MCB American League Central Preview
The AL Central has been a hotly-contested division seemingly every year, so much so that the past two seasons have each needed an extra game to determine the champion. The 2010 pennant race should be decided by as many as three teams this year, but don’t be shocked if Cleveland can keep into the race as well, joining the Tigers, Twins and White Sox.
Here’s a 2400-word breakdown of the divison, team-by-team, listed in reverse order of predicted finish.
5- Kansas City Royals
The Royals have arguably the best closer in the division (Joakim Soria), the best starting pitcher (Zack Greinke), and one of the best pure hitters (Billy Butler). Somehow, with all that, they have managed to fumble every opportunity to put a quality team on the field.
Apart from Greinke, the rotation is nothing special, Gil Meche will look to rebound after a disastrous 2009, and Brain Bannister is serviceable. Luke Hochevar has enough talent to pitch well, but has yet to do so with any consistency. Robinson Tejada, who looked like a world-beater down the stretch last year, failed to win a job in camp, losing out to Kyle Davies.
Another failed starter, Kyle Farnsworth, will be back in the bullpen, and ready to implode again this year. He’ll be joined by Juan Cruz and Roman Colon in set-up duties. All three throw hard, but none of them have featured much command over their careers. If they can get the ball to Soria, he’ll nail it down, but the bridge to the ninth resembles that of Monty Python’s Bridge of Death in the Quest for the Holy Grail. I guess that would make Trey Hillman the bridge keeper.
GM Dayton Moore shelled out some cash to revamp the lineup this year. Not much of it was spent wisely. Catcher Jason Kendall was signed to a two-year deal worth $6MM, a huge contract when they could have gotten Yorvit Torrealba or Rod Barrajas for less than half of that. Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel will make up two-thirds of the outfield, joined by long-time Royal David DeJesus. Unless Ankiel can all of a sudden remember how to stay healthy and drive the ball again, this is the weakest hitting group in baseball, especially in terms of power.
But if they can get on base enough, the Royals will enjoy big RBI numbers from Billy Butler. He showed last year that he is one of the brightest young hitters in the league, and should improve his home run totals in the years to come. Butler won’t have much help in the middle of the order unless DH Jose Guillen can discover the fountain of his youth. New second baseman Chris Getz pushed the team’s second best hitter from a year ago, Alberto Callaspo, to a reserve role, but he’ll start the year at third until Alex Gordon and Josh Fields return from injury.
Callaspo is a quality hitter and the Royals don’t have many of those. The question is, will Hillman have the guts to sit Guillen if he struggles again and give Callaspo the at bats he deserves? I’m betting not. The same can be asked about shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who may be the worst everyday shortstop in baseball, both as a hitter and defender. The guy is allergic to walks and has about as much range as Yuniesky Betancourt. Oh wait, same guy. Suffice to say he doesn’t move laterally very well at all. But the Royals are paying hefty salaries to both Guillen and Betancourt, so I’ll bet they’ll play. And the Royals will finish in the basement yet again.
4- Cleveland Indians
If everything breaks just right and the Tribe gets some unexpected pitching, they could make this a four-team race for new manager Manny Acta. Acta has already taken a step in the right direction by moving star centerfielder Grady Sizemore down to the two-hole, now if he’ll just drop him one spot lower we’ll be getting somewhere.
There is a good group of young players in a lineup that could turn some heads if the veterans can stay healthy. Travis Hafner will need to become a force at the plate, and be able to do so more than twice a week with his re-built shoulder. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo is one of the unheralded stars in the league, they guy can play.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera had a breakout year in 2009 and will be the primary lead-off man this year. Youngsters Micheal Brantley and Matt LaPorta, both acquired in the CC Sabathia trade, should make an instant impact as well.
Closer Kerry Wood will be out for a while, which might prevent the Indians from trading him. Hard throwing Chris Perez will take up the ninth inning in his absence, but the middle relief is suspect at best, apart from left hander Tony Sipp. There was far too much inconsistency from this group a year ago, and there is no reason to think that will change this year, especially without their closer.
The starting staff will lean on a couple of familiar faces in Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook. Carmona has been terrible for the past two years and Westbrook hasn’t pitched at all since undergoing Tommy John surgery early in 2008. Both have looked very good this spring and the Tribe will need them to carry a very young staff.
Converted reliever Justin Masterson has the stuff to be a top-level pitcher and lefty David Huff could get by as a starter on most teams. There is a severe lack of experience and depth behind the top-two guys however, so if either of them fail, the Indians will be in for another long season.
3- Chicago White Sox
Manager Ozzie Guillen may be the face (and mouth) of the franchise, but starting pitching will be their calling card.
Jake Peavy showed what he can do to the AL in his three starts a years ago, so Sox fans are excited about a full season of his services. Joining Peavy is Mark Buerhle, one of the most consistently good lefties in the game, along with John Danks and Gavin Floyd.
Both Floyd and Danks have shown themselves to be very capable pitchers and would be top-of-the-rotation guys on most other clubs. Should Freddy Garcia fail in the fifth spot, talented young righty Daniel Hudson will get his chance.
The bullpen features a quality trio at the back-end with big right handers Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz joined by southpaw Matt Thornton. Health is a question with Putz, but even if he winds up hurt, veteran Scott Linebrink and fire-baller Tony Pena are there to step in. There is no reason to think scoring runs against this White Sox team will be done easily.
There also isn’t much reason to think the Sox will be able to score a lot of runs themselves, however. Gone are sluggers Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye and GM Kenny Williams replaced them with the speedy but aging Juan Pierre and former-star-turned-punchline Andruw Jones. If the Sox are going to score enough runs to win this division, Jones will have to return to his pre-2007 form, as will Alex Rios, and they’ll need a full season from Carlos Quentin, something he has yet to provide in his career. Gordon Beckham is a name on the rise as he takes over at second base this year, leaving the hot corner for newcomer Mark Teahen. Teahen will be asked to provide some left handed pop for this lineup, something he couldn’t do in Kansas City.
