AL CENTRAL

Remember the Comedy Central awash so long in mediocrity and midsized payrolls? It's now a high-rent district—and the Twins rule
April 03, 2011

Around mid-July, with the season beginning to look as bleak as a Minnesota winter, the Twins adopted a theme song for their season: Eminem's Cinderella Man. They trailed both the White Sox and the Tigers in the standings and were without Justin Morneau (he suffered a concussion in early July and would sit out the rest of the season) and All-Star closer Joe Nathan (who had Tommy John surgery during spring training). But with Eminem thumping over the clubhouse speakers after each win, Minnesota would go 48--26 after July 14 and overtake both Detroit and Chicago to win its second straight division crown.

The club needs a new anthem for 2011: The onetime small-market Twinkies, a franchise that not so long ago was on the verge of contraction, may still like to think of themselves as a Cinderella team, but "the little piranhas," as White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen once called them, have grown into the big, bad fish of the AL Central. They have taken the division title in six of the last nine years. They boast a swelling payroll that will rank in the AL's top five this season. They play in a glistening new $550 million downtown ballpark. And they have a deep and talented roster with as much star power as anybody in baseball. (Minnesota is the only team in the AL with two MVPs—Morneau and Joe Mauer, both in their prime—in the lineup.) As Royals general manager Dayton Moore says, "They are the team to beat."

With Morneau (he finally returned to the lineup three weeks into spring training) and Nathan (he was pain-free and throwing in the low-90s in camp) set to come back, the Twins are loaded for another run. But it may be harder than ever to take the division once derided as the Comedy Central for its mediocre, mid-market teams. After a winter in which both the White Sox and the Tigers spent big, the Central is suddenly stacked with high rollers. "This is the only division in baseball with three teams with more than a $100 million payroll," says White Sox assistant G.M. Rick Hahn. "It's no surprise that for two of the last three years we have needed a 163rd game to decide this division—and we fully expect it to be that kind of race again."

The Twins' move to Target Field allowed the front office to boost the payroll from $65 million in 2009 to $97 million in '10. It will top $115 million this season, and a higher payroll brings loftier expectations: No longer are the Twins and their faithful content with merely reaching the postseason, where they have been brutal (6--21 in playoff games since 2001). "Last year left a very bitter taste in our mouths," says centerfielder Denard Span of the team's first-round sweep by the Yankees.

A day after the latest October flameout, manager Ron Gardenhire met with coaches and front-office officials at Target Field to plan a strategy for getting over the postseason hump. The takeaway: The Twins, whose total of 68 stolen bases was the franchise's lowest since 1985, needed to add speed and become more athletic and versatile. "We felt like we'd gotten a little too stationary and were a team that waited for the long ball," says Minnesota assistant G.M. Rob Antony. "We wanted to be a team that could create a little more havoc on the bases rather than wait for the home run."

The Twins were 53--28 at home but in their cavernous new ballpark suffered a staggering drop in power: Their home run total dropped from 96 in 2009, their last year at the Metrodome, to 52 at Target. To change the dynamics of the offense, the middle infield was remade. Out went shortstop J.J. Hardy (traded to Baltimore) and second baseman Orlando Hudson (free agent). In came 26-year-old second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the 2010 batting champ in Japan's Pacific League who signed for three years and $9.25 million, and energetic 26-year-old shortstop Alexi Casilla, a former backup. "We had Span at the top of the order but didn't have much speed beyond that," says Antony. "Now we have Span, Casilla and Nishi, and all three can go from first to third and score from second. The Mauers, Morneaus and [Michael] Cuddyers don't necessarily have to hit the ball over the fence. We think this is a team that's better built for the new ballpark."

The Twins hope they're also better built for October. They have a deep rotation led by righthander Carl Pavano and lefthander Francisco Liriano, who got his career back on track in 2010 with a 3.62 ERA and the AL's second-best strikeout rate (9.4 per nine innings) and a bullpen that not only has Nathan back but also former closer Matt Capps (acquired at the July trade deadline) setting him up.

Feeling even more urgency to win are the White Sox, whose new motto—ALL IN!—is plastered on billboards and is featured in commercials in the Windy City. After finishing second, six games behind Minnesota, last year, the Chicago front office considered getting younger and cheaper this winter. But instead owner Jerry Reinsdorf green-lit a payroll increase to a franchise-record $125 million, which allowed the front office to sign first baseman Paul Konerko and catcher A.J. Pierzynski to extensions, as well as bring in free-agent slugger Adam Dunn. "The payroll increase allowed us to make another run with the core guys while getting the big bat we needed with Dunn," says Hahn. "Without that economic commitment from Jerry, we would have had to go a different direction."

