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AL Central: The Twins look to stay a step ahead in a wide-open division

Breaking down each team in the AL Central heading into the offseason. Teams are listed in order of 2009 finish. Check out the other division previews here:

AL EastAL WestNL EastNL CentralNL West

PENDING FREE AGENTS: SS Orlando Cabrera, 3B Joe Crede, SP Carl Pavano, RP Ron Mahay, C Mike Redmond.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

TRADE ACQUISITION: SS J.J. Hardy (from Brewers for CF Carlos Gomez).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SP Jeff Manship, 3B Danny Valencia.

BUILDING FOR: Playing game 163 in the ALDS.

BIGGEST HOLES: Third base, second base.

TARGETS: 2B Orlando Hudson, 2B Placido Polanco, 3B Chone Figgins, 3B Adrian Beltre, 3B Troy Glaus.

BREAKDOWN:The Twins have already addressed one of their major issues by trading Gomez for Hardy. Gomez is an elite defender in center, but has neither power nor patience at the plate, resulting in a career .638 OPS, and had been squeezed out of the starting lineup by the emergence of Denard Span. For that unwanted player, the Twins filled their shortstop hole with Hardy, who even in his lost 2009 season surpassed Gomez's career OPS and hit .283/.343/.478 the year before while playing excellent defense. Hardy is streaky even at his best, but he's a significant upgrade over Brendan Harris and Nick Punto, who split the job before Cabrera arrived midseason. Unfortunately, Cabrera's arrival simply pushed Punto to the other side of second base, which is why the Twins' top priority now becomes finding a legitimate keystoner. Fortunately, the market offers two excellent candidates in Hudson and Polanco. Of course, signing one of those two would only push Punto over to third, which is why the Twins need to fill that position as well. Even if they're tempted to wait for Valencia's arrival, an incentive-laden deal for Glaus could fill the gap and seems like a better bet than the similar deal the Twins seem likely to offer Crede. Beltre would provide excellent defense and benefit from low expectations at the plate, while Figgins would team with Span to boost Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau's RBI totals while providing Punto-like flexibility with a far superior player, but Figgins is likely to be overvalued by the market, and Beltre is such a perfect fit for the Phillies that it's hard to imagine him not landing there.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: 2B Placido Polanco, SP Jarrod Washburn, CL Fernando Rodney, 4C Aubrey Huff, RP Brandon Lyon, OF Marcus Thames, SS Adam Everett, C Matt Treanor.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 2B Scott Sizemore, 1B/3B Jeff Larish, C Dusty Ryan, SP Alfredo Figaro, RP Zach Simons, 1B Ryan Strieby.

BUILDING FOR: A return to the postseason.

BIGGEST HOLES: Middle infield, closer, left field, back of the rotation, bullpen.

TARGETS: SS Marco Scutaro, SS Orlando Cabrera, SS Miguel Tejada, CL Jose Valverde, CL Billy Wagner, CL Mike Gonzalez, CL Rafael Soriano, LF Johnny Damon, RF Jermaine Dye.

BREAKDOWN:The last few years have been hard on Detroit. A preseason favorite to win it all in 2008, the Tigers finished dead last in their division, quite a feat when you remember that the Royals play in the Central. Unburdened by expectations this year, they led the division for most of the year only to lose it to the Twins in a one-game playoff. In the meantime, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordoñez have been aging rapidly, Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya have been largely inactive, and now the team finds itself needing to fill both middle-infield spots, as well as the top two spots in the bullpen, before they can even begin to make improvements elsewhere. To make matters worse, Ordoñez's $18 million option for 2010 vested by 61 plate appearances, which could put a serious crimp in the team's spending this winter. In any other division, the Tigers would have to seriously consider taking a year or two to retool their roster, but the AL Central has been wide open the last two years, both times decided by a one-game playoff and won by a team that failed to reach 90 victories. With no clear favorite heading into 2010, the Tigers are in as good a position as any of their rivals to stake a claim to a playoff berth with a well-managed offseason. The only question is if they can afford to reload, or if they'll have to settle for merely restocking.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: RP Octavio Dotel, OF Scott Podsednik, SP Bartolo Colon, OF Dewayne Wise, C Ramon Castro.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS:Jermaine Dye ($12/1M mutual -- declined).

TRADE ACQUISITION: 3B Mark Teahen (from Royals for 2B Chris Getz and 3B Josh Fields).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: SP Dan Hudson, SP Carlos Torres, RP Jhonny Nuñez, C Tyler Flowers, RP Jon Link.

BUILDING FOR: A chance to capitalize on their weak division.

BIGGEST HOLES: Right field, DH.

TARGETS: LF Matt Holliday, LF Jason Bay, DH/RF Vladimir Guerrero, DH Hideki Matsui, LF Johnny Damon.

