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AL Central Hot Stove preview: Tigers, White Sox still only real contenders

Jose Valverde's multiple October meltdowns rendered him expendable as the Tigers' closer. (AP)

jose-valverde-ap2’s breakdown of the offseason plans for all 30 major league teams continues today with Jay Jaffe's look at the AL Central. For other divisions so far, see below:

Jay Jaffe: AL West

Jay Jaffe: NL Central

Cliff Corcoran: NL West

Detroit Tigers

2012 Results: 88-74, AL Central champions, lost World Series

Third-Order Record: 89-73

Pending Free Agents:  OF Don Kelly C Gerald Laird, RHP Anibal Sanchez, RHP Jose Valverde, DH/OF Delmon Young

Since my review of the major roster issues faced by the Tigers in the wake of their World Series defeat, the team has answered a few burning questions, renewing manager Jim Leyland's contract, picking up their options on shortstop Jhonny Peralta ($6 million) and righty reliever Octavio Dotel ($3.5 million) and announcing that they'll let both Valverde and Young walk.

The 34-year-old Valverde, who made $9 million in the final year of a three-year, $23 million deal, saved 35 games, but his strikeout rate dipped to 6.3 per nine while his ERA shot up to 3.78, and after a couple of implosions in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he was removed from the closer role. The 26-year-old Young hit just .267/.296/.411 and was 0.9 wins below replacement level according to Baseball Prospectus' WARP. A lousy hitter and fielder, he was rendered expendable by the planned return of Victor Martinez from a season missed due to microfracture surgery. Laird had a pretty good year (.282/.337/.374) relative to his track record, but he might be displaced as starter Alex Avila's backup if the Tigers think Martinez can resume part-time catcher duties. Kelly, a Leyland favorite, hit just .186/.276/.248 in a utility role and is easily replaced.

Sanchez, who pitched well as a late-season addition, is one of the market's most desirable starters on the heels of three straight seasons of at least 195 innings; he put up a 3.86 ERA between the Marlins and Tigers, striking out 7.7 per nine. While the Tigers would like to keep him, they recognize the reality that he'll receive a bigger multi-year deal than they can afford.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RF Avisail Garcia

The 21-year-old Garcia played in all but one of the Tigers' postseason games, which gave broadcasters plenty of chances to refer to him as the mini-Miguel Cabrera. In truth, that's a stretch; Garcia may be 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and blessed with five tools that could be average or better, but he's much more raw than Cabrera at a similar age. He split his season between High-A and Double-A, hitting .299/.333/.455 with 14 homers before being summoned to the majors at the end of August, upon which he hit .391/.373/.319 in 51 plate appearances for the big club. As his 95/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors suggests, his approach still needs work, though he's learning to shorten his swing when appropriate, cutting his strikeout rates significantly. He may not be ready for a full-time major league job, but could take over an outfield corner at some point in 2013, and certainly has the arm for rightfield.

Targets: Outfield corner, second base, bullpen

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Garcia, Andy Dirks, Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch don't add up to two full-time outfield corner solutions given their track records, and the offense could certainly use an additional bat. Detroit's second-sackers, including Omar Infante, hit an abysmal .213/.275/.301 in 2012. Infante is under contract for one more year at just $4 million, but the team's infield defense is sorely in need of an upgrade, and if they're going to keep Cabrera at third base and Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Infante has both versatility and a movable contract.

The departure of Valverde leaves the closer role up for grabs, and while the Tigers have internal options that they can throw against the wall — righty setup man Joaquin Benoit, lefty Phil Coke, hard-throwing prospect Bruce Rondon — all have their drawbacks. Benoit is homer-prone, Coke gets raked over the coals by righties, and Rondon, despite triple-digit heat, has shaky command of both his fastball and his slider. Even if one of those three does emerge with the job, the team will need more bullpen depth, anyway.

Bottom line: The Tigers have some major holes to fill, but the upgrade from Young to Martinez rates as a big plus, and the team figures to contend yet again in this weak division.

Chicago White Sox

2012 Results: 85-77, 2nd place in AL Central

Third-Order Record: 85-77

Pending Free Agents: 2B Orlando Hudson, LHP Francisco Liriano, 2B Jose Lopez, RHP Brett Myers, C A.J. Pierzynski, 3B Kevin Youkilis,

New general manager Rick Hahn has already tackled some of the team's big decisions, picking up Gavin Floyd's $9.5 million option, and restructuring Jake Peavy's $22 million option (and $4 million buyout) into a more reasonable two-year, $29 million extension. At the same time, he turned down the options of midseason acquisitions Youkilis ($13 million with a $1 million buyout) and Myers ($10 million with a $3 million buyout), fairly obvious choices given the decline in both players' skills. Youkilis hit .236/.346/.425 with 14 home runs while battling injuries, Myers made 70 appearances, notched 19 saves (all with Houston pre-trade), and posted a 3.31 ERA, but his strikeout rate dipped to 5.6 per nine, down from 7.0 as a starter in 2010 and '11.

