Welcome to our annual series of ‘best player by position’ per division across all of Major League Baseball. Our goal in this set of articles was to bring to light the player from each position that is the best in the division right now. No weight was given to a player’s glorious or dubious past. These are our opinions as to who is most likely to represent the division in top-tier form in 2013.
As such, we welcome all feedback, criticism, and (gasp!) praise in the comments section below. Enjoy!
Catcher – Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins – A full season from Salvador Perez and an eventual breakout season from Carlos Santana and this would be a more exciting position debate. For now, Mauer is still the guy to chase. He has dedicated himself all offseason to getting as many starts at catcher as possible. After an injury-plagued 2011, Mauer got back to being Mauer in 2012 with a .319 avg., .416 on-base %, and 85 RBI’s.
1B – Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers – Fielder didn’t miss a beat in coming over from the National League. In fact, he posted the best contact rates of his career. His .313 batting average was a career-high and helped out by a career-low 84 strikeouts. Fielder actually walked more times (85) than he K’d while hitting 30 homers and 108 RBI’s. Replacing Delmon Young hitting behind him with Victor Martinez can only mean more good things to come.
2B – Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians – 2nd base isn’t exactly a position of great depth in the AL Central but Kipnis’ all-around game easily gives him top honors. Kipnis hit .277 with 11 homers before the All-Star break and just .233 and 3 after but ended the season with 14 homers, 76 RBI’s, and 31 steals in 38 chances. Kipnis has a chance of becoming the Ian Kinsler of the north if he can maintain his consistency throughout the year.
SS – Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals – The strides Escobar made at the plate in 2012 to go along with his lights-out defense separate him from Alexei Ramirez and Asdrubal Cabrera for me. Escobar just keeps getting better each year and in his age-26 season he could be in line for a special season. Last year he reached career highs in batting average (.293), on-base % (.331), slugging (.390), OPS (.721), doubles (30), homers (5), RBI’s (52), and steals (35).
3B – Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers – Triple Crown anyone? Cabrera pulled that stunt while reacquainting himself with the 3rd base position, a switch he handled very well. By hitting .330, Cabrera won his 2nd straight AL batting title and also set career highs in homers with 44 and RBI’s with 139. It’s not unusual to hear former big leaguers and current Hall of Famers refer to Cabrera as the best right-handed hitter they’ve ever seen.
- Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals – Gordon, Jackson, and Bourn represent three of the great 2-way outfielders in the game. They all play elite defense and have become major offensive contributors. Gordon backed up his breakout 2011 with another strong offensive season by hitting .294 with a .368 on-base %, 51 doubles, 14 homers, 10 steals, and 72 RBI’s. Throw in 37 outfield assists over the past two seasons and Gordon is sneaky dominant on both sides of the field.
Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers – Jackson changed his approach at the plate and reaped consistent benefits throughout 2012. Jackson is the triggerman for the Tigers’ potent offense and with Torii Hunter replacing a revolving door in the 2-hole and VMart back in the 5th slot it is possible that Jackson scores 120 runs this year. In 2012, while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense, Jackson set new career bests in batting average (.300), on-base % (.377), slugging (.479), OPS (.856), homers (16), and extra-base hits (55).
- Michael Bourn, Cleveland Indians – A late offseason addition gives the Tribe one of the best centerfielders in all of baseball and a legit leadoff man. We all know Bourn can scoot as evidenced by his 103 steals over the past two seasons but it was his 9 homers and 57 RBI’s (both career highs) in Atlanta last year that really surprised people. The addition of Bourn atop Terry Francona’s lineup elevates Cleveland’s revamped offense from probably dangerous to potentially lethal.
Designated Hitter – Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals – What a stud this guy is. Just when all of the experts concede that he’ll never be much more than a high teens or low 20’s homer guy he flexes his muscles. Butler crushed 29 long balls and knocked in 107 runs (both career-highs) a season ago. If he can get some consistent help from guys like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain then the Royals offense has the chance to be really special in 2013.
- Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers – After winning the MVP and Cy Young in 2011 Verlander basically put it on repeat but got a little less lucky in the win column and finished 2nd to David Price in the 2012 Cy Young voting. Verlander is probably the face of Major League Baseball right now. He is everywhere. But when it comes time to get serious on the mound, few can match his tenacity and production. Verlander is basically a lock for 33 starts, a sub-3 ERA, 230+ K’s, and at least 25 quality starts. Wouldn’t it be nice to pencil that into your season-long projections as a manager?
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox – I know it’s early in Sale’s career but I think he has future Cy Young winner written all over him. Thank the baseball gods that the White Sox didn’t get too serious about moving him to the pen. Sale is entering his age-24 season and could put up some scary numbers now that he has the understanding of starting a full big league season under his belt. He has the ability to keep the ERA under 3 and post 220 K’s for Robin Ventura’s team. I love watching this guy pitch. Scary good, folks.
- James Shields, Kansas City Royals – Finally the Royals have an ace to lead their pitching staff. And at the cost of Wil Myers and others he better be all of that and a rack of ribs. Since mastering the changeup, Shields has entered elite status. He is 31-22 over his last two seasons with 448 K’s in 477 innings. He cannot let up this season and if he holds true to form, the Royals could push the Tigers in the Central.
- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox – Peavy quietly put up his best season since 2008 when he was mowing everything down in San Diego. His 5.0 WAR was the 2nd best mark he has ever posted. Most vital was that he took the mound 32 times, proving that he can still stay healthy. He punched out 194 hitters in 219 innings of work. The 1-2 combo of Sale and Peavy, along with an offense that might do good things, should be enough to help this team contend for a wild card.
- Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers – Max may have finally figured it all out in 2012. He started the year with his typical mechanical problems but then caught fire and put up huge numbers. In just 187.2 innings he wiped out 231 hitters while winning a career-high 16 games. If he can translate last year’s success into 32 consistent, mechanical-failure-free starts, then he could easily lead the big leagues in strikeouts.
Setup – Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians – Jared Burton in Minnesota and Kelvin Herrera in KC could stake their claim to this spot but to me it is Pestano’s devastating slider that makes him the guy I’d most trust in the 8th. His 2012 was slightly less dominant than what he did in 2011 but this is easily Cleveland’s best reliever, including closer Chris Perez. He has 168 K’s in 137 career innings.
Closer – Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals – I might take some heat for this one from fans of Perez or Glen Perkins but given a full season of closing, I’m taking Holland over the rest of the pack. Holland’s walks were way up in 2012 as he adjusted to the stresses of closing games but this is something I think he’ll quickly correct. He K’d 91 batters in a mere 67 innings of work last year. Despite Herrera looming as a 9th inning option expect Holland to take the full-time gig as closer and run with it.
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