Not content to stand pat, the White Sox defied conventional wisdom by energetically rebuilding the defending World Champions. It's a smart strategy, and it should pay off in a strong contender for 2006.
It may be too much to ask for the Sox to reproduce last year's brilliance, but even if they don't, they've still got one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The two most reliable starters are Mark Buehrle, a hoss who should be nicknamed "Ol' Reliable," and the underappreciated Freddy Garcia. It's tough to say whether Jon Garland can reproduce his near-Cy Young 2005 season (3.50 ERA in a tough ballpark), especially considering his low strikeout rate (only 115 K in 221 IP). But Garland's only 26 and has a history of being durably average (career ERA+ of 105, or 5% above league average). Last year probably wasn't a breakout season, but he should still be a strong contributor and innings-eater.
Even less predictable was Jose Contreras. Contreras has always had the "stuff" to succeed at the big-league level, but that didn't stop him from horribly struggling with the Yankees. But Contreras broke through in 2005, posting a 3.61 ERA with 154 K in 204.2 IP. It's hard to say which Contreras will show up in 2006, but the evidence seems to point to a regenerated Jose Contreras in Chicago.
The Sox weren't content to have 4 good starting pitchers, so they traded the old and unreliable Orlando Hernandez as part of a package to get Javier Vazquez from Arizona. Vazquez is expensive, and he's also coming off two fairly disappointing seasons after a hot young career in Montreal. But Vazquez's peripherals suggest that he wasn't as bad as his 2005 stats seem. His 4.42 ERA is unsightly, but it's not too bad for hitter-friendly Arizona. He struck out 192 and walked just 46 in 215.2 IP, which is great news. The problem would be his 35 HR allowed. That's not going to improve any at U.S. Cellular Field, another hitter's park. But Vazquez is essentially a good pitcher and, as the 5th starter, the Sox don't have as much invested in his success or failure (except for a paycheck a little over $1o mil).
The Sox had quite a strong bullpen in 2005, and early indicators are good for 2006. New closer Bobby Jenks looked dominant down the stretch and in the postseason. And even if Jenks isn't brilliant, the Sox have good depth behind him.
The Sox signed Paul Konerko to a 5-year, $60 million contract. This is, as I've said before, a big overpayment, because Konerko isn't really as good as his ballpark suggests. But all told, GM Kenny Williams didn't have a lot of options; Konerko has been their best hitter for years, and they desperately need his offense. 3B will be manned by Joe Crede. Crede isn't much of a hitter in the pure sense (255/303/439 career), although he does have decent power (21 HR in '04, 22 HR in '05) and he's also a good defender.
Tadahito Iguchi had a solid if unspectacular rookie campaign. He hit a respectable 278/342/438, although there are some questions about his defense. SS Juan Uribe is a lot like Crede; not much of a hitter (career .262 average, .305 OBP), but he does have good power (23 HR in '04, 16 in '05) and very good defense. The Uribe/Crede combo is indicative of the Sox lineup; good on power and defense, but otherwise mediocre on hitting.
Scott Podsednik returns to left. Podsednik is horribly overrated; he steals a lot of bases (although not with a great success rate), gets on base (but not that well; career .345 OBP), and plays good defense. He has zero power, which makes him a questionable choice for left field. Podsednik isn't a bad player; but scrappy leadoff hitters like him are notoriously overrated.
Jermaine Dye brings a solid (and cheap) presence to right field, coming off a 2005 where he hit 274/333/512. The Sox traded away resident CF Aaron Rowand as part of the deal to get Jim Thome. Rowand's career year in 2004 have gotten people to overrate his offense, but he was a solid hitter and good defender. The Sox will likely use prospect Brian Anderson to replace him.
It's hard to make an argument about the importance of team chemistry with A.J. Pierzynski around. Pierzynski was run out of San Francisco on a rail for the way he treated the team's pitching staff; then in 2005 he got a World Series ring while handling a pitching staff. It says a lot about our perception of "chemistry," and -- I think -- also about the relative importance of a catcher to the performance of a pitching staff. But none the less, A.J.'s a good hitter for a catcher (287/330/434 career) and the Sox just gave him a contract extension.
Trade acquisition Jim Thome will take over at DH. Thome is coming off an injury-plagued 2005, and at age 35 is not a good bet to be the elite hitter he once was. But health permitting, he can still mash, and is a great addition to a lineup that could use a good dose of offense and OBP (Thome's a career 281/408/562 hitter).
