The AL Central. Known for its parity, unexpected results, and midwestern hospitality. It tends to be known for its small markets, but that might be a little bit of a misconception since the Tigers, White Sox, and Twins are all right around $100 million. Let’s cut to the chase for once, instead of a big intro because there is plenty of meat in the AL Central to sink your teeth into.
1. Minnesota Twins Projected Record: 85-77
Batting: B+ | Starting Pitching: B- | Relief Pitching: C+ | Defense/Speed/Other (Incl. Luck): A+
Before the Joe Nathan injury, assuming he does end up having surgery, the Twins were the runaway favorites to win the division. He was the anchor at the back of that bullpen, a guy who made baseball an 8 inning game for the Twins because he had the 9th. When he was not trying idiotic pickoff moves to 2nd, he was one of the premier closers in the league. However, with Nathan out, there are legitimate questions about the Twins bullpen. Will Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch be able to hold it down at the back or will Nathan’s injury make every 9th inning an adventure? That remains to be seen, but I believe that even without the impeccable Nathan, the Twins should win the division. Their payroll quietly ballooned to nearly $90 million in the offseason, so while they still have the small market look, the new stadium and their payroll suggest otherwise. The roster, however, shows the money and it was money well spent. They acquired Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy, and Jim Thome to solidify the roster and add some veterans to an already well-seasoned lineup. Thome will probably not get so much time after Jason Kubel’s breakout season last year, but he should at least be a mentor to the younger players learning how to hit. Hardy should find statistics somewhere between his breakout year and last year and Orlando Hudson, when healthy, has always been a consistent contributor. Add this to the potent combo of Mauer and Morneau and you have a young team that can hit, play defense and even run a little bit. The pitching staff is not especially well known, but is full of solid arms like Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey that keep the Twinkies consistent. If Francisco Liriano came back full-strength and they had Nathan, I would have no problem putting the Twins down for a challenge for a Pennant. However, as it stands, the Twins are the best of the Central but nothing more. The lineup should be something along the lines of:
It will be that or something very close to it and for the most part it should be solid. The guys at the bottom will not scare most people, but they will get the job done like they always do and set it up for the top to do the damage. There is definitely room for concern with Delmon Young and JJ Hardy, but if they are even decent the Twins will have a very good lineup. I am also intrigued by Francisco Liriano’s return, but cautiously so. Keep an eye on him. With two past MVPs in the lineup and scores of serviceable veterans, the Twins should be able to win the Central without too much trouble.
You may be asking yourself how I could have the Twins at the top given their grades at each area at the top. The answer lies in the added aspect to “Defense/Speed/Other” which is luck for the Twins. I defy you to find me a franchise luckier than the Twins. Some say “oh, they aren’t lucky look at their crafty moves like dealing AJ Pierzynski for a huge ransom, getting the most out of their players and their small ball”. To you I say humbug. This is the same franchise that routinely goes above their Pythagorean (projected win-loss based on runs scored vs. runs against), traded away David Ortiz for NOTHING and got no penalty of any kind, traded away Johan Santana right before his injuries, publicly had to deal with their two most recognizable players (at the time, Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau) having a locker room power struggle, and ruined their future ace’s arm in Francisco Liriano. And what did the baseball gods do to them for all this? Nothing. There is a great article for those of you trying to find a way to hate the Twins written by a bitter Indians fan that I think is mandatory reading so I am linking it here. CLICK HERE TO HATE THE TWINS. If for no other reason than luck, the Twins will win the Central.
