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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Look for 2011 AL Central to provide drama of old

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The American League Central let us down in 2010.

We count on the Central for September (and even early October) drama. We count on the Central to be decided on the final day of the season -- or with a one-game playoff after everyone else is done.

In 2010, we got a Twins runaway. On the day the Twins clinched the Central, they led the second-place White Sox by 12 games. They led the third-place Tigers by 15 games.

White Sox GM Kenny Williams introduces big free-agent pickup slugger Adam Dunn. (AP)  
White Sox GM Kenny Williams introduces big free-agent pickup slugger Adam Dunn. (AP)  
Instead of being the last division race to be decided, as it was in 2006, 2008 and 2009, the Central was the first decided race in 2010.

We can't have that again.

And it says here that we won't. In fact, while it's a little early to be making predictions, here's a guess that the Central will go back to being as hotly contested as any division in baseball in 2011.

Here's a guess that it will be as interesting as any division, too.

You've got a division champion (the Twins) who lost a key top-of-the-order hitter and several key parts out of the bullpen. You've got two well-financed pursuers, who each added a big middle-of-the-order hitter (Victor Martinez with the Tigers, Adam Dunn with the White Sox).

You've got one team starting to feel real pressure to produce. With general manager Dave Dombrowski entering the final year of his contract, there are rumblings out of Detroit that owner Mike Ilitch will want to make a change if the Tigers flop.

You've got one team always guaranteed to have off-field distractions. The Kenny Williams-Ozzie Guillen drama is very real, and while it may not come to a head in 2011, people in the White Sox organization believe that it will come to a head (with either Williams or Guillen leaving the organization) sometime in the next few years.

You've got three teams all likely to spend more than $100 million in 2011, which could leave all three of them in the top third of all baseball spenders. You've got no team that will drastically outspend the other two.

Maybe that's why you have three teams that could all make a case for being considered the favorite, but three teams that are also plenty easy to poke potential holes in.

You like the Twins to win a third straight title? Well, they do still have Joe Mauer, they should get Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan back from injury, and we'll assume for the purposes of this column that they'll eventually get Carl Pavano back from free agency.

Besides, they always figure something out, at least until the playoffs begin.

You like the Tigers to win the division for the first time since 1987 (remember, they were a wild card when they went to the World Series in 2006, losing the division to the Twins on the final day)? Well, Martinez joins Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez to form maybe the best 3-4-5 combination in the division. The bullpen looks better than the other two, and the rotation may, as well.

You like the White Sox to overcome -- or maybe even benefit -- from their yearly soap opera? Well, Dunn could hit a ton of home runs at U.S. Cellular Field, and with him, Paul Konerko and Carlos Quentin, the Sox shouldn't lack for power. If Jake Peavy returns early in the season and becomes the ace that he was at times last year, then maybe they have the best rotation.

"Those three teams, I wouldn't know who would be the favorite," one Midwest-based veteran scout said this week. "It looks like it'll be a great dogfight."

The three teams are talented enough (and the Royals and Indians look weak enough) that another scout suggested that the American League's wild card team could come out of the Central this year (after four straight years coming out of the East). Other scouts say no, but all seem to agree that the Central could be fascinating.

If the reports on the Royals' young talent are to be believed, the Central could get even more interesting in the years to come. Scouts who came back from the Arizona Fall League predicted that Kansas City could be a real contender by 2013, and one scout even said it may happen in 2012.

For 2010, though, this is a three-team race -- a fascinating three-team race.

The Tigers would seem to be under the most pressure to win. They spent the most money in the division each of the last three years, without a single playoff appearance to show for it. Ilitch didn't give contract extensions to either Dombrowski or manager Jim Leyland, and in turn Dombrowski didn't extend the contracts of his major-league scouts, either.

The Tigers have been pointing to 2011 for several years, because they knew they'd be out from under some of their terrible contracts (Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman, to name three), and thus that they'd have money to spend. They did spend, for Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, and to keep Ordonez, Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta.

And they'll still have a lower payroll in 2011 than they did in any of the last three years (and the White Sox will likely pass them as the Central's spending leader).

The 2011 Tigers are easy to like, but they're easy to critique, too. They'll be below-average defensively at many positions, and while their rotation could be strong, it's not deep, and a lot depends on whether Rick Porcello can bounce back to his 2009 form.

The White Sox have similar talent, and similarly crucial questions. When will Peavy be back, and will he be strong when he does come back? Will Carlos Quentin hit? Will Dunn adjust to the American League, and to the DH role? Can they figure out who will be the closer?

And while the general consensus seems to be that both the Tigers and White Sox may have passed the Twins in overall talent, no one who has watched the AL Central over the last decade is going to call this a two-team race.

"The thing I want to know about Minnesota," one AL Central scout said, "is who are they going to bring up that nobody likes but he becomes a pretty good player? A Twins-type player."

Anyone who has followed the AL Central knows exactly what that means.

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