Another keen move made by Williams was trading middle reliver Damaso Marte for super-utility man Rob Mackowiak. Mackowiak gives the team defense flexibility and a good bat off the bench.
Ozzie Guillen is unorthodox, but he handled a World Champion last year and is back for more. The real credit, though, goes to GM Kenny Williams, for refusing to sit back with his World Series ring and be complacent. Williams risked disrupting "chemistry" to improve the team and, as a result, the Sox are favorites to repeat in the AL Central.
Projected Finish: 1st place
The Indians came oh-so-close to overtaking the White Sox last year and had to settle for 93 wins and 2nd place. Their offense is still young and improving, but it's doubtful that the pitching staff will be as good as the group that led the league in ERA last year. And with the White Sox only getting better, the Indians again look like a close second in the division.
The Indians let Kevin Millwood go as a free agent. Millwood was invaluable to the team last year, leading the league in ERA and giving the Indians a true ace. But not only was he far too expensive to re-sign, but there's almost no chance he'll be that good again this year.
In Millwood's place, the Tribe will go with a rotation lacking in a true ace, but with very good depth. C.C. Sabathia has shown signs of dominance in the past, but lacks the durability and consistency to rank among the best. Cliff Lee got a lot of praise for his 2005 performance, but it was mainly due to his lucking into an 18-5 record. Lee is a durable guy who gets some strikeouts (143 in 202 IP last year), but his volatility keeps him from being an ace. Young Jake Westbrook looked like an ace in 2004 (3.38 ERA), but his low strikeout rate reared its head in 2005 (4.49 ERA), exposing him as the league-average pitcher he is.
The Indians went to the free agent market to supplement these 3. They probably overspent to get Paul Byrd ($7 million/year), especially considering the soft-tosser is now 35. But Byrd is coming off two good years with the Braves and the Angels, and he's also only signed for 2 years, so he should shore up the staff. The Tribe also signed Jason Johnson to a cheap 1-year deal, very reasonable for a pretty average innings-eater.
The Tribe lost a good deal of its strong 2005 'pen, but is returning familiar faces such as Rafael Betancourt and Scott Sauerbeck. 37-year-old Bob Wickman comes back (again) as the closer. But Wickman's high number of saves in 2005 (45) masked an aging, inconsistent pitcher who allowed 9 HR without exactly dominating hitters (21:41 BB:K ratio in 62 IP).
The Tribe is plagued by a weakness at the infield corners, the only real weakness in the offense. There's good news at third base: Aaron Boone shouldn't be nearly as bad as he was last year (a dreadful 243/299/378), and even if he is, the Tribe has uber-prospect Andy Marte waiting in the minors. First base is another story. I looks like the Tribe will once again be settling for Ben Broussard, a very underwhelming hitter for a first baseman (258/327/459). While they could use an upgrade at first, they're at least getting good offense elsewhere.
The Indians are set with a very strong middle infield. Jhonny Peralta had a breakout year in 2005, hitting 292/366/520 with strong defense. Peralta is a budding superstar, and the Indians recognize it, having recently signed him to a new contract covering his arbitration years. 2B Ronnie Belliard isn't really great at anything, but he's pretty good at almost everything, making him one of the best cheap second basemen in the league.
The trade of Coco Crisp to Boston means that the outfield will be a notch worse than it was in 2005. Young Grady Sizemore returns in center with his good production (289/348/484), but there could be some weakness in the corners. The Tribe traded for Phillies CF Jason Michaels to replace Crisp. Michaels turns 30 in May and could be a bit overrated, but his major league hitting stats beg to differ (291/380/442 in 808 career ABs). Casey Blake isn't a very strong right fielder, but he's decent enough.
The Indians are blessed with a young stud of a catcher in Victor Martinez. Martinez's first season as a full-time starter was a rousing success (305/378/475).
DH Travis Hafner might be the best young hitter in the league, and is emerging as one of the best hitters in the league, period. Despite missing some time due to injury, Hafner still hit a monstrous 305/408/595 last year. He's just 28, so the Indians should have a couple more years like that left to see.
The Indians have several options off the bench. They have the versatile Ramon Vazquez and former prospect Brandon Phillips manning the infield, with promising Jason Dubois as a fourth outfielder. They also signed 1B Eduardo Perez, a formidable pinch hitter.
The Indians continue to make all the right moves. They've got a very promising young lineup and although they could use some pitching help, they've still got a strong farm system. So while they may have taken a slight step back from 2005, it's still far too early to count this exciting young team out.
