Here's all you need to know about the American League Central Division this year.
Detroit is the defending division champion. Kansas City is the defending American League champion. No team did more to improve their lineup during the offseason than the Chicago White Sox.
But some publications and prognosticators are picking Cleveland to win the division.
When you have four teams heading into the season with realistic chances of winning the division, or at least making the playoffs, there must be a lot of talent in that division.
The Twins hope to be in that group, but their chances weren't that great even before Ervin Santana was handed an 80-game suspension on Friday after testing positive for Stanozolol, a banned steroid. They begin the season Monday in Detroit, attempting to prove to everyone that they are not reeling from the half-season loss of a pitcher they will pay nearly $50 million over the next four years.
"I think their division is probably one of, if not the most competitive," ESPN analyst Curt Schilling said. "I don't think anybody looks at that division and sees Minnesota, at least I don't, anywhere but fifth."
The AL Central has plenty of star power up and down rosters, but the teams that are built to win right now throw quality 1-2 pitching punches at opponents. Detroit has lefthander David Price and righthander Justin Verlander (who is on the disabled list but should be in the rotation in a couple of weeks). Kansas City has hard-throwing righthander Yordano Ventura and lefthander Danny Duffy. Cleveland has righthander Corey Kluber — the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner — and righthander Carlos Carrasco, who had a 1.30 ERA after Aug. 10 last season. The White Sox's top three starters — Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana — are as good as any team's top three.
Last season, Max Scherzer was with Detroit and James Shields led the Royals' staff. They are now with other teams, and there's still starting pitching depth left in the division.
"None of us in the Central were shedding a tear when Scherzer went to Washington," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "Or Shields, he's gone too. Still leaves a pretty good division. Seeing those guys go elsewhere, I know our hitters and anyone working in the AL Central are like, 'Good luck over there.' "
Out went Scherzer and Shields, in came Samardzija to the White Sox, Edinson Volquez to Kansas City and Santana to the Twins. They aren't the front-line types that Scherzer and Shields are, but they are still high-quality arms.
Samardzija is a reason why the White Sox were declared winners of the offseason. In addition to Samardzija, they signed Adam LaRoche for lefthanded power, David Robertson to close and Melky Cabrera to boost the offense.
That made Twins outfielder Torii Hunter take notice because, while he was with Detroit last season, the Tigers were only 10-9 against Chicago.
"Last year I thought the White Sox were tough to beat," he said. "We had to fight them."
Different things stand out about each team. Cleveland has a young rotation and a bullpen with some strikeout pitchers. Detroit has Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, one of the best 1-2 offensive punches in the league. Kansas City's bullpen is so good, games are over if the Royals are leading by six innings. The White Sox have Jose Abreu, who came up from Cuba last season and became an offensive threat instantly.
"AL Central games will be watched closely all year because they will be some of the most talented players playing," Hunter said.
And the Twins, trying to end four consecutive seasons of losing at least 92 games, must navigate through a division that could be a bloodbath. They were 36-40 against the Central last season, fourth-best of the five teams.
ESPN analyst John Kruk pointed out that the Twins weren't a good defensive team last season — statistics show that the corner outfield defense was among the worst in the league — and said that could be a problem in the division if not corrected.
"When you're playing in a tough division, especially with some teams that can swing the bats, you've got to catch the ball," Kruk said. "I mean, you look at what it did to Cleveland last year. Cleveland was one of the worst defensive teams last year, and it showed, and that's why they had to fight and scrap to stay competitive. You can't ask your pitching to get four outs an inning, you can't ask your offense to score six runs a game to make up for your lousy defense. The Twins have to catch the ball, and that's always been a staple of them, but last year it seemed like to be a lot of mistakes."
The Twins will find out right away what they are made of. Their first 15 games, 22 of their first 25 and 28 of the first 35 are against division opponents.
Any flaws will be exposed.
"Top to bottom, it is tough this year," Twins first baseman Joe Mauer said. "It looks like everyone improved. The Royals went to the World Series last year. It is going to be a dogfight. Right away in April, we will see where we are."