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Were it not for the presence of the Royals, the AL Central could lay claim to being the best division in baseball. It includes three legitimate playoff contenders and a .500 team that some people like as a sleeper. The Royals–mismanaged, misshapen, miserable–drag the quartet down like Schopenhauer readings at a frat party.

Of course, the good teams in the division don’t mind, happy that the unbalanced schedule allows them to take advantage of the downtrodden Kansas City team. In fact, the Royals will give up so many wins in the division that they’ll help produce its first-ever wild-card winner.

At the top of the group, though, are the Minnesota Twins. Twins pitchers have reduced their job to its bare elements: throw strikes. They issued just 348 walks last year, the lowest figure by an AL pitching staff since 1919. Almost the entire staff returns, bolstered by the addition of young starters Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker, who won’t do much to add to the walk total. Walking so few hitters while sustaining a solid home-run rate puts the Twins way ahead in the run-prevention game; they should challenge the A’s for fewest runs allowed in the AL this year.

They’ll score more than enough to make that a winner. Terry Ryan is relying heavily on better years from Justin Morneau and Jason Bartlett, but he also made moves to upgrade lineup holes last year, bringing in Luis Castillo to play second and Rondell White to DH. Neither is a star, but each provides OBP and either speed or power, helping to fill out a lineup that had far too many near-automatic outs in 2005. It’s not an overpowering offense, but it will push past 700 runs; the apparent return of Jason Kubel adds a legitimate #3 hitter to the mix.

The White Sox, remember, were a true 91-win team last year, so projecting them to win 90 isn’t foreseeing much decline. Kenny Williams’ bold offseason moves to acquire Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez, both of whom were disappointing in the NL last year, were a strike against the stagnation that often accompanies a post-season parade. Thome is a risky pickup, 35 years old and possessing a bad back. He’s a key player in a lineup that had no left-handed power and a serious OBP problem last year. If you recall, the White Sox won in spite of their offense, not because of it.

They’ll need to score a few more runs in ’06, because they’re almost certainly going to allow more. The Sox had one of the best team defenses of my lifetime last season, a group that was critical to their leading the league in ERA. Swapping out Aaron Rowand for Brian Anderson is the only change, one that should cost a few runs, but the real reason I expect the defense to be a bit worse is simply regression. Their ’05 work was so good that it’s unlikely to be sustained. Still, they have room to decline and still be a very good defensive team, the pitching staff is talented and deep, and they’ll score more runs. Unless they go 8-11 against the Royals or something, they should be the wild card team.

The Indians are going to take a step back this year. I could be wrong about this, but I don’t see them outscoring their opponents by 148 runs this season. Many of their hitters were at or near the top of their range last season, including Jhonny Peralta (.292/.366/.520) and Travis Hafner (.305/.408/.595). They haven’t even tried to address the holes in right field or at first base, and they’ll at least start the year with their best third baseman in Triple-A. I could see the offense dropping as many as 70 runs if the young core is a bit off, because even last year’s good lineup was essentially dead after the #6 spot.

They’re going to allow a few more runs, as much because it would be hard not to as anything else. I would imagine most people don’t realize that Jacobs Field has become a very good pitchers’ park, which helped the Tribe allow the fewest runs in the AL last year. The team’s defense was a big part of that, but that should be a little bit worse with Coco Crisp gone and Ron Belliard a year older. The bullpen, so dominant last year, has been rebuilt on the fly and, like the Sox defense, would be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s stellar perfomance. (Keep on eye on Fernando Cabrera, who could be the closer by the All-Star break.)

Where I see the runs adding up, though, is in the rotation. I like Paul Byrd as well as anyone; I just don’t see him leading the league in ERA the way Kevin Millwood did. I don’t trust C.C. Sabathia‘s arm or Jake Westbrook‘s strikeout rate, or that Cliff Lee will improve enough to make up for these things.

The Indians, arguably the best team in the AL last year and a popular pick to win the division in this one, have a number of good years ahead of them. In 2006, however, they’ll take a step back before taking over the division in ’07.

The Tigers have some nice pieces, and they also have guys like Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe, who don’t do a whole lot to push you past .500. Their offseason moves were unimaginative and safe, spending money on veterans coming off of good seasons who are too old to have upside. This is actually an improvement on last winter, when they signed the aging, infirm Magglio Ordonez to a long-term, big-money deal. Still, the core talent here falls shy of impressive, and the surrounding parts aren’t difference makers.

I will say this: with both Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya apparently making the team, the Tigers will be a very interesting team to watch. Along with Jeremy Bonderman, the rookies give the Tigers a trio of young pitchers, and eventually young starters (Zumaya is starting the season in the pen), who will give this team a shot to win almost any series they play. I could see a scenario where the Tigers’ second-half record is 10-12 games better than their first-half mark on the strength of these arms.

The Royals are just horrible. It’s one thing to claim Tony Graffanino on waivers when you already have almost an identical player in Mark Grudzielanek. It’s another thing entirely to designate your second- or third-best outfielder for assignment so you can do so. The Royals DFAd Chip Ambres to make room for Graffanino, one of the most ridiculous pieces of roster management in recent memory.

I apologize to Royals fans who would like to read analysis of their pitching staff, maybe see some nice words for Ambiorix Burgos and Andy Sisco. There’s no point; this organization would gladly swap out a 26-year-old outfielder with some upside who was clearly good enough to start for them in exchange for a 34-year-old backup second baseman. Why should I show more interest in their season than they do?

Twins      94   68      731   632
white Sox  90   72      769   688
Indians    84   78      717   697
Tigers     78   84      722   749
Royals     51  111      640   931