Projected Finish: 2nd place
The Twins were a pitching-and-defense team in 2005, which baseball analysts love. But what the Twins proved was that even pitching-and-defense teams have to have somebody hitting in order to be a contender. They've made some good adjustments for 2006 and should once again be strong contenders, but they may still be the third-best team in a strong division.
Johan Santana is the best pitcher in baseball. He won the Cy Young Award in 2004 and deserved to win it last year. And he's just 26. Wow.
The back end of the rotation isn't quite as glamorous, but still good. Kyle Lohse isn't much more than average, but he's a durable guy who's decent when he can keep his walks down. The #5 spot will likely go to Francisco Liriano, one of the game's top pitching prospects. The Twins got Liriano in a trade with the Giants. This trade simply proves why the Twins are contenders on a shoestring budget and also why Brian Sabean isn't quite a genius:
San Francisco gets:
- A.J. Pierzynski, who hits 272/319/410 in one season in San Francisco. Rumors of bad clubhouse chemistry and difficulties dealing with the pitchers lead to Pierzynski's outright release by the Giants in December 2004, a little more than a year after the trade.
- Joe Nathan, formerly a top setup man with the Giants. Since the trade, Nathan has become one of the AL's top closers, saving 44 games with a 1.62 ERA (2004) and 43 games with a 2.70 ERA (2005).
- Francisco Liriano, mentioned above as one of the game's top pitching prospects.
- and Boof Bonser, a promising minor league pitcher yet to reach the majors.
This may not exactly be on point, but it's one reason why that the Giants are struggling on one hand, and on the other hand the Twins have potentially one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
The great Minnesota bullpen isn't quite what it once was, but it's still fearsome. Closer Nathan is, as mentioned above, one of the game's best closers, and right up there with Mariano Rivera among the AL elite. The setup staff is relatively disappointing. Juan Rincon has shown good promise in the past. But then he failed a steroids test during the 2005 season, putting his future performance into doubt. Jesse Crain isn't quite the bullpen ace the Twins were expecting, suffering a tough rookie year in 2005 (29:25 BB:K ratio despite a 2.71 ERA), but still has time to bounce back. RHP Matt Guerrier and LHP Dennys Reyes could serve as the long-relief/mop-up men, a role both have performed in the past with some success. The Twins also have some young candidates for the bullpen, apart from Liriano.
Justin Morneau had a dreadful 2005 (239/304/437 with 22 HR). But it's likely just a slump for a guy who should be a prolific power hitter, which the Twins need now more than ever (the best they've got elsewhere are moderate-power threats such as Torii Hunter. The Twins signed 3B Tony Batista out of the Japanese leagues for reasons that defy logic. The 32-year-old isn't bad on defense and isn't very expensive, but the issue is with his fairly useless power-only offense (251/298/458 career) and the fact that he'll likely suck up a lot of at-bats as the starting third baseman. Kudos to the Twins for the creative solution to a problem; but there were much better options even within their own system.
After a year where their middle infielders struggled to hit their body weight, the Twins made at least one big improvement; the trade for Marlins 2B Luis Castillo. Castillo just turned 30, but he's still a fine hitter , posting a 301/391/374 line last year in a tough NL pitcher's park. The move to the homer-happy MetroDome in the AL should pump up the numbers. Castillo is not only a great leadoff man, but is also a fine defender and a good base-stealer. This alone will boost the Twins' lineup.
A solution to the shortstop problem, however, did not come to pass. The Twins gave most of the time at SS last year to Juan Castro, who hit an abysmal 257/279/386 despite fine defense. The Twins have other options with homegrown talents like Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto, but they may just to have to give up on the idea of getting much offense from their SS, much as they did last year.
The formerly stacked Minnesota outfield is looking less so in recent years. The anchor is still CF Torii Hunter, a fine defender and pretty good hitter (career 267/321/458), although his offense isn't sufficient to make him the man to carry the team. After an absurd run at the 2003 MVP, LF Shannon Stewart had a poor season in 2005 (274/323/388), although he was troubled by nagging injuries. The 32-year-old isn't getting any younger, but he should bounce back in 2006 to numbers closer to his career stats (300/364/441). RF will either go to Lew Ford or Michael Cuddyer, both products of the farm system. Cuddyer is a more versatile all-around threat, but Ford is the better hitter (285/363/424 career, although that represents just 1164 ABs). It may not be the super-outfield of its reputation, but it's a solid, all-around bunch that should produce.
