Saturday, April 4, 2009

AL Central Preview: Expectations Abound

The days of the American League's Central Division getting heat from national pundits for being soft are over. Of course, one could argue they were over in 2005 when the AL Central Champion Chicago White Sox won the World Series; in 2006 when the Detroit Tigers coughed up the division title on the last day of the season but still qualified for the World Series before losing to St. Louis; or in 2007 when the Cleveland Indians came one game away from eliminating Boston and heading to its first World Series appearance in ten years. Teams can no longer expect to get fat on the Kansas City Royals and play .500 baseball against the rest of the division in order to contend. On the contrary, the AL Central is stocked with three teams who break camp with legitimate title hopes (Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota), one with some promise after an eternity of disappointment (Kansas City), and one giant question mark (Detroit).

The division needed 163 games to be decided last year, and the White Sox emerged with a typical one-run victory to move on to the post-season at the expense of the Twins. Still, the division was won with only 89 wins, only two teams finished above .500, and was home to two of the biggest disappointments in baseball - Cleveland and Detroit. Despite the perceived mediocrity of 2008, the teams enter 2009 largely improved and ready to challenge for an American League title.

The following breaks down the five teams in the AL Central division, presented alphabetically so as not to give the reader the impression that I expect them to finish in this order.

Chicago White Sox:
  • 2008 Record: 89-74
  • 2008 Finish: First
  • Post-Season: Won one-game playoff vs. Minnesota; Lost to Tampa Bay in ALDS
  • Key Additions: Wilson Betemit, IF; Chris Getz, IF;
  • Key Losses: Joe Crede, 3B; Ken Griffey, Jr., OF; Orlando Cabrera, SS; Nick Swisher, OF; Javier Vasquez, SP; Boone Logan, RP

The White Sox won the division in 2008 despite injuries to key contributors like Joe Crede, Carlos Quentin, and Jose Contreras. Crede is gone, but Quentin and Contreras are back. The Sox filled the hole Crede left at third with Josh Fields who will try to rebound and capture his 2007 production (.244/.308/.480 with 23 homers in 418 plate appearances). Alexi Ramirez will slide over from second to short to replace Orlando Cabrera's lousy bat in the lineup. Ramirez's rookie campaign of 2008 was solid and he shifts to his more natural position. Rookie Chris Getz gets the first crack at 2B, but his 4-year minor league numbers (.286/.361/.381) suggest he'll be nothing more than a bottom-of-the-order singles hitter.

In the outfield, Nick Swisher is gone, and the Sox will go with DeWayne Wise at the top of the order and in CF. Wise is a speedster with limited MLB experience at age 30. A healthy Quentin in LF (.288/.394/.571 with 100 RBI in a MVP-like season when he missed the final month) will help immensely, and Jermaine Dye (.292/.344/.541) will be his usual solid self.

On the mound, the rotation is led by Mark Buehrle (15-12), Gavin Floyd (17-8 in a breakout year), and John Danks (12-9 and how did the Rangers give this guy away for Brandon McCarthy?). Bartolo Colon re-joins the Sox after some time away and is coming off three injury-riddled campaigns. A healthy Contreras will anchor the back of the rotation. The top three are as good as any in the division; the back end is shaky, at best.

Closer Bobby Jenks (30 saves) may be declining somewhat, but he's still solid). Set-up men Scott Linebrink (righty), Matt Thornton (lefty) and Octavio Dotel (righty) are experienced and both throw gas (Linebrink excepted). Top-to-bottom, this may be the hardest-throwing pen in the AL.

Outlook: The national pundits are not expecting the Whities to repeat in the AL Central. That sounds like bulletin board material for manager Ozzie Guillen to me, no? They still score a lot of runs, hit a lot of homers, and are deadly at home (54-28 last year). If the starting pitching holds up, they will be in the mix in 2009.

Cleveland Indians:

  • 2008 Record: 81-81
  • 2008 Finish: Third (7.5 GB)
  • Post-Season: None
  • Key Additions: Carl Pavano, SP; Kerry Wood, RP; Mark DeRosa, IF; Joe Smith, RP
  • Key Losses: Franklin Gutierrez, OF; Paul Byrd, SP

The Indians came a few outs away from the World Series in 2007 only to suffer through tremendous injury problems in 2008. DH Travis Hafner was limited to only 57 games, C/1B Victor Martinez to only 73 games, and the team's bullpen was in flux all season.

Still, the Indians stand to be much-improved for 2009. Hafner will return and should settle in again as a run producer. Martinez will split time at C and 1B in order to maximize at bats for C Kelly Shoppach, who hit a solid .261/.348/.517 last season. Asdrubal Cabrera was putrid at the plate last season (.259/.346/.366) and weathered a demotion. He'll return to 2B. Newcomer Mark DeRosa replaces the departed Casey Blake at 3B. He won't produce corner infielder numbers, but he solidifies a position which was not solid after Blake's deadline departure last season.

