Last year’s projections suggested that the division would be as tight as ever, but if truth seems to keep upping the ante on fiction, leave it to PECOTA to try to trump that by delivering what would be a logistical disaster for the postseason: a three-way tie between the likely contenders, with the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Detroit Tigers all initially being projected for 80-82 records. It’s a long way until Opening Day, so that’s not quite the same thing as saying that we predict the division will be won with an under-.500 record, but all these teams have problems, and if the 1973 New York Mets (82-79) or the 2005 Padres (82-80) are worried about their status as history’s most feeble division winners, that’s understandable.
Chicago White Sox
Projected record: 80-82
Why They Might Win: They’ve scrupulously followed the formula that worked in 2005 in assembling their 2010 team: a rotation so good that a former ace ranks as the fifth starter. That was Orlando Hernandez then, and it’s Freddy Garcia now. A bullpen stocked with multiple closers? With the addition of J.J. Putz and the emergence of Matt Thornton to support Bobby Jenks, check. Power up the middle? With Alex Rios in center and Gordon Beckham moving to second to join shortstop Alexei Ramirez and catcher A.J. Pierzynski, that’s looking good, too.
Why They Might Not Win: If Jake Peavy breaks down, the rotation starts to look a lot less impressive. If Rios continues to sleep-walk his way through the South Side portion of his career, he’ll be the most expensive mistake ever made involving revocable waivers. And the thing about that 2005 plan… did they really have to follow the part about getting a leadoff hitter who doesn’t get on base? I see your Podzilla and raise you a Juan Pierre. The hitting portion of being a DH is non-optional, yet that’s what the Sox are probably stuck with if they settle for Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay.
Player Who Could Surprise: A healthy Carlos Quentin is already projected to slug .492 with 26 homers, but that’s a median projection; you can reasonably expect more if he’s all the way back, and the open DH slot might give him a few days and ways to avoid blowing out one joint or another.
Player Who Could Disappoint: The surgically repaired Garcia managed seven quality starts in nine turns last fall; he won’t match that rate of success this year, so Rios is the obvious candidate. His slumbering bat down the stretch is all the Sox got to see, but he’s projected for almost 60 extra-base hits; if he doesn’t deliver, the club lacks the depth to adapt.
Projected record: 80-82
Why They Might Win: The decision to blend something new with something old might turn into a fine transitional team, with headliners Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera getting support from finally healthy veterans like Carlos Guillen and Jeremy Bonderman-and new kids Max Scherzer in the rotation, second baseman Scott Sizemore, and more. One more bat would put them over the top, but is there enough Ilitch money to ink Johnny Damon?
Why They Might Not Win: If the Tigers get too much weak work out of veterans like Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge and Nate Robertson, they’ll end up asking too much of the kids to carry the Kitties as far as contention-and kids like prospect Austin Jackson in center might not even be properly ready for The Show as is.
Player Who Could Surprise: It’s a unit instead of a player, but the Tigers’ bullpen could be loaded with flame-throwing talent to soak up innings and hand off leads to closer Jose Valverde. Whether or not Joel Zumaya comes all the way back, hard-throwing Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth are former first-rounders headlining a group that will be critical to repeating last season’s fragile late-game success.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Rick Porcello got a lot of credit for his work down the stretch as a 20-year-old rookie last season, but careful handling and timely run support went a long way to get him to 14 wins. If he takes the step forward scouts expect, his strikeout rate will improve and his development will continue; if it doesn’t, you’ve got a defense-dependent kid who caught a few breaks, and those don’t break your way every time. PECOTA wants to see more before getting excited, projecting a 4.83 ERA-good work for 21, but less than people expecting the new Verlander.
Projected record: 80-82
Why They Might Win: The division’s best lineup isn’t just The Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau Show anymore, because the commitment to Denard Span in center plus the additions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson in the middle infield spare the Twins last season’s dependence on mighty mites. Plus, the slick-fielding Hardy and Hudson should help the strike-throwing staff bounce back from a bumpy 2009 season.
