1. Cleveland Indians
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox
This will actually be a close race between the Indians and Tigers in a so-so division, and the eventual champ will probably finish in the 85-90 win range. The Indians have slowly rebuilt with a solid young core of youngsters and productive low-cost vets. They easily have the best pitching staff in the division (though still a step below the millionaire Yankee and Red Sox rotations) and a decent defense. Their offense in sum won’t wow you but they have a bevy of productive bats.
The Tigers have gradually reloaded the lineup and while they never will score a ton of runs playing in cavernous Comerica Park, they pack enough power to provide a great defense and an average pitching staff with sufficient support. The Tigers also showed they were willing to unload veteran dead weight, such as Todd Jones, Kenny Rogers and Gary Sheffield, to play younger, more productive players. While they have a better defense than Cleveland, the Indians have a better pitching staff, and the two teams are nearly dead even overall. It would not surprise me to see the AL Central come down to a one game playoff between these two.
One surprise improvement this season will come from the Kansas City Royals, who, while making a series of unproductive pickups over the last couple years (Kyle Davies, Jose Guillen, Willie Bloomquist, Coco Crisp), made their biggest defensive improvement without adding anybody: they moved David DeJesus, a solid CF, to LF, where he becomes one of the position’s top defenders. The emergence of excellent defender Mike Aviles at SS now gives the Royals one of the AL’s best defenses. They won’t score enough runs to compete and their pitching staff still has a few tomato cans, but they can easily play .500 ball.
Fans are high on the Twins, but don’t count on them winning more than 80 games this season, if they can even manage 70-75. Their defense gets help from speedsters like Denard Span and Carlos Gomez, but they still have a few holes, their offense lacks consistency and pop (even with Joe Mauer) and they did little to improve their nondescript, mediocre pitching staff.
The White Sox offense will do a decent job despite some lineup holes (like the revolving door in CF, the fading AJ Pierzynski at catcher and the developing Chris Getz at 2B). But what seals their doom is a weak pitching staff coupled with a terrible defense. Jermaine Dye is a horrible RF, Alexei Ramirez is not a good fielder wherever he plays, none of their fielders are standout defenders and bench players like Wilson Betemit don’t make good defensive replacements. Add in home run friendly U.S. Cellular Field, and the ChiSox should lead the league in runs… allowed. This team likely reaches 95 losses, Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen will likely lose their jobs, and many of the incumbent vets (Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, Mark Buehrle) should get the old heave-ho via trade or free agency during or after 2009.