The American League Central can be unforgiving. And few teams know this better than the White Sox and Twins, who have both experienced superiority in the division over the past decade but have not enjoyed success of late.
But a new year brings new hope for the two clubs that occupied the bottom two spots in the division last season, and they'll hook up for an Opening Day matinee today. The first pitch from U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago is scheduled for 3:10 p.m. CT.
Both teams will be chasing the defending champion Tigers, who have emerged as the heavyweight since winning the division title and reaching the AL Championship Series the past three years. The Indians, too, are battle-tested after being led by manager Terry Francona back to the playoffs by way of the Wild Card last season. Kansas City's young well-built team rounds out the steady division, and it also expects to contend for a postseason berth.
"You have to pitch, you have to hit, you have to score and you have to play defense," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said of what it takes to win the AL Central. "There's not one thing that you do that helps you contend. You have to do all of them in order to win.
"Detroit's won it the last few years, and they have a combination of everything. So unless you do that, you're not going to be close. We proved that last year."
The White Sox disappointed in 2013, when a team that was virtually unchanged from the previous season went from 85 wins to 63. Minnesota, which has Ron Gardenhire at the helm for the 13th season, maintained the exact same record (66-96), but it finished a spot higher in the standings, bumping up from fifth to fourth.
It's no surprise the White Sox will try to get things started on the right foot by sending wiry left-hander Chris Sale to the mound on Monday, as he sets out to duplicate the stellar campaign he put together in 2013. He finished fifth in the AL Cy Young Award voting, going 11-14 with a 3.07 ERA in 30 starts, tossing an AL-high-tying four complete games and logging 214 1/3 innings. He has averaged at least nine strikeouts per nine innings in all four of his Major League seasons.
His counterpart, Twins righty Ricky Nolasco, is no stranger to the Opening Day spotlight as he gets set to make his third such start. Nolasco, who joined the Twins on the largest free-agent deal in club history (four years, $49 million) this past offseason, has a 5.25 ERA in two previous Opening Day starts with the Marlins (in 2009 and '13).
"He just knows what he's doing," Gardenhire said of Nolasco. "He goes about his business pretty good. He's pretty tough out there on the mound. You can tell he doesn't like to [mess] around too awful much. He goes right at them, uses his pitches, knows how to add and subtract, all those things that you hope when you brought him over here."
Twins: Kubel returns
After spending the past two seasons in Arizona and Cleveland, Jason Kubel returned to the Twins after earning a spot on the roster in Spring Training. He is expected to see time as a designated hitter and backup outfielder.
"I believe he progressed during the spring and started taking better at-bats," Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said. "I still believe he's a professional hitter with something left. He has the ability to drive in runs and provide offense."
Kubel, who hit at least 20 homers in a season three times for Minnesota, played for the Twins from 2004-11.
White Sox: Abreu says hello, Paulie says goodbye
• As of Wednesday, it was still unclear if this would be the 16th straight Opening Day starting lineup that features White Sox icon Paul Konerko. He figures to be a part-time player in this, his last season. But since the longtime first baseman is bidding farewell to his playing days, there's a good chance Konerko finds a way into the lineup. It could be in Adam Dunn's designated-hitter spot, with newcomer Jose Abreu starting at first base.
"Obviously, he deserves to be," Dunn said. "Coming in, he realizes what the situation is, but I would like to see him out there. Somehow, someway, he probably will be at some point.
"I would sit. That's the thing, too. I hadn't thought about it, but if that situation came up, I would definitely have no problem doing it. He deserves it."
Abreu, signed this winter to a six-year, $68 million deal, will be making his much-anticipated Major League debut.
• Regular second baseman Gordon Beckham is likely to start the season on the disabled list with a strained left oblique. Reliever Matt Lindstrom has the same injury, and only recently he began pitching in Cactus League games.
• With the trade of Addison Reed (who saved 69 games from 2012-13), the White Sox will feature a new closer in '14. But the competition moved slowly in Spring Training because of injuries to Lindstrom and Nate Jones, Ronald Belisario's delayed arrival and Daniel Webb's brief absence for a personal matter.
• Felipe Paulino and Jose Quintana will follow Sale in the White Sox rotation for the series against Minnesota. Kevin Correia and Twins newcomer Phil Hughes will get the ball in Games 2 and 3, respectively, for Minnesota.
• This will be the Twins' first season without Justin Morneau since 2002, as the former AL MVP signed on with the Rockies this winter to fill Todd Helton's shoes at first base. Morneau was a four-time All-Star in Minnesota before he was traded to Pittsburgh in August. Morneau joined former Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer in Denver.
Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.