2. Chicago White Sox Projected Record: 84-78
Batting: B | Starting Pitching: B+ | Relief Pitching: C+ | Defense/Speed/Other: B-
Some teams just confuse me. The White Sox roster, to me, looks like it was assembled helter-skelter of guys who have been productive at some point but do not work especially well together. Pierzynski at catcher, Konerko at first, Alexei Ramirez at SS and Carlos Quentin in left remain the same, but the rest of the pieces seem random. Gordon Beckham at 2nd should be very good, but Alex Rios was a mess after moving to Chicago, Jermaine Dye is no longer around, and although he is still around from last year, Alexei Ramirez inspires little to no confidence. Even Jake Peavy has big questions to be answered, like “can he stay healthy?” and “will his numbers go skyward after leaving Petco?” Even though Mark Buerhle is still rock solid, and much of the team seems to be, it would be very hard for me to put considerable trust in the Sox. In baseball you need some kind of continuity in your roster to win. The Yankees only win their Championships after the roster has been mostly together for a bit, not right after importing every little piece. On paper, the White Sox look great, but I cannot get behind a team that is still getting to know each other at such a high level.
Ozzie Guillen is another story. He has been around for a while, but is hardly a guy you want to build “continuity” around. One day he wants a guy fired, the next he is going to war for him, and the next day he is calling Jay Mariotti a “fag”. I get it, he is a player’s coach, but a player’s coach has to still be a GM’s coach and I am shocked that Kenny Williams has not pulled the trigger on Ozzie sooner. Maybe it is because he knows that without Ozzie people would only talk about the Cubs in Chicago, or maybe he doesn’t have anyone else who can manage this group of guys. If nothing else, Ozzie will be entertaining, especially after coming out and saying that he wanted people to “hate” the White Sox this year. I am a Cleveland fan and did not really need encouragement, but I am glad Ozzie gave me the green light. Perhaps as miraculous as Ozzie not getting canned last year is that he has a Twitter account (@OzzieGuillen) and has yet to say anything outlandish, insulting, or downright insane on it. I suspect someone in the organization runs it for him, but if you would have told me the three words Ozzie Guillen Twitter, I would have put the Over/Under at 4 days until he got in trouble for it, 100 to 1 odds that he lasts the entire season without the team taking it away, and an over/under of .5 bad words per tweet. He has defied all odds, and this in itself may be a good omen for the White Sox.
The White Sox should be able to score enough runs to support their quality pitching, but nothing too great. The lineup will be:
- Pierre (7)
- Beckham (4)
- Quentin (9)
- Konerko (3)
- A. Jones/Kotsay (DH)
- Rios (8)
- Pierzynski (2)
- Teahen (5)
- Ramirez (6)
That is quality, but nothing that will blow you away. Quentin is good, Alexei is pretty decent, though frustrating, and Gordon Beckham is a rising star. They have quality guys but they will probably take time to gel as a real contender. Still, expect the White Sox to be right in it in what should be a very competitive AL Central as no team is really head-and-shoulder above the others. I would not be at all surprised to see the White Sox win the division given the usual parity of the division, but I would not be surprised if they finished behind the Royals either simply because of how evenly matched most of the teams in the Central are. White Sox fans are free to be optimistic about their chances this year, but as long as they remember that roster continuity is relevant they will keep their expectations reasonable.
