AL Central a difficult group to forecast

AL Central a difficult group to forecast

A year ago, any preview of the baseball season included mention of the Detroit Tigers' auspicious offseason and its likely impact on an unsuspecting American League Central Division. Clearly, the Tigers, who had added Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria, figured to be the class of the division.

By season's end, the Tigers had separated themselves from the pack, all right. They were dead last in the Central with a 74-88 record.

Clearly, then, this business of prognosticating how a division will shake out is a dicey and unscientific one.

2009 DIVISION
PREVIEWS
NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West

The Central seems more difficult to forecast than ever. Sweeping changes were made in Chicago, where the White Sox will be looking to repeat. Little change was made in Minnesota, where the Twins were in contention for a playoff spot until game No. 163 last year. Stakes were raised in Cleveland, where the Indians were the busiest of any club in the division. Payroll was slashed in Detroit, but the Tigers still have a fearsome lineup. And new hope rises in Kansas City, where the Royals beefed up their payroll and lineup.

About the only thing worth predicting is another dogfight in a division that appears to possess parity. Its teams inspire neither visions of all-time greatness nor visions of outright ineptitude.

Here's a team-by-team look at how things stand, with the regular season on the horizon:

KEY ADDITIONS
• SP Bartolo Colon, White Sox
• CF Coco Crisp, Royals
• 3B Joe Crede, Twins
• RP Juan Cruz, Royals
• 3B Mark DeRosa, Indians
• SS Adam Everett, Tigers
• SP Edwin Jackson, Tigers
• 1B Mike Jacobs, Royals
• RP Brandon Lyon, Tigers
• SP Kerry Wood, Indians

KEY DEPARTURES
• SS Orlando Cabrera, White Sox
• OF Ken Griffey Jr., White Sox
• OF Franklin Gutierrez, Indians
• RP Ramon Ramirez, Royals
• SS Edgar Renteria, Tigers
• SP Dennys Reyes, Twins
• OF Nick Swisher, White Sox
• SP Javier Vazquez, White Sox
• SP CC Sabathia, Indians (was traded midseason last year, but he's nonetheless worth noting here)

BEST LINEUP
The Tigers' right-handed-heavy lineup doesn't have much balance, but it does have the potency of Curtis Granderson at the top and Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera in the middle. It's still the most dangerous batting order in the division, if not all of baseball.

If Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner return to form after injuries in '08, the Indians could be pretty strong as well. Crede's addition boosts the Twins, who led the division with 829 runs scored last season, but Joe Mauer's back injury holds them back early on.
Our selection: Tigers

BEST ROTATION
The Twins' rotation, in which Scott Baker is the elder statesman at 27, is a very young unit, but it's hard to argue with the results last year. Francisco Liriano is starting to show signs of regaining the form he had in '06, but now it's his changeup that might baffle hitters and not his slider. His velocity isn't what it once was, but he still has the stuff to potentially make him an ace. One would figure the team with the reigning Cy Young Award winner would figure more prominently here, but the Indians' rotation has lots of question marks after Cliff Lee.
Our selection: Twins

BEST BULLPEN
The performance of bullpens is the hardest area in baseball to predict, but the Indians and Royals both revamped their relief corps over the winter and have some promise. The Tribe brought in Wood to stabilize the ninth inning, and right-hander Joe Smith could be a valuable addition in a setup role. The Royals brought in Juan Cruz as a setup option for closer Joakim Soria. The White Sox had the division's best 'pen a year ago and could be strong again, if healthy.
Our selection: Indians

BEST DEFENSE
This is a pretty easy call. The Twins are strong up the middle with Nick Punto at short and Alexi Casilla at second. The speedy Carlos Gomez and Denard Span cover tremendous ground in the outfield, and Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer have strong arms. Crede is a nice addition at third and Mauer, when healthy, is a Gold Glove winner behind the plate. No other team in the division compares in this category.
Our selection: Twins

WILD CARDS
1. Mauer's back problem looms large over the Twins. If he misses significant time, that will, of course, significantly impact Minnesota's standing in the division.

2. The Indians led the Majors in runs scored (379) in the second half last season -- and that was with Hafner and Martinez on the pine. If Hafner returns to his '06 form, that lineup takes on new dimensions.

3. The combination of Jose Guillen and Mike Jacobs could give the Royals the home-run power they haven't seen since they had Jermaine Dye and Carlos Beltran.

4. If the 20-year-old Rick Porcello opens the season in the Tigers rotation, he could change the look of that pitching staff. The hard-throwing Ryan Perry is another name to watch, as he could have an impact as a midseason callup.

5. With youth comes unpredictability and the reformed White Sox are the hardest team to predict in the division.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Twins; 2. Indians; 3. Royals; 4. Tigers; 5. White Sox.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.