Tuesday, March 25, 2008

AL Central Preview

Projected Order of Finish
Kansas City

Best Positional Player: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
Best Pitcher: C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland
Best Rookie: Carlos Gomez, Minnesota

Divisional All-Star Team
C- Victor Martinez
1B- Justin Morneau, Minnesota
2B- Placido Polanco, Detroit
SS- Edgar Renteria, Detroit
3B- Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
LF- Delmon Young, Minnesota
CF- Grady Sizemore, Cleveland
RF- Magglio Ordonez, Detroit
DH- Jim Thome, Chicago
SP- C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland
SP- Justin Verlander, Detroit
SP- Fausto Carmona, Cleveland
SP- Javier Vazquez, Chicago
SP- Gil Meche, Kansas City
RP- Pat Neshek, Minnesota
RP- Rafael Betancourt, Cleveland
CP- Joe Nathan, Minnesota
CP- Bobby Jenks, Chicago

1. Detroit Tigers

C- Ivan Rodriguez
1B- Carlos Guillen
2B- Placido Polanco
SS- Edgar Renteria
3B- Miguel Cabrera
LF- Jacque Jones
CF- Curtis Granderson
RF- Magglio Ordonez
DH- Gary Sheffield
Bench- C- Brandon Inge; INF- Ramon Santiago, Ryan Raburn; OF- Marcus Thames

SP- Justin Verlander
SP- Kenny Rogers
SP- Jeremy Bonderman
SP- Nate Robertson
SP- Dontrelle Willis
CP- Todd Jones
RP- Fernando Rodney
RP- Tim Byrdak
RP- Denny Bautista
RP- Bobby Seay
RP- Jason Grilli
RP- Yorman Bazardo

Remember how healthy the Tigers were in 2006? That magical run from the bottom of the Central standings was helped by the Tigers' team health. Polanco missed a bit of time in August and Zumaya missed a bit due to his Guitar Hero injury. Since then, Detroit has been bitten hard by the injury bug. Last year, the Tigers lost Rogers for a significant period of time. Sheffield and Bonderman were shells of themselves in the second half because of nagging pains. Zumaya missed more time and Vance Wilson was shelved for the year. The string of bad luck continues into 2008 unfortunately. Wilson is still out, forcing Inge to return to catching duties for the first time in four years. Zumaya is out once again, begging the question whether he'll ever return to his 2006 dominance. Rodney will also begin the year on the DL, leaving Detroit with a gaping hole in the seventh and eighth innings. The starting pitchers appear to be relatively healthy, but Rogers's 43-year-old arm could break down any moment (especially with the reckless abandon he shows on defense). In somewhat ironic fashion, the Tigers, filled with older veterans on offense, lost one of their youngest players to injury this week. Granderson will miss at least 2 weeks with a wrist injury. Inge will also sub-in here, though Raburn or Jones could also see time.

There are certainly no doubts about this team's ability to score runs. But, with the age of their offense and the injury history of a few players, it bears reminding how quickly their fortunes can change. As Cleveland showed in 2006, it doesn't matter what your offense does if the bullpen can't hold the lead. Much of the Tigers' success in 2008 will depend on the arms of Byrdak, Grilli, Bautista, and Seay. None of those pitchers have proven themselves to be more than average arms, so one or two will have to step his game up.

Luckily, Detroit has a solid rotation that can go deep into games. All five pitchers are capable of 15 wins and a 4.00 ERA. Detroit knows what it will get from Verlander and, to a lesser extent, Robertson, but there are still question marks surrounding the other three. Can Rogers hold up for at least 25+ starts? Can Willis rebound from his two-year decline if he's pitching in front of a better defense? Will Bonderman ever solve his first-inning struggles? If Detroit can answer at least two of the three, they should roll to a division title. Whether the bullpen provides more than average work will determine their October fate.

