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Big League Stew

AL Central Preview: The Tigers rule while the Royals, Indians and White Sox vie for No. 2

Mike Oz
Big League Stew

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(AP photos / BLS Illustration)

With opening day mere days away, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the baseball season ahead. David Brown and Mike Oz will examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few critical players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and break-out stars. Next up: The American League Central.

Home of the mighty Detroit Tigers, the out-to-surprise-you Kansas City Royals, the Tito-llated Cleveland Indians, the not-looking-so-great Minnesota Twins and those good ol' Chicago White Sox, this is the AL Central. First and last are safe bets. The rest is up for grabs. Let's doing some predicting.

[Also: Tigers ace Justin Verlander signs record five-year extension]

BIG QUESTIONS

Are we just giving this division to the Tigers? Yep. Unless Miguel Cabrera and/or Justin Verlander get hurt. The Tigers are loaded and poised to be a power in the AL again. Their big hole is closer (we'll get to that in a minute), but finding and changing closers midseason isn't an abnormal thing to do. With their starting pitching and offense, they are the clear-cut favorite, and the best bet in all of baseball to finish No. 1 in their division. (MO)

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(AP)

Have happy days returned to Cleveland? The Indians look much better, having added Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and manager Terry Francona to give them new respectability. They sold out opening day in six minutes. They don't appear ready to overtake the Tigers in the AL Central -- nobody else does, either -- but it's going to be a disappointment if they don't contend for the playoffs. Such thoughts haven't been realistic in recent years, so that's progress. (DB)

Is this the year the Royals finally do ... something? It could be. They've been assembling an organization of good young players for years. If Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain all mature, and if their starting pitching after James Shields holds up, and if they max out with Jeff Francoeur and Alcides Escobar, they could flirt with 90 wins. Now, is all of that going to happen? Prove it, Royals. (DB)

Is this the last of Ron Gardenhire with the Twins? He's been respected as a clubhouse leader, if not a tactician, but the Twins mini-dynasty of the early 2000s is over. The Twins already have replaced a GM, and people aren't going to keep coming to Target Field — gorgeous as it is — forever, if the Twins don't start winning again. They made some positive steps this winter to restock the starting pitching of the future, but if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau aren't producing at their career-best levels, there's not going to be many wins or excitement. Six first-place finishes in 11 years is terrific. But 11 years is a long time for a manager to be anywhere. (DB)

[AL East Preview: How good are the Blue Jays?]

Can Chris Sale carry the White Sox? It's one thing to be a young pitcher who comes along and surprises the league with a big season. It's another thing to be the staff ace. Chris Sale went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA in 192 innings. In the offseason he got paid too — $32.5 million. Now comes the test. Can the 6-foot-6 pitcher out of Florida Gulf Coast (yep, those guys) have a another great year and lead the White Sox to a wild card? Maybe, but he also looks a lot like a candidate for regression.

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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

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Keep an eye on White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers. (AP)

Justin Morneau: A free agent in 2014, Morneau could be a big trade chip if he's hitting. He says he feels great after years of concussion and other issues.

Tyler Flowers: A.J. Pierzynski put up massive offensive numbers last year (for him) and was an important cog behind the plate in Chicago's machine for years. But they let him go to the Rangers, so we'll finally see if Flowers can handle the everyday job.

Lonnie Chisenhall: The Indians 24-year-old is healthy and ready to assert himself as one of the better young third basemen in the league

Ervin Santana: Royals GM Dayton Moore really believes in this guy, who had his moments but could never seem to find himself with the Angels. The Royals are going to need him, or Jeremy Guthrie or someone, to do it over 32 starts.

Unnamed Closer of the Detroit Tigers: The Bruce Rondon experiment is over — for now. The Tigers sent the hard-throwing rookie to Triple-A on Thursday, meaning they don't have a closer. Oh, a "committee" you say? We'll see about that. Rondon could be back, or the Tigers could go after someone like Brian Wilson when he's 100% after Tommy John. Their old pal Jose Valverde is still looking for work too.

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PREDICTIONS

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Might Aaron Hicks be the rookie star of the AL Central? (AP)

Order of Finish
Mike Oz:
1. Tigers
2. Indians
3. Royals
4. White Sox
5. Twins

David Brown:
1. Tigers
2. Indians and White Sox (tie)
4. Royals
5. Twins

AL Central MVP
Oz: Miguel Cabrera (Tigers)
Brown: Miguel Cabrera (Tigers)

AL Central Cy Young
Oz: James Shields (Royals)
Brown: Justin Verlander (Tigers)

AL Central Rookie of the Year:
Oz: Nick Castellanos (Tigers)
Brown: Aaron Hicks (Twins)

[AL West Preview: Angels, A's, Rangers contenders in wild, wild west]

AL Central Break-Through Star
Oz: Mike Moustakas (Royals)
Brown: Eric Hosmer (Royals)

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Up next: NL Central
Already: AL East, NL East

Are you ready for opening day?
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