Saturday, February 23, 2008

2008 AL Central Preview

Without anything remotely resembling ado, here's my AL Central Preview.

CHICAGO -- Manager, Ozzie Guillen
The wheels came off the White Sox in 2007, where Ozzie Guillen's brand of smart ball lost all semblance of mojo resulting in 72 wins and a 4th place finish in the Central. Besides starters Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle (who tossed a no-hitter on April 17) and closer Bobby Jenks, their pitchers performed either below expectations or downright miserably, with only Tampa and Baltimore finishing with worse than Chicago's 4.77 staff ERA. On the offensive side, many of their stalwart performers also declined, including a frightening drop off for Jermaine Dye (his OPS went from 1.007 in '06 to .803 in '07). GM Kenny Williams was charged with this question heading into this winter: Is it worth it to keep trying to win with this team, or start over with new, young players?

While most experts believe the White Sox should have chosen the latter, Williams elected to cash in what little remained of his trade value to make a play for 2008. He dealt young, dependable starter Jon Garland to the Angels for Orlando Cabrera, who is just one year away from free agency (expect Juan Uribe to move over to 2nd this year). In what I felt was their best move of the winter, Williams traded Low-A 1B Chris Carter to the D'Backs for one of their surplus young outfielders, Carlos Quentin. Quentin should start in left if his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery goes well and definitely could drop 25 bombs this year in full PT. Then came their biggest winter move when they sent their two best pitching prospects (lefty Gio Gonzalez and righty Fautino De Los Santos) and another excellent outfield prospect (Ryan Sweeney) to Oakland for Nick Swisher with the thought of putting Swish in center field. Williams also signed veteran relievers Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel to strengthen the bullpen.

In trading away Garland, Guillen is banking most of the hopes of the Sox this year on John Danks and Gavin Floyd both stepping up in the final spots of their rotation. I think we can all agree that Jose Contreras has lost it and that he will go down in history as one of the most over-hyped pitchers ever. Vazquez signed a reasonable extension last spring (he'll earn $34.5 million over the next three years) and some team with money to burn could take on his deal if the White Sox are out of it this summer.

I do believe Swish will hit better in U.S. Cellular Field but my issue is that he doesn't make the club that much better or more dynamic. They already have a bunch of other guys who hit for power and not for average, and it might be a pipe dream to expect Swisher to play CF for a full season. Besides the Quentin trade none of the White Sox moves this winter made a whole lot of sense. The two teams atop this division, Cleveland and Detroit, are too good for anyone else to sneak in and compete. The White Sox should have gone the way of the Twins; they should have traded their veterans to start over.

Chicago will be better this year but not by much. In a few seasons the fans on the South Side will look back and wish Kenny Williams had elected to rebuild this winter. On the bright side, Guillen has said he's going back to being his un-PC self in 2008, so at least this should be entertaining.

Prediction: 3rd place.

CLEVELAND -- Manager, Eric Wedge
The Indians and their fans were hopefully holding their heads high throughout this offseason. They rose up to big spring expectations, fought through a barrage of injuries, ineffectiveness and intrigue, won 96 games and the AL Central title, destructed the Yankees in the ALDS, and got out to a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in the ALCS. From there, the club ran headlong into the Boston postseason buzz saw. They never really had a shot in any of the final three games and went home empty-handed. Had they beaten the Sox in any of those games I'm confident Cleveland would have brought home their first World Championship since 1948. They did not hurt themselves this offseason, and they certainly have the group to get that elusive title.

It's interesting to look back on the expected starters for the Indians heading into the '07 season and then look at the group that came within one win of the World Series. Josh Barfield was supposed to be Cleveland's second baseman of the future, but he struggled mightily during his first AL season and Asdrubal Cabrera literally came out of nowhere in August to hit .283 the rest of the way. Now he holds that title Barfield lost during the season. The platoons in the corner outfield spots were essentially dissolved during the season's second half when Franklin Gutierrez smashed 13 homers in 271 ABs (the platoon in LF of Jason Michaels and David Dellucci will be continued this year). Andy Marte, the crowned jewel of the Coco Crisp deal from Cleveland's perspective, could not hack the big leagues and Casey Blake and his beard stepped in the rest of the way (Marte is out of options and must make the Indians this year or else the club will have an extremely difficult decision on their hands). In the starting rotation, young lefties Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers were terrible and their ineffectiveness opened the door for former failed closer Fausto Carmona. In one of the biggest surprises of 2007, Carmona blew away everyone in the AL with his 96 mph sinking fastball to the tune of 19 wins and a 3.06 ERA.

Like the Red Sox, the Indians did not change much for the 2008 season. They added utility infielder Jamey Carroll from the Rockies and brought over reliever Masahide Kobayashi from Japan to compliment a strong setup core of Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez. I was certain Joe Borowski would cost Cleveland the ALCS last year but he was surprisingly good except for Game 6. His combination of 45 saves with a 5.07 ERA in 2007 is one of the all-time "What the...?" stat combos. The fifth spot in the rotation could go to Aaron Laffey but Sowers, Lee and prospects Adam Miller and Chuck Lofgren should be in the mix as well. Both Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore had disappointing seasons in some respects so don't be surprised to see both come back fired up out of the gate. They don't have a lot of team weaknesses as Eric Wedge is a stickler for fundamentals.