2. Cleveland Indians

C- Victor Martinez
1B- Ryan Garko
2B- Asdrubal Cabrera
SS- Jhonny Peralta
3B- Casey Blake
LF- Jason Michaels
CF- Grady Sizemore
RF- Franklin Gutierrez
DH- Travis Hafner
Bench- C- Kelly Shoppach; INF- Jamey Carroll, Josh Barfield; OF- David Dellucci

SP- C.C. Sabathia
SP- Fausto Carmona
SP- Paul Byrd
SP- Jake Westbrook
SP- Cliff Lee
CP- Joe Borowski
RP- Rafael Perez
RP- Rafael Betancourt
RP- Jensen Lewis
RP- Masahide Kobayashi
RP- Craig Breslow
RP- Tom Mastny

What happened to Travis Hafner last year? At only 30 years old, Hafner saw his stats plummet across the board. He went from a .308/.439/.659 line to a .266/.385/.451 in 100 more plate appearances. Granted, he was still an above-average player, but compared to his previous three years, 2008 was a dramatic decline. He will be 31 in June, which, with his body shape, is an area of concern. He's always had what some baseball writers call, "old man skills." Basically, he doesn't have the speed to carry him as he ages and loses power. According to Baseball Prospectus, two of his most comparable players are Boog Powell and Kent Hrbek. Both were essentially done by age 32. If 2007 was the sign of the things to come for Hafner, Indian fans won't be happy about the next two years.

Cleveland has drastically overhauled their pitching in recent years, resulting in an extremely deep staff in '08. One through five, the Indian rotation ranks as one of the league's best. Sabathia, Carmona, Byrd, and Westbrook are capable of 15 wins and barely any walks. Their #5 man, Lee, won 32 games in 05-06, and will be given a chance to rebound in 2008 if he can keep the ball in the park. Combined with power relievers Perez and Betancourt, Cleveland will have no trouble shutting down opposing offenses. Passing Detroit will depend on getting production from players like Cabrera, Michaels, Gutierrez, and Blake on offense.

3. Chicago White Sox

C- A.J. Pierzynski
1B- Paul Konerko
2B- Juan Uribe
SS- Orlando Cabrera
3B- Joe Crede
LF- Josh Fields
CF- Nick Swisher
RF- Jermaine Dye
DH- Jim Thome
Bench- C- Toby Hall; INF- Alexei Ramirez, Pablo Ozuna; OF- Jerry Owens, Carlos Quentin

SP- Javier Vazquez
SP- Mark Buerhle
SP- Jose Contreras
SP- Gavin Floyd
SP- John Danks
CP- Bobby Jenks
RP- Matt Thornton
RP- Octavio Dotel
RP- Mike MacDougal
RP- Ehren Wassermann
RP- Scott Linebrink
RP- Boone Logan

A lot of people seem to be writing this team off behind Cleveland and Detroit. But, I look at the Sox offense and I see potential for 85+ wins. Dye, Thome, and Konerko have been an impressive 3-4-5 and now they add Swisher to the mix. Plus, give Fields another year of development and he could hit 30 HRs. All in all, there's potential for a lot of high-scoring games between the top 3 in the Central.

However, Chicago has to pitch too. And therein lies the rub. Behind Vazquez, Buehrle, and Jenks, there is little value. Contreras is about done, as years of Cuban overuse likely did him in. Floyd and Danks are young arms that have yet to fulfill their potential. Chicago needs a least one of them to post a 4.00 ERA and stabilize the back end. The bullpen that was so successful in the 2005 title run has failed them miserably the last 2 years. Thornton and MacDougal have proven why they spent most of their 20s in the minors. Their lack of control and tendency to allow HRs by the bushel hurt them. If Linebrink and youngsters Wassermann and Logan can pitch like they have recently, the White Sox may have a new guard.