Why They Might Not Win: While adding Jim Thome to the bench creates interesting possibilities should Delmon Young struggle again, depth is a big issue. They can’t afford to lose Mauer or Morneau or Michael Cuddyer; the fallbacks in the infield are last year’s collection of punchless wonders. The rotation is far from a sure thing, what with Carl Pavano now being counted on and Kevin Slowey coming back from injury.
Player Who Could Surprise: Francisco Liriano isn’t a lock to win the fifth starter’s slot, but he is the candidate who could be a lot more important than just a fifth starter. His stuff is still electric, and if he can finally rise above the control and durability issues that hampered him last season, there’s a chance for considerably more upside than his projected 4.47 ERA suggests. If that doesn’t work out, there’s always the hope that he can grow up to be the new Arthur Rhodes, a premium set-up southpaw in the pen.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Young has managed to be a pretty major disappointment already, so expectations should be low. Between poor fielding, a terrible command of the zone, and a bad approach, there’s a point at which those quick wrists just aren’t enough to guarantee him his job. Trading Matt Garza away was bad enough, but it’s up to Young to deliver. PECOTA‘s skeptical, because a .290 batting average is nice, but a left fielder who slugs .432 is hard to put up with.
Projected record: 77-85
Why They Might Win: Low standards plus creative management could provide the opportunity for deals that put them in a slow race. Things that need to happen, in order of some likelihood to less so: Grady Sizemore healthy, Shin-Soo Choo proving he’s the real deal (PECOTA is a believer), Matt LaPorta making a splash and full-fledged comebacks from Jhonny Peralta and Travis Hafner. If none of the front three run away from the pack, it’s possible that lineup can score enough runs, because it’ll have to.
Why They Might Not Win: New skipper Manny Acta is only too familiar with this picture from his days with the Washington Nationals, but the rotation lacks a stopper. Or a good second starter. And maybe nobody you’d really call a third starter, depending on how you feel about a comebacking Jake Westbrook or Justin Masterson. And between Fausto Carmona‘s command issues and the low-upside alternatives at the back end of the rotation, it’s hard to see how the Indians would score enough runs to remain competitive deep into the season.
Player Who Could Surprise: Asdrubal Cabrera seems to go through nagging injuries, minor setbacks and position changes that keep him out of the limelight. Now that the plus defender is finally set at shortstop, his combination of power, patience, and speed will deliver on PECOTA‘s top comp for him, former All-Star Tony Fernandez.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Beyond Travis Hafner’s ugly case of the 30somethings, Carmona’s the easy pick here, because it was expected he’d be an established front-end starter after his 2007 breakout. Instead, he’s struggled to put hitters away with his sinker, and even after returning from a punitive demotion last season, his ERA was 5.29.
Kansas City Royals
Projected record: 74-88
Why They Might Win: As long as 80 is all it takes, the Royals are baseball’s last-place prediction with the best shot at pulling off an upset, rating as the only cellar dweller projected within 10 games of first place. Maybe Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies and saber-fave Brian Bannister all blossom at once, giving Zack Greinke some real partners in crime, and not just guys wearing the same-colored double knits.
Why They Might Not Win: Attaining mediocrity in Kansas City seems about as realistic as building condos on the moon. The defense is a bit dodgy-none of their options for center, short, or second are plus defenders-the rotation beyond Greinke and Gil Meche is mostly a conversation about notional upside, and the bullpen isn’t deep.
Player Who Could Surprise: Alex Gordon‘s career has been one flavor of disappointment after another, but he’s healthy, he can build on the flashes of power he’s shown in the past, and PECOTA likes both his potential to break out (20 percent) and simply improve (51 percent). His top comps involve plenty of risk (Eric Chavez, Hank Blalock), but also some outright greatness (Robin Ventura). Rick Ankiel is a close second now that he’s healthy and guaranteed an everyday job.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Just give Yuniesky Betancourt his trophy already, and a career non-achievement Oscar while you’re at it.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .