Healthy Twins aim to remain class of AL Central

Healthy Twins aim to remain class of AL Central

Healthy Twins aim to remain class of AL Central

The Twins staved off their American League Central competition last year, even after losing closer Joe Nathan to elbow surgery for the season and Justin Morneau to a concussion for the second half.

That said a lot about the Twins. But it also said a lot about the White Sox and Tigers, neither of whom, be it because of injuries, ineffectiveness or a combination of the two, achieved anything resembling their preseason expectations.

There's no denying that, with two consecutive division titles and six in the past nine years, the Twins are the class of the division, especially now that their beautiful new ballpark is adding unprecedented resources into the payroll stream.

But some shrewd offseason moves by the Sox and Tigers could once again provide a clash in the Central, which, after going down to the wire of a 163rd game in both 2008 and 2009, was wrapped up nice and tidily by the Twins last September.

While the Royals continued to pump up their prospect pool by trading ace Zack Greinke to Milwaukee and the rebuilding Indians stood pat, content to let their young players continue to audition in the big leagues, the Tigers and Sox both hit the free-agent market hard.

The Tigers brought aboard Victor Martinez to augment their lineup and Joaquin Benoit to round out their relief corps, and they also took a chance on Brad Penny, hoping he can add a back-end boost to a solid rotation. The White Sox, meanwhile, eschewed all speculation that they might go young by bringing back captain Paul Konerko and wooing "The Big Donkey," Adam Dunn, to be the designated hitter.

As far as the Twins are concerned, getting Morneau and Nathan back up to speed would be a big lift, and Japanese second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka is an intriguing import.

With all this in mind, we polled our AL Central beat writers -- Indians reporter Jordan Bastian, Tigers reporter Jason Beck, Twins reporter Rhett Bollinger, Royals reporter Dick Kaegel and Sox reporter Scott Merkin -- and asked them to rank the clubs in four major categories and to predict how they'll be lined up on the season's final day.

Here are the results:


Best lineup
Looking at the three division favorites, their team batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash lines from 2010 are eerily similar. The Twins were at .273/.341/.422, en route to scoring 781 runs; the Sox were at .268/.332/.420, en route to scoring 752 runs; and the Tigers were at .268/.335/.415, en route to scoring 751 runs. Getting the now-standard 40 homers out of Dunn might be enough to put the Sox on top, though a healthy Morneau would obviously have some say in the matter. Speaking of health, don't overlook what Shin-Soo Choo's Indians could accomplish at the plate if Grady Sizemore finds his old form after missing most of the past two years and Carlos Santana, recovered from knee surgery, lives up to his potential. And for the Tigers, Miguel Cabrera could be primed for another MVP-type year, particularly with Martinez aboard to take some of the weight off his shoulders. Our selection: White Sox


Best rotation
The Jake Peavy Factor looms large in this realm. If Peavy makes a full recovery from a detached shoulder muscle, the Sox's rotation looks silly, and it could be the difference in the division. If not (and Peavy is currently battling shoulder tendinitis, so there's no telling), then a rotation containing Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, John Danks and Gavin Floyd is still strong but perhaps no stronger than that of the Tigers and Twins. The Tigers have a potentially dominant front end of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, and Penny is an X-factor. The Twins retained veteran Carl Pavano to aid a youthful unit consisting of Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. The Tribe and Royals have way too many question marks to be counted as contenders. Our selection: White Sox


Best bullpen
The Twins have had to almost completely overhaul their bullpen, retaining Matt Capps and returning Nathan but losing Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, and Jesse Crain. While the Dunn signing garnered the most attention, the Sox also beefed up their bullpen with the additions of Crain and lefty Will Ohman. They'll leave baby-faced prospect Chris Sale in the 'pen to assist Matt Thornton. The Tigers' signing of Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million contract after his career year with the Rays raised many a skeptical brow. But the club will get its money's worth if he serves as a successful setup man to Jose Valverde. Meanwhile, hard-throwing Joel Zumaya is injured yet again. The Royals have one of the game's more underrated players in dominant closer Joakim Soria, though he doesn't get nearly enough save opportunities. The Indians have a burgeoning young relief corps, led by closer Chris Perez, another name to note. Our selection: White Sox


Best defense
The Twins have developed a well-deserved reputation for doing the little things right, and that includes attention to detail on the defensive end, where they made just 78 errors last season. It will be interesting, however, to see if the new middle-infield tandem of Alexi Casilla and Nishioka is a defensive downgrade from J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, particularly given the club's pitch-to-contact pitching staff. The White Sox's defense could hinge on how well youngster Brent Morel settles in at third and how well Gordon Beckham continues to transition at second after moving to the position last year. The Tigers are particularly shaky at shortstop, with Jhonny Peralta brought back. The Royals and Indians were both porous last year, as often is the case with young teams. Our selection: Twins

Predicted order of finish


1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.