Monday, February 18, 2008

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: AL Central Preview

We begin our tour of the 2008 MLB previews with DC's predictions on the AL Central. As you'll see, 2008 is looking like another "win it all or head on home" years for the rest of the American League, with plenty of competition for both the top spot and the Wild Card, not to mention spoiler action from the rest of the division.

The AL Central was one of the most active divisions in all of baseball this winter. The Tigers and White Sox both made more splashes than a pool full of 8 year olds surrounded by skeevy, van driving pedophiles and, according to all the Mets fans I know, the Twins made a trade. Even the Royals signed a couple of guys who are better than your average little leaguer.

Last season the Indians tied the Red Sox with the best record in the American League and only lost home field advantage because of head-to-head record. The Tigers were also a force for most of the season and would have gobbled up the Wild Card had it not been for a late season collapse. This year Cleveland’s team is basically a mirror image of itself and the Tigers are one of the most improved in baseball. The result is a division that is gearing up for a tight race and possibly two teams in the playoffs. How will the rest fare? Here’s what my crystal ball says:

Last Place - Kansas City Royals
Off Season: The Royals signed some bona fide free agents this winter. They took some strides to sure up their bullpen with Ron Mahay, acquired a formidable backup catcher in Miguel Olivo and replaced the craptastic Odalis Perez with a veteran starter, Brett Tomko. They also took a shot on Jose Guillen despite a possible steroid backlash and on Yasuhiko Yabuta, the latest question mark from the other side of the big tranquil pond.

Pitching: Last year Gil Meche showed everyone where they could stick their criticism of his contract by posting a respectable 3.67 ERA and a .263 batting average against. Unfortunately he only managed 9 wins to go with his 13 losses. But let’s be fair, he was the ace of the Kansas City Royals. That’s like being the head of the Ewoks: yeah, you’re the best they have, but you’re still leading a bunch of possessed teddy bears with no discernable strengths. Rounding out the Royals staff is the second year Brian Bannister (pretty great last year as an undrafted rookie), Zack Greinke (amazing comeback after suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder), and Tomko. There’s some talent here and the three youths may benefit from Tomko’s experience.

Lineup: This truly is a collection of young talent and role players with a couple of veterans sprinkled in. Alex Gordon (24 years old), Tony Pena Jr. (26), Billy Butler (21), Mark Teahen (26) and David DeJesus (28) may all become really good players. Unfortunately it will most likely be on other teams.

Bullpen/Bench: Just like every other small market team, the Royals’ weakness is depth. Other than Olivo at catcher, they really don’t have anyone on their bench worth mentioning. Similarly, other than potential stud closer Joakim Soria, the bullpen is bad enough to make KC fans want to drown themselves in those beautiful fountains they have in Kauffman Stadium.

Fourth Place – Chicago White Sox
Off Season: As usual GM Kenny Williams had a difficult time taking his finger off the trigger this winter. Honestly, this guy is like the Billy the Kid of baseball! Has he ever been happy with the team he has? This year five guys (including Jon Garland and Darin Erstad) are gone, replaced by the likes of Nick Swisher, Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink, and our beloved Orlando Cabrera.

Pitching: The rotation is anchored by perennial workhorse Mark Buehrle, along with Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras. Unfortunately, Buehrle’s seven consecutive 200+ inning seasons may be getting to him, Vazquez is a classic National League pitcher and Contreras looked extremely hittable last year (an understatement). The rest of the rotation is rounded out by a couple of prospects who have yet to be bitten by the successful pitching bug.

Lineup: This is pretty much the same story as the pitching with different. If this lineup has any pop it will have to come from some guys who are so long in the tooth that the tooth is actually dragging on the ground (Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, and Jim Thome). These guys are breaking down and consequently their physical ages are much older than their actual ages. I do like the spark that Cabrera will provide, but during Spring Training he better get a lot of practice handing his helmet and gloves to the base coaches and strolling to his position.

Bullpen/Bench: The White Sox do have some significant 2007 experience with Jerry Owens and Josh Fields on the pine. Owens goes around the bases faster than Taco Bell goes through a human body (32 SBs last year) and Fields has some power (23 HR), but they can’t score many runs buried behind Dye and Joe Crede. The bullpen has a solid closer (Jenks) proceeded by a coveted set up man (Linebrink). Other than that, this pen is like a who’s who of suckage.

Third Place – Minnesota Twins
Off Season: To say that the Twins had a rough winter is like saying a kick to the junk with a steel-toed boot might sting. Things started off really well when they scored promising youngsters Delmon Young and Brendan Harris from the Rays for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. Things went down hill from there and in the end the Twins gave away Johan Santana for some prospects and a bag of yard tools and failed to resign Torii Hunter. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s twp “face of the franchise” types (Santana & Hunter) and three-fifths of last year’s starting rotation (Santana, Garza, and Carlos Silva) gone. They were able to add some nice pieces – Adam Everett, Livan Hernandez, Mike Lamb, and Craig Monroe – but overall this winter was a total disaster. Have fun opening up that new stadium next spring, fellas.

Pitching: The success of this team is going to be based entirely on the development of their young pitchers. Four of the starters on this team are 26 or younger and Livan Hernandez will have to be half mentor and half 15 game winner. If Francisco Liriano doesn’t bounce back from Tommy John to be an ace then Twins fans will start counting the days until hockey season in June.

