AL Central preview: Twins still the favorite in tightly contested race
Minnesota is top dog, but Detroit and Chicago closed the gap this offseason
Health and starting pitching are the biggest concerns for the Twins in 2011
K.C. fans will be watching a very different team in September than in April
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."