BREAKDOWN:Having picked up Jake Peavy at the trading deadline, the White Sox are well-armed heading into 2010 with a rotation of Peavy, Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and one from a group of Freddy Garcia, Hudson and Torres in the fifth spot. They're similarly well-stocked in the bullpen, with Tony Peña having arrived a few weeks before Peavy to reinforce the group headed by Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton, whom I named the best set-up man in baseball. There are minor league reinforcements on the way there as well. The trouble with the Pale Hose is what GM Kenny Williams is doing to their offense. Williams packed off first-base prospect Brandon Allen in the Peña deal despite the fact that Paul Konerko is now entering the final year of his contract. Williams' waiver claim on Alex Rios was a total disaster, as Rios hit .199/.229/.301 in 41 games down the stretch while the Sox fell from two to seven games out in the Central, leaving them in a distant third place and on the hook for $58.7 million over the next five years to a player who hit .247/.296/.395 on the season and has had an on-base percentage above .350 just once in his six-year career. Even more perplexing was the recent acquisition of Teahen to play third base (with Gordon Beckham moving to second). Teahen is a poor fielder who has slugged over .410 just once in his five-year career and has hit a collective .263/.319/.405 over the last two seasons with 254 strikeouts in 293 games. He's also arbitration eligible and a free agent after 2010, whereas the two players Williams traded for him, while not major loses production-wise, were at least still under team control at the major league minimum. After those moves, Williams will have to make a big splash for a DH and/or a corner outfielder just to negate the damage he's already done.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: IF Jamey Carroll, RHP Tomo Ohka.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: None.

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: 1B Matt LaPorta, C Carlos Santana, CF Michael Brantley, C Lou Marson, SP Carlos Carrasco, SP Hector Rondon.

BUILDING FOR: Rebuilding, actually -- around Grady Sizemore.

BIGGEST HOLES: Left field, pitching.

TARGETS: A taker for Kerry Wood.

BREAKDOWN:The deadline trades of Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez, Ryan Garko and Rafael Betancourt completed Phase 1 of the Tribe's rebuilding, leaving Wood, who is entering the second year of a two-year deal; Travis Hafner, trapped by a bad contract and an early decline; and Jake Westbrook, untradeable amid a season spent rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, as the only thirtysomethings on the 40-man roster. With a new manager in place, the Indians are loaded with prospects, many of whom have already been rushed to the majors due simply to the lack of viable alternatives, and will spend the next couple of seasons sorting through their booty in an attempt to turn all that raw talent into a winning ball club. That could make Cleveland compelling going forward, but it doesn't make them much of a player in the Hot Stove League.

PENDING FREE AGENTS: SP Bruce Chen, SP Sidney Ponson, RP Jamey Wright, RHP Tony Pena Jr.

PLAYERS WITH OPTIONS: CF Coco Crisp ($8/0.5M club -- declined), C Miguel Olivo ($3.3/0.1M mutual -- declined), Yasuhiko Yabuta ($4/0.5M club -- declined).

TRADE ACQUISITIONS: 2B Chris Getz and 3B Josh Fields (from White Sox for UT Mark Teahen).

PROSPECTS ON THE VERGE: UT Tug Hulett, RP Carlos Rosa, 1B Kila Ka'aihue, SP Aaron Crowe.

BUILDING FOR: Respectability.

BIGGEST HOLES: Catcher, outfield.

TARGETS: C Lou Marson, C Lucas May.

BREAKDOWN:The Royals are in the middle of a large rebuilding (though it's been so long since they were good it could just be called a "building" at this point) under general manager Dayton Moore, who was just given a five-year extension. This season brought some important developments, with breakout seasons from likely Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke, first baseman Billy Butler, second baseman Alberto Callaspo and the continued dominance of closer Joakim Soria, but it also brought continued frustration as injuries ripped through the lineup and pitching staff, and former first-round picks Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar (in the majors) and Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas (in the minors) struggled mightily while the major league club lost 10 more games than a year ago.

Royals fans who were promised a light at the end of the tunnel when Moore took over in 2006 could be forgiven if they felt like the organization was spinning its wheels once again. The Royals are caught between waiting for the talent clustered in the low minors to develop and trying to build at the major league level around their emerging young core. Save for the surprisingly successful Gil Meche signing, Moore's efforts to acquire established major league players have been largely objectionable (Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Jacobs, Willie Bloomquist, Josh Anderson, Yuniesky Betancourt, Sidney Ponson ...). He's much better when acquiring developing talent, such as Callaspo or Soria, which bodes well for the minor swap with the White Sox, which could help fill the outfield hole by putting Fields in left and pushing David DeJesus back to center, or better yet, to right with Guillen hitting the trading block.

Moore should take a similar approach to filling the catcher position, thus my recommendation of Marson and May, prospects who are blocked in their respective organizations. Marson, part of the Indians' take from the Cliff Lee trade, is about to be overtaken by blue-chipper Carlos Santana, while 25-year-old converted shortstop May is stuck behind 26-year-old converted infielder Russell Martin with the Dodgers. Marson is more major-league ready, but he's also with a division rival on a similar rebuilding course.

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