The clock is ticking on the South Side: Konerko, Pierzynski and ace Mark Buehrle are between 32 and 35 years old. Chicago took a bold risk on the 31-year-old Dunn, who signed the second-largest contract (four years, $56 million) ever given to a full-time DH. But the White Sox aren't delusional in believing this could be the Year of the Pale Hose. They have the deepest starting rotation in the Central; Edwin Jackson, who tossed a no-hitter for the Diamondbacks in June and had a 3.24 ERA and struck out 77 in 75 innings after a deadline trade to Chicago, entered camp as the No. 5 starter. The division's biggest X factor, though, is righthander Jake Peavy, who tore his right latissimus dorsi tendon completely off the bone last summer. The 29-year-old former Cy Young winner is trying to become the first major leaguer to return from the injury—and he was hitting the low-90s on his fastball this spring before shoulder tendinitis forced him to the sideline in mid-March. He could be ready to join the rotation in May. "When he's healthy, you're talking about one of the top pitchers in the game," says closer Matt Thornton. "We'll put him up against any other ace in the league."

Chicago may be going all in, but the Central's most aggressive team on the free-agent market was Detroit, an underachiever last season, when it finished .500. The Tigers signed catcher Victor Martinez (four years, $50 million), setup man Joaquin Benoit (three years, $16.5 million) and starter Brad Penny (one year, $3 million). A career .300 hitter whose gap-to-gap power will translate well to Comerica Park, Martinez gives Detroit, which ranked eighth in the league in runs, a much-needed run producer in the middle of the order. "The Twins have Morneau and Mauer, but [MVP candidate Miguel] Cabrera and Martinez will be about as fun to face," says Chicago's Thornton. "That is a potent combination."

With two premium power pitchers—ace Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who was one of the AL's top pitchers during the second half (2.47 ERA and 96 K's in 102 innings)—in the rotation, the Tigers, too, appear to be built for the playoffs. Whether they can get there will depend, in part, on whether their gamble on Benoit pays off. Relief pitching is the most volatile commodity in baseball, but the Tigers deemed the 33-year-old righthander (a 1.34 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 60 innings for the Rays last season, but a 4.79 career ERA before that) worthy of a deal that makes him one of baseball's highest-paid setup men. "Teams that have success are teams with strong bullpens," says Detroit G.M. Dave Dombrowski. "We've got a chance to have a one with Benoit and [closer Jose] Valverde at the back end."

The off-season spending by the Central's big three widened the gap between the division's haves and have-nots. The Royals, who have finished fourth or fifth for seven straight years, made a flurry of low-profile off-season signings—outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur and lefthander Jeff Francis among them—that will do little to move the needle in terms of short-term results or fan excitement. But with a minor league system that's widely regarded as the best in baseball, Kansas City isn't thinking about 2011. It has its eye on contending in 2012 or '13, when such top prospects as first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are ready to arrive. "We finally have the group of players that we can envision building around here," says Moore. "We want the majority of our team to reflect homegrown talent by 2012 and 2013."

The Indians, who have the third-lowest payroll in the AL, believe they can win now—and given the talent they have returning to the lineup from injuries, that might not be as ludicrous as it sounds. Centerfielder Grady Sizemore, catcher Carlos Santana and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera all missed at least 56 games last year. If those players produce, Cleveland could be a division sleeper.

That would require its pitchers to exceed expectations. The young rotation—righthander Fausto Carmona, 27, is the most experienced starter—had the league's fifth-lowest ERA after the All-Star break (3.89), while 25-year-old Chris Perez emerged as one of the league's top closers. "In Grady, Carlos and Asdrubal, we're bringing back three players that are as talented as any other out there at their position," says G.M. Chris Antonetti. "We had the youngest team in baseball last year, but this is a group that's either entering their prime or in their prime. We're looking for those guys to take appreciable steps forward."

The Indians, who have not had a winning season since reaching the ALCS in 2007, are the last team from the division to win a playoff series. Only two Central teams have won the AL pennant since 1997. This year, though, the Twins, Tigers and White Sox all have reason to believe they can make a run deep into October. One morning during spring training, Nathan stood outside Minnesota's batting cages in Fort Myers, Fla., and sized up his team's chances for a third straight division title. "You look at the Central, and all three teams at the top got better," he said. "I feel like we're as complete as we've ever been as a team. This could be a special team." He added, "But at the same time, I feel like it's going to be tougher than ever to win this division."

