Sunday, March 29, 2009

2009 AL Central Preview

Yeah, so I've been putting this off for a while. Hopefully within the next week, I'll have my AL West preview and Red Sox preview in addition to this one about how the AL Central will shake out. Just to forewarn you, don't hold your breath about any of that happening.

Before I begin, let me mention one aspect of this particular discussion that will run throughout each of these five team previews: the economy figures to hit these teams, all located in America's heartland, pretty badly during the season. Whatever I say about these teams now could change drastically once the season starts and people stop showing up for games, or if slashes in season ticket numbers begin to take their effect. It's a sad reality of our times that even if a team is successful in 2009, their owners could step in and dismantle expensive teams for their own financial good.

Let's head right into it:

CHICAGO - Manager: Ozzie Guillen
I didn't expect very much from the White Sox last year, yet they were a consistent contender in the inconsistent AL Central and forced a one-game playoff for the division crown with the Minnesota Twins. After taking that game, they lost in four to the Rays and made me look like an idiot as a result. Coming off an 89-win season, I'm not really sure what to expect on the South Side for Ozzie Guillen's boys.

GM Kenny Williams didn't make a big splash this offseason, dealing off Nick Swisher for practically nothing after just one season with the White Sox. He also traded Javier Vazquez for practically nothing. And he also let free agents Joe Crede, Orlando Cabrera and Juan Uribe go, and just got the A's 2nd round pick this year out of that.

Williams and Guillen have elected to go younger, finally handing third base to Josh Fields and second base to the out-of-nowhere Chris Getz. Instead of sticking with Uribe or Cabrera, they'll go with Alexei Ramirez (who may or may not actually be 27) at short. Gavin Floyd and John Danks, both coming off excellent seasons, will be expected to shoulder much of the load behind the reliable Mark Buehrle.

Ramirez was one of the biggest surprises in baseball last year, hitting .290 with 21 homers while seeing time at second, short and outfield in his first season of American professional play. His OBP was only .317 last year, which tells me he got lucky with many of his hits. He had only 18 walks in 480 ABs, so expect a regression in his overall numbers.

I'm also very interested to see how Carlos Quentin performs in 2009. You may recall Quentin was on his way to an MVP season when, during the first week of September with his club in a heated pennant race, Quentin smacked the top of his bat in frustration and broke his wrist, missing the remainder of season. His final line of .288/.394/.571 with 36 homers was still good enough to finish 5th in the MVP balloting, and at only 26 it's very possible he could improve even further.

If only Quentin could play center. The middle of the White Sox outfield is a giant black hole, with Brian Anderson, DeWayne Wise and Jerry Owens all so embarrassingly ineffective this spring that Ozzie just can't help himself in publicly disparaging all of them. Williams doesn't want to trade for Juan Pierre (who would?) but at some point this will have to be addressed via trade if the White Sox want to go back to October.

Otherwise, this team is made up of guys who are just getting old, like the Yankees but with a bit more upside. Warhorses like Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and A.J. Pierzynski will be trotted out again, and they'll probably post numbers that will decline slightly from the year before. All this makes the White Sox a relatively boring team. My gut feeling is that they don't have enough pitching (looks like Bartolo Colon will be their fifth starter) and definitely not enough in their minor league system to get them through a season. Of course, my gut told me the White Sox would beat Tampa in the ALDS. So what do I know?

Prediction: 3rd place.

CLEVELAND - Manager: Eric Wedge
It's hard to put into words just how weird of a season the Indians had in 2008. I fully expected them to remain one of the three best teams in baseball after nearly going to the World Series in 2007, mostly because they changed very little. Instead, not one pitcher on their entire staff had a good year besides Cliff Lee, who just happened to be the best in the AL. Their offense and defense were both extremely mediocre, with almost everyone regressing from their 2007 performances. In the end, the Tribe were a .500 team and never could figure out what went wrong.

The club, in the midst of a bad economy deeply hurting their outlying region, went out to make some improvements without breaking the bank. GM Mark Shapiro traded three marginal prospects to bring in the versatile and reliable Mark DeRosa to man third, and signed Kerry Wood to be their closer for the next two years at $20.5 million. They were part of the mega-deal that sent J.J. Putz to the Mets, picking up talented reliever Joe Smith by sending outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners. Admittedly, Gutierrez has a high ceiling, but with Ben Francisco's emergence and needs to address in the bullpen, Smith could pay huge dividends this year.

In the low-risk free agent market, the Indians snagged Carl Pavano at $1.5 million. While he'll always be the subject of scorn for stealing $40 million from the Yankees for nine wins, Pavano's had great stuff since being traded for Pedro Martinez and at that cost he will be worth a look.