3. Detroit Tigers Projected Record: 81-81
Batting: B+ | Starting Pitching: B | Relief Pitching: C | Defense/Speed/Other: C+
The Tigers are a tricky projection this year. You have young guys all over with Austin Jackson, Scott Sizemore, Luke French, Rick Porcello, Daniel Schlereth, and Max Scherzer. Old guys all over like Johnny Damon, Adam Everett, Gerald Laird, Carlos Guillen, and Magglio Ordonez. You have a guy who are quietly a detriment to the team in Brandon Inge (with his Ks and untimely errors and ground balls that end in double plays) and a couple of downright studs in Verlander and Miggy Cabrera. Who on earth is supposed to project all of that correctly? The departure of Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson means less defense and less speed, respectively, and all the young arms in the rotation means streaky performances all year from the rotation. However, I like most of these guys enough that I still have the Tigers at .500. Austin Jackson’s talents are easy to like, and the same goes for Rick Porcello, but outside of that you have to sort of talk yourself into the young guys. I like Luke French a lot, but I would not get too high about a guy who has been a little nicked up this spring, and Scott Sizemore and Daniel Schlereth will probably play like your standard young guys, showing promise but ultimately not producing much. Part of the reason I am bullish on the Tigers making it to .500 despite the offseason changes is that they get to play the Royals and Indians a bunch of times, and that always helps. Apart from that I think the team is just good enough to be entertaining, but not good enough to make much of a run at the AL Central title. The lineup is something like:
- Jackson (8)
- Damon (7)
- Ordonez (9)
- Cabrera (3)
- Guillen (DH)
- Inge (5)
- Laird (2)
- Sizemore (4)
- Everett (6)
To call this lineup “just a little” top-heavy would be like calling David Wells “just a little bit” overweight or Ron Burgundy “just a little bit” of a womanizer. You have talented Austin Jackson leading off, Johnny Damon (who I have pegged for no more than 15 home runs this year, unlike his Yankee-flation last year) hitting second, an aging Maggs third and Professor of Raking Dr. Miguel Cabrera hitting clean up. You have Carlos Guillen being somewhat decent fifth and then WHAM. The lineup falls off a cliff. I do not care if Brandon Inge his 27 HRs again, he will kill more rallies than he starts, Gerald Laird is Gerald Laird (For his career: .247 hitter with 29 home runs), Scott Sizemore is going to be ok, though a rookie, and veteran Adam Everett (career .245 hitter). If the bottom of the lineup doesn’t pick it up, they could well finish in 4th because of teh burden it will put on this young pitching staff. How is that lineup going to make it to .500 you ask? It wont. But the pitching will.
We do not need to talk about Justin Verlander. He is really good and will continue to be. What we do need to talk about is Rick Porcello, Luke French, Andres Galarraga, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Max Scherzer, Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman. FOUR of these guys have to step up and give the Tigers consistent innings if they want to be ok, and I think they have a shot at it. Porcello is a check in my mind, as he is still crazy young (22 years old) and has some good stuff. Three to go. I think Phil Coke can be decent with the Tigers. He became a running joke with Yankees fans for a while, but he was pretty solid toward the end of last year and Comerica should help him out. Two more to go. Luke French is another guy I think can step in after showing me a little bit with the Mariners. He is a lefty with a little bit of an unorthodox release that messes with hitters and I think he can be serviceable. One more, one more. I would bet against Dontrelle and Galarraga. Is the answer Jeremy Bonderman, Max Scherzer, or Daniel Schlereth? I do not know, but I think one of them will be decent enough to be a quality 5th starter and help lift the Tigers to respectability again this year. It is a young staff and is definitely prone to its ups and downs, but as a whole, I think the Tigers have a shot at being a touch beyond respectable this year.
4. Kansas City Royals Projected Record: 75-87
Batting: C+ | Starting Pitching: C+ | Relief Pitching: C | Defense/Speed/Other: C
They do not look impressive on paper. They do not look that impressive on the field. They do not look like a team fighting for .500. The Kansas City Royals will surprise you. I realize I do not have their record being especially impressive, but that is a 10 game jump from last year, and hope is at least on the horizon. We all know about Zack Greinke and how you just need to hope your team can score a couple on him because he can go the distance. He is really good and I am not here to dispute that. However, there are plenty of guys on the Royals roster with the ability to sneak up on you. It may finally be Alex Gordon’s time to shine. Rick Ankiel may flourish after leaving the Cardinals, a franchise he has has good times and bad with, Billy Butler might be a sneaky MVP Candidate. All of these things might fall colossally short. However, I think the Royals have a shot to be competitive and you can’t convince me otherwise. I am not drinking the Ankiel Kool-Aid so much, but he is an upgrade of Mitch Maier at the very least, and Mike Aviles and Alberto Callaspo, though neither started on Opening Day, have both proven themselves useful if BLoomquist or Yuniesky Betancourt prove themselves unworthy. You could do much worse than David DeJesus and Scott Podsednik in the corners and keep in mind that Jose Guillen can step in for either if they need a breather, though they are much better defensively. Gil Meche sounds like a 40 year old, but he only 32, which is not so bad for a pitcher and is coming off a strong year last year. Hochevar, Bannister and Davies are not much to brag about, but if they can even get those guys to average a 5.00 ERA they will be doing well. That is sort of a bad statement for a team I am saying will do ok, but I do not think that target is too out of reach. The Royals will not win sexy, but I believe they can win 75 games this year.
