This article appears in the April 5, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.
People will argue about the value of a closer, but nobody can question Joe Nathan's sway over the AL Central the last six years. Mostly a starter and middle reliever with the Giants, Nathan had one career save when he was traded to the Twins in November 2003. But from the day he arrived in Minnesota and became the closer, he has spelled ninth-inning doom in the division.
Put it this way: AL Central hitters have batted .164 against Nathan since '04, been punched out 233 times and walked just 53. He's also had a 1.77 ERA and saved 115 games against division rivals, and the Twins have won three division titles over the past six years. What Mariano Rivera has been to the Yankees, Joe Nathan has been to the Twins.
So when Minnesota announced that Nathan had a torn ulnar ligament in his right elbow -- meaning Tommy John surgery plus a yearlong rehab -- the division appeared to be up for grabs. "The Twins are still a terrific team," Royals G.M. Dayton Moore says, "but they haven't had to worry about the ninth inning for a few years."
Minnesota has the best-hitting team in the division and probably the best in the field. Reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer became the first catcher to lead a league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the same season -- plus he won a Gold Glove. Mauer, former MVP Justin Morneau, outfielder Michael Cuddyer and outfielder -- DH Jason Kubel all hit 28 or more home runs in 2009 -- the first time that four Twins had done that since 1987, when they won the World Series. They added another power threat, J.J. Hardy, at shortstop and perennial Gold Glove winner Orlando Hudson at second.
Then there's the pitching. Minnesota starters last year had a 4.84 ERA; in the division, only the Indians' 5.30 was higher. With Nathan's injury making the bullpen vulnerable -- 6'11" journeyman Jon Rauch will be part of a committee of replacements -- and everyone wondering how the team will handle the move to an outdoor stadium (the brand new Target Field), the Twins' status as favorites seems suddenly shaky.
But this is a division of flawed teams, and Minnesota is still the least flawed of the bunch. The White Sox have the best rotation, beginning with 2007 NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who was acquired last July while hurt, and workhorse lefty Mark Buehrle. Buehrle has had double-figure wins every year since 2001, and the hope is that with a healthy Peavy absorbing some of the pressure, Buehrle will pace himself better. Last season, after pitching his perfect game on July 23, he went 2-7 with a 4.78 ERA.
The question with Chicago is run production. The White Sox finished 12th in the league using an old lineup. Gone are Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome and Scott Podsednik. In are Juan Pierre and Mark Teahen. Scoring doesn't figure to get any easier.
The Tigers' strength is their power arms, led by AL strikeout king Justin Verlander. With Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer following, Detroit can match young talent with anybody. Also, first baseman Miguel Cabrera is as good a hitter as there is in the AL. But the Tigers were another team that had trouble scoring, especially when they went 11-16 and blew a seven-game lead in September. And center fielder Curtis Granderson and second baseman Placido Polanco are gone, replaced by rookies Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore, respectively.
With Nathan out, the Royals have the best closer in the division in Joakim Soria. They also have the best starter in Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. And they have one of the best young hitters in first baseman Billy Butler, who last year had 20 homers and 50 doubles. The trouble with Kansas City is the rest of the roster. It's loaded with -thirtysomethings -- Podsednik, Rick Ankiel, Jose Guillen, Jason Kendall, Gil Meche --who, at best, could provide some leadership.
Cleveland is only a shell of the team that was one game away from the World Series in 2007. The remaining parts -- Fausto Carmona, Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore and Jake Westbrook -- are all coming off serious injuries, serious slumps or both. The Indians have some nice young players, especially outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, but that pitching staff looks overmatched.