4. Minnesota Twins

C- Joe Mauer
1B- Justin Morneau
2B- Brendan Harris
SS- Adam Everett
3B- Mike Lamb
LF- Delmon Young
CF- Carlos Gomez
RF- Michael Cuddyer
DH- Jason Kubel
Bench- C- Mike Redmond; INF- Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert; OF- Craig Monroe

SP- Francisco Liriano
SP- Scott Baker
SP- Livan Hernandez
SP- Boof Bonser
SP- Kevin Slowey
CP- Joe Nathan
RP- Pat Neshek
RP- Juan Rincon
RP- Matt Guerrier
RP- Jesse Crain
RP- Dennys Reyes
RP- Brian Bass

A new era begins in Minnesota without Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. In their steads are Livan Hernandez and Carlos Gomez. Hernandez has been on the downturn for three years now and moves to the stronger AL. Already, he has struggled mightily in spring training. It's confusing why the Twins even signed him. Minnesota has one of the best collection of young arms in baseball; there was no need to sign the aging veteran. Guys like Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, Kevin Mulvey, or Philip Humber all could have performed just as well for 1/10th the cost. And for a team like Minnesota that refused to spend money on Santana, it's odd that they would overpay for Hernandez (or Craig Monroe for that matter).

Offensively, their fortunes seem to depend on two people: Mauer and Young. Mauer has made it through one full season since making the majors. In that season, he hit .347 with 36 doubles and only 54 Ks. Mauer must replace some of the offense Hunter took to LA because new CF Carlos Gomez isn't quite ready yet. Leftfielder Delmon Young, acquired for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, has a big burden on his shoulders. He was traded for potentially the Twins' best starter and their best defensive infielder. Young was widely regarded as the number-one prospect in baseball before last year. However, he struggled to develop power (.408 SLG) or plate discipline (.316 OBP, 127 Ks). Still only 22, Young has plenty of time to improve. Twins fans will likely want the whole package in 2008. While that may not happen yet, he has Vlad Guerrero-like skills and could be ready to replace Hunter's production sooner than expected.

5. Kansas City Royals

C- John Buck
1B- Mark Teahen
2B- Mark Grudzielanek
SS- Tony Pena, Jr.
3B- Alex Gordon
LF- Joey Gathright
CF- David DeJesus
RF- Jose Guillen
DH- Billy Butler
Bench- C- Miguel Olivo; INF- Esteban German, Ross Gload; OF- Shane Costa, Justin Huber

SP- Gil Meche
SP- Brian Bannister
SP- Zack Greinke
SP- John Bale
SP- Brett Tomko
CP- Joakim Soria
RP- Joel Peralta
RP- Ron Mahay
RP- Jimmy Gobble
RP- Yasuhiko Yabuta
RP- Leo Nunez
RP- Jorge De La Rosa

Although I'm picking KC for last, this team has more promise and ability than any Royals squad since 2003. They are solid across the diamond, except for Pena and maybe Gathright. Teahen and Gordon could form a potential All-Star corner combo. Butler has the power to hit 30+ HR from the DH slot, as could Guillen in right. But, Teahen and Gordon have also struggled to maintain consistency in the majors. Butler can't defend to save his life and Guillen has been a malcontent who has bounced from team to team. Wherever there are positives on this offense, there are also plenty of questions. The Royals clearly have the division's weakest offense, but it could have a surprisingly underrated pitching staff.

Anchored by Gil Meche, KC has a few good young pitchers. Bannister and Greinke back up Meche with solid off-speed stuff, using more wits than velocity. The back end of the bullpen is scary good. Soria, Peralta, Gobble, and Yabuta are all above-average relievers. Gobble has become a reliable LOOGY (Lefthanded One-Out GuY) after years struggling in the rotation. Soria was picked up for a song last year in the Rule V Draft. Peralta was let go by the Angels and KC quickly grabbed the hard-throwing righty. All told, the Royals cheaply assembled a quality relief staff, something more small-market teams should consider doing.

The Royals don't have the superstars to compete in this division, but they have some good young talent. If things bounce the right way, I wouldn't be surprised if they overtook Chicago or Minnesota.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really think that this is the year that Kansas City gets third place in the division. They have all but dominated Detroit the last 5 years, what is stopping them from actually contending in this division?