- DeJesus (9)
- Podsednik (7)
- Butler (3)
- Ankiel (8)
- Guillen (DH or 9)
- Gordon (5)
- Betancourt (6)
- Kendall (2)
- Callaspo/Bloomquist (4)
It isn’t sexy, but I think it works. Gordon will have to step it up to make it work, but I think he will, and Billy Butler is very underrated.
Player A : .303 BA, .861 OPS, 23 HR, 108 RBI
Player B: .301 BA, .853 OPS, 21 HR, 93 RBI
Who is who? Player A is Victor Martinez. Player B is Billy Butler. The numbers are nearly identical, and while Billy Butler is not a catcher and I am not comparing the two players overall, their numbers at the plate are mirror images. I think .310/.900/25/110 is not at all our of the question for Butler this year and he has done it with little to no protection in the past. He is also only 24 this year, which means he is still at an age where players power numbers continue to increase. I am not as high on Rick Ankiel. He is a strikeout machine and no longer gets to hit in a lineup with Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols. Another potential stumbling block for the Royals is their bullpen. I stil rated it decently purely because of Joakim Soria, but their setup man is Kyle Farnsworth, which is rarely a good sign and they do not really have any other bullpen arms that inspire confidence. If they had a top-notch bullpen I might put them tied with the Tigers, but they don’t so they go 6 games back of the Tigers. Frankly, I still have the Royals in a virtual last place in the Central, but expect them to be competitive, which is an improvement in itself for a franchise that has struggled since the days of George Brett. Why a “virtual last” you ask? Allow me to explain.
5. Cleveland Indians Projected Record: 63-99
Batting: B | Starting Pitching: D | Relief Pitching: C- | Defense/Speed/Other: C-
Oh, the beloveds. Ladies and Gentlemen, if you do not care about the Cleveland Indians, scroll to the bottom for the division awards, because this is about to get in-depth. You have been warned.
Let’s take the Indians position by position, starting at 1, or pitcher. Jake Westbrook has not thrown a pitch in a year and a half. He is the ace… He is an effective sinker-baller when healthy, but he is going to take some time to round into form, and if he gets hurt again or does not round into form easily, it will be lights out. Fausto Carmona was pitching at the lowest levels of the minors last year and will be the #2 starter. He has had an enthralling career so far. I remember when he was first called up as a 98 mph flamethrower who got inserted at closer and blew something like 4 consecutive saves in 4 consecutive games, most notably a pair against the Red Sox that featured a few moon shots. He threw hard, but straight, so he went down to the minors to fix himself, and returned a changed man. In 2007, he was 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 215 IP, a couple complete games and a 137:61 K:BB ratio. He had a new sinker, pounded the strike zone and was a new man. Torii Hunter described Fausto and his sinker as “He’s not even human. It was so scary, I thought I was hung over”. In a word, he was magnificent. He even beat Joba in the “Bug Game” where the invincible Joba couldn’t handle the bugs, but Fausto, who put up with the same bugs in the 8th inning as Joba, fought through it and delivered 8 innings of 1 run ball to help win Game 2 of the ALDS. He finished 4th in Cy Young voting. The next year and a half he had an era of 5.89 and could not pound the strike zone like he used to. This all resulted in him going to the bottom of the minors to get things worked out. This spring he threw 20 innings, allowed 1 run, and gave up 8 hits and 2 walks. I will be honest, I have absolutely no idea what Fausto Carmona is going to do this year, and neither do you. I actually got to see him in Spring at Goodyear and witnessed his only allowed run, and 2 of the hits he gave up. They were to Drew Stubbs and Brandon Phillips in the first inning and after that he was on lock. No one hit him hard after that first inning, and judging by the numbers, no one hit him hard all spring. Perhaps most fitting would be if he won the Cy Young and was traded next year (Cleveland fans grumbling and cursing under their breath everywhere), but I have absolutely no idea what he is going to do this year.
