Not too long ago, the American League Central was a laughingstock. It was in a position where it simply didn't appear that anyone in the division was worthy of a playoff spot, and it housed some of the worst teams in the sport.
They've come a long way since then. Detroit made the World Series in 2006, and though they bowed out meekly to St. Louis, the Tigers served notice that this division wasn't going to be a punch line anymore.
Now, we get to see one of the more competitive races the Central has had. That's saying something, because the last two division championships have been decided by a one-game playoff (White Sox over Twins in 2008, Twins over Tigers in 2009).
If all goes well in the Central this year, three and maybe four teams will be improved and perhaps worthy of at least playoff consideration.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Kansas City
The ballpark. The Twins move into Target Field this season. It opens with a visit from the Red Sox April 12, and the state is excited. But are the Twins suited for a move outside? Statistically, the Metrodome tended to rate as a hitter's park, but not as overwhelmingly as a nickname like "Homerdome" might make you think. With that in mind, Target Field could end up being a bit of a hindrance to the Twins offense, but it will have the same effect on opponents. The newly-signed Joe Mauer leads the offense, which has some serious pop with the returning Justin Morneau, veteran free agent Jim Thome, and holdovers Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. Don't forget that shortstop J.J. Hardy -- brought in from the Brewers in the Carlos Gomez deal -- popped 50 home runs over 2007 and 2008 before falling off the map last year. He should be able to recapture some of that with his change of scenery.
The pitchers. No one has a more dynamic starting rotation than the White Sox. Jake Peavy looked good once healthy last year, and he is joined by the more-than-capable John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Mark Buehrle, who threw that perfect game last year, but didn't do much after it. Veteran Freddy Garcia serves as the fifth starter as long as he's healthy. If the Sox hit at all, which is a reasonable doubt about this team, they're dangerous. Can Carlos Quentin bounce back? Will Andruw Jones get it together? How good is Gordon Beckham? Will they get anything near their money's worth out of Alex Rios? There are a lot of questions about the offense, and it's tough to imagine the Sox will figure out all the answers.
The rest. Both Kansas City and Detroit stand to be better teams. The Royals were a darkhorse pick of many a year ago, only to flop badly and threaten 100 losses. They somehow finished the season with a 4.83 team ERA despite a full season out of Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. That won't happen again. What they need are Luke Hochevar and Gil Meche to hold up their end of the rotation, and Alex Gordon and Mike Aviles to get healthy and start hitting. They need more power out of Jose Guillen. They need continued development from Billy Butler. Detroit has a rotation -- led by Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello -- but questions with the offense. Is Austin Jackson ready? If not, the Tigers have a huge hole in the leadoff spot. That's a bad place to have a huge hole. Manny Acta takes over in Cleveland, and he should be able to boost player morale. A healthy Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner would probably boost a moribound offense. The team hopes Matt LaPorta -- the prize of the C.C. Sabathia deal two years ago -- can play every day and make an impact.