Pierzynski's potential departure has the biggest impact among the aforementioned. He's proven a durable backstop with decent defense and pop during his eight-year tenure on the South Side. At age 35, he set a career high with 27 homers and a .501 slugging percentage, putting him in line for a substantial raise beyond the $6 million he made in the second year of a two-year, $8 million deal. Liriano remained just as maddeningly inconsistent upon being traded from the Twins as he was prior; overall, he whiffed 9.6 per nine but walked 5.0 en route to a 5.34 ERA. Just as the White Sox convinced themselves they could fix him, someone else will, albeit at a higher price. Hudson and Lopez both flopped even more drastically and are now in minor league contract territory.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Andre Rienzo

The White Sox entered last year with a minor league system that ranked dead last according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, one that's even weaker, at least at the upper levels, with the graduation of top prospect Addison Reed to the bullpen. With last year's number two prospect, Nestor Molina, knocked around at Double-A, Rienzo might be the best bet to have in impact in 2013. A 24-year-old righty from Brazil, he struck out 9.8 per nine in 103 1/3 innings across three levels, the bulk of them in Double-A, though he also missed 50 games early in the year due to a PED suspension. As a starter, his fastball can touch 95-96 mph, though his slider and changeup are nothing special; add the typical click or two to that heater coming out of the bullpen, and he could be another late-inning weapon.

Targets: Third base, catcher, second base

After a disappointing rookie season, Brent Morel crashed and burned (.177/.225/.195), missing two and a half months with a bulging disc as well. Youkilis might be welcomed back at a lower price, but the team could seek a third baseman with fewer health questions.

If Piezynski departs, Tyler Flowers is the incumbent catcher. Billed as an offense-first backstop when he was still a prospect — he'll be 27 in January — Flowers hit just .213/.296/.412 and struck out 56 time in 153 PA, though he did throw out 33 percent of would-be base thieves, and has improved defensively in recent years. At the very least, some veteran insurance will be necessary.

At second, Gordon Beckham is 26 years old and coming off a season in which he batted .234/.296/.371 in a hitter-friendly park with defense that was average to slightly below, depending upon your metric of choice. He has been worth 0.4 WARP in each of the past two seasons, and now he's arbitration eligible. A willingness to settle for such mediocrity is a big reason why the White Sox missed the playoffs; they need an upgrade here, which isn't to say they've acknowledged that.

Bottom line: The White Sox rebounded from a dismal 2011 and spent a good portion of the summer in the division's driver seat before stumbling to a 4-11 finish and missing the playoffs. They're the only alternative to the Tigers as a contender in this division, but they could stand to aim higher, particularly by targeting their infield for multiple upgrades.

Kansas City Royals

2012 Results: 72-90, 3rd place in AL Central

Third-Order Record: 69-93

Pending Free Agents:  RHP Jeremy Guthrie, RHP Joakim Soria

The Royals declined an $8 million option on the 28-year-old Soria, who underwent his second Tommy John surgery in April after saving 160 games for the Royals over the previous five seasons. Such second surgeries generally take longer to recover from and are much less effective, so Kansas City's decision makes sense, though it wouldn't be a surprise if it brought him back at a reduced rate.

Guthrie put up a sparkling 3.16 ERA in 14 starts for the Royals after getting rocked for a 6.35 ERA with Colorado. His true ability lies somewhere between those poles, but even his combined 4.76 mark would have ranked second among the Royals' starters, which speaks to just how awful they were. A workhorse who has averaged 194 innings of 4.22 ERA ball over the past six seasons, he's in line for a multiyear deal at an annual rate above the $8.2 million he made this year.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RF Wil Myers

Among position players, only the Rangers' Jurickson Profar ranks higher on prospect lists than the 21-year-old Myers, a third round 2009 pick who moved out from behind the plate in 2011. Myers' ability to hit had already been established coming into 2012, but the growth of his power — 37 homers split between Double-A and Triple-A, up from 14 in A-ball the year before — was a pleasant surprise. In all, he hit .314/.387/.600 and spent much of the season in centerfield, with a detour to third base for no apparent reason given the presence of Mike Moustakas. He'll likely move back to right, and rates as a top Rookie of the Year candidate who should soon settle into a middle-of-the-order spot.

