Chris Cullum, Columnist

As teams start to make their final roster cuts, I’ll be taking a look at the American League Central division.

One of the most talked about teams this offseason in baseball circles was the Kansas City Royals. Through their ineptitude the last several years they have built themselves one of the most impressive farm systems in recent memory. Highlighted by Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, the Royals’ next wave of talent has the potential to make the team relevant for the first time since George Brett roamed the hot corner. The future is brighter for this team than perhaps any in baseball, but there are also reasons for optimism in 2011 too.

The Zack Greinke trade must have been tough to stomach for a team in desperate need of an identity, but the two biggest imports from Milwaukee (Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain) add to the collection of young and exciting talent in KC. Alex Gordon, ranked as the second best prospect in all of baseball in 2007, is switching to the outfield this year hoping to get his career back on track. Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue will be switching off between first base and designated hitter, a smart idea considering they’re both excellent hitters. Aside from Joakim Soria, who might be the best closer in baseball, the Royals’ pitching is going to be their downfall. Former number one overall pick Luke Hochevar has been tabbed as the Opening Day starter, which shows just how barren their pitching stable is. Keep those chins up, Royals fans, your time is coming.

Kansas City’s 2010 cellar-mates, the Cleveland Indians, will be right beside them again in 2011. A lot of their success hinges on the health of Grady Sizemore who, with Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo, could help anchor the middle of their lineup. If they get anything from Travis Hafner and Matt LaPorta (the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia trade in 2008) they should consider themselves lucky, seeing as both have been disappointments the last few years, but at least time is still on LaPorta’s side. As is so often the case with bad teams, pitching will be a problem for the Indians. Fausto Carmona is Cleveland’s de facto ace, which is more a testament to the team’s lack of depth than to his talent. Expect another long year for the Indians.

Last year’s division champions, the Minnesota Twins, have a really good chance to finish on top again this season. They return basically the same team as last year, the only change coming at second base where Tsuyoshi Nishioka takes over for Orlando Hudson. The biggest question mark on this team is Justin Morneau, who is still struggling to return to full health after a concussion last summer that ended his season. As we’ve seen in football and hockey, concussions are serious business and everyone heals differently from them. If he can come back 100 percent that is a huge boost for the Twins and they should have no problem heading back to the playoffs. They’ll still be in the mix at the end of the season without him, but it won’t be easy, even with Joe Mauer behind the plate.

Another team that has a really good chance of taking the division crown: the Chicago White Sox. The Sox boast one of the best lineups in the American League after the signing of Adam Dunn. Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and Carlos Quentin are the other big names that will help carry the offense, but none of them will be the Sox best player this year. That title belongs to young second baseman Gordon Beckham. He finished last season on a tear and he came into Spring Training this year in fantastic shape, so a monster year from the former University of Georgia superstar should be expected. Jake Peavy’s return will only further strengthen an already good rotation headed by John Danks. There really aren’t any holes on this team, something that should help them once October comes around.

The other team in the Central, the Detroit Tigers, will really need a lot of things to go right in order to find themselves in contention. Austin Jackson had an outstanding rookie season last year, but many of his offensive metrics point to regression this year. They brought in Victor Martinez this winter whose bat will certainly help the offense, but aside from him and Miguel Cabrera the offense really isn’t that good. Justin Verlander will be Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer is generating a lot of buzz as a potential breakout star, but the rest of the rotation remains unproven. Their current roster screams of a third place finish, and you should expect nothing more or less.

Projected finish:

First- Chicago White Sox

Second- Minnesota Twins

Third- Detroit Tigers

Fourth- Cleveland Indians

Fifth- Kansas City Royals

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