Isn’t it great that we are just now getting to the third starter? His name is David Huff and has a lot of potential to be a solid arm in the rotation. However, he is no ace, and being thrust into that role early if Westbrook and Carmona struggle will cripple any chances he has of progressing this year. I do like him quite a bit, but again, he needs support from the guys above him if he wants to keep growing. I fear he won’t get it, but if he does he could be very solid. Justin Masterson will be the 4th starter for the Indians and has showed some promise. After coming over in the Victor Martinez trade, he has looked like he has the stuff to get anyone out, as long as they are not left-handed. The sidewinder has struggled mightily with lefties and his success as a starter this year almost exclusively hinges on if he can get lefties out. If he can he can be good, but if not he will struggle. No doubting his stuff, but he really really needs to improve his righty/lefty splits. He is a monster of a man, but not enough of one to carry the rotation if it all falls on his back. The 5th starter is Mitch Talbot and allow me to explain why. He is only 24, but when the Indians acquired him from the Rays for Kelly Shoppach, he was out of options, meaning that in order for the Indians to send him to the minors, he would have to clear waivers, which is something that a 24 year old pitcher with some promise just does not do. So the Indians either had to put him in the pen, or let him have the starting job, which was not difficult with the competition provided to him (Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers). I would love to see him go down to Columbus and test it all out, but that is not an option, and as a result he is your 5th starter. At least he pitched well during spring because he was making the major league roster regardless. All things considered, I think a D is pretty fair.
Alright, time to move to the pen, where Kerry Wood is going to miss the first 6 weeks of the season, weakening an already poor unit. Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, and Chris Perez are going to absolutely pitch out of their minds to keep the bullpen respectable, but far more likely is that all will fall short and leave the pen in shambles. Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis and Jamey Wright are also guys likely to fall short, which leaves the Indians with what? An unmitigated disaster for 6 weeks until Wood gets back, and simply a mitigated disaster thereafter. All the guys in the pen have shown flashes, unfortunately, most of them have not shown it lately. This bullpen has a shot to be incredibly bad, except for a key component of the Indians that we will get to later.
Alright, it gets easier from there. At first base the Indians have Matt LaPorta, who impressed in Cactus League play and is one of the guys of the future for the Tribe. He can absolutely rake and he has a shot to be a perennial All-Star in his career. He actually might make trading CC Sabathia worth it, and that is saying quite a bit. He might struggle a little this year, but he could also hit .280 with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs in his 25 year old season. Expect good things from LaPorta.
At second you have a toss up between Mark Grudzielanek and Luis Valbuena, and frankly, who cares? No matter who wins out the majority of starting time it is not especially exciting for fans or the wins column.
At shortstop, the Indians have a bright spot in Asdrubal Cabrera. He should get re-signed this year and few in Tribe corners will frown upon it, something especially impressive with so many bitter, pessimistic fans. He hit .300, stole bases, and played outstanding defense and it made Indians fans forget about their 97 losses for a few at-bats and plays a game. A definite strong spot for the Tribe.
Third base still belongs to Jhonny Peralta, defense aside. He has been decent throughout his years with the Indians and I would expect the same out of him again. He still plays one of the worst 3rd bases in the majors, but when he is on, he is still a trustworthy bat.
Left field jointly belongs to Michael Brantley and Austin Kearns. Trevor Crowe could grab a share if he called up again, but for now the job is mostly Brantley’s. He was a throw in on the Sabathia deal and appears to be pretty good, though no superstar. He would be better suited in center, but the Indians are set there with…
Grady Sizemore. He actually kind of stunk last year, but he is clearly astronomically talented and athletic. It will be interesting to see how he handles hitting second behind Cabrera and in front of Shin-Soo Choo. Indians fans remember the good days when Grady was a 30-30ish prototype lead off guy, and hope he can return there again, though he has given little reason for that optimism. He is still the face of the franchise at this point, but he needs to give Indians fans reason to remember his great potential if he wants to move onto a contender this spring. Hey, it is a sad reality, but it is true.
