Monday, February 22, 2010

2010 AL Central Preview

We're on to the AL Central today. I put off doing this because of one major transaction that was finally completed last weekend. You probably know what that is, but I'll get to it shortly. Without further ado:

CHICAGO - Manager: Ozzie Guillen
The question I always wonder when it comes to ChiSox GM Kenny Williams: Does he ever actually have a plan, or does he just suck at sticking to one? No team's vacillated between buyer and seller more than the White Sox over the last few seasons.

For example, last year they traded away Jim Thome and Jose Contreras yet still assumed the massive contracts of Jake Peavy and Alex Rios. It made no sense for '09, but after some moves this winter, it at least appears like the White Sox will be going for the division crown in '10.

Young infielders Josh Fields and Chris Getz were traded to KC for perennial disappointment Mark Teahen, who'll be the starting third baseman even though he's a novice defensively. That move does, however, allow Gordon Beckham, one of the most heralded rookies in the AL last year, to shift from third to his more natural position at second.

Williams did the Dodgers a huge favor and took Juan Pierre off their hands. Pierre will start in center field, and will only cost the White Sox $4.25 million each of the next two years. That's not a bad deal for an excellent defender who's super durable and had a .365 OBP last year. However, I'll be shocked if he's got more than 10 extra-base hits at the All-Star break.

Omar Vizquel will back up Alexei Ramirez at shortstop, and Andruw Jones ought to get most of the starts at DH. Williams took a low-risk chance on Freddy Garcia, who anchored the '05 World Championship staff but has been wracked by shoulder injuries each of the last three seasons.

The strength of the White Sox is their rotation, led by a finally-healthy Peavy and the ultra-reliable Mark Buehrle. Gavin Floyd and John Danks are also on the cusp of entering the top tier of AL starters. Bobby Jenks is the incumbent closer, but he could be supplanted by J.J. Putz, Matt Thornton or Tony Pena if Guillen once again loses patience with the hefty fireballer.

Many of the position players for Chicago are aged or injury prone, so they'll need some luck to get through the year with everyone healthy. Williams traded away most of the team's top prospects in the Peavy deal, so don't expect reinforcements. The White Sox will be good, unless Williams changes track again and deals away all the veterans. It's hard to tell right now.

Prediction: 2nd place.

CLEVELAND - Manager: Manny Acta
I'm pissed about what's happened to the Indians, and I'm no Indians fan. In October 2007, Cleveland was on top of the baseball world. They were up 3-1 in the ALCS against Boston with a diverse and fun team, set to go to the World Series and bring their city its first title since 1948. But then Josh Beckett dominated Game 5, and two games later the Indians went home empty.

After an uneven '08 season that saw CC Sabathia moved to Milwaukee, the wheels completely came off in '09. GM Mark Shapiro's "Firesale '09!" started in earnest. Cliff Lee was the second straight reigning Cy Young winner traded by Cleveland, team leader Victor Martinez waved goodbye, and Rafael Betancourt, Ryan Garko, Mark DeRosa and Ben Francisco were also cast away. The ragtag remains won just 65 games for Cleveland, and this was somehow deemed to be the fault of manager Eric Wedge, who was throwing out a Double-A lineup most of the last two months of the season.

Wedge was shitcanned with one series against Boston still remaining on the schedule, but stayed through as a lame duck. Enter Manny Acta, who's supposedly a great baseball mind even though his 158-252 record in two and a half seasons in Washington doesn't exactly scream "genius." All Shapiro added this winter was washed-up backup catcher Mark Redmond and mashing first baseman Russell Branyan, who hit 31 bombs last year but struck out 149 times in 505 plate appearances. So Acta will have about as much to work with as Wedge.

Despite the best efforts of Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, this team is going to suck. They might be the only team in the AL to lose 100 games this year. Travis Hafner is done. Done. And he's still owed $40.25 million. Jake Westbrook is the only starting pitcher with a chance to be slightly below average. If Kerry Wood is actually decent, he'll surely be dealt by the deadline.

If all that wasn't bad enough for Cleveland fans, there's this recent bit of incongruous news: Shapiro will be promoted to team president after the '10 season, with longtime assistant Chris Antonetti ready to step into the GM seat. Clearly, anyone who takes a team within one win of the World Series to 97 losses (with potential for even more) in just over two years is certainly worthy of a promotion.

Prediction: 5th place.

DETROIT - Manager: Jim Leyland
I picked the Tigers to come in dead last in '09, and they were in the lead in the AL Central for most of the year before losing the exciting Game 163 against Minnesota. There has to be plenty of residual bitterness about how '09 ended as Leyland's club whimpered through the final few weeks and allowed a surging Twins team to get a playoff spot everyone had penciled Detroit into for most of the season.