Targets: Starting pitching, second base

The Royals' rotation was terrible in 2012, delivering a 5.01 ERA (11th in the league) and throwing fewer innings than all but one team. They've already begun their attempts to overhaul the unit by trading for 30-year-old Angels righty Ervin Santana, who was lit for a 5.16 ERA in a much more pitcher-friendly environment while allowing an MLB-high 2.0 homers per nine; if that's not enough, Kansas City is paying $12 million of his $13 million salary. Via waivers, the Royals also picked up Chris Volstad, who put up a 6.31 ERA in 111 1/3 innings with the Cubs. Both pitchers have seen some amount of success in the past, but in a rotation that will feature Bruce Chen (5.07 ERA), Luis Mendoza (4.23 ERA), and the backwards-moving Luke Hochevar (5.73 ERA), this isn't progress. If they could convince a Kyle Lohse or Anibal Sanchez to sign here, he'd look like Roy Halladay next to this lot.

Instead of turning the keystone over to 24-year-old Johnny Giavotella following a sizzling 2011 in Triple-A and a so-so debut at the major league level, the Royals opted to farm him out to work on his defense while letting light-hitting Chris Getz and hacktastic Yuniesky Betancourt split time. For their trouble, they got a .256/.289/.359 performance at the position, with Giavotella perhaps playing his way out of their plans with an even more lackluster late-season showing than before. The situation cries out for a better solution.

Bottom line: The Royals have accumulated a core of position players — Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Moustakas, Myers, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer, assuming he can rebound from a disastrous 2012 — that should form the nucleus of a contending lineup, but the rotation is just ghastly, and doesn't figure to improve by enough in 2013 to put the team in the thick of the division race.

Cleveland Indians

2012 Results: 68-94, 4th place in AL Central

Third-Order Record: 69-93

Pending Free Agents: DH Travis Hafner, RHP Robert Hernandez, 1B Casey Kotchman, CF Grady Sizemore,

It looks like the end of an era in Cleveland, as the Indians have declined their option on Hafner ($13 million, with a $2.75 million buyout), who played in just 66 games in the final year of a six-year deal over which he has averaged only 97 games per season. His performance continued to decline in 2012 (.228/.346/.438) while missing 11 weeks due to a torn meniscus and a bulging disc. That's still more than they got out of Sizemore, who never made it into a game due to a microdiscectomy, and who played in just 104 games in 2010 and '11 due to knee injuries and a sports hernia; he was paid $5 million last year.

Cleveland also declined its $6 million option on Hernandez, who didn't pitch until Aug. 15 stemming from the discovery that he had been playing under the false identity of Fausto Carmona for his entire professional career; he was bombed for a 7.53 ERA in three starts before an ankle sprain ended his season. As for Kotchman, after a strong season with the Rays in 2011, he was a bust with the Indians, hitting .229/.280/.333 in 500 plate appearances while making $3 million.

The Indians did pick up the $5.75 million option on Ubaldo Jimenez despite a disappointing season in which he was hit for a 5.40 ERA due to inflated walk and homer tendencies (4.8 and 1.3 per nine, respectively). His 7.3 strikeouts per nine made him the only other Cleveland starter besides Zack McAllister to exceed the league average for starters (7.0), which is why the team retains some hope it can iron Jimenez out, particularly given his relatively low price tag. If it can salvage him, his $8 million option for 2014 will look like a real bargain.

Top Prospect on the Verge: LHP Scott Barnes

With several graduations to the majors in recent years, the upper level of the Indians' system is rather depleted, and their best prospects are in the low minors. In terms of 2013 impact, the most likely candidate is 2008 eighth-round pick Barnes, a soon-to-be 25-year-old reliever who made 16 appearances totaling 19 innings for the big club last year, with a 4.26 ERA and a 16/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struck out 11.6 per nine with a 3.98 ERA at Triple-A. Barnes throws a low-90s fastball with an above-average slider and an average changeup that he uses mostly against righties; in the minors he has actually shown a slight reverse platoon split, which should help him avoid being pigeonholed as a lefty specialist.

Another pitcher who draws mention as a potential 2013 contributor is 22-year-old righty reliever Trey Haley, a second-round pick from 2008 who battled a misdiagnosed sports hernia for 18 months before finally undergoing surgery in June. He whiffed 11.4 per nine with a 2.33 ERA in 38 2/3 innings across three levels in 2012. Haley has a mid-90s fastball and a curve that's a potential plus pitch, a combo that could earn him a bullpen spot.