HOW THEY WILL FINISH

TEAM W--L GB
1 TWINS 90--72 --
2 TIGERS 89--73 1
3 WHITE SOX 84--78 6
4 INDIANS 70--92 20
5 ROYALS 67--95 23

BEST BETS

MVP: MIGUEL CABRERA, TIGERS

Last season Cabrera flirted with the Triple Crown for part of the season, set career highs in home runs (38) and slugging percentage (.622) and led the league with 126 RBIs and a. 420 OBP. If the 27-year-old can get control of his troubles with alcohol abuse, his best years may still be ahead of him.

CY YOUNG: JUSTIN VERLANDER, TIGERS

With Zack Greinke gone from the Royals and in the National League, the horse of the Detroit rotation (with more than 200 innings in four straight seasons), is the best pitcher in the division. Verlander is one of the hardest throwers in the game and, at age 28, the righthander is in his prime.

MR. IRREPLACEABLE: JOE MAUER, TWINS

The former MVP saw his power dip with the move to Target Field—28 home runs in 2009, nine in '10—but the Gold Glover is still the best-hitting catcher in the game. With Justin Morneau trying to bounce back from a lost season, Mauer is more important than ever to the Twins.

ROOKIE TO WATCH: CHRIS SALE, WHITE SOX

The 6'6" lefthander's future is in the rotation, but for now the White Sox' plan is to use him in the bullpen. Whether he's closing games or setting up Matt Thornton, he'll be key for Chicago. In two months in the majors last year he had a 1.93 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings. Closer stuff.

STAR ON THE RISE: SHIN-SOO CHOO, INDIANS

Shin-Soo Who? One of the league's most overlooked talents has hit .300 with 20 home runs and 20 steals in each of the past two seasons and plays Gold Glove--caliber defense in rightfield. If the 28-year-old Korean played on a winner, he'd already be widely recognized as a star.

STAR IN DECLINE: GRADY SIZEMORE, INDIANS

He was once the face of the franchise, but elbow, back and knee injuries have derailed the career of the former All-Star centerfielder. (He's played 139 games total the last two years.) He's still only 28, but if Sizemore's struggles continue, the Indians may not pick up his $8.5 million 2012 option.

THE PAYOFF PITCH . . .

BEST CASE

With Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan back, Minnesota's reign atop the division continues—and a speedier, more athletic lineup changes the franchise's October fortunes.

WORST CASE

Morneau's concussion issues continue, and Joe Mauer's lingering knee problems slow him as well. A bad start leads the Twins to deal Liriano (headed for free agency after 2012).

BEST CASE

The power arms in the rotation lead the way, and the emergence of Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, and Joaquin Benoit's addition to the bullpen fuel a surprise wild-card run.

WORST CASE

The Tigers fall apart as the remade bullpen busts, the gambles on Phil Coke and Brad Penny in the rotation fail, and Miguel Cabrera's off-the-field problems persist.

BEST CASE

Adam Dunn's 50-homer season and another big year from Paul Konerko power the Central's most explosive offense. A healthy Jake Peavy returns to lead the Sox to their first postseason since '08.

WORST CASE

Ownership's investment in 2011 is wasted as the lack of an experienced closer spells disaster. The aging roster shows its warts, and kids like Gordon Beckham and Chris Sale fail to develop.

BEST CASE

Comeback seasons from Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner and breakouts by Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco in the rotation set up the Tribe as a contender for 2012.

WORST CASE

Injuries continue to mount and the young rotation struggles, and an early-season dive forces a trade-deadline exodus of top veterans. Cleveland gets further from the postseason, not closer.

BEST CASE

They flirt with .500 as Billy Butler and Alex Gordon make big leaps and the prospects that begin to arrive make a splash. For once, K.C. fans look forward to next year.

WORST CASE

With the thin rotation faltering and veteran free-agent signings turning into busts, the team's struggles result in the front office rushing prospects to the majors prematurely.

PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANS PHOTOJIM MONE/APLEAP YEAR? Nope. Alexei Ramirez and the White Sox have the power but not the arms to jump past Mauer and the Twins. FIVE PHOTOS
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)