Shin-Soo Choo is quiet star in right. He has a cannon for an arm, is a 20-20 guy, hit .280ish last year and is just a likable guy. Unfortunately, he may have to return to Korea for military service when he turns 28. Indians fans are trying to forget about that last part for now and just enjoy his ability for now. He is clearly one of the better players in the league that not enough people know about.
Travis Hafner will DH, and I can no longer get excited about that. He looked good in spring, but not at all the behemoth of the hitter he was before getting paid. I do not blame people for whispering HGH after his prolific drop-off, but he needs to get his stroke back in order to resurrect what is a quickly dying career.
Behind the dish is Lou Marson, for now. He came over in the Cliff Lee trade (notice a theme with the Indians?) deal and will be keeping the tools of ignorance warm for Carlos Santana, who we will get to in a bit. He can be decent, but very little can stop the Supernatural from taking his job later this year. The best Marson can hope for is to play really well so he can get to a different team when Carlos gets up. It would work out great for both if he could warrant that kind of attention, but many doubt he will. At least he has motivation, right? Mike Redmond will be Fausto Carmona’s personal catcher.
The lineup will be:
- Cabrera (6)
- Sizemore (8)
- Choo (9)
- Hafner (DH)
- Peralta (5)
- LaPorta (3)
- Valbuena/Gruudzielanek (4)- Note they will probably hit 9th when Kearns is in over Brantley
- Marson (2)
- Brantley (7)
It is not a bad lineup, but it is certainly not enough to make up for the pitching woes. Since we just went over every player, I will mercifully pass up re-analyzing the lineup’s strengths and weaknesses.
Now to the part every Cleveland Indians fans has waited for. Drumroll please…
MINOR LEAGUE PROSPECTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
That’s right, the most exciting part of the Indians season for many fans will take place outside an Indians jersey. Let’s get a rundown of the exciting ones.
- Carlos Santana (C)- He compares to Victor Martinez. Yeah, he is that good, and he can play defense. he is a switch-hitting catcher who can hit for power and average, and will be in the majors this year. Many have him in their top 10 prospects in baseball.
- Carlos Carrasco (SP)- He came over in the Cliff Lee deal as well, and just about won the 5th starting job. He probably would have if Mitch Talbot had options, but we already went over that. Expect to see him in the Majors this year.
- Hector Rondon (SP)- He threw a no-hitter at Akron last year and the flamethrower will probably merit a September call-up. He is a lot of fun to watch and the ball explodes out of his hand. If he can command his pitches consistently (a big if), watch out.
- Nick Weglarz (OF) Weglarz has struggled a little throughout his minor league career trying to find consistency, but if he does he can be a real power threat. He can really hit, and with a little work in the field he can be a solid corner outfielder.
- Lonnie Chisenhall (3B)- He is a little bit of a long way off, but he gives the Tribe hope at third. He can do it all, and if he continues on his career path right now he has a shot at the starting job next year, though he will most likely be a 2011 call up. I am excited about this kid.
- Beau Mills (1B/3B)- I have given up hope, but if you haven’t, here you go.
Alright, about time to wrap this up. I think my projection of the Indians is pretty fair. They could be better than that and I guess they could be worse than that, although I REALLY do not want to think about that. 63 wins for the Tribe this year, and plenty of hope on the horizons. Until they get traded to the Yankees…
AL Central Awards
MVP- Joe Mauer
Cy Young- Zack Greinke
Biggest Disappointment- Jake Peavy
Surprise- Billy Butler and Rick Porcello
Young Players to Watch- Austin Jackson, Any Indians call-up mentioned above