In the outfield, Grady Sizemore (.268/.374/.502 with 33 HR) continues to be mis-cast as a leadoff man, but he'll anchor CF and hit at the top of the order again. Manager Eric Wedge wants to get Ryan Garko some action in the outfield this season in games where Martinez plays 1B, and that action will likely come at Ben Francisco's expense. Shin-Soo Choo will start in RF, and he hit a nice .309/.397/.549 in just 94 games.

Cliff Lee (22-3) had a tremendous Cy Young season in 2008, and he'll anchor this rotation. Fausto Carmona (8-7) will look to revert to his 19 win 2007 form after an injury-riddled 2008. Carl Pavano is slotted in as the third starter, but he's pitched 45.2 innings the last two seasons combined.

The bullpen's biggest additions come at the back end. New closer Kerry Wood (34 saves in his first season as a closer) should solidify the end of the game, while setup man Joe Smith (acquired in 3-team deal from the Mets) will likely work the seventh or eighth innings and supplement holdovers Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis.

Outlook: Eric Wedge's bunch should be improved in 2009, especially offensively, but it is unrealistic to expect that Lee will have the season he had last year. Also, Carmona's return is a big question mark, and Pavano is a much larger one. The back of the rotation (Rookie Scott Lewis and Anthony Reyes) may surprise, but it won't be enough to win this division.

Detroit Tigers:

  • 2008 Record: 74-88
  • 2008 Finish: Fifth (14.5 GB)
  • Post-Season: None
  • Key Additions: Gerald Laird, C; Adam Everett, SS; Edwin Jackson, SP; Rick Porcello, SP; Brandon Lyon, RP; Juan Rincon, RP
  • Key Losses: Gary Sheffield, DH; Edgar Renteria, SS; Matt Joyce, OF; Kenny Rogers, SP; Todd Jones, RP

The Tigers absolutely tanked in 2008. It was a nightmare season in which almost all players' production dropped. Justin Verlander lost 17 games, starter Nate Robinson's ERA was over 6, and the injury bug hit. The team has moved some veteran players over the past 9 months, and has some big question marks should it hope to contend in 2009.

The outfield continues to be the Tigers' strong point on the field. Curtis Granderson (.280/.365/.494) and Magglio Ordonez (.317/.376/.494) anchor the offense, along with 1B/DH Miguel Cabrera (.292/.349/.537 after a slow start). Carlos Guillen moves from the infield to LF to start the season. The infield still contains Cabrera at 1B, Placido Polanco at 2B and Brandon Inge at 3B, but newcomer Adam Everett brings his putrid .213/.278/.323 to the SS position in Motown. Veteran catcher Gerald Laird joins the Tigers from Texas.

The pitching staff has some huge holes in it to start the season. Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis, and Joel Zumaya start the season on the DL, with Bonderman and Zumaya expected to contribute substantially this season. Verlander (13-17) looks to rebound from a horrific 2008. Rookie Rick Porcello, Detroit's first round pick in 2007, will break camp in the rotation as a 20-year-old. Edwin Jackson joins the team from Tampa Bay and will look to solidify the middle of the rotation. Zach Miner will take Bonderman's place in the rotation initially.

The Tigers selected Fernando Rodney to be its closer to start the season. Rodney beat out Brandon Lyon for the job, but the team has two solid late innings guys in these two.

Outlook: The Tigers started 2008 0-7 and never recovered. They finished last in a season in which many thought the division should have been ceded to them after the trade for Cabrera and Willis. Still, there is some talent here and the pitching staff - when healthy - is young and electric. Don't count Jim Leyland's team out, but a season like last year's could put the manager on the hot seat in this, the final year of his contract.

Kansas City Royals:

  • 2008 Record: 75-87
  • 2008 Finish: Fourth (13.5 GB)
  • Post-Season: None
  • Key Additions: Coco Crisp, OF; Mike Jacobs, 1B; Sidney Ponson, SP; Horacio Ramirez, SP; Juan Cruz, RP; Kyle Farnsworth, RP; Willie Bloomquist, IF
  • Key Losses: Ross Gload, 1B; Mark Grudzielanek, 2B; Joey Gathright, OF; Brett Tomko, SP; Jimmy Gobble, RP; John Bale, RP

The Royals finished fourth in 2008, which was not last place, as it had each year from 2004-2007. The team's young talent began to emerge and the team was not an automatic win for the opposition down the stretch. Case in point: the Twins had an opportunity to close out the division at home against the Royals on the last weekend of the season and KC took two of three to force the Twins into a playoff situation.