In a lot of ways, the success of the Indians may hinge on the left arm of reigning Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia. The big 26-year-old tossed an incredible (at least for this era) 241 innings during the regular season and the wear definitely showed in his three disappointing postseason starts, including two losses while facing his Cy rival Josh Beckett. Yet in 2007 Sabathia finally stayed healthy and was able to show that potential we were all waiting for after winning 17 games at 20 in 2001. This has come just in time for Sabathia because he's due to become a free agent at season's end. Extension talks between Sabathia and GM Mark Shapiro have been tabled for now, but it's difficult to see the Indians willing to pay him what he'll really be worth out on the open market. I think only a World Series win can keep Sabathia in Cleveland past this year.

Based on their quiet offseason, their strong mix of veterans and youth, their depth in the rotation and bullpen, their sense of redemption for how 2007 ended, and their well-rounded makeup as a team, I see no reason why the Indians can't be even better this time around. Only the Red Sox are better than these Indians in all of baseball.

Prediction: 1st place.

DETROIT -- Manager, Jim Leyland
In 2007 the Tigers seemed more than poised to defend their AL Championship, but they could not find the consistent top-to-bottom pitching that allowed their dreams to become reality a year earlier. Jim Leyland led the veteran crew to an 88-win season, which would be solid for most teams but was nothing more than a disappointment based on the high expectations they set for themselves. Almost immediately, GM Dave Dombrowski began putting together a 2008 Tigers club that could put itself back in the World Series discussion.

They sent away two of their top prospects to Atlanta in exchange for Edgar Renteria and told Carlos Guillen to get fitted for a first baseman's mitt. Then at the Winter Meetings the Tigers pulled off a shocking blockbuster, emptying out the rest of the farm system to bring in uber-stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida. This trade truly rocked the world of baseball. In one instant, the Tigers were able to add one of the best young stars in baseball to an already terrific club. Dombrowski also traded for AL Central veteran Jacque Jones who figures to platoon with righty Marcus Thames in left field for 2008. Incredibly, this platoon (which could easily provide 30 homers and a high OPS out of the 8th or 9th spot in the Tigers order) constitutes the only weakness for a starting lineup that is undoubtedly the best in baseball.

Say a prayer for every left-handed hurler that has to go up against Detroit in 2008. Once they get past lefty leadoff extraordinare Curtis Granderson, they will have to face eight consecutive righty hitters, none of whom will be easy outs. It remains to be see how Leyland will fill out the lineup card everyday but you can be certain to see (in some fashion) a 3-4-5 of Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and a hopefully healthy Gary Sheffield. When teamed with the likes of Guillen, Renteria, Placido Polanco (.341 AVG in '07) and the slightly declining Pudge Rodriguez, I don't see any scenario under which this group fails to score 1,000 runs this season. Some have commented that they could be hurt by all the right-handed bats but I don't find this to be nearly as problematic has having a lefty-heavy lineup. A mostly left-handed lineup will have a much more difficult time facing a tough or deceptive LHP than this predominately righty Tigers lineup will have against tough RHPs. The best thing about these guys is that they're all veterans and are very unlikely to go into a prolonged slump as a result.

I wish I could say I have as much confidence in the Detroit pitchers as I have in the hitters. I was dead wrong last season about both Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman. It was my expectation that Verlander would break down after his heavy '06 workload and that Bonderman would emerge as the second-best pitcher in the division behind Johan Santana. Instead, Verlander threw a no-hitter in June, racked up 18 victories and pitched 201 2/3 innings with a 3.66 ERA. There's no question who the ace of this staff is, and at 25 Verlander is still a year or two away from entering his prime. As for Bonderman, he suffered elbow soreness most of the season and finished with a 5.01 ERA in 28 starts. For all the hype around Bonderman and his undeniable stuff, his career-best ERA was 4.08 in '06 and has never really put together a consistently solid year. The Tigers have him signed reasonably through 2010 but this will be the most important year of his career. If he performs injury-free to his capabilities the Tigers will know they can build around Verlander and Bonderman for the future. If not, they may shop him and look elsewhere for help.

The rest of the rotation will be rounded out by a trio of lefties in the popular Willis, the ageless Kenny Rogers and the newly-extended Nate Robertson. I think we will all be interested in how Willis does in his first season out of the Marlins' black hole. Since his stellar 2005 season his ERA has worsened from 2.63 to 3.87 and then to 5.17 last year, while his K rate and innings have gone down and his walks and hits allowed have gone up. Now he's heading from a pitcher's division to a hitter's division and despite the lack of pressure on his shoulders now I'm not sure what to expect until we actually see it. The bullpen was very poor last season, and with Joel Zumaya's potentially career-ruining shoulder injury and Todd Jones' beer gut not getting any smaller, Dombrowski did not do enough to improve in this regard. Fernando Rodney, who was at times wildly ineffective last season, will be relied on heavily as the season progresses.