For some reason, we heard very little about catcher Joe Mauer last year. Mauer hit a fine 294/372/411 and provided great defense behind the plate. This youngster, who turns 23 in April, is already on his way to becoming the best catcher in baseball. Backup catcher Mike Redmond is an underrated guy, and not a bad hitter.
The Twins' first choice at DH is Rondell White. White can still hit, posting a great 313/348/489 line last season with Detroit. But injuries have constantly plagued his career, making him a good bet for something like 120 games. It's possible that moving from left field to DH will keep him in the lineup more often. But even if it doesn't, the Twins have solid hitters like Cuddyer to spot him some time. Outfield prospect Jason Kubel (knee) won't likely be ready for spring training, but should earn his spot in the starting lineup soon with his fine hitting, although it must be said that the Twins are never in a hurry to get their prospects to the majors.
While they're not stats-friendly like the Oakland A's, the Twins, like the A's, are a great model for how to run a baseball team on a low budget. Their owner, Carl Pohlad, may be the cheapest man in the majors, but GM Terry Ryan does an amazing job drafting and developing players, and continues to resist going after high-priced free agents. The result is a low-cost team that sees a fair amount of turnover, but Ryan not only gets the most out of his trades, but is usually able to replace departing players from within the system. Many small-market teams could learn a lot from the Twins.
Projected Finish: 3rd place
The Tigers did very little this off-season, apart from satisfying their odd fetish for signing old pitchers to big contracts (Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones). The good news is that the Tigers have some young players ready to contribute at the big-league level. The bad news is that these players will have a hell of a time getting the team to .500, let alone at a level to contend with Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota.
The Tigers rotation is mostly an example of stable mediocrity, although there are some positive signs. Ace Jeremy Bonderman still hasn't ascended to the elite level (4.57 ERA), although he continues to show some promising peripherals (57:145 BB:K ratio in 189 IP). He's also just 23 years old, so there's time for him to keep developing (it's not like the Tigers are in any rush to the playoffs).
After Bonderman are the guys who throw lots of innings but not much else. Kenny Rogers was great for Texas last year (3.46 ERA), but his mere 87 K in 195.1 IP, not to mention his 41 years of age, make him a risky guy to throw a lot of money at; he's unlikely to be as good as he was last year. Mark Maroth is an innings-eater, averaging over 200 innings in his 3 major league season, but they're not really high-quality innings (career 4.82 ERA, ERA+ of 90, meaning 10% below league average). He's also a low-strikeout pitcher, making him an unlikely choice for a breakout year. Nate Robertson is a similar story; his quality has been middling-to-good, wth his strikeout rate about average or just below. He was one of the Tigers' best pitchers last year, but he's no sure thing for 2006.
After Bonderman, the only real promising pitcher is young Justin Verlander, a pitcher with a good future. It's possible that Verlander will win a spot in the rotation in spring training. And after Verlander are some more prospects who could add to the Detroit rotation.
The Tigers made the bone-headed decision to sign Todd Jones as their closer. I mentioned earlier in the blog that the team that signed Jones would be making a mistake; Jones' brilliant 2005 was so far off his career totals that there's basically no chance the soon-to-be-38 year-old will be that good; he may even be bad. It's surprising, because the Tigers made the exact same mistake last year in signing aging, injury-prone Troy Percival to a 2-year deal. Troy suffered in 2005 before going down with injuries and will likely retire before this year starts. But at least Percival was a proven commodity; Jones is a guy who lucked into a career year last season and convinced the dodos of Detroit to give him a lot of money for it.
The Tigers would save trouble to just hand the ball to closer-in-training Fernando Rodney, who filled in very nicely for Percival last year. Behind Rodney is a strong bullpen; Jamie Walker is death to lefties, Roman Colon is a strong arm obtained from Atlanta, and Matt Mantei could be a valuable guy out there with his 10-year ML experience.
While Carlos Pena could still be a valuable bat, the Tigers are turning to promising young Chris Shelton to play first base. The prospect made a splash in 2005, hitting 299/360/510 in a half-season's work last year, basically assuring himself the job this year. Third base will be manned by Brandon Inge. Inge showed good promise in 2005, hitting a respectable 261/330/419 with strong defense at the hot corner. It will be up to him to prove that his performance was more than a fluke.
