Every season there is at least one surprise team. Every season there is at least one major disappointment.
1. Shin-Soo Choo's return to form.
Choo was one the best players in baseball in 2009-10, when he hit .300/.397/.486, played good defense and stole 43 bases in 52 attempts. His Baseball-Reference WAR over those two seasons was fifth-best among position players, behind only Albert Pujols, Evan Longoria, Joe Mauer and Adrian Gonzalez, and just ahead of Chase Utley, Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano. In 2011, he had three separate stints on the disabled list and a DUI arrest that left him embarrassed. A national hero in Korea, he felt he had let down his country. Now he's healthy again and capable of returning to the six-win player he was instead of the 1.3-win player of 2011.
2. A full season from Jason Kipnis.
Cleveland second basemen hit a combined .252/.296/.367 in 2011, and that included Kipnis' excellent late-season performance over 150 plate appearances. ZiPS has a conservative projection for Kipnis of .258/.320/.420 with 16 home runs. I think he'll do a little better than that -- Bill James projects .272/.337/.457. Either way, the Indians will get a lot more production from second base.
3. Carlos Santana will be a monster.
In his first full season, Santana hit for power (27 home runs) and drew walks (97, third-most in the AL). What he didn't do was hit for average, a .239 overall mark dragged down by a .201 mark from the left side. Santana also had a .263 average on balls in play, one of the lowest figures among MLB regulars. There's a good chance we'll see better numbers across the board.
4. The rotation is better than you think.
ESPN Insider Dave Cameron touched on this last week, comparing the Cleveland and Detroit rotations. "The Tigers get a few more strikeouts, but the Indians' starters are expected to issue fewer walks and give up fewer home runs, and the overall output for both groups is expected to be quite similar," Dave wrote. Justin Masterson is a legit top-of-the-rotation and starter and Ubaldo Jimenez is just one year removed from a big season with the Rockies.
5. Improved depth.
The Indians ranked ninth in the AL in runs scored a year ago and part of the reason is they were forced to give too many at-bats to nonproductive players -- Austin Kearns, Travis Buck, Orlando Cabrera, Lou Marson & Co. all ate significant chunks of playing time. Now they have Casey Kotchman, Matt LaPorta and Russ Canzler who can play first base or DH if Travis Hafner gets injured. They have Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall (with some major league action now under his belt) at third base. Shelley Duncan will be given more time in the outfield. Canzler can play out there if needed. Even if Grady Sizemore doesn't contribute, the offense will be deeper and better. And speaking of the rotation, last year's rotation gave 32 starts to the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona, and he was terrible with a 5.25 ERA. Mitch Talbot had 12 awful starts (6.64 ERA). They have better depth now with Josh Tomlin, Derek Lowe, Kevin Slowey, rookie Zach McAllister and Jeanmar Gomez. The bullpen is fairly deep again with Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp and Joe Smith.
6. Justin Verlander won't be as good.
Some of that prediction is just the law of averages. But Verlander also threw 4,301 pitches between the regular season and playoffs, more than any other pitcher. By the postseason, when he struggled, maybe fatigue had set in a bit. Verlander also allowed a .236 average on balls in play. Maybe you're thinking, Sure, but it was Justin Verlander! He's tough to hit. Not disagreeing, but that was one of the 10 lowest figures by a starting pitcher since 1990. Odds are luck did play some factor in that.
7. Prince Fielder is only a minor upgrade.
Remember, Fielder's bat is essentially replacing Victor Martinez's and Martinez had a very good season, hitting .330 with a .380 on-base percentage. In 595 PAs, he created about 93 runs. In 692 PAs with the Brewers, Fielder created about 135 runs. He created 117 runs the year before. Comerica is a little tougher place to hit than Miller Park and Fielder won't be able to feast off the dregs of the NL Central. I'm not saying that Fielder isn't good; of course he it. But he will only be worth an additional 10 to 15 runs over 600 plate appearances compared to what Martinez gave the Tigers last season.
These two were lost in the all Verlander and Miguel Cabrera hype but were keys to Detroit's success. Peralta has been all over the place in his career, but considering hi 2009-10 OPS was .696, I'm predicting regression from 2011's .824. Avila had a breakout season and is a better bet to repeat his 2011 numbers but not many catchers produce an .895 OPS year after year.
9. Jose Valverde will not go 49-for-49 in save opportunities.
Valverde was a big reason Detroit exceeded its projected record of 89-73 by six wins. Another key to the Detroit bullpen a year ago was rookie Al Alburquerque, who went 6-1 with a 1.87 ERA in 41 games. He had offseason elbow surgery and isn't expected back until midseason. In fact, Alburquerque and Doug Fister went a combined 14-2. You see that happening again?
10. Delmon Young ... your No. 5 hitter.
Young has had one good season in his career -- 2010 with the Twins. Otherwise, he's a low-OBP guy who eats up a ton of outs, is a terrible left fielder and doesn't really have big-time power (one season over 13 home runs). That 3-4-5 of Cabrera, Fielder and Young is painfully slow. Now, Young may end up serving a lot of time as the DH if Miguel Cabrera does play third base every day. Either way, you're getting some bad defense -- Miggy at third or Young in left field.
So, there you go. Look, I'm not delusional; the Tigers are still the division favorite. The Indians have a lot of ground to make up -- Detroit had a run differential of plus-76 a year ago while Cleveland was minus-56. But if you're looking for a surprise division winner for 2012, Cleveland is my pick.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.