These Tigers could see a lot of 10-9 or 12-11 games in 2008. Their pitching depth at this point is lacking, and they don't have any reserves left in the farm system to come up or be valuable in any kind of trade. Rick Porcello, the high school phenom who fell to the Tigers because of signability issues in the '07 draft, is their only good prospect and he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. They will desperately need their five starters to be healthy and effective all season and I think that may be too much to ask. Yet they have an ace and a lineup few pitchers in baseball will want to tangle with. Detroit will probably make the playoffs based solely on these facts, and it is going to be a fierce battle between them and Cleveland all season. But right now, the Indians are better.

Prediction: 2nd place.

KANSAS CITY -- Manager, Trey Hillman
For the third straight year I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the Royals. They don't have much of a shot to get out of the cellar in 2008, but they did experience some bright spots from last year as well as heading into this season. Gil Meche did post a 3.67 ERA in 34 starts a year ago, and cerebral rookie Brian Bannister also impressed with 12 victories. Joakim Soria emerged as a dependable closer and my preseason fav Alex Gordon hit 15 homers but showed he has a long way to go to be the star we all expect.

The Royals finished last in the AL with a scant 102 homers in 2007 and set out this offseason to fix that. There was roughly $50 million burning a hole GM Dayton Moore's pocket and he was determined to spend that money on someone. They were spurned by Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones, and they finally settled on Jose Guillen who'll earn $12M annually over the next three seasons. Kansas City also added some bullpen help with Japanese import Yasuhiko Yabuta (forever to be called "Double-Y" on this blog), Ron Mahay and Brett Tomko. I'm interested to watch where the careers of veterans David DeJesus, Mark Teahen and John Buck go this year as well as the development of DH Billy Butler and up-and-coming pitchers Luke Hochevar and Daniel Cortes. In a few years we'll be seeing high school slugger Mike Moustakas, the 2nd overall choice in the 2007 Draft who's been labeled as the best power-hitting high schooler since A-Rod.

The club will also have a new manager in 2008 in the 44-year-old Trey Hillman. The Royals brought Hillman over after a very successful run with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters (Hideki Okajima's old club), which followed over ten years as a manager in the Yankees farm system. He's got a terrific attitude and will connect to these players better than many of the previous KC managers.

That's really all I've got about the Royals. It's also probably the last time you'll see me mention them in this space until next year's preview.

Prediction: 5th place.

MINNESOTA -- Manager, Ron Gardenhire
Who knew the people of Minnesota could get even more depressed about their sports teams? After watching Kevin Garnett come to the Celtics for 40 cents on the dollar, and seeing their old friend Randy Moss light up the NFL all season, their new GM Bill Smith took it upon himself to trade the best pitcher in the world for next to nothing. Now the Twins and their fans have a season to look forward to, well, not very much.

The team couldn't get to .500 in 2007 after being my World Series favorite heading into the '06 playoffs. Their hitters suffered a debilitating power outage most of the season and Gopher State hero Joe Mauer only played in 109 games. When the winter came, the club and fans saw Torii Hunter walk away from Minnesota after spending his whole career there. Then Smith engineered a trade that essentially netted him Delmon Young in exchange for Matt Garza. My biggest issue with this trade is that Young needs to learn plate discipline into order to reach his full potential (he walked 26 times in 681 plate appearances in 2007). Plate discipline has never been a tenant of the Tom Kelly-Ron Gardenhire era for the Twins, so all bets are off in regards to what type of player Young will become in Minnesota. They will also fill the left side of their infield in 2008 with free agents Adam Everett and Mike Lamb.

Then came the much-documented Santana trade, which I won't rehash here. That deal left them without an answer in center field, yet it's entirely possible that Carlos Gomez (who came over in the Santana deal) will win the job. Their offense will likely be a problem again this year. The Twins have a solid core with Mauer, Young, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, but there isn't much else to get excited about with either their current hitters or the ones they have coming up. They have won with minimal offense before but in this year's Central what they have now won't cut it.

With Santana gone the Twins will turn to Francisco Liriano, one year removed from TJ surgery, to be their ace going forward. It's a lot to ask from the kid who is actually still in the Dominican because of visa issues stemming from his 2006 DUI. We all remember how unbelievable he was during the limited amount of time we pitched that season and it would be a shame if he could not get back to that level. The rest of the rotation will be young with the likes of Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey competing with warm body Livan Hernandez this spring. Joe Nathan remains one of the top closers in the game and I've heard whispers recently that an extension could be coming his way in the future.

It won't be a fun year for Minnesota. Then again, it hasn't been really fun at all for anything in Minnesota since Jesse Ventura left the governor's mansion.

Prediction: 4th place.

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