GM Dave Dombrowski followed that up with a pretty controversial offseason, highlighted by the three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson away for youngsters Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Max Scherzer. Granderson, a fan favorite and an all-around fantastic guy, was moved because the Tigers presumably didn't want to pay the $25.75 million remaining on his deal due to questions about his range and putrid performance against lefties (.484 OPS in '09). With over $50 million tied up in dead money for Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and Magglio Ordonez this year, it made some sense to cut down on payroll while getting some useful pieces back.

But after adding Jose Valverde for $14 million over two years, and now Johnny Damon for one year at $8 million, I think Tigers fans have every right to question why Granderson and Jackson were traded away if money isn't really a concern. Valverde is something of a luxury and they were obviously prepared to go into '10 without Damon on their roster. Granderson was only owed $3.5 million for this year. I'm just not sure what to make of all the moves, or if they Tigers will be better this season because of them.

Justin Verlander, armed with a new five-year contract extension, will anchor the staff. Hopefully the reins will be eased and Rick Porcello can get close to 180 innings in '10. With the addition of Scherzer, the Tigers have a solid foundation for the top of their rotation for years to come. It's the bottom two spots, likely to be manned by some combination of the aforementioned "dead money" pitchers, that will almost certainly hold the Tigers back.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of season Miguel Cabrera can muster after a winter of sobriety. He let down so many people with his behavior at the end of last season, and he's made a concerted effort to turn his life around through substance abuse rehab. By all accounts, he's feeling great and could even improve on last year's .942 OPS, which would be bad news for the rest of baseball.

But I don't think this is going to be a great year for the Tigers. They're likely to start two rookies at the key positions of center field (Jackson) and second base (Scott Sizemore), as well as all-glove no-bat shortstop Adam Everett. If they can't get any production out of the back end of the rotation, this team will struggle to reach .500.

Prediction: 3rd place.

KANSAS CITY - Manager: Trey Hillman
Sure, being a Royals fan must suck. But they can express a semi-optimistic sentiment coming into '10, which is something they probably haven't been able to do much recently: "Well, at least we have Greinke and Soria." It's a start, right? Unfortunately, GM Dayton Moore did little to improve the team this offseason and KC's headed for the basement once again.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Kansas City should have been in the sweepstakes for Damon, but instead they signed three offensive black holes (Brian N. Anderson, career OPS .660, Scott Podsedik, .720, and Rick Ankiel, .763) to compete for two open outfield spots. That's pretty much par for the course for the Baird/Moore Era Royals.

In one of the more comedic signings of the offseason, Moore brought in Jason Kendall to catch, the same Jason Kendall who hit 30 homers in over 5,500 plate appearances during the Aughts (10 of those homers came in 2000). Such production was rewarded with a two-year deal from KC, prompting a hilarious stream of mocking tweets led by Keith Law after the deal was announced. One that stood out: "Three out of three Molinas agree Jason Kendall is the easiest catcher to run on in baseball."

Alas, they do have Zack Greinke, the reigning AL Cy Young champ who at 26 is just hitting his prime. It's a joy to watch him mix up his pitches and make the opposition look silly. He's been dubbed a harder-throwing Maddux, and it's hard to disagree with such an assessment. Greinke is under contract through '12, or until Moore trades him for 40 cents on the dollar. You can pretty much bet on that latter scenario coming first. Joakim Soria is quietly one of the best closers in the AL, with a career 2.09 ERA, but some arm issues might hold him back.

The Royals aren't particularly interesting. Or good. Or competent. Or worth watching. But at least they've got Greinke and Soria.

Prediction: 4th place.

MINNESOTA - Manager: Ron Gardenhire
While observers have been tripping over themselves to declare the Mariners the franchise with the best offseason, I think the Twins deserve plenty of praise themselves. It's hard to say Minnesota, who won the '09 AL Central title after a mad charge despite missing Justin Morneau due to a back injury, didn't improve themselves immensely through some excellent trades and free agent signings. Plus, they might not be done.

Carlos Gomez was shipped to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy, one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball coming off a poor season at the plate but hit 24 homers in '08. With the emergence of Denard Span, Gomez was rendered somewhat irrelevant, so for GM Bill Smith to turn him into a player like Hardy is remarkable. Shortstop has been something of a difficult position for the Twins to fill the last few years, so Hardy will be a welcome change.

The middle infield makeover was completed when Orlando Hudson was signed for this year at $5 million, an extremely modest sum for a still-excellent defender at second with a career .348 OBP. He's also likely to replace that other Orlando (Cabrera) as vocal team leader and solid clubhouse veteran. Jim Thome was signed for the even more modest sum of $1.5 million guaranteed, giving Ron Gardenhire the option of scaring the piss out of weakling righty relievers late in close games.