The Royals made some moves in the off-season to shore up their line-up. The team added Coco Crisp to play CF and lead off, shifting David DeJesus (.307/.366/.452) to a more natural second spot in the order. Alex Gordon will play 3B again this year, and his maturation process continues after hitting .260/.351/.432. Mike Aviles saw his first MLB action in 2008, and surprised everyone by going .325/.354/.480. Billy Butler will nail down the DH role at age 22. Newcomer Mike Jacobs comes over from the Marlins (for RP Leo Nunez in a head-scratcher of a move) to play 1B every day, allowing the team to cut ties with Ross Gload and send Ryan Shealy to the minors. Miguel Olivo (.255/.278/.438) won the starting catching job from John Buck (.224/.304/.365).

On the mound, Zack Greinke (13-10) and Gil Meche (14-11) anchor the rotation and strike out a ton of people. They each struck out 183 in just over 200 innings last year. 2008's #3 starter, Brian Bannister (9-16) starts this year in Omaha, opening up opportunities for Kyle Davies (9-7 and some promise last year), Horacio Ramirez, and the portly Sidney Ponson.

The bullpen is great at the end. Joakim Soria (42 saves) was spectacular. The Royals brought in Juan Cruz from Arizona (costing them a draft pick to do so) and Kyle Farnsworth from Detroit to solidify the set up roles. Jimmy Gobble was released after a nightmarish 2008, but Ron Mahay remains to be the situation lefty.

Outlook: Manager Trey Hillman's team played hard during his first season. The team has made a lot of moves in the off-season to prepare to be competitive, but I'm not overly impressed with the current roster. With the Twins, Sox, and Indians improving and the Tigers a big question mark, my guess is that KC will once again battle Detroit for fourth place. This is not the Tampa Bay Rays, 2009 version.

Minnesota Twins:

  • 2008 Record: 88-75
  • 2008 Finish: Second (1 GB)
  • Post-Season: Lost one game playoff to Chicago
  • Key Additions: Joe Crede, 3B; Luis Ayala, RP; R.A. Dickey, SP; Brian Duensing, RP
  • Key Losses: Dennys Reyes, RP; Eddie Guardado, RP; Pat Neshek, RP (Tommy John surgery); Boof Bonser, RP (Tommy John surgery)

Obviously, we know how the Twins' 2008 season ended in Chicago, but the team's almost remarkable comeback from the dead earlier in the season is almost forgotten. The Twins were 6 games behind the division leader in early June before a comeback, highlighted by a 10-game winning streak, put them back in the race. The team's bullpen collapses in late August and early September cost this team the division title more than anything else.

Despite that, the Twins made no moves in the off-season to address the bullpen, preferring to let holdovers handle the set-up roles. Joe Crede was brought in to solidify the left side of the infield, along with the recently re-signed Nick Punto. Other than that, the Twins are counting on the likes of Michael Cuddyer, Craig Breslow, and Jesse Crain to return to division champion form.

Offensively, the Twins have a glut of outfielders with the return of Cuddyer. Denard Span (.294/.387/.432) came out of nowhere and provided solid RF defense in his first big league action. Carlos Gomez (.258/.296/.360) tantilized and frustrated on a nightly basis, but his defense is unmatched. Delmon Young's power numbers were way down, and it appears he's the odd man out with Cuddyer returning to the fold. Across the infield, the Twins are set with Justin Morneau (.300/.374/.499) and Alexi Casilla (.281/.333/.374) on the right side, and Punto Crede on the left. Joe Mauer (.328/.413/.451) won a second batting title and DH Jason Kubel (.272/.335/.471) emerged as the team's third-best hitter after getting 500 ABs for the first time in his career.

The big question mark - other than the bullpen - for the Twins this season is Mauer's haealth. He will start the season on the DL with a sore back, and they'll have to rely on Mike Redmond and Jose Morales to handle the pitching staff. Mauer may have to miss one month, and the Twins can ill-afford to be too far in the hole by then.

The starting rotation is solid. Scott Baker (11-4) will anchor the rotation after he returns from the DL with shoulder stiffness. Nick Blackburn (11-11 with some hard-luck losses in his rookie season), Kevin Slowey (12-11), Glen Perkins (12-4), and Francisco Liriano (6-4, including a putrid 0-3 start coming back from ligament replacement surgery the season prior) round out the rotation. Liriano was electric at times after his demotion, and looks to be stronger this season.

Joe Nathan (39 saves) had his usual All Star form, but getting to Nathan is a big question mark. Craig Breslow (lefty) and Jesse Crain (righty) look to be the leading eighth inning candidates initially, but neither is experienced in that role. Matt Guerrier slides back into his more comfortable middle inning role, with newcomer Luis Ayala supporting him.

Outlook: Manager Ron Gardenhire's crew is poised to take another run at the division crown in 2009. A title would be Gardy's fifth in eight seasons as manager. The biggest concern is Mauer's health. If he misses a few weeks and returns to his 2008 form, the Twins will be fine. If he is out for any extended time, the Twins will not win the division.

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