The American League Central may have a reputation as baseball's skinflint division, but such is not the case: The White Sox, Twins and Tigers each had payrolls over $100 million in 2011 and ranked in the top 10 of highest-salaried ballclubs.
The problem was that two of those three teams didn't get much for their money. Considering the issues in Chicago and Minnesota, and the youth and unwillingness to spend big in Cleveland and Kansas City, Detroit will enter 2012 as the heavy favorite to win the division -- no matter what happens in the offseason. But even the Tigers are far from a sure thing and if the Indians can get good health from Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore in 2012, plus strong seasons from youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, their offense could be dramatically improved.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here's a quick look at some action plans and items of interest for the five teams.
1. Third base (Brandon Inge)
With Inge plummeting to a .197 average, Detroit's third-base production was among the worst in the majors. The team has already been linked to free agent Aramis Ramirez and trade discussions with Angels on Maicer Izturis. Both would be big upgrades over Inge, who still has one year remaining on his contract. The dark horse possibility: With Carlos Guillen ($13 million) and Magglio Ordonez ($10 million) off the books, the Tigers pursue Jose Reyes to fill their leadoff void, moving Jhonny Peralta to third base.
Likely solution: As much I love the Reyes idea, Ramirez to Detroit seems like a logical fit. The negatives are Ramirez's lack of range and Detroit's need for a little more athleticism in the lineup.
2. Middle relief
By the postseason, Jim Leyland was down to two relievers he trusted: Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit. Al Alburquerque had a strong rookie season out of nowhere and Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth provide rare power lefty arms, but Albuquerque and Schlereth still have trouble throwing strikes. The Tigers could go after a low-cost veteran like LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Gonzalez or Darren Oliver, or maybe make a trade pitch for White Sox lefty Matt Thornton, although it seems unlikely Chicago would trade Thornton to a division rival.
Likely solution: A veteran righty-hander, with the Tigers counting on improvement from Coke and Schlereth.
3. A left-handed bat.
The Tigers missed Brennan Boesch's stick in the playoffs, as Victor Martinez and the hobbled Alex Avila were the only threats from the left side (granted, Don Kelly hit a big home run). Boesch's return will help, but Detroit could use a lefty bat to help balance out the lineup.
Likely solution: Andy Dirks may given another shot at that third/fourth outfielder job after hitting .251/.296/.406 as a rookie. But what about Rockies left fielder Seth Smith, who is on the trade block? His career .518 slugging percentage against righties has been bolstered a bit by Coors Field, but he's a solid hitter who could platoon with Ryan Raburn in left, or allow Raburn to play some at second base.
1. Find a left fielder who can hit.
Michael Brantley is a decent asset -- but as a center fielder. The plan to use Brantley as an everyday left fielder was never a great one to begin with, as he's never going to pop many balls over the fence. Brantley, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck all started at least 20 games in left; Jared Head started six games there. As a group, Cleveland's left fielders hit a miserable .233 with seven home runs; only Baltimore and Minnesota received a lower OPS from their left fielders.
Likely solution: Signing Grady Sizemore doesn't necessarily push Brantley back to a starting role in left field. He's best used as a fourth outfielder and Sizemore insurance. Michael Cuddyer may end up getting priced out of Cleveland's range, so how former Twins teammate Jason Kubel? He can play left and step in as designated hitter when Travis Hafner suffers his inevitable breakdown.
2. Find at least one more starter.
Right now, the Indians can only count on Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez for their rotation. Carlos Carrasco is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Fausto Carmona was terrible and even Josh Tomlin is a question mark after the league caught up to him in the second half (5.26 ERA).
Likely solution: Jeanmar Gomez has been roughed up in two stints in the majors (146 hits in 116 innings), but his Triple-A numbers were solid, if unspectacular. He'll be given another chance in spring training to battle David Huff for a rotation spot.
3. If not Matt LaPorta, who plays first base?
The big prospect acquired in the CC Sabathia deal, LaPorta just hasn't hit as expected, posting a .299 on-base percentage in 2011. The Indians seem ready to punt on LaPorta, who turns 27 in January so isn't even that young. Carlos Santana ended up playing a lot of first base down the stretch, but let's hope he's kept behind the plate, where his hitting value would be maximized.
Likely solution: If free agent Carlos Pena lowers his price, he's a possibility, and the Indians reportedly talked with Houston about Brett Wallace. I'm not sure Wallace is much of an upgrade over LaPorta, but at least he's younger. Casey Kotchman could fit nicely here as lower-cost alternative after posting a .378 OBP with Tampa. And hey, he's only two years older than LaPorta.
Dunn hit .159 with a .569 OPS. Rios hit .227 with a .613 OPS. Dunn was the least-valuable position player in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com, while Rios was seventh-worst. They made $24 million in 2011 and will make a combined $26 million in 2012. Both are signed through 2014.