Smith signed Carl Pavano, a solid piece who contributed much to the Twins' surge, to a one-year deal as well. Like always, the Twins rotation is mostly homegrown talent, including ace Scott Baker plus Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey. But Francisco Liriano might be the key to the Twins' entire season. We're still yet to see any consistency from Liriano since his Tommy John surgery nearly four years ago, and his fastball velocity has never really come back. He might open '10 in the bullpen, but if he shows some promise I'm sure Gardenhire won't hesitate to start him.

Joe Nathan needs to put his October difficulties behind him, but at 35 he hasn't showed many signs of slowing down and is still one of the best closers in the game. The bullpen, with Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jon Rauch and the return of Pat Neshek, will be a significant strength.

But as the Twins open their new roofless stadium, the focus will be on reigning AL MVP and hometown hero Joe Mauer. The impending free agent has been involved in prolonged negotiations with Twins management about a contract extension, and it looks like something will get done soon. I'm not sure how much money Mauer will get, but the guy who swatted 191 hits in just 138 games last year should be paid handsomely. Only Pujols is a better player right now.

With Mauer leading the way, the Twins will reap the benefits of a great winter and win the AL Central in the first year of Target Field. Minnesota's hoping the tandem of Mauer, the Twins, their new park and, most importantly, winning, will last well beyond '10.

Prediction: 1st place.

Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 AL East Preview

Just like that, it's almost time.

After a winter of down contracts (and many Scott Boras clients still looking for jobs), players, managers, coaches and fans are packing their vehicles and making that annual trek to Florida or Arizona to begin a new season.

With that comes my annual AL preview. I start, as always, with the AL East sans Boston, who I'll preview in depth just before the regular season commences.

BALTIMORE - Manager: Dave Tremblay
Another year, another miserable season to be a Orioles fan. Baltimore rounded out the decade with its 12th consecutive losing season, losing 98 games, finishing dead-last in AL ERA, hits, runs and homers while striking out more than any AL offense. Lots of rookies were broken in, while several veterans played out the string or were eventually traded.

It's been a difficult start for O's GM Andy MacPhail, but based on some excellent rebuilding moves the last few years, and a couple prime moves this winter, perhaps the worst days for Baltimore are in the past. MacPhail signed Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada to one-year contracts totaling $10 million to shore up the corner infield spots. He also traded overrated closer Chris Ray to the Rangers for Kevin Millwood, and signed Mike Gonzalez to be the new ninth inning fireman.

MacPhail was able to make these moves while actually keeping the club's payroll in the $80 million range, roughly that same as it was in '09. That's at least partially because the team's going to rely on plenty of young, cheap talent, many of whom got their feet wet during the '09 campaign.

It all begins with Matt Wieters, the catcher with a power bat who showed plenty of potential after making his big league debut last May. The kid gloves come off this year for Wieters, giving him ample opportunity to grow into a star at age 24. Young outfield guns Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold are set to be firmly entrenched in center and left field, respectively, for years to come. Jones and Reimold combined for only 223 games last year due to injury, so expect them to fill out one baseball's best young outfields alongside super-duper star Nick Markakis.

The starting rotation behind Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie will be three kids with miles of upside. Brad Bergesen, 24, was rather impressive in 19 starts with the O's last season, sporting a 3.43 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 123 innings. He should be joined by 23-year-old Brian Matusz and 21-year-old Chris Tillman, both terrific pitching prospects Baltimore's been so lacking the last decade or so.

The Orioles should actually be fun to watch this year, especially if the kids round into form. After I spent much of last fall watching "The Wire," the city of Baltimore has a soft spot in my heart. As if things weren't crappy enough in that city, they've had to be subjected to such crappy baseball too. Here's hoping the new decade is kinder to Baltimore, both on the field and off.

Prediction: 4th place.

NEW YORK - Manager: Joe Girardi
Everything that could have gone right for the Yankees last year went right. They had the perfect team for their new wiffle ball stadium, combining power hitting with power pitching, harnessing one of the best offenses in recent baseball history while winning in the playoffs with just three starters and a manager who often seemed over-matched.

GM Brian Cashman responded to winning the '09 World Series with a strong but curious offseason. (I realize I just inadvertently made an Altoids reference. Let's move on.) He solidified their rotation by dealing away Melky Cabrera for strikeout machine Javier Vazquez, and replaced Cabrera with Curtis Granderson in a three-team deal that saw Phil Coke and Austin Jackson wave goodbye. He also signed Nick Johnson to be the club's primary DH, and brought in Randy Winn to shore up the outfield.

