With a weak farm system, manager issues, budget concerns and a strenghtening division, the White Sox may have blown their last opportunity to make the playoffs for the near future.
We all know about Justin Verlander, but Detroit's rotation behind the presumptive AL Cy Young is setting up to be extremely strong. Doug Fister has been a fantastic addition, and he's under team control through 2015. While Max Scherzer hasn't put everything together yet, he has ace-quality stuff and is under control through 2014. Rick Porcello has yet to develop into anything more than average, but he'll be 23 on opening day next year.
And Detroit still has uber-prospect Jacob Turner, who cracked the majors this year at the age of 20. Andy Oliver's stock fell this year, but he still has good upside. Detroit's rotation has been very good this year, and chances are, it's a unit that'll only improve in the coming years. Verlander-Scherzer-Fister-Porcello-Turner/Oliver will be together through at least 2014, and that's a frightening thought.
Offensively, Detroit will anchored by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez with Alex Avila and Brennan Boesch providing solid offense around them. There isn't much help on the way from the minors outside of the very young Nick Castellanos and the back of the order may struggle, but any lineup with a powerful middle like Detroit will have for the next few years is a good bet to support its pitching staff.
Trading Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for Ubaldo Jimenez was a gamble, but the Indians will have Jimenez and his extremely favorable contract through 2013. Paired with Justin Masterson, the top of Cleveland's rotation is strong -- but after that, there are quite a few question marks. Josh Tomlin regressed (as expected) to an ERA above 4 this year, while Fausto Carmona struggled and may not be a sure bet to have his 2012-2014 options picked up. This is a starting rotation that'll be great at the top, but probably struggle at the bottom heading forward.
Offensively, though, Cleveland has more help. Carlos Santana is a great anchor, while Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall both look like solid-at-worst major leaguers. Travis Hafner will be around for at least one more year, while 2012 is the last year the Indians have control over Grady Sizemore. If Shin-Soo Choo rebounds from his dismal 2011 and Asdrubal Cabrera proves his 25-homer season wasn't a mirage, Cleveland's lineup could set up to be fairly solid for the next few years.
Cleveland doesn't seem to match up well with Detroit's strengths going forward, and they may continue to flounder as a .500-or-worse team for the near future.
Chances are Minnesota won't run into the awful injury issues they did in 2011 again, but even if they don't, the Twins' future isn't bright. Bill Smith's recent string of poor decisions -- namely, the trades of JJ Hardy and Wilson Ramos -- has led for some to call for his firing. While that's something esteemed Twins blogger Nick Nelson doesn't think is possible, he does write "This is a club in desperate need of new perspectives and outside-the-box solutions."
Joe Mauer's eight-year contract already looks like an albatross given he doesn't appear long for the catcher position, and Justin Morneau's career continues to spiral downward after his mid-season concussion last year. Those two players -- the anchors for the Twins' AL Central dominance in the last five years -- are owed a combined $76 million through 2013, the last year of Morneau's contract.
With Francisco Liriano imploding in 2011 after a fantastic 2010, Minnesota doesn't have a staff ace lined up for the foreseeable future. Top prospect and Beerleaguer favorite Kyle Gibson had Tommy John surgery, and after him, there are plenty of "Twins" pitchers -- i.e. guys without great stuff but decent command. There's nothing wrong with that, but from the outside, it looks like Minnesota has a bunch of Nos. 4 and 5 starters waiting in the wings.
While it's difficult for a White Sox fan to bury the Twins, the future up north doesn't look too great. They'll land the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, which is a nice start, but they don't have the makings of a team that'll contend for the AL Central any time soon.
Here lies the crux of the "White Sox window has closed" argument. If the division was ruled soley by Detroit, a bit of good luck could easily propel the Sox to a division title. But if Kansas City realizes their potential, the Sox will have another team they'll have to climb over to win the division.
Offensively, Kansas City is stacked. By wOBA, the Royals are tied for the sixth-best offense in baseball this year with Colorado and Milwaukee - better than the Blue Jays, Rays and Phillies. Alex Gordon finally had his breakout season, while soon-to-be 22-year-old Eric Hosmer will probably win the AL Rookie of the Year. He's going to be a monster, and Mike Moustakas projects very well. There still are more top prospects on the way -- namely, catcher Wil Myers -- to fortify this already-solid group.
The Royals' bullpen looks stout, too. What'll determine how quickly the Royals compete in the AL Central is their starting rotation. And that rests on two things: first, how quickly the Royals' stable of pitching prospects realize their potential, and second, if Dayton Moore can make an astute signing or trade to solidify the rotation.
While TINSTAAPP, Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery could be staff aces. Felipe Paulino looks like a decent stopgap, and Luke Hochevar isn't bad as a back-end guy. There are plenty more good, young arms in the Royals' system as well that could come along in the next five years.
For the Royals to contend next year, they'll probably need to spend some money on a starter. I have to wonder if they'll make a play at Mark Buehrle, given his Missouri connections (albeit on the other side of the state). While Buehrle may not get the Royals to the playoffs on paper, adding him would not only strengthen KC's chances, but take something away from a division rival.
What about the Sox?
The window will remain open for 2012 if Jake Peavy stays healthy and effective and Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and/or Gordon Beckham rebound/realize their offensive ceilings. With a healthy Peavy, there's much less pressure of Philip Humber and Chris Sale in the rotation -- not to mention the Sox won't have to use Zach Stewart -- and a rebound by, say, Dunn, would at least replace Carlos Quentin's lost production when he's inevitably dealt this offseason.
But with a weak farm system -- especially in terms of pitching -- and a need to slash payroll, the Sox are a team that don't shape up to be consistently competitive in the division for the better part of this decade. Of course, that doesn't mean they definitely won't be competitive, but with the rest of the division looking stronger by the day, I have my doubts about the future of this team.