Cleveland's 2009 lineup is full of wildcards. Travis Hafner appears to be toast, and Victor Martinez was so bad that Kelly Shoppach might be their #1 catcher in reality. Ryan Garko and Asdrubal Cabrera were hugely disappointing given some high expectations going into '08. The only bright spots were the indispensable Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta, who appears to have finally come into his own offensively (this might be the last year he appears regularly at shortstop, though). Much of the Indians' '09 success will depend on whether last year's inconsistent performers can find some consistency (and health).

As I mentioned up top, Lee enjoyed one of baseball's all-time "What the fuck?" seasons by winning an astonishing 22 games with a 2.54 ERA in 223 1/3 innings and ran away with the AL Cy Young Award. It would be even more astonishing if Lee were to have a 2009 with similar success, just one season removed from having a 6.29 ERA in less than 100 IP. He's undoubtedly their ace, and Eric Wedge will hope Fausto Carmona can somehow regain his '07 form and find that devastating 98 mph sinker. I'm also looking forward to seeing St. Louis castoff Anthony Reyes over a full season after a strong six-start stint last year with the Indians.

Some help could be on the way if the regulars struggle. Matt LaPorta, the main chip that came in the CC Sabathia trade last spring, could find his way into the Indians' outfield as a new power source for Wedge. The Tribe also stole prized catcher prospect Carlos Santana away from the Dodgers for Casey Blake at the deadline, and he could see some time with the big club, too.

It will all come down to consistency in Cleveland. If not, Shapiro will probably be a busy man during the middle months of the 2009 season.

Prediction: 2nd place.

DETROIT - Manager: Jim Leyland
No matter how disappointing the Indians were in 2008, the most disappointing of all teams last year was the Detroit Tigers. After trading for Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria, Detroit's pitching staff was beyond awful and their hyped offense never really showed up. Without any major additions over the winter, it's very possible the Tigers will just as bad and come in last place again.

Defensively, this team should be a lot better. GM Dave Dombrowski let Renteria go and replaced him with defensive whiz Adam Everett at shortstop. Brandon Inge will return to third base and the selfless Carlos Guillen moves to left field. While Pudge Rodriguez might be one of the best defensive catchers in history, he's certainly lost his touch, and trading for Gerald Laird was a terrific all-around move.

The Tigers will need the help defensively because I'll be shocked if this club improves on its 4.91 team ERA based solely on better performances by the staff. I trust that Justin Verlander's struggles for much of 2008 won't carry over into this year. Guys with his talent just don't get worse at age 27. Unfortunately for the Tigers, he's probably going to be their only above-average pitcher. Expect a regression from Armando Galarraga off his 3.73 ERA rookie season. Jeremy Bonderman is essentially a lost cause, and no one's sure if Rays acquisition Edwin Jackson will be any good this year.

The decision a couple years ago to give extensions to lefty starters Willis and Nate Robertson has proven to be awful for the organization. Robertson managed a 6.35 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP last year while Willis has lost the ability to pitch. Combined, Robertson and Willis are owed $39 million over the next two years and they can't give those guys away. It's hamstrung their ability to address serious needs in the bullpen, where it appears Brandon Lyon will close despite being terrible this spring (he gave up four straight home runs in a Grapefruit League game against Boston). Joel Zumaya might never live up to his potential, and Fernando Rodney can't find consistency. The other members of Detroit's bullpen aren't even worthy of mention here.

There are some bright spots for Detroit, despite the gloom of my post thus far. Cabrera was excellent last year, blasting 37 homers and coming into his own at first base. At 26, he should continue to develop as one of the game's best offensive players. Curtis Granderson overcame a hand injury and contributed a great all-around season and should also continue his ascent. And 20-year-old Rick Porcello, who's never pitched above Hi-A, may have won himself a rotation spot this spring. The Tigers have to be super-careful to ensure they don't screw with this kid, who's been compared to Josh Beckett since he was 15. I'd be very excited to see someone that young come up and dominate, though.

Here's the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room with the Tigers: it's possible this franchise will lose the most money of all teams potentially affected by the bad economy. It's no secret the Detroit area is in rough shape, and the Tigers have reportedly seen a drop in season ticket sales from 27,000 to 15,000 this winter. It's been hypothesized that Dombrowski will be selling off their best players should the team stumble out of the gate, and that even had Bill Simmons dreaming on a recent podcast of seeing Cabrera in a Red Sox uniform. What everyone is forgetting is that Mike Ilitch, who owns both the Tigers and Red Wings, is filthy rich. If needed, I'm sure he'll tap into his reserves to make sure the Tigers don't have to trade away their most valuable pieces. The one guy I could definitely see them moving is Magglio Ordonez, who will be owed $18 million in 2009 if he plays a full season this year.

The economy aside, the Tigers will struggle in 2009. For all their promise after going to the World Series in 2006, Dombrowski has done a poor job keeping the contender together. Jim Leyland has no contract for 2010, and if the Tigers falter, he's likely to be gone before the season ends.

Prediction: 5th place.