But Cashman held firm to a seemingly arbitrary $200 million payroll limit and refused to give Johnny Damon, a proven commodity and fan favorite, anything close to his asking price. Sure, the initial asking price (three years, $39 million) was insane, but the Yankees could have made more of a serious effort to keep him. His swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees knew this, but still shooed Damon out the door like some kind of rodent.

While I think most Yankee fans realized World Series MVP Hideki Matsui wasn't coming back, the way the Damon negotiations went down upset millions who saw Damon as the consummate pro and someone who helped change the clubhouse culture. Now he's going to be replaced by a Winn/Brett Gardner platoon? With all the Red Sox potential issues on offense, they don't have to worry about anything like a Winn/Gardner platoon, not even mentioning how abhorrently awful Granderson is against lefties (.484 OPS last year, and that's not a typo). They should have worked something out with Damon and left Johnson to his own devices. The Yankees will be weaker as a result.

Having said all that, the Yankees are still a juggernaut. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are both entering contract years, Alex Rodriguez is finally comfortable, and Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are the new generation of Yankees heroes. There are some questions about outfield defense, rotation depth, and of course the annual "What the Hell are We Going to Do With Joba?" debate.

While I can't pick them to win the division solely based on the Red Sox-shaped helices in my DNA, the Yankees are definitely going to the playoffs, and will definitely be one of the three best teams in baseball this year. Now pardon me while I puke my guts out.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TAMPA BAY - Manger: Joe Maddon
A year after making it to the Fall Classic, the Rays took a step back, winning just 84 games while experiencing inconsistency and injury throughout the year. It wasn't hard to see this coming, what with the luck the '08 Rays had with their young pitching staff. If the Rays don't get off to a hot start in '10, some of their big pieces could be shipped away.

Let's start with the positives: the Rays finally got their hands on a bona fide closer in flamethrower Rafael Soriano, who was offered arbitration by the Braves and incredulously accepted it even though they'd already signed Billy Wagner. GM Andrew Friedman took advantage, sending peanuts to the hamstrung Braves for Soriano. The move allows J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler to fall back into their more natural roles as setup men. The Rays had a whopping nine relievers earn saves in '09.

Friedman dealt away Akinori Iwamura after Ben Zobrist claimed second base for himself in '09. Zobrist had one of the most unexpected breakout seasons in recent memory, posting a ridiculous .948 OPS and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at both second base and center field. Kelly Shoppach was brought in to compete with Dioner Navarro for the starting catching gig.

Otherwise, it was a relatively quiet offseason for Tampa, as they've experienced a significant money crunch. They will still have one of the finest young rotations in the game, with James Shields and Matt Garza leading the way in front of Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis. With another year under their belts, they could be poised to put together another season like '08.

They need Pat Burrell to prove he's not washed up, and B.J. Upton to play up to his capabilities. Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are in walk years, and they could be deadline bait unless the Rays are leading the pack. Of course, they've still got Evan Longoria, a true superstar and one of the game's best all-round players.

I don't think Tampa's got enough to crack the postseason this year. It would be sad to see them go into seller mode just two years removed from a World Series berth, so hopefully they won't fall too far behind during the year.

Prediction: 3rd place.

TORONTO - Manager: Cito Gaston
Rejoice, Jays fans! You're finally out from under the terrible wrath of J.P. Ricciardi! Now all you have to do is go through years of rebuilding and you'll be fine!

OK, maybe things aren't so rosy for the Jays, but with Ricciardi finally out of the picture, and Alex Anthopoulos clearly wanting a fresh start, at least Toronto is headed on the right path. Anthopoulos finally consummated a deal for Roy Halladay, bringing in prospects Kyle Drabek, third baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis D'Arnaud for their pending free agent ace.

It's going to be odd watching the Jays without Halladay. For so many years, he was their identity. If your club had a series with the Jays coming up, you probably felt good, but you needed to know if Halladay was going to make an appearance. Hopefully you'd win the other two and take the series that way. Without Halladay, nothing about this team is scary. Or interesting.

Aaron Hill smashed 36 bombs last year and is no doubt one of the best second basemen going right now. Adam Lind added 35 homers of his own, and Travis Snider should be developing some more pop this time around. Otherwise, the only thing really of note about the Jays' offense is this number: 107. That's how many millions of dollars they still owe Vernon Wells, who's sporting a .743 OPS since signing his mega-extension in December '06.

On the pitching front, their rotation is highlighted by underachievers with unpronounceable Polish names. In the bullpen, the savage battle for the closer spot between titans Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor is about to ensue.

So fear not, Jays fans. You're only a decade away from relevance.

Prediction: 5th place.