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AL Central preview: Twins still the favorite in tightly contested race

Get ready for another white-knuckle race in the AL Central, where twice in the last three years a 163rd game has been needed to decide the division. The Twins are still the most complete team in the division and the favorite to take their second-straight Central crown. But while the Indians and Royals are more intent on winning the future, both the White Sox and Tigers improved over the winter and have closed the gap in the only division in baseball that has three teams (Minnesota, Chicago, and Detroit) with $100 million payrolls.

WINTER GRADE: A-

The Chicago front office considered getting both younger and cheaper this winter, but instead owner Jerry Reinsdorf greenlit a payroll increase. As a result, the aging White Sox are "All In," according to their new team motto. They re-signed Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, landed the division's biggest free agent acquisition, Adam Dunn, and also added Jesse Crain and Will Ohman to a rebuilt bullpen.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will Adam Dunn hit 50 home runs in the Windy City?

One of the game's most consistent home run boppers lands in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the league, U.S. Cellular Field. He's in for a monster year.

2. Can Jake Peavy start 20 games?

The former Cy Young winner threw off the mound over the weekend and is preparing himself for an extended spring training. When he makes his first start is anyone's guess.

3. Can Matt Thornton anchor the rebuilt bullpen?

The 34-year-old lefthander has 17 career saves, but the White Sox are convinced he can replace Bobby Jenks. Thornton has the talent to carry the load --- but if he stumbles, Chicago will call on phenom lefthander Chris Sale.

X-FACTOR:

Paul Konerko. He had a career year at 34. No one expects him to duplicate his 2010 numbers, but how much will he regress? Chicago can't afford too much of a drop-off, as it committed $12.5 million a year for another three years to the veteran first baseman.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"I think they made a mistake making Sale a reliever. With Peavy such a big question mark, he really could have helped them in the rotation. I really like [John] Danks and Gavin Floyd, but [Mark] Buehrle isn't the same guy anymore. Their starting pitching may not be as good as everyone thinks it is."

WINTER GRADE: C

Few teams had a quieter offseason than the Indians, who are simply counting on some of their biggest stars to return from injury. They signed outfielder Austin Kearns and made a number of less significant deals (Nick Johnson, Adam Everett, Travis Buck, Justin Germano). Still, Cleveland thinks it can win now, with Grady Sizemore, Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera all back after missing significant time last year.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will Grady Sizemore ever be the same?

Sizemore has made slow strides in his recovery from microfracture surgery on his left knee. With so much of his game based on his speed, it's hard to imagine that Sizemore will ever return as one of the game's top players.

2. Who will emerge as the ace in the rotation?

Cleveland starters posted the fourth-best ERA in the league after the All-Star break last season, but the Indians are still looking for a bona fide No. 1 to step up. And no, Fausto Carmona is not that guy.

3. Was Chris Perez's 2010 season a mirage?

The righty's emergence as a shutdown closer was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal season. The Indians' longtime search for a closer looks like it's finally over.

X-FACTOR:

Matt LaPorta. He was the best prospect the Indians got in return for CC Sabathia in 2008, but at 26, he's failed to live up to expectations. It's a make-or-break year for the onetime can't-miss kid.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"There's talent here, there's hope for the future. Drew Pomeranz and Alex White are two pitchers they can build around. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the most underrated players in the game -- he's their best position player. If they stay healthy and get some surprises in the rotation, they have a chance at .500. But that's if everything goes right."

WINTER GRADE: B+

The Tigers made a splash signing Victor Martinez (four years, $50 million) and Joaquin Benoit (three years, $16.5 million). Martinez will boost an offense that ranked eight in the AL in runs, but in spacious Comerica Park he's no more than a 20-home run hitter. Benoit was brilliant last year on the Rays and has looked terrific this spring, but his injury history makes him far from a sure thing. Detroit also added Brad Penny (one year, $3 million) to a rotation that has two Cy Young candidates in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Is Rick Porcello ready to take the next step?

The Tigers have a good rotation. They could have a great one if the 22-year-old righthander takes the next step this season.

