business to take care of in the division.
Royals, White Sox. Our crew had Kansas City and Chicago here. The Royals reinvented their rotation, hoping to take advantage of that burgeoning young core in the field and give Kansas City its first winning ballclub in a decade. The White Sox tend to get overlooked after a lackluster winter, but if Chris Sale and Jake Peavy stay healthy, they'll continue to be a factor.
Indians. Cleveland is a totally different team than it was a year ago, and it's going to be interesting to see how the pieces coalesce. If the rotation, one of the worst in baseball last year, comes together, they have the lineup and bullpen to contend.
NEVER SAY NEVER
Twins. Minnesota, like Kansas City, will have a dramatically different rotation and a manager on the hot seat in Ron Gardenhire. The Twins hope to stay healthy and return to respectability after two years in the basement.