If they hit, they will wind up in the playoffs. But counting on guys like Rios, Jones, Teahen, and Mark Kotsay is a bad idea. It’s also unlikely catcher A.J. Pierzynski is capable of repeating last year’s numbers and Paul Konerko is bound to slow down a bit as his age continues to rise. Unless Kenny Williams makes a move to add some offense, a third place finish is likely, no matter how well they pitch.
2- Minnesota Twins
The Twins won a ridiculous 18 of their final 21 games last year, all without star first baseman Justin Morneau, even then they had to take down the Tigers in an epic game 163 to earn the division title. Ron Gardenhire is, in my opinion, the best manager in baseball, and they have the best left handed bat in game in MVP Joe Mauer. Morneau is back and healthy along with Jason Kubel and Micheal Cuddyer. The Twins also added Tiger-killer Jim Thome to the mix., he’ll see some time as the DH versus righties.
The big changes the Twins made include a new double-play team of second baseman Orlando Hudson and shortstop J.J. Hardy. Hudson will slot in behind Denard Span at the top of the lineup and Hardy will hit near the bottom, likely eighth, just in front of third baseman Nick Punto, the only real weak spot in the order.
They don’t have the comforts of the dome anymore, and the cold Minnesota spring and fall will keep the ball from flying out of the park as much until the weather warms up. This lineup will score some runs no matter the ballpark though, so don’t count on the Twins struggling too much.
While the lineup can mash, the Twins pitchers will have to step up their games to make it back to the playoffs. They brought back Carl Pavano, so look for him to make a start in every series versus Detroit, and he’ll win most of those games.
The rest of the rotation are all returning members from years past in Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Fransisco Liriano. Liriano was rumored to be in the mix for a bullpen gig, but his dominant performance in winter ball, coupled with a solid spring won him the number five spot over Glen Perkins and Brian Duensing. If Liriano can ever find the form that made him the star of the 2006 season, the Twins won’t be caught in this race.
Unless of course they can’t hold a lead. The loss of Joe Nathan to Tommy John surgery this spring has left the bullpen without their leader, but not without talent. Jon Rauch should be getting first crack at closing games, but Gardenhire says he plans to “close by committee”, a plan that always works better in theory than practice.
Right handers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Pat Neshek, back from Tommy John surgery himself, form a formidable set-up crew, but there will be struggles. Rauch and Crain in particular are prone to giving up leads. Ironically, those are the two that are best-suited to close, stuff-wise at least.
If the starting pitching is average, as it should be, and the bullpen can hold down the games late, the Twins will be right there at the end. If the pitching is better than I expect (or hope), this team could run away and hide.
1- Detroit Tigers
Yeah, this is probably a homer pick. I’ll admit that a lot must go right for the Tigers to win their first divisional crown since 1987.
For starters, manager Jim Leyland is counting on two rookies with a combined zero big league at bats to step into the lineup and contribute. Scott Sizemore takes over at second base for the departed Placido Polanco and Austin Jackson patrols center in lieu of Curtis Granderson. Defensively, there won’t be a huge difference, but neither player will provide the same type of offense as the man he replaces.
That doesn’t necessarily mean less offense, just a different brand. Sizemore doesn’t make as much contact as Polanco, but will drive the ball better, resulting in more extra base hits. Jackson is not the power threat that Grandy was but should be able to get on base at a higher rate and be more willing to run than Curtis as well.
The health of the veteran hitters will also be key. If Carlos Guillen can stay off the disabled list, he’ll provide the protection needed for slugger Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the AL’s best right handed hitter. The addition of Johnny Damon will mean better opportunities for the heart of the order and Magglio Ordonez is primed for a big, big year. By all accounts, Ordonez is in better shape coming into this season than any year in his Tigers career. The lost power from last year won’t be an issue. In all seriousness, I’m expecting, not hoping but expecting, an MVP-type year from Ordonez.
Speaking of healthy, Brandon Inge has recovered from offseason surgery on both knees and his performance down the stretch in Lakeland shows he might regain the form he had at the plate during his all-star first half last year. Increased at bats for Alex Avila behind the plate will help the offense as well, not only when he plays, but by keeping Gerald Laird a bit fresher.
With apologies to the folks in Chicago, the Tigers have the best one-two in the division with Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello. Porcello has just one year under his belt, but showed this spring that last year was no fluke. Third starter Max Scherzer might have better stuff than either of them and will be very good if he can develop consistency.
The back end of the rotation has two reclamation projects of sorts in Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis. For Bonderman, nearly two years removed from surgery, the keys will be the continued development of his splitter. His velocity has returned to the 92-94 mph range and his slider looks very sharp.
Willis must show he can find the strike zone in order to keep the job he won in camp. Even if he is just an average pitcher, that will be good enough to keep the Tigers in the race. If he fails, look for Eddie Bonine and Armando Galarraga to get first crack at the number five spot.
The bullpen won’t be one that teams like the Twins will enjoy facing. The Tigers spent the winter stockpiling lefties and will open the year with three of them in the bullpen. Fu-te Ni is deadly versus left handed batters and Brad Thomas and Phil Coke both offer power arms from the left side. There is plenty of heat coming from the right handers as well, as Ryan Perry, Joel Zumaya, and closer Jose Valverde all bring it in the mid to high 90s (or above).
If the big guns in the lineup play to their capabilities, there’s no reason the Tigers can’t finish this year what they couldn’t get done last season. If Ordonez, Damon, and Guillen can’t perform at a high level however, the Tigers could place as low as third.