2. Will Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver make an impact?

The organization's two top arms were impressive this spring. Oliver is further along than Turner, the prospect with more upside. Look for both to pitch in big games this season.

3. How will the back end of the rotation perform?

Penny started just nine games for the Cardinals last season. Phil Coke is making the transition from reliever to starter. Both have upside -- but also a ton of risk.

X-FACTOR:

Miguel Cabrera. The All-Star's arrest was the big news early in spring training. He also looked heavier this spring, though he was still swinging the bat as well as ever. It goes without saying, but the Tigers are toast without their star first baseman.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"They can make a run at Minnesota. I love Austin Jackson. He's perfect in centerfield there, plays great defense. There are just a lot of injury issues here. Magglio is old. Who knows when Carlos Guillen is coming back. [Joel] Zumaya's never healthy. I worry about their depth. But with their top two starters and Cabrera, who for me is right there with Pujols, they've got the talent to win the division."

VERDUCCI: Why Tigers can be scary good in 2011

WINTER GRADE: C+

The purge continued this winter, with Zack Greinke and David DeJesus leaving K.C. GM Dayton Moore made a handful of minor acquisitions to plug some holes -- acquiring Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur and Vin Mazzaro -- but Kansas City is focused on the future. The team that takes the field on Opening Day and the one playing in Kauffman Stadium in September will be drastically different. And that's a good thing. Royals fans, take heart: The kids are on their way.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Which stud prospect will be the first to arrive?

All indications are that it will be third baseman Mike Moustakas, who should be up by June. He could be soon followed by first baseman Eric Hosmer, the best prospect in the system.

2. Whither Alex Gordon?

The former phenom has had a monster spring. Will it carry over? His time is running out in K.C., where he's on the verge of becoming a platoon player.

3. Will Luke Hochevar ever be a front-line starter?

Kansas City's top pick from 2006 has failed to live up to expectations as well. If the Royals' Opening Day starter is bad, the rotation could be a disaster.

X-FACTOR:

Joakim Soria. He's the best closer in the AL. But would the Royals consider dealing the 26-year-old for a haul of prospects? Moore should at least listen to offers.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"The prospects are legit. There's so much talent here, they could miss on some of these guys and they'd still be a contender in 2013. I think Hosmer's their best prospect. He's got a higher ceiling than Moustakas. There's going to be a lot of excitement in July when they start coming up. Until then, well, not so much."

VERDUCCI: Royals 2011 plan tough to figure out

WINTER GRADE: B-

The Twins spent nearly $20 million to re-sign Carl Pavano and Jim Thome, who were keys to their season a year ago. The front office was also smart not to shell out big bucks on any departed relievers (Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jesse Crain, and Jon Rauch). Free agent acquisition Tsuyoshi Nishioka from Japan could be one of the AL's biggest surprises this year.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can Justin Morneau stay on the field?

Even with the start of the season looming, there is little certainty when it comes to Morneau's health. Coming off a concussion, the All-Star first baseman's recovery has been a slow one. The Twins can do nothing but hold their breath.

2. Will Francisco Liriano ever be the pitcher he was in 2006?

The 27-year-old lefty showed flashes of brilliance last season, but he struggled down the stretch with a career-high workload. Liriano is Minnesota's only true shutdown starter, and the Twins will need a strong full season from their ace to contend.

3. Is Joe Nathan healthy?

Manager Ron Gardenhire won't commit to one closer just yet, as he's not convinced his All-Star righthander is fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him all of last year.

X-FACTOR:

Nishioka. Minnesota hopes the Japanese import is the next Ichiro, not the next Kaz Matsui. Nishi should be a plus fielder at second and has the potential to steal 20 bases. What he gives the Twins at the plate is the biggest question.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"So many health issues with them. I'd even be worried about [Joe] Mauer, and whether he can hold up for a whole season. They may get to the playoffs again, but they're just not a pitching staff built for October. None of those guys besides Liriano are big strikeout guys, so we'll see them struggle again in the playoffs -- if they get there."

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