Targets: Impact bats at left field, first base, designated hitter; starting pitching 

The Indians ranked second-to-last in the league in scoring because they got terrible performances at the most offense-minded positions: first base (.240/.297/.379), leftfield (.215/.277/.321) and DH (.226/.317/.385). They may consider a full-time move of catcher Carlos Santana to first, where he has played 87 games there over the past two years; that could jumpstart his offensive production, which has been good for a catcher (.252/.365/.420 with 18 homers in 2012) but light for a corner. If so, they'll have to find another backstop to pair with light-hitting Lou Marson. Minor league masher Russ Canzler, who turns 27 in April, could get a shot at one opening; he hit .269/.299/.398 in 97 plate appearances with the Indians after batting .265/.328/.487 with 22 homers at Triple-A. Cleveland clearly doesn't have enough in-house resources to fill all three positions, so expect it to be looking for affordable (if not necessarily proven) options all around.

As for their starters, the Indians' rotation ranked 13th in the league in both ERA (5.25) and strikeouts (6.1 per nine); their inability to miss bats is an ongoing problem given the shakiness of the infield defense behind them (their .685 defensive efficiency ranked 12th). Beyond McAllister, Justin Masterson and Jimenez, the Indians will give Corey Kluber and David Huff a shot, but they'll have to look outside this organization for real improvement.

Bottom line: The Indians have bolted out of the gate looking like contenders in each of the past two seasons, only to have the flaws in their roster laid bare, but that didn't excuse the late-season freefalls that ultimately cost manager Manny Acta his job. Though there's still a talented young(ish) core here —Santana, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo — this time around, the Indians have little illusion of contending, and new manager Terry Francona knows he'll need a whole lot of patience to point the team in the right direction.

Minnesota Twins

2012 Results: 66-96, 5th place in AL Central

Third-Order Record: 70-92

Pending Free Agents:  RHP Scott Baker, RHP Matt Capps, RHP Carl Pavano

The Twins' rotation had an AL-worst 5.40 ERA, which owes plenty to the fact that Baker's Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2012, while Pavano's sprained shoulder capsule limited him to 11 starts with a 6.00 ERA. Minnesota has already declined a $9.25 million option on the former, who turned 31 in September, but it's open to bringing him back at a lower price. Baker has had a hard time staying healthy, reaching 30 starts and 200 innings just once in his career, but his 7.2 strikeouts per nine separate him from the organization's pack of pitch-to-contact hurlers. Pavano, who turns 37 in January, made $8.5 million in 2012; his strikeout rate hasn't been above 5.0 since 2009, and he's said to be mulling retirement. Capps saved 14 games but missed half the season due to rotator cuff inflammation and was supplanted by Glen Perkins; the team turned down his $6 million option.

Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Kyle Gibson

A 2009 first-round pick out of the University of Missouri, Gibson figured to shoot through the system and reach the majors in 2011, but he wound up missing time due to elbow trouble and finally underwent Tommy John surgery in September of that year. He was back on the mound by July 10, 2012 — an exceptionally quick return following such surgery — but was limited to relief-length stints as a starter; only once did he throw more than three innings. As such, his numbers, particularly his eye-popping strikeout rate, should be eyed with suspicion. Now 25, he throws low-90s two- and four-seam fastballs, with an average changeup and a plus slider, by far his best pitch. He's a third or fourth starter in the making, and should get a shot in an overhauled rotation.

Targets: Starting pitching, middle infield, catching

Aside from Scott Diamond, every spot in Minnesota's rotation is up for grabs, and while Gibson and Baker offer the promise of missing bats, they're both coming off Tommy John surgery. In-house options such as Cole De Vries, Liam Hendricks and Sam Deduno have little upside, so you can expect the team to cast a wide net, perhaps bringing in as many as three starting candidates. None are likely to be frontliners given the Twins' budget and lack of any hope of contention.

The Twins got abysmal offensive production from both their second basemen (.245/.296/.308) and shortstops (.226/.277/.303), and the defense at those spots was subpar as well. Utilityman Jamey Carroll is signed through 2013, but he doesn't pack much punch and is better suited to a backup role. The remainder of on-hand pickings are slim, with perpetual disappointment Alexi Casilla a nontender candidate, and neither Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon nor Eduardo Escobar suited for regular duty.

At catcher, Joe Mauer enjoyed a strong season thanks in part to the fact that he worked just 74 games behind the plate, while DHing 42 times and playing first base another 30. Backup Drew Butera has proven time and again he's unable to hit major league pitching, with a career .183/.232/.265 line in 531 plate appearances. Virtually any experienced free agent catcher would be an improvement, though if the team is able to trade Justin Morneau (likely eating some of his $14 million salary) to open up more time at first for Mauer, they'll need a stronger solution.

Bottom line: