On paper, it looks like the least competitive division in baseball. After all you have the defending champions, who happen to have the defending AL MVP and Cy Young winner AND added a huge slugger in the offseason, going against a team that played over its head last year (Cleveland), a team that looks to be at least a year away (Kansas City), a team in complete turmoil (Chicago), and a team that almost lost 100 games last year (Minnesota). It’s Detroit’s division to lose.
But, as they say, that’s why you play the games.
Today we take a look at the AL Central.
Past Five Champions
2011 – Detroit
2010 – Minnesota
2009 – Minnesota
2008 – Chicago
2007 – Cleveland
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.4
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Yes he will be changing positions (and hasn’t looked great at it thus far, considering the ol’ “ball off the face” trick), but there’s no denying that Cabrera is the beast of the Central. For two straight years he has posted a WAR of 7.0 or better. For five straight years he has hit 30+ HR and driven in 100+ runs. In all four years that he has been a member of the Tigers he has finished in the top-15 of AL MVP voting. Now that he is teaming with Prince Fielder? Look out…
Honourable Mention: Prince Fielder, Tigers; Joe Mauer, Twins
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Verlander put together a season for the ages in 2011, going 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts, a 0.92 WHIP, and a no-hitter. He won both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards, the first pitcher to win both since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Though he is ripe for some regression this season, there’s no denying that he is the best pitcher in this division. With an even better lineup behind him, could we be looking at a 30-win candidate?
Honourable Mention: Doug Fister, Tigers; Justin Masterson, Indians
Three Storylines For 2012
1. What Can Verlander Do For an Encore?
As mentioned, Verlander dominated in 2011. This season, he is playing on what might be a stronger Tiger team, with the addition of Fielder, and in one of baseball’s weakest divisions. All signs point to another MVP quality year? Well, not so fast. The big issue is this: Verlander threw 251 innings last year, then added another 20.1 in the playoffs. He threw 3,941 regular season pitches, an average of 116 per start. Those are crazy numbers. Will his arm break down?
2. Fielder and Cabrera
What do you get when you put Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in the same lineup? Most likely a ton of runs and a huge power barrage. What do you get when you put Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in the same infield? Most likely a lot of trouble. Never, at least as far back as I can remember, will infield defense come under as much scrutiny as it will with Detroit. A few extra groundballs that get through and a few additional errors could be result in a few additional losses. That might bring the Tigers back to the pack.
3. Return of the Twins
The Minnesota Twins were a perennial contender until imploding into a 99-loss team in ’11. Injuries derailed the team right from the start, and though a variety of players went down, none were more important than the MVP duo of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. The two combined to miss 173 games, and only hit a combined 7 HR, a far cry from their former dominant selves. Minnesota said goodbye to longtime Twins Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan in the offseason, meaning good health, and healthy production, by Mauer and Morneau are essential for a Minny turnaround.
It’s important to take defensive metrics with a grain of salt – there really isn’t a perfect way to measure how good a player is in the field. But…the Tigers could be in trouble. Baseball Reference calculates a statistic called Rtot (Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average) which demonstrates the number of runs a player was worth defensively. Average is zero. A negative number means the player actually cost his team runs with the way he played defensively. According to Rtot, in 2011 Prince Fielder was the 3rd worst defensive 1B in all of baseball (with at least 200 innings played at the position) at -7. Only two players were worse: Eric Hosmer of KC (-10), and Miguel Cabrera, his new teammate (-8). Cabrera will shift to 3B in 2012, a much more difficult position, which intuitively will lead to a much worse Rtot. What’s worse, is that incumbent 2B Ryan Raburn was the 7th worst fielding second baseman in all of baseball at -5. Only SS Jhonny Peralta can claim to be good defensively. Things could get ugly in Detroit’s infield…
Who Should Win
Will they? Find out in my season prediction column