AL Central: Difference Makers

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Is Konerko the most important White Sox this summer?

Is Konerko the most important White Sox this summer?

Athlon continues its in-depth preview of the 2011 MLB season. This week, we single out some important names that should be key difference makers for every team. Today, we look at the AL Central.

2011 Difference Makers:
AL East
| AL Central | AL West
NL East | NL Central | NL West

Chicago White Sox: Mark Buehrle, SP
This will be Buehrle’s 12th season with the White Sox, and possibly the last. It’s the final season on his four-year, $56-million contract. He’s talked about retiring when the deal ends, but nobody knows if he means it. His performance fell off in 2010, which was the third year in a row his ERA climbed. Along with a Jake Peavy comeback, Buehrle is set to play a huge role. He could lift the Sox beyond 90 wins by turning in a wall-to-wall solid season in his walk year, as Paul Konerko did a year ago.

Cleveland Indians: Carlos Santana, C
Manager Manny Acta says that Santana, a switch-hitting catcher, was born to hit in the middle of the lineup. If Santana is recovered from surgery on his left knee, he’s going to get a chance to do that from Opening Day this year in hopes of reviving a bad offense. Santana played only 46 games last year because the Indians didn’t want to start his arbitration clock under the guise of improving his defense. Between Class AAA and Cleveland, 46.5 percent (47-for-101) of Santana’s hits went for extra bases, and he walked more than he struck out, 82 to 68.

Detroit Tigers: Rick Porcello, SP
The man at the center of the Tigers’ fortunes in 2011 is likely to be righthander Porcello, who, at his best, could help give the Tigers one of the top front-end rotations in the AL — or who, at his worst, could create problems for a rotation that is potent, but not particularly deep. Porcello had a dazzling rookie season in 2009 (14–9, 3.96), but stumbled a bit in 2010 (10–12, 4.92), leaving the impression of a young pitcher whose secondary pitches lacked refinement. An extreme ground-ball pitcher, Porcello isn’t helped by the lack of range in the Tigers’ infield, but a trustworthy third pitch could help alleviate that concern.

Kansas City Royals: Alcides Escobar, SS
It was just a year ago that Escobar rated as the game’s best shortstop prospect because of his range and speed. His offensive potential stemmed, primarily, from his legs, but he seemed well cast as a projectable leadoff hitter. He now arrives in Kansas City looking to shake off a disappointing rookie season in Milwaukee that saw him compile a .288 on-base percentage while showing defensive inconsistency in 145 games. The Royals would love him to hit, sure, but they’ll view him as a success if he stabilizes their infield by reestablishing his Gold Glove potential.

Minnesota Twins: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 2B/SS
Nishioka brings a new element to the Twins, who’ve never had a Japanese-born player. Nishioka, 26, had a breakout year for the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2010, batting .346 with 206 hits in 144 games, including 32 doubles, eight triples, 11 homers and 22 steals. The switch-hitter entered last year as a career .280 hitter, so perhaps ’10 was an aberration. In a perfect world, Nishioka would take over the Twins shortstop duties and replace Orlando Hudson in the No. 2 spot. It’s also possible he’ll move to second base, with Alexi Casilla at shortstop, and get his first taste of major league pitching from the No. 9 spot.

2011 Difference Makers:
AL East
| AL Central | AL West
NL East | NL Central | NL West

Taxonomy upgrade extras: 
<p> Athlon looks at some names that will be the biggest difference makers in 2011.</p>