Three-team race awaits AL Central

CHRIS TOMAN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 4:08 PM ET

TORONTO -- The spotlight in the American League always shines on the East, but it hasn't been cast bright enough across the rest of the league.

In two of the past three seasons, it's taken a one-game tiebreaker to crown a division winner in the AL Central.

And although the Minnesota Twins have won six of the past nine division titles, the Chicago White Sox (World Series winners in 2005) and Detroit Tigers (lost WS in 2006) are the only teams from the Central to reach the Fall Classic since the turn of the century.

Both organizations have made significant offseason acquisitions, each bringing in All-Stars in an effort to return to the promise land and end the pesky Twins' two-year run as division champs.

The White Sox signed slugger Adam Dunn to a four-year, $56 million deal to serve as the designated hitter and spell Paul Konerko, who re-signed for three years, $37.5 million, at first base. Detroit on the other hand, agreed to terms with switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez on a four-year deal worth $50 million to assume DH duties and anchor the pitching staff.

Dunn's contract is somewhat of a bargain as the 31-year-old has hit the second most home runs in the majors (282) since 2004, trailing only the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols. In each of his past two seasons, Dunn's hit 38 after amassing 40-plus for five straight years. He's the closest thing to a lock for 40/100 and will add a much needed left-handed stick to a lineup where most of the power comes from the right side.

Martinez, meanwhile, is the only catcher to drive in at least 100 runs in a season since 2004, accomplishing the feat on three separate occasions. Furthermore, he's complimented his high RBI totals by hitting .300 or better in five seasons since 2005 (an injury-plagued 2008 being the lone year he failed to reach the plateau). The Tigers needed another bat in their lineup to protect All-Star first basemen Miguel Cabrera, and seem to have found that in Martinez.

Additionally, both teams added quality arms to their bullpens in what turned out to be an extremely favorable market for middle relievers. Chicago signed free-agent pitcher Jesse Crain to a three-year deal worth $15 million, while the Tigers inked Joaquin Benoit for three-years at $16.5 million.

The Twins hope that Crain's departure can be countered with the hopeful return of closer Joe Nathan, who missed the majority of the 2010 season following Tommy John surgery.

Minnesota also looked to the East - the far East, in Japan, to sign middle- infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who won a batting title after hitting .346 for the Chiba Lotte Marines last season. There is no telling how Nishioka, 26, will transition to the big leagues, but he's coming off a career-year and has a propensity to run, averaging 28 stolen bases over his last six years in Japan. The Twins inked the former Olympian to a three-year deal worth $9 million with a club option for 2014.

Nishioka and Alexi Casilla will roam the middle infield for the Twins after the team lost their former double play tandem, Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, this offseason.

The club is still looking to re-sign free-agent starter Carl Pavano, who seemed to have rediscovered his form last season after going 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA, while leading the AL in complete games with seven. Jim Thome is also someone the Twins have been reported to have interest in re-signing after the 40-year old hit 25 homers during his only season in Minnesota last year.

These three clubs are bound to be stuck in another tight race but it's Chicago who may have emerged as the new favorite in the division.

The White Sox have a potential game-changer in their starting rotation if Jake Peavy, who suffered a detached muscle in the back of his throwing shoulder, can return to form after undergoing season-ending surgery.

Peavy, who not long ago was considered one of the premier pitchers in the game, was acquired by the White Sox towards the end of the 2009 season and has gone 10-6 over 20 starts since. Despite mixed results in the AL, the former National League Cy Young Award winner recorded 200-plus strikeouts in three consecutive years (2005-07), and posted an ERA under three in four seasons between 2004-08 with the San Diego Padres.

A healthy Peavy, alongside John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson gives the White Sox the strongest rotation in the Central and will allow for them to use lights-out prospect, Chris Sale, in the bullpen.

Sale, 21, reached the majors last season in the same year he was drafted (13th overall), and posted a 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP over 23 1/3 innings, while amassing four saves for the Sox down the stretch. The lefty posted better than a 3-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio (32:10) and figures to factor in for saves after former closer Bobby Jenks signed with the Boston Red Sox. There is also a possibility Sale could become a candidate for the rotation, which would allow the Sox to shop one of their starters.

Chicago has, by all accounts, completed its offseason shopping, but they may find another impact bat emerge from within the existing clubhouse.

After struggling mightily at the beginning of his sophomore campaign, second basemen Gordon Beckham finished the season with an unimpressive .252/.317/.378 stat line. He added nine home runs, 49 RBI and scored 58 runs over 131 games, a big disappointment after going for 14 homers and 63 RBI's in 28 less games during his 2009 rookie season.

However, the youngster has plenty to build off his 2010 season after hitting 310/.380/.497 post All-Star break. Beckham, 24, also hit more than half his home runs (6) and RBI (27) in 102 fewer at bats than the first half.

The 2008 first-round pick is a prime candidate to have a breakout year and could be exactly what the White Sox need to help elevate them to the grand stage, where there will be no shortage of bright lights.


Videos

Photos