The AL Central has been perhaps the least competitive division in baseball over the past few seasons, with the Tigers never sniffing a race and the Royals, White Sox and Indians doing no better than fringe contention since 2001. No Central team other than the Twins has won 90 games since that year.

This year, the Central looks to be a bit tougher, particularly at the top, where the Twins will continue to reign while the Indians get a bit closer.

Thanks in part to a hometown discount granted by Brad Radke, the Twins have the best top two starters in league. Johan Santana has passed Radke, of course, and comes into ’05 off a historic second half in ’04. His pitch counts weren’t problematic, and at his age, he can carry a pretty good workload anyway. Behind the top two, the Twins lean largely on innings guys–Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse–to get the game to their great bullpen, one that could be even better this year as Jesse Crain and, eventually, J.D. Durbin make contributions. Remember that this team allowed the fewest runs in the AL last year, 715. It should be within 20 runs of that figure in ’05.

One thing to note: with age and personnel changes, the Twins’ defense will probably be as bad as it’s been since they started their run, which doesn’t bode well for every starter except Santana.

What makes the Twins the favorite is that they might have the best offense they’ve had in a while, hinging largely on how much playing time they get from Joe Mauer and how the left side of the infield shakes out. They need to stick with Jason Bartlett at shortstop and keep Juan Castro in a minor role. Losing Jason Kubel makes a difference, as Kubel is a much better hitter than Jacque Jones, who remains with the Twins about three years after he was expected to be traded.

The Twins should approach 800 runs this season, as Justin Morneau plays a full year and is one of the ten best hitters in the league, and Luis Rivas–still just 25, remember–mixes in an average spike and a few extra walks to go with his increased power. He’ll be a league-average second baseman, and the Twins will win the division.

The Indians have gotten too much hype to be considered a sleeper–hey, blame me for some of that–but as improved as they should be, the Twins are just better. The Tribe’s rotation, which is a largely comprised of mid-rotation guys, is going to give up some runs, putting a lot of pressure on the revamped bullpen. Credit Mark Shapiro for repairing that pen, which was the game’s worst last June and one of its better ones by the end of the season. The Indians will give up a lot fewer runs this year, down from last year’s 857 to 820 or so.

The real reason to be excited about the Tribe, however, is their core of young position players. Victor Martinez made his impact last year; Jhonny Peralta will open the season as their starting shortstop; by the end of the year, Grady Sizemore and, perhaps, Brandon Phillips will be in the starting lineup. No other AL team can boast that kind of young hitting talent.

In fact, what makes the difference for the Indians could be how quickly they turn the team over to the youth. They’re messing around with Juan Gonzalez in the outfield, a move that hinders Sizemore and offers more risk than reward. Ron Belliard had a nice little ’04, but wore down late and was likely over his head for the first few months. The investment in him is small enough that he can be set aside if he doesn’t repeat. Casey Blake is a comparable player, a journeyman who had a good, not great, season, and is now being overrated. Moving him to left field is an odd decision, and one not likely to go well for the Indians.

Were the Indians to align their talent smoothly, they’d be closer to the Twins. The likelihood that the personnel will not be optimized, with average veterans getting a bit too much playing time, kills that idea. A strong second is the call.

The Tigers didn’t have as good a winter as their activity level or financial commitments would indicate. Teams that make the kind of jump they did in 2004 usually regress, which is another reason to be pessimistic.

On the other hand, the talent here is good enough that predicting a 90-loss season is difficult. Jeremy Bonderman is about a year behind Ben Sheets, so you can expect him to take a similar step forward to Sheets in ’03, particularly in his command. Wil Ledezma gets no pub behind Bonderman; he has excellent stuff and his ’04 line, split among two levels, included 127 strikeouts and just 42 walks in 165 innings. The Tigers will improve their run prevention in ’05.

The offense is almost certainly going to be worse than it was last year. The signing of Magglio Ordonez reflects well on Mike Ilitch’s willingness to open his checkbook; unfortunately, Ordonez is a high-risk player who doesn’t have the upside to justify it. Even healthy, he’s the kind of player who loses a ton of value in his thirties. With the team almost certain to get less offense out of ’04 MVP candidates Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez, the hopes for improving on last year’s 827 runs largely rest on Carlos Pena. I expect them to slip under 800 tallies.

The White Sox are substituting activity for performance, which is one of the last steps before “unemployment” for a baseball management team. When signing Jermaine Dye to a two-year deal is the good move of the winter, it’s a very bad sign. Actually, that shorts the pickup of Tadahito Iguchi, who was kind of a Japanese Ray Durham. Keep in mind that Durham had his last healthy, effective season at 29; Iguchi turned 30 in December.

Carlos Lee is now Scott Podsednik. Frank Thomas might be back in April, May or never. Aaron Rowand is presumably back, taking the place of the alien that played in his body last year. It’s one thing to again hope that this is the year Joe Crede finds the keys; it’s quite another to need it to be the case. The “small ball” concept should claim another victim this year.

The pitching staff isn’t going to make up for the falloff in runs scored. Freddy Garcia and Mark Buehrle are mid-rotation innings guys who get paid like aces. They head a rotation that’s long on hope–not just one, but two Cubans with shaky recent track records exiled from the Bronx–and short on anything you can rely upon. The bullpen is better, with two legitimate studs at the back in Damaso Marte and Shingo Takatsu. Ozzie Guillen did an excellent job last year in funneling most of the relevant innings to his nine or so best pitchers, perhaps Guillen’s signature skill aside from being quotable. It won’t be enough to patch for what is going to be a bad offense.

The Royals will battle the Devil Rays for the title of worst team in baseball. There’s just not much to say about a team that can’t figure out how to choose between Ken Harvey and Calvin Pickering, that had to drag Jose Lima in to be the Opening Day starter, and that will go with a platoon of…hands…won’t…type…these…names…Denny Hocking and Joe McEwing at third base.

Ruben Gotay could be a nice surprise at second base, and David DeJesus is already a very good center fielder. Along with Angel Berroa and John Buck, they give the Royals a fairly decent, reasonably young up-the-middle core around which to build. It won’t help them avoid 95 losses, but it’s a start.

Projected standings:

             Record     RS    RA
Twins         93-69    812   730
Indians       84-78    845   817
Tigers        74-88    745   798
White Sox     71-91    749   856
Royals        64-98    722   938

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