Here I have highlighted one potential impact player from each team in the AL Central. These guys aren’t yet household names, but in an improved division, their contributions may be the difference between the cellar and a pennant. (OK, I doubt the Indians and the Royals are going to contend this year, but they are only a year or two away if they can get the most out of these impact players and their promising supporting casts.) As a Twins fan, I follow the AL Central closely; so I have improvised a Google Factor, which serves mostly to convince myself of their relative obscurity. Basicall,y one point on the Google Factor is equal to 1,000 hits on an advanced search of an exact match of their full name. For comparison, Mickey Mantle scores a factor of 1,240, Alex Rodriguez scores 2,120, and Britney Spears scores 66,000
Detroit Tigers- Ryan Raburn Google Factor 43
After floating between the minors and the bigs for several seasons, Raburn has very quietly put together some nice numbers over the past two campaigns, mostly in part-time duty for the Tigers. The season-ending injury to Magglio Ordonez opened the door to more ABs for Raburn, and he did not fail to produce. This year he projects to be the full-time starter in left field, as well as some time at DH. With the re-signing of an aging but relatively healthy Maggs, the emergence of Austin Jackson and Brandon Boesch, and the off-season additions of Jhonny Peralta and Victor Martinez, the Tigers have a fairly formidable lineup. It’s not immediately clear where Raburn will slot in the order. He is not a great on-base/speed type, so he will likely be somewhere in the five-to-seven hole, which will give him ample opportunities to drive in runs.
Honorable mention: Alex Avila – can he hit enough to catch every day?
Chicago White Sox – Gordon Beckham Google Factor 128
Beckham arrived to the majors as a June call-up in 2009, just a year after being drafted in the first round in 2008. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award after going .270/14/63 in under 400 at bats. In his sophomore season, he struggled mightily for the first half of the year, but salvaged the season by batting over .300 after the All-Star break. Beckham slots in the two-hole, batting ahead of the potent heart of the White Sox lineup including Konerko, Rios, Quentin, and recently-acquired Adam Dunn. He will certainly see good pitches to hit, so expect a significant increase in run production, even if his power numbers don’t come around for another year or two. Beckham won’t turn 25 until September of this year, so he may still experience some growing pains, but with a great supporting cast, expect a breakout campaign from Beckham in 2011.
Honorable mention: Alexei Ramirez – Very solid – does he have another gear?
Minnesota Twins – Delmon Young Google Factor 101
Delmon Young’s breakout season may have already happened, but at 25, he appears to have much more in store. He had a great season last year, aided by a monster July, during which he stepped up to fill the void left by Justin Morneau’s departure (season-ending concussion) and hit .434 with 30 RBIs in 26 games. Young went on to drive in 112 RBIs, with a majority of that production coming out of the seventh spot in the lineup. Young had over 50 at-bats in each of the three, four, five and six spots as well last year, and his numbers were remarkably consistent no matter where he was slotted. He’ll bat behind Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in 2011, so he’ll have a great chance to repeat that level of production. His BB/K historically isn’t great (1:3) but has improved over the last three years, and his OPS jumped over 100 points in 2010 over any previous season. Hitting in Target Field may hinder his HR total a little bit, but the Twins will take 40+ doubles any time. As Young approaches his prime, look out for a few monster seasons at the plate.
Honorable mention: Danny Valencia – Can he hold down the hot corner?
Kansas City Royals – Billy Butler Google Factor 193
Like Young, Billy Butler is a stretch as far as being relatively unknown, but so is the notion of the Royals as having an impact in the AL Central, at least this year. Butler is the key to this lineup, and the Royals know this, having just inked him to a new four-year deal to secure his services as he enters his prime. His numbers, while solid, are not mind-blowing, at least on the surface. A .299 career hitter, he finished third in the AL in batting last year, but didn’t break the top 10 in any other category. At the same time, he did break the top 60 in everything else except the speed categories. It’s thought that his 51 and 45 doubles over the past two years will ultimately translate into 30-HR power, and he will anchor a Royals lineup expected to see an influx of raw talent over the next season or two, with the eventual additions of uber-prospects Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Wil Myers.
Honorable mention: Alex Gordon – Will this finally be the year?
Cleveland Indians – Matt LaPorta Google Factor 47
LaPorta finally got full-time at bats in the second half of 2010, and at times flashed the bat that made him a top prospect in the minors. Through much of the season, however, he struggled. Now, with essentially a full season of at-bats behind him, this could be the make-or-break season for his career. He has performed admirably at first base, and that may provide him a little bit of slack if his bat stays quiet. That said, it was his power-hitting potential that made him a star prospect, and the Indians really need an offensive threat out of at least one of their corner infield spots. LaPorta does not have an established supporting cast, given the injuries that have derailed the careers of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, but there is hope for this lineup if they can keep Asdrubal Cabrera healthy, and if young stud catcher Carlos Santana can make good on his potential. Of the five players featured in this article, LaPorta’s contribution may impact his team’s success the most.
Honorable mention: Asdrubal Cabrera – 42 doubles in 2009 – can he stay healthy?