Unfinished Business in AL Central

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The hot stove season seems to have hit a bit of a lull.  Not only have we seen few signings in the past few days, we haven’t even had much in the way of rumors to keep our attention.  Don’t be deceived, though:  the hot stove season is no more than half over – for us as well as those desperate Cliff Lee suitors.

We, it would appear, have two main reasons for a lack of activity:  1)  recalibration of asking prices after the mammoth contracts given to Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford & 2) the slow pace of negotiations with Cliff Lee.  I think Dombrowski was smart to move quickly on Joaquin Benoit and Victor Martinez – if, as it is starting to look, there are more teams with needs and cash than top free agents those free agents who linger on the market have a stronger bargaining position than before.  It might, if Magglio Ordonez was the Tigers top target all along, have been a good idea to offer him arbitration and potentially pay more for one year but avoid the need for a 2-year deal.

I think it’s a good idea, with this lull in the offseason, to take stock of where we stand vis a vis Chicago and Minnesota as of December 12:

We don’t really care what the Red Sox or Angels have or have not done to compete in their respective divisions – we care about getting back up to where the White Sox and Twins were last year, and to a more limited extent to whether or not the Indians and Royals have any chance of catching us from behind in 2011.  On the last count, it’s safe to say “NO”.  The Royals are looking a little bit like the Tigers after 2002 – they’ve come to the conclusion that the previous stock of veterans isn’t working, but the next crop of youngsters isn’t quite ready yet.  They’re looking to trade the pieces they can, sign cheap veteran filler, and play the guys no one else wants to trade for and prospects they aren’t all that excited about.  Early signs suggest that the Royals could be significantly worse in 2011 than they were in 2010.  Cleveland is stuck in a sort of payroll paralysis.  They have issues that they would like to address, but they have so far done nothing at all in the offseason to address them.  For Cleveland to contend, they will need genuine breakout seasons from several young players at once coupled with a return to stardom by 2 of their 3 ‘big-money’ vets.  That isn’t impossible, but it’s not anything for fans of the Tribe to be optimistic about – and it doesn’t much matter what they do before March.

The Tigers have been active on some counts:  in review (and I’m sure you all know this already) we have addressed the weakness at DH with VMart, and the bullpen (at least from the right side) with Benoit.  If those two guys perform roughly to expectations, they should add 3 wins by themselves.  We still have holes (to my eyes) in right field (unless you are enthusiastic about Carlos Guillen or a Brennan Boesch/Casper Wells platoon) at the back of the rotation and on the left side of the bullpen.  The last two are, of course, related.  If Phil Coke is going to start, lefties in the Tigers ‘pen look awfully suspect.  If he isn’t the ‘pen is set, but the Tigers would be giving the 5th spot in the rotation to an unproven prospect – AND starting Armando Gallaraga.

The Twins, it seems, have hardly moved at all.  This isn’t because they are content with the team that won 94 games last year – there will be a lot of turnover in the Twin Cities this winter.  The Twins would definitely like to resign Carl Pavano (4.6 war) and Jim Thome (3.5 war), but they haven’t done so yet and it is far from certain that they will.  If they don’t, they may have no external backup plan at all – filling those vacancies from within.  At second and short the Twins will see ‘new’ faces in 2011: at this point it looks like Alexi Casilla will start at short and Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second.  It’s anyone’s guess how well the two will perform but J. J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson gave the Twins 3.4 war last year (from Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs liked them better) and I personally doubt that Casilla and Nishioka will exceed that.  Casilla is only 25, but his major league OPS is only .633 in about 1000 PAs, and his defense has been subpar.  As a starting SS, I’d forecast his contribution below 1.0 war with a significant chance to be below replacement level.

The other big issue for the Twins this winter – the bullpen – has also gone largely unaddressed.    The list of Minnesota relievers on the market this winter is long:  Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jesse Crain & Jon Rauch and the team seems resigned to losing all of them.  Only Crain was offered arbitration, lest the team be stuck with any of those key contributors at a fair rate.  Together, the four combined for 5.6 WAR in 2010 helping to make the Twins bullpen the strength it was.  The Twins bullpen isn’t exactly barren without those four, but it certainly won’t be as deep.  As of yet, the only movement on the bullpen front has been a rule 5 signing and the trade of Hardy for a couple of marginal minor league bullpen arms.  Minnesota, obviously, has a lot left to do this offseason – but the changes that have happened so far look good to a Tigers fan.  The Twins are getting worse.  Noticeably worse.  The only major items of business they are working on involve treading water (Pavano, Thome) or finding warm bodies to replace real talent.   Exactly how much worse we can expect the Twins to be in 2011 isn’t settled yet, but we’ll be keeping an eye on it.  My personal guess, at this early stage, is that the Twins lose 1.5 WAR up the middle and 3.5 WAR in the ‘pen before we consider Pavano, Thome and their potential replacements.  That would knock the 2011 Twins to an 89 win team – which still would have won the division in 2010.