Lineup: This is a young team with some serious talent. With Torii Hunter leaving, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer gain ownership of this team (not literally; if they really owned the team then they’d probably have spent some money on pitching). The Twins also have two mashers in the outfield (Young and Michael Cuddyer) and solid prospects up the middle (Harris and Carlos Gomez). They could use a power bat for DH though. Somebody give them Sammy Sosa’s number.

Bullpen/Bench: As usual the Twins’ bullpen is one of their biggest strengths. Is it just me or do these guys always have a nasty relief staff? Joe Nathan continues to be one of the most automatic closers in the league, and the set up guys are all guys you would trust to protect a lead. However, if the starters can’t eat up enough innings then all bets are off. The bench also looks pretty solid. Craig Monroe and Nick Punto are both serviceable big leaguers and will probably see some platoon time if either Adam Everett or Carlos Gomez stumble.

Second Place – Cleveland Indians – WILD CARD
Off Season: If you think the Red Sox decided not to do anything this year then hit your knees and thank God you’re not a Cleveland Indians fan. They lost next to nothing and they gained even less. Like the Royals, the Indians decided the relievers in this part of the world are so terrible that they went to the Land of Rising Curveball to bring in Masahide Kobayashi. All I can say is that I hope he’s related to the guy who wins all those hot dog eating contests. They also went out and traded for Jamey Carroll to be a super-sub.

Pitching: The strength of this team is absolutely, one-hundred percent, without a doubt the starting pitching. Last year CC Sabathia won his first Cy Young Award and Fausto Carmona gave Red Sox fans nightmares. These guys treated the league like Sean Connery treats Alex Trebek. Throw in “Mr. Consistency” Paul Byrd and a serviceable Jake Westbrook ( lists Bronson Arroyo as a similar pitcher), and you’ve got a staff that will give you a chance to win everyday.

Lineup: This lineup is all about having the right pieces. They have a superstar (borderline super-duper star) in Grady (and his ladies) Sizemore, two home run and RBI guys (Martinez and Pronk), a couple of talented yutes (Franklin Gutierrez and Ass-dribble Cabrera), and a bunch of solid puzzle pieces (Blake, Peralta, Garko and Michaels). You can win with that. You just can’t win enough to take this division.
(Sidenote: All bets are off if the Indians management somehow convinces Casey Blake that every game is last year’s playoff series against the Red Sox. Seriously how many times did that guy get on base? I may have been drinking but I feel like he got like 50 hits off of us in like 5 games. By the end I wanted to light his beard on fire.)

Bullpen/Bench: The bench on this team is pretty solid with Carroll backing up the entire infield and OBP master David Dellucci as the outfield sub…you know, if you go in for that whole stats thing. The Indians’ middle relief was strong last year and should be again this year. However, having Joe Borowski closing games may prove to be like finishing a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Robert DiNero with a meaningful, heartfelt speech by Jimmy Fallon.

First Place – Detroit Tigers – PLAYOFFS (WORLD SERIES?)
Off Season: This team spent the winter going from good to terrifying. Out go big name players like Omar Infante, Chris Shelton, Sean Casey, Chad Durbin, and Mike Rabello and in come Denny Bautista, Jacque Jones, Edgar Renteria, Dontrelle Willis, and this guy Miguel Cabrera (maybe you’ve heard of him). That is like upgrading from a certificate from your local community college to a PhD from Harvard. Oh, and for all of you who keep saying Cabrera is eating himself out of the league, think about this: in Florida the guy had no veteran leadership and nothing to play for, Detroit doesn’t exactly have that problem. Can’t you picture Pudge and Sheff knocking Young Miguel’s lunch tray out of his hands and saying something like, “You can eat when you look like a ballplayer again.”

Pitching: All I’ve heard recently is that Dontrelle isn’t going to be good in the American League. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, he doesn’t need to be. The guy is going to be the number three starter in this rotation, not the ace, with two studs at the top of the rotation (Verlander and Bonderman) before you even get to Willis. Then they hit you with Kenny Rogers, who is quickly reaching “ageless wonder” status and finish up with Nate Robertson who is one of the most solid #5 starters in the league.

Lineup: Pitchers everywhere are waking up with cold sweats thinking about facing this lineup. The Tigers start All Stars at seven of nine positions (and it’s only a matter of time before Granderson joins the crowd). They have speed, power, and on-base guys. They have youthful exuberance and veteran leadership. They have one of the top leadoff hitters in the league, two of the best number two hitters (which means one will probably bat seventh) and a three-four-five of a star (Magglio Ordonez), a potential Hall of Famer (Sheff) and a budding super-duper star (Cabrera). But don’t worry, they only follow all of that up with a sure thing Hall of Famer (Pudge). Ugh, let’s move on before I start ripping shots.

Bullpen/Bench: Not only does this team have a dominant lineup, but they have the perfect medicine to combat the dreaded injury bug: a stacked bench. Brandon Inge has been really good for a couple of years, and Jacque Jones will probably be in a platoon in left with Thames. Ryan Raburn hit .304 in 138 at bats last season and Vance Wilson is a serviceable backup for Pudge. If this team does have one weakness, it’s the bullpen. Joel Zumaya is reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery from injury, which could turn out to be the X-factor. The rest of the pen looks fairly pedestrian and Todd Jones makes Joe Borowski look like Catfish Hunter. But then again, Todd Jones has never been a dominant closer and yet managed to save 38 games last season. Even as a weakness, this bullpen doesn’t scream fatal flaw.

This division looks very good. The Tigers and Indians should both make the playoffs and the Tigers have a definite chance at the World Series. The bottom three teams aren’t good enough to compete for the division but could definitely play spoiler if any teams involved in a race has to play them late in the season.