KANSAS CITY - Manager: Trey Hillman
For the first time ever I'll be writing more than three paragraphs about the Kansas City Royals and their upcoming season! I don't think any Royals fans read my blog, but in case they do I assume they will be happy. The Royals are being hyped as this year's Rays, and while I expect them to get out of the cellar and perhaps even finish above .500, I don't think they'll be ready to punch their tickets for October just yet.

The Royals avoided last place for the first time since 2003 based primarily on some balanced offense, decent defense, solid starting pitching by Gil Meche and Zack Greinke, and Joakim Soria developing into a premier closer (42 saves, 1.60 ERA, 66/19 K/BB in 67 IP). Trey Hillman worked to get the best performances possible out of those three pitchers, and I fully expect them to be just as effective this year.

To shore up their outfield defense, GM Dayton Moore shipped reliever Ramon Ramirez to the Red Sox for Coco Crisp. It simply never worked out in Boston for Crisp, and I hope that in getting a chance to play everyday he can return to his 2005 Indians numbers. Also new this year will be Mike Jacobs (funny considering my high school homeroom teacher and fantasy colleague is also named Mike Jacobs, and he's a huge Royals fan. Maybe he reads my blog. Hope the wife and kids are well, Mike!), who has never had a good OBP but at least provides some legit 30 homer pop. For the bullpen, Moore brought in Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz to set up in front of Soria.

I'm ready for my man-crush Alex Gordon to finally break out. He made improvements in OPS and average, meaning that at 25 years old it's just about time for Gordon to become the can't-miss superstar he was at Nebraska. Elsewhere Mike Aviles hit .325 in 419 ABs to earn himself a starting gig at shortstop this time around. One of my old fantasy favorites, Mark Teahen, has been relegated to a super utility role that's included an experiment at second base this spring producing mixed results.

I think part of the hype behind the Royals this year has to do with the strong potential of their starting rotation. Sure, Horacio Ramirez sucks but Kyle Davies, Brian Bannister and former #1 overall pick Luke Hochevar should be able to fill the the gaps. Should the Royals really be in it come June or July, they've got plenty of chips in their farm system to trade so they could add a starter.

I just like this team. They've got a good mix and with some smart personnel choices, these Royals have the right manager and GM to field a competitive team shortly. Imagine a 2010 ALCS between the Rays and Royals. Hey, it's possible.

Prediction: 4th place.

MINNESOTA - Manager: Ron Gardenhire
I just wonder how the Twins do it. They trade away the best pitcher in the world for 25 cents on the dollar and still come within one game of making the postseason, while the team to which they traded that pitcher experienced the exact same fate in 2008. Expectations were low in Minnesota after losing Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, but Ron Gardenhire's scrappy crew scratched out 88 wins and would have been a difficult match in the playoffs for any of the other three teams.

The Twins dabbled in many areas of the free agent and trade markets this past winter, but wound up adding only Joe Crede for $2.5 million. Crede's chronic back injury is well-documented, but Minnesota had nothing to lose by adding him because they would have likely gone with Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris at the hot corner if not for Crede. If it turns out Crede is fine, it could be one of the winter's better signings.

Otherwise, things are essentially the same for the Twins, and that's a good thing. A fully healthy Francisco Liriano will be their ace, and I want so badly for him to succeed and realize his potential. He will make people forget about Santana in a hurry. Scott Baker finally broke out in 2008, and along with Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins, the Twins have one of the AL's most unheralded but surprisingly solid rotations. All of those guys are homegrown besides Liriano, who came over in a trade as a prospect. That's just how the Twins do things. Joe Nathan remains one guy I'd hate to face if my team was down in the 9th inning and Jesse Crain is almost as intimidating.

Minnesota sports two of the game's brightest stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Mauer continues to put up historic offense numbers for a catcher, winning his second batting title last year while managing an ever-changing cast of characters in the pitching staff. Mauer's back flared up this spring, and he could miss all of April as a result. Regardless, I'm excited for when the Red Sox sign him after the 2010 season. As for Morneau, he also had another MVP-caliber year in 2008, and the quiet star will continue to be an awesome presence for the Twins.

The most interesting situation for this team lies in the vast outfield expanse of the Metrodome. Mike Cuddyer is firmly entrenched in right field, with the defense and speed of Carlos Gomez and Denard Span nailing down starting spots in center and left, respectively. With Jason Kubel expected to be the full-time DH following a wonderful 2008, that leaves out one person: Delmon Young, the same guy I said might one day find his way to Cooperstown. Young just hasn't performed up to his abilities thus far in the Majors, and it doesn't appear the Twins have much use for him. He's responded with a good spring, and it might be tough for Gardenhire to keep him out of the lineup. Either way, he'd make excellent trade bait should the Twins need an extra piece during the season.

Maybe the Twins will struggle with injuries and ineffectiveness through May. But they'll fight, they'll scratch, they'll claw...and make it into October once again in 2009. They just always find a way.

Prediction: 1st place.

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