AL Central may come down to wire again
No one team holds edge in well-balanced division
The division that extended each of the past two seasons to a thrilling 163rd game is tight enough to wonder whether it might bring us another, or maybe even a 164th to break a three-way tie.
The defending champion Twins, the pitching-heavy White Sox and the retooled Tigers are all viable postseason contenders heading into 2010, making the American League Central another interesting battle that could very well go down to the wire -- again.
With the league's defending AL Most Valuable Player in the Twins' Joe Mauer and AL Cy Young Award winner in the Royals' Zack Greinke, this is a division that's not short on talent. Mauer's joined by 2006 MVP Justin Morneau, and the White Sox boast '07 NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy alongside no-hit expert Mark Buehrle and Co.
What it doesn't have is a clear-cut favorite. But that's nothing new for this division.
While the Twins certainly have momentum on their side, having wrapped up Mauer with a historic eight-year, $184 million deal just in time to open Target Field, all is not well. The loss for the season of All-Star closer Joe Nathan midway through Spring Training has left the Twins scrambling in the bullpen.
The White Sox have a rotation envied by many in baseball, but they finished below .500 a year ago and will have to rebound this season after falling short of expectations last season.
The Tigers are more of an uncertainty. Having traded Curtis Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson -- but having acquired their replacements in Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer -- Detroit is not the same team that held the division lead or at least part of it from May 10 until it lost the one-game tiebreaker. But the Tigers still have sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez and ace Justin Verlander leading a strong rotation, so they still could very well be a factor.
That leaves the unlikely events of a bounceback year for the Indians or a coming-of-age for the Royals to create any more buzz in the AL Central, but the way this division has gone in recent years, nothing can be counted out.
The Indians put themselves into full rebuilding mode by trading away Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, but the youthful Tribe still hopes to show some offensive muscle with the healthy returns of Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. And the Royals, who were carried by Greinke's amazing start to an early surge, still have some growing to do, since while Billy Butler is coming into his own, there isn't much support on the offensive side otherwise.
With at least two and perhaps three teams balanced enough to make a run at a postseason spot, the AL Central remains the division most likely to extend the regular season.
With Minny M&Ms making things super sweet for the Twins in the middle of their lineup, they're hard to beat. Having added Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome and J.J. Hardy to an already potent mix that includes Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, the Twins are loaded offensively. The White Sox, meanwhile, hope for Carlos Quentin to bounce back healthy and Andruw Jones to keep swinging like he has in Spring Training, though they'll probably be more about manufacturing runs than bashing them out. They get a slight edge over the Tigers, who really, really need Ordonez to return to his power form. Our selection: Twins
It might be hard to find a rotation as good or as deep in the rest of baseball, let alone the division, than what the White Sox have in Peavy, Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Freddy Garcia. Plus, top prospect Daniel Hudson, who probably will start for Triple-A Charlotte, adds another layer of depth. The Tigers have a tremendous 1-2 punch with Verlander and second-year right-hander Rick Porcello, but can't keep up with the White Sox in depth. The Twins have a lot of younger talent but no ace, although they could be boosted. The Royals have an uber-ace in Greinke and some depth, but not at the level of the White Sox. Our selection: White Sox
Everything changed when Nathan went down with Tommy John surgery, because he made the Twins the leading 'pen in the division. While the Royals boast perhaps the best closer in Joakim Soria, he doesn't get the opportunities to show it that others do -- at least he didn't last year and likely won't this season. That leaves the White Sox probably on top, with Bobby Jenks, Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz holding down the end of the game. The Tigers' bullpen, now led by premier closer Jose Valverde, are right there as well, and the Twins still have strong arms and will find a way to work things out without Nathan. Our selection: White Sox
The Twins already were solid, and they didn't hurt themselves at all by acquiring four-time Gold Glove winner Hudson to play second base. The Tigers have a chance to be in the conversation as well, but not enough is known yet about Jackson in center or Scott Sizemore at second. Our selection: Twins
Predicted order of finish
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.