AL Central: White Sox look like best of a mediocre bunch

Jack McDowell
Jack's Prediction
1. Chicago
2. Kansas City
3. Minnesota
4. Cleveland
5. Detroit
More Previews
West: AL | NL
Central: AL | NL
East: AL | NL

Chicago White Sox (Last season: 86-76, 2nd)

Player to watch: Esteban Loaiza
Will Loaiza remain the ace that he became during last season's 21-victory campaign? Or will he revert back to an underachieving phenom? The White Sox had better hope he is an ace after letting Bartolo Colon go. They have learned in the past about the difference between No. 1 pitchers and guys stepping up to fill those shoes. Loaiza is expected to win now. It makes a difference.

Burning question: How will Ozzie Guillen fare as a manager?
I played with Guillen, and if he can teach what he knows, the Sox will be fine. The early word from spring camp is positive on Guillen. It's amazing how easily games are won when teams stay alert on the base paths and take extra bases.

Sure, the White Sox took the most significant losses this offseason, losing Colon and Tom Gordon, but they should have walked away with the division last season. If you would have penciled in Loaiza for 21 victories prior to last season, they would have been runaway favorites. Colon is gone, but Loaiza remains along with Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland to front the rotation. Billy Koch still closes. Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas and Carlos Lee add the pop, and Joe Borchard remains a superstar in the rough who could make a huge impact soon.

All in all, Chicago should have enough to win this division. But it had enough last year, too.

Kansas City Royals (Last season: 83-79, 3rd)

Player to watch: Kevin Appier
Youthful arms aside, Appier is dominant when healthy, and his funky windup and repertoire will keep him that way. If he can get back to being a consistent stud, the young pitchers under him will follow a lot easier.

Burning question: Juan Gonzalez
Health issues aside, even if Gonzalez plays 162 games, is he a leader this squad can follow? This was a scrappy team last year and Tony Pena demands that. Gonzalez will be put to the test in the leadership capacity as much as he will by opposing pitchers.

What about the Royals? Even after a couple weeks of spring training, I dare anyone to name their starting rotation. But these guys were there all year in 2003 ... out of nowhere! Add Gonzalez to an offense that kept Carlos Beltran (instead of trading him before he leaves for free agency), and they can hang with this division and maybe even edge the defending champs. Young pitchers should continue to develop around Appier and Brian Anderson.

Tony Pena and Ozzie Guillen managing against each other ... crazy days are ahead.

Minnesota Twins (Last season: 90-72, 1st)

Player to watch: Joe Mauer
Every indication is that this guy will be a stud. He will catch and throw just fine, but if he jumps up offensively, watch out. The Twins have a couple of players they could trade for some juice right now, and this guy could give them the reason to do it.

Burning question: Starting staff
If Brad Radke remains a true No. 1, which at times can seem shady, can the other four back him up? Not at the level that will be needed to win this division. I've dropped them behind Kansas City also.

The Twins normally would be favorites considering their winning ways over the past few years, but they had to make a valiant comeback – and have two teams crumble – to end on top last year. Losing closer Eddie Guardado and setup man LaTroy Hawkins will stifle a once powerful pen. They'll miss what Eric Milton could have brought to the starting five. Joe Mauer is taking over the catching duties for A.J. Pierzynski.

Having Shannon Stewart all year will help, but the Twins' losses will hurt more. I have usually given the Twins the benefit of the doubt, but the doubt will fall to the talent this time around.

Cleveland Indians (68-94, 4th)

Players to watch: Casey Blake and Jody Gerut
Here are two players relatively new to the scene who could become damaging offensive threats. Both complement manager Eric Wedge's gritty style and will be important in bringing Cleveland back to prominence.

Burning question: Who will become a superstar?
Which of the 26-and-under crew of C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jason Davis, Gerut and Milton Bradley will become superstars? If a couple step forward this season together, the Indians could surprise the rest of the Central.

The Indians are at that interesting stage – a young group with decent talent now and decent talent behind them coming soon. What remains is who turns into a superstar and who fizzles.

The best bet as keepers are a pair of former Stanford stars, Gerut and starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie.

Detroit Tigers (Last season: 43-119, 5th)

Player to watch: Eric Munson
The Tigers have high hopes for Munson, who has shown flashes of stardom combined with the growing pains that were particularly excruciating for all Tigers last year. He will be helped by the veteran additions made this winter and may be primed for a breakout year.

Burning question: Who and when?
After a historically miserable year last season, the group of veterans brought in to pad these younger players' egos is a positive. But questions always remain in a rebuilding process: Which players will become legitimate big league stars? And when can they build the team around them?

The Tigers had nowhere to go but up. I may not have gone about it with the same player additions as they did, but they will be better this year. The worry for the rest of the league is that these guys have seen rock bottom and will ride any glimpse of positivity for all it's worth. A record near .500 will win the division, and that's not a crazy number for any team.