Last week we began our MLB Preview with a look at the NL West.
Week 2 we look at the American League Central, about as average a division as you'll find in baseball.
Today we look at a common theme in the division as well as an impact player from each team.
The one immediate thing that stands out in this division is that it's not tremendously good. Even the Twins, who appear to be the best team in the division, don't seem a ton better than the other very average teams. But the common thread I'll highlight here is the "reclamation project" - each of these teams is relying somewhat on someone who needs to have a big bounceback season.
For some, like J.J. Hardy of the Twins, it's a change of scenery that just might serve them well. For others, like Mike Aviles of the Royals, it's a matter of whether they can replicate their career bests.
Let's start with Aviles. He's had two starkly different years. He garnered some Rookie of the Year votes with his 2008 season, when he hit .325, but went for just .183 in 36 games last season. He was shut down in May and underwent Tommy John surgery. The Royals have some arms on the mound - it's offense that they need. Aviles repeating his 2008 year would be huge for Kansas City.
The Twins have some bats, but would love to see those bats supplemented by J.J. Hardy, who they added in a trade with Milwaukee over the off-season. (Incidentally, they traded Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee, who the Mets had traded for Johan Santana.) When he started playing regularly for Milwaukee in 2007 Hardy was an All Star, and he followed that season up with a pretty good 2008. But last year he was terrible, and was sent back to the minors. A bounceback season from Hardy could be huge for Minnesota's lineup.
The White Sox have a couple of reclamation projects - pitcher Freddy Garcia and outfielder Alex Rios. Garcia, who pitched OK for the White Sox in limited action last year, could be huge because he's a fifth starter in Chicago. If he's effective, the White Sox have a 1 through 5 that can compete with anyone. But "if he's effective" could depend on "if he's healthy", which lately has been the problem for Garcia. He hasn't had a season uninterrupted by injury since 2006. Rios, on the other hand, has been healthy - just short of high expectations. He finished last season with the White Sox by hitting .199 in 41 games in Chicago. He'll be watched closely for a rebirth that could help Chicago in the division.
The Indians are relying heavily on Fausto Carmona finding the approach that helped him go 19-8 in 2007. He pitched in the Dominican this winter in an effort to find that approach. Carmona's numbers on the whole, though, start making 2007 look like a fluke. Jake Westbrook missed all of last year with Tommy John surgery, and if he returns to form with Carmona, the Indians could have a strong 1-2 at the top of their rotation.
The Tigers, meanwhile, don't have any reclamation-type players (though Miguel Cabrera could fall into that category after his alcohol-related problems at the end of last year into the off-season...not so much because of his numbers), but maybe their reputation as an organization falls into this category. They suffered a blow by trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson at the winter meetings and replacing both with youngsters. If Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson play well and make fans forget about the trades that gave them playing time, all will be forgiven. But if the Tigers have a down year, they'll be working to reclaim their fans' trust well into next off-season.
5 Impact Players
(In Alphabetical Order by Team, so as not to ruin the surprise of how I pick them to finish)
1. Carlos Quentin, Chicago White Sox - 36 homers and 100 RBI while hitting .288 in 2008, down to 21 and 56 and .236 a year ago while battling injuries. The injury bug is something that has bitten Quentin for years. He's capable of another year like 2008 if he stays healthy...the White Sox need him to stay healthy.
2. Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland Indians - Yes, his numbers last year were incredible. Yes, he's produced whenever he's played since 2005. But he's never had back-to-back seasons of playing everyday, and for the Indians to be even watchable they need Shin-Soo Choo to have another year like he did last year. A comeback by Grady Sizemore wouldn't hurt either.
3. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers - While the spotlight might be on guys like Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer, who are essentially stepping in for players traded in the off-season, (and Jackson may or may not be affected by Johnny Damon signing with the Tigers), I think it'll be really interesting to see what Cabrera does this year. He seemed contrite last year when his behavior may have impacted the team down the stretch...his play on the field, though, is all people will care about this year.
4. Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals - I like Greinke a lot...and he's been good for a while. Last year he became pretty dominant, as he won the Cy Young Award. But the hyperbole that came with his excellent season got a little out of control. I don't know that Greinke is the best pitcher in the game/league yet. I think he has a long way to go before anyone can decide that, though a lot of people made that decision last year. Another excellent season this year and he'll help make that decision a lot easier.
5. Orlando Hudson, Minnesota Twins - Hudson is a great move for the Twins because he's everything J. J. Hardy is not. Whereas the Twins are hoping they'll get production from Hardy, with Hudson you know you'll get a .290-.300 hitter, plenty of production, and a table-setter in front of the likes of Mauer and Morneau. It'll be interesting to see how he does in a return to the American League, where he began his career, while the past four years in the National League were the best of his career so far.