Likely solution: General manager Kenny Williams will be busy during the winter meetings, perhaps shopping around guys like Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Matt Thornton, looking for some sort of backup plan to these two pieces of junk. The 40-man roster currently includes Alejandro De Aza, who probably deserves a chance to play somewhere after a nice run (if over his head) last season. Let's put it this way: he can produce an OPS higher than .613.
2. Third base (Brent Morel)
After struggling all season, hitting .250 with just two home runs and seven walks in 328 at-bats through August, Morel suddenly changed his approach in September, got more patient and swung for the fences. He hit just .224 the final month, but with eight home runs and 15 walks. Was it a legitimate improvement, or merely feasting off September tired arms and rookie call-ups?
Likely solution: Morel's hot September earns him another shot.
3. The new manager
This isn't so much an action plan, as a big question mark. Robin Ventura has no previous managerial experience, but the good sign for the White Sox is that respected pitching coach Don Cooper is still around to handle the pitching staff.
Likely solution: If Dunn and Rios stink it up again, it won't matter how well Ventura transitions into the job -- he'll be doomed.
1. Fix the rotation
The Royals had a 4.82 ERA from their starters; only Baltimore was worse in the American League.
Likely solution: The Royals already made a move here, trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez. The club also re-signed Bruce Chen. With the signing of Jonathan Broxton, and the emergence of rookie relievers Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins in 2011, fellow 2011 rookie Aaron Crow will be given a shot at the rotation. I have my doubts it will work: Crow walked 31 in 62 innings out of the bullpen and left-handed hitters tagged him for a .311 average and .538 slugging percentage. There's a reason he struggled in the minors as a starter in 2010 (5.73 ERA). He has a great arm, but won't be able to rely on his fastball/slider combo as a starter.
2. Second base (Chris Getz)
Royals second basemen posted a .301 OBP and .636 OPS (26th in the majors) in 2011.
Likely solution: Rookie Johnny Giavotella played the final two months there and hit .247 with a .649 OPS. He'll head into spring training as the favorite to win the job. He hit .338/.390/.481 at Triple-A, so the batting potential is there: Bill James projects him to hit .295/.342/.419.
3. Center field (empty -- Cabrera traded)
The Royals were smart to deal Cabrera after his career season.
Likely solution: Lorenzo Cain, acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, will finally get a chance to play after spending 2011 in Triple-A. Cain is old for a guy still considered a prospect -- he turns 26 in April -- so he should be a polished product by now. He showed some power for the first time in his career, hitting 16 home runs for Omaha while batting .312. He doesn't walk much, so won't be a star, but should come closing to matching Cabrera's 2011 production.
1. The M & M boys
After 2011's train wreck -- the club's first 90-loss season since 2000 (and at 99 losses, the most the 1982 Twins lost 102) -- it seems pretty clear this team will be dead in the water again unless Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau get healthy and regain their All-Star status. But they also can't assume these guys are going to play 140-plus games.
Likely solution: Obviously, the Twins need a better backup plan for Mauer than giving .167-hitting Drew Butera 250 plate appearances. They already accomplished with the smart signing of Ryan Doumit to a one-year deal for $3 million. Doumit can catch or play right field, but his bat is good enough to warrant a regular place in the lineup even when he's not behind the plate. Of course, he's also been injury-prone throughout his career. Prospect Chris Parmalee, who impressed in a September call-up, gives the team a potentially decent backup option for Morneau as well.
2. Right field: Empty (Michael Cuddyer, free agent)
For all the attention Cuddyer is getting, let's remember that he's really just a complementary bat on a good team. Unfortunately, considering some of the other outfielders the Twins tried last season -- Rene Tosoni, Jason Repko, Trevor Plouffe -- you realize they had nobody in the upper levels of the system.
Likely solution: Doumit may factor into their plans here, but regardless, the Twins need another bat to play a corner or DH. Smith is a trade option and free agent Josh Willingham is another possibility.
Nathan signed with Texas while GM Terry Ryan recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it's likely Capps could return.
Likely solution: Capps was terrible last year, allowing 10 home runs in 65.2 innings while striking out just 4.7 hitters per nine innings. Two years ago, he had a 5.80 ERA. I can't fathom why any team would want to make Capps its closer. Sadly, however, the rest of the Minnesota bullpen is nearly as uninspiring (as is the rotation, but I don't have room to get to them here), but Capps throws strikes and there's nothing the Twins love more than a pitcher who throws strikes (velocity are ability to miss bats don't seem to be a factor). There's no reason for this team to spend big money on one of the remaining free-agent closers, so it probably will be Capps or lefty Glen Perkins.