Last season, Major League Baseball’s Central Divisions came from different directions. In the American League, the Minnesota Twins won the division, just like they have six of the last nine seasons. The Cincinnati Reds, on the other hand, found their way to the top of the division for the first time in 15 years. Both teams were disappointed during the playoffs, losing in the divisional series.
Ron Gardenhire, the Twins’ manager, was finally won his first American League Manager of the Year award. Gardenhire has been the Twins’ skipper since their first of six division titles in nine seasons in 2002 and has come in 2nd for the award five times. It’s safe to say the Twins are one of the best managed teams in the regular season. In the postseason, they only know how to lose, dropping their last 12 games.
Last season Minnesota won 94 games in spite of losing first baseman and slugger Justin Morneau, to a concussion for most of the season, and closer Joe Nathan for the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. A healthy Morneau will go a long way for the Twins and their ambitions to win a 7th division title in 10 seasons. The only major changes that occurred in Minnesota over the offseason were in the bullpen. Leaving via free agency were Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Brian Fuentes. Normally it would be tough to lose all those arms, but it has happened to the Twins before and they always find a way to answer from within the organization.
Nathan, one of the most consistent closers in the major leagues, will return to the mound this year after missing all of last season. Having Nathan back will help ease the loss of the aforementioned relievers. Carl Pavano went 17-11 last season with a 3.75 ERA in 32 starts. With Pavano becoming a free agent, one question for the Twins this offseason was how to replace Carl’s 32 starts. The answer, was to re-sign Pavano for $16.5 million over the next two seasons and having the 2011 rotation look the same as the 2010 one.
Minnesota lost both of their middle infielders, second baseman Orlando Hudson and shortstop J.J. Hardy. Hardy was traded to the Baltimore Orioles while Hudson went to the San Diago Padres via free agency. Alexi Casilla will see more time on the field as a result, and the Twins also signed Japanese star Tsuyoshi Nishioka to play either shortstop or second. Gardenhire has announced no decision will be made on which position either will play until he sees what they look like together in spring training. Both will play the middle infield. Casilla has spent the last 4 seasons as a part time player with the big club, appearing in a career-high of 98 games in 2008. A fair full season projection would have him hit .270 with close to 20 stolen bases. This will be the 26-year-old Nishioka’s first big league season, having been a member of the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Japanese Pacific League since he was 18. With professional experience, he could come into the Majors, bat over .300 and take home the Rookie of the Year award.
Matching last season’s 94 wins seems unrealistic, but a 90 win season isn’t out of the question. Both the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers improved their teams, so the Twinkies will have competition for the division. But they have proven year in and year out that it is their division to lose.
The Reds on the other hand are new to winning the division. They have a young lineup and a pitching staff that finally broke out last season. Dusty Baker missed winning manager of the year by one vote, and his team experienced the same fate as Gardenhire’s in the divisional round, a 3 game sweep at the hands of the wild card winner, the Atlanta Braves. With a young team, the Reds went out and signed veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria from the San Francisco Giants and outfielder Fred Lewis from the Toronto Blue Jays. The rest of the offseason effort was put into locking up their young stars. This includes reigning MVP Joey Votto for three seasons at $38 million, outfielder Jay Bruce (a budding star) for six seasons at $51 million and breakout pitcher Johnny Cueto to a four-year $28 million contract.
These signings not only help the Reds this season, but for years to come. While Votto is not likely to once again put up a .324 average with 113 RBIs and 37 home runs, a .303 average with 183 RBIs and 62 home runs between Votto and Jay Bruce (.280, 70 RBIs 25 HR) is a reasonable expectation. That would mean, of course, Bruce would need to improve in each category, but he has gotten better each of the last two seasons.
It is impossible to mention next season in Cincinnati without talking about Aroldis Chapman. Chapman has the best fastball in the big leagues and in his month in the bullpen last season, he proved he could strike batters out. In 13 1/3 innings, he struck out a staggering 19 men-good for 12.8 k/9 innings. The Cuban émigré will spend all of 2011 in the bullpen with the Reds and be relied on to get strikeouts in key situations. His arsenal is the perfect late-inning rally killer.
Cincinnati should once again be able to win around 91 games. The playoffs depend on how well the other teams in the division bounce back. It will take all their effort to hold off the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers.