Monday, April 6, 2009

AL Central Preview

Chicago White Sox
The White Sox might be the one team I most want to see fail. I like seeing the Yankees fail, too, but there's no question that postseason baseball is more exciting when the Evil Empire is in the mix. The White Sox, however, offer no tradition of overspending and domination. The mere existence of A.J. Pierzynski is reason enough to root against them. Rargh. Okay, now that that's off my chest, let's move on to the preview.

The White Sox boast one of the more potent middles of the order in the American League, with Quentin, Dye, Thome, and Konerko all capable of 35+ homers this year. A lot will be asked of Alexei Ramirez, who perhaps deserved to win the Rookie of the Year award over Evan Longoria last year. Chicago fans are hoping he's more Hanley Ramirez than Angel Berroa. The concern this year, as in past years, is whether or not they can generate enough offense with a .263 batting average again.

Mark Buehrle anchors what has suddenly become a pretty solid pitching staff. Gavin Floyd and John Danks are 26 and 24, respectively, and showed enough promise last season to be relied upon as the #2 and #3 starters this year. The back of the rotation will be Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon, and while I don't know if you can count on either of them, they've got the experience to be decent starters. Bobby Jenks has lost several miles per hour off of his fastball in the past two years, but was still an effective closer last season. It remains to be seen if he can keep it up if the velocity doesn't come back. If he falters, Octavio Dotel and Matt Thornton could step in.

Projected record: 84-78

Cleveland Indians
The Indians were a sexy pick last season, but it took a solid second half and a huge season by Cliff Lee just to get them up to .500. Expectations are high again this year, but a lot of guys are going to have to take steps forward for it to pan out.

The offense hinges strongly on Grady Sizemore, who inexplicably looks like he'll still be batting leadoff. Sizemore was near the top of the AL in home runs all season (he finished tied for 6th with 33), but will once again be setting the table for lesser hitters. Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Garko have solid power, and there's nobody outside of Cleveland who doesn't think Victor Martinez will bounce back and once again be among the best hitting catchers in baseball. In my opinion, the most important piece of this offensive puzzle will be the development of right-fielder Shin-Soo Choo. He hit .343 after the All-Star break last year, and if he can continue to improve, his bat near the top of the order could generate a ton of runs.

Even with the Cy Young winner Lee acing the staff, though, the pitching is pretty scary. Fausto Carmona exploded after a productive 2007, and showed absolutely nothing that would make you feel encouraged about his potential for 2009. Anthony Reyes was a pleasant surprise, but he was unable to stay productive in three-and-a-half seasons with the Cardinals; I'm wary of his ability to suddenly turn it on for Cleveland. Carl Pavano is in the rotation for the Indians. Yeah, that's the scary part. They did the right thing by going out and paying for a closer after their recent difficulties, but Kerry Wood's injury history leaves open the door for more disappointment in the 9th inning again this year. Rafaels Betancourt and Perez are good middle relievers, bad closers.

Projected record: 84-78

Detroit Tigers
The Tigers might have been the biggest disappointment in baseball last year. They sent six prospects to Florida to acquire Miguel Cabrera to anchor their lineup, and got Dontrelle Willis in the trade as well. A tame first half by Cabrera and an anxiety disorder for Willis is making that trade seem a little less exciting. Cabrera did round out to lead the AL in HR, but Willis is on the DL, and the rest of the team isn't looking as good as they did going into last season.

Cabrera is obviously the best hitter in the lineup, but the whole outfield features proven and productive players. Carlos Guillen is just one year removed from 100 RBI, and Magglio Ordonez has hit that plateau in each of the past three years. Meanwhile, center fielder Curtis Granderson is among the most exciting players in the league, with a power/speed combination as potent as anyone in the AL other than Sizemore. The remainder of the infield is of the makeshift variety (Placido Polanco, Brandon Inge, Adam Everett), but they can slide in around the boppers to offer some solid production.

I think the pitching staff is where you're going to see this team made or broken, and my money is on broken. Justin Verlander figures to bounce back a little bit after an awful start to last season, but after him, the rotation is suspect. Jeremy Bonderman has been pitching too long to still have any upside left; he is what he is, a 4.50, 12 win guy. Armando Galarraga showed some nice savvy last season, but probably has reached his upside. Edwin Jackson got some coverage as possibly the next Cliff Lee, but the reason Lee was such a story was that it doesn't happen very frequently. I'm not counting on a second explosion in two years. I don't like anything about the Tigers' bullpen, either. Stop me when you hear the name of a guy you want to be your closer: Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, Brandon Lyon, Bobby Seay, Juan Rincon...that's what I thought.

Projected record: 77-85

Kansas City Royals
Ahh, the lowly Royals. They've been out of contention in this division by July for a dozen years, and while I think they're getting better, there's really no reason to think things will be any different this season. The inexplicable acquisition of Mike Jacobs this offseason makes me think that this team might have to overcome its management if they're going to be successful.

The offense has a lot of holes, but certainly a lot of potential as well. Third baseman Alex Gordon and DH Billy Butler were both super prospects, and while they may not develop into superstars, they've both shown they can at least be productive major leaguers. David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, and Jose Guillen make up a somewhat surprisingly productive outfield. If I'm wrong about Jacobs and he's actually got room to improve, the offense could be decent.

Gil Meche and Zack Greinke are a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Horacio Ramirez and Kyle Davies are two former Braves who you'd have to be "brave" to put in your rotation. I crack myself up. But seriously, neither of them has shown that they can be much more than a #5 starter, but the Royals are counting on them to eat innings. I wouldn't hold out much hope for that. Jamey Wright or Robinson Tejeda will likely be the team's actual #5 starter. Joakim Soria is a top-tier closer, and Juan Cruz showed flashes of being a very nice short reliever and setup man. Kyle Farnsworth is available if the team needs to spear a hit batsmen who's rushing the mound.

Projected record: 68-94

Minnesota Twins
The Twins may have gotten screwed out of the AL Central divison crown last season through a bogus rule regarding the one-game playoff. The home/away decision was made by a coin flip, rather than by the 10-8 record the Twins compiled against the White Sox during the season. Both teams were 53-28 at home and 35-46 on the road; the home field advantage was pronounced. The rule was changed this offseason, which is no consolation for Minnesota, but there's every reason to think the Twins will be right back in the hunt for the division crown in 2009.

The top of the order has Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young, a couple of young players with legitimate upside. Joe Mauer, though he'll be opening the season the DL, is one of the best overall players in the American League, and 1B Justin Morneau was 2006's AL MVP. Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla make up one of the weakest offensive middle infields in baseball, but the Twins scored the 4th most runs in baseball last year with that kind of middle infield, so I'm still optimistic.

Their pitching staff is fantastic. Francisco Liriano started to show some of the magic from his dominant 2006 season again last year, and he looks like he's a legitimate ace. Kevin Slowey was among the sharpest pitchers in baseball last year, with 123 strikeouts and just 24 walks. Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, and Nick Blackburn are as good a 3-4-5 as you'll find in baseball. The bullpen is highlighted by Joe Nathan, possibly the best closer in baseball. The middle relief crew isn't as good as it's been in the past, but I trust Minnesota's pen to always be effective; they seem to have a gift for finding great arms.

Projected record: 96-66

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