Carlos Guillen's health permitting, the Tigers could have the best middle infield in the league. Guillen isn't much on defense, but the 3o-year-old has emerged as one of the league's best-hitting shortstops over the past three seasons. However, he's been continually plagued by injuries (averaging about 112 games/year in Detroit). Second baseman Placido Polanco didn't stay a well-kept secret for long. With the Phillies deciding to trade him rather than squeeze him in the lineup, the strong leadoff man put together a fine second half in Detroit, earning himself a nice contract extension. Polanco's seasonal totals were a 331/383/447 hitting line with good defense. Don't be surprised if Polanco is the league's best 2B in 2006.
The strength of the infield if counteracted by a relatively weak outfield. Craig Monroe is decent in left (277/322/446 last year), but the Tigers could use a lot more than that. RF Magglio Ordonez is a reliable offensive threat, but the Tigers' still aren't such if they can count on 150 games from him. CF Curtis Granderson is a quandary; he's shown good power, good patience, and speed in the minors, but putting it all together at the major league level is another question.
The Tigers will return C Ivan Rodriguez. The Tigers are now seeing the effects of giving catchers long-term contracts; in just the second year of his deal, Pudge's production dropped to 276/290/444, including a mysterious sudden drop in plate discipline; after averaging about 35 BB per season during his career, Pudge drew only 11 in 504 ABs in 2005. It's most likely that his hitting will bounce back somewhat from such an off year, but it's also possible that a 34-year-old catcher just doesn't age well.
Dmitri Young will be the team's DH, although he hasn't quite lived up to the role in recent years. Dmitri's offense has fallen in recent years, especially in batting average. Whereas he hit at least .300 in 4 seasons in Cincinnati, Young has averaged about .280 in Detroit. His 2005 line (271/325/471) wasn't too bad, but the Tigers need more from their DH, still just 32 years old.
The aforementioned Pena is looking to make a comeback to the everyday lineup after losing his spot last year. The acquisition of Polanco moves Omar Infante into a utility infield role, for which he is best suited. Outfielder Nook Logan seems like a player with good tools but no real way to utilize them.
Upper management is being aggressive in signing free agents; they're just signing all of the wrong ones. A more intelligent and restrained attitude to the free agent market could help a team that has a pretty good core of young talent. Manager Jim Leyland may be able to help, but this is still simply the 4th-best team in a 5-team division.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals are now officially the most hopeless franchise in baseball. The Devil Rays, Rockies, and Marlins at least have some prospects to make the future bright. The Pirates don't have much future, but they still manage to win a respectable 70 games or so most years. No, it's just the Royals now at the bottom of the heap, continually digging themselves further into a hole that only an act of God could remove them from.
The Royals' hopes for their starters took a big hit when young ace Zach Greinke left spring training camp for undisclosed "personal reasons." The facts were shrouded in mystery, and the Royals could only speak with ambivalence, unable to predict when Greinke would return. This odd personal crisis aside, practicality would force us to admit that the team just lost not only its best starter; but it's best pitching prospect. Greinke's return is paramount to the team's attempt to regain respectability.
After Runelvys Hernandez, a top prospect who's running out of chances to start prospecting in the majors, the Royals signed useless stop-gaps. The Royals spent free-agent money on Scott Elarton and Joe Mays (and traded for Mark Redman), knowing that they couldn't possibly help the team by more than a few games, and it's worthless distinction between 60 and 65 wins. They'll take their money and leave a year later, leaving the team little better than it was to begin with. The Royals are in a state of just maintaining their awfulness, the worst state of a major league franchise.
The arrival of promising relievers Andy Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos was good news for the team last year. It's even better, since word from camp is that capable closer Mike MacDougald may be out for a month with injuries. Jeremy Affeldt is another prospect with little time left to turn that potential into reality; he could move to the starting rotation or be traded. Denny Bautista and Mike Wood have some promise, but will admittedly have little impact on the team's overall performance.
The Royals spent more useless money by signing Doug Mientkiewicz to play first. Since 1B is an offense-first position whose defense is of relatively little importance, good-glove/no-hit Mientkiewicz isn't such a great choice. A much better choice would be Matt Stairs, who is the opposite (good-hit/no-glove). The Royals signed Stairs to an extension after his non-awfulness during 2005, then proceeded to sign so many free agents that Stairs was left on the bench. Great long-term planning, guys.
3B Mark Teahen had a rough first year in the majors (246/309/376), but this 24-year-old should soon show the strong hitting stroke he displayed in the minors.
Hoo, boy. Shortstop Angel Berroa is a poor hitter and poor defender, which makes him a poor choice to sign to a long-term contract extension. But the Royals were blinded by his rookie year, a performance which looks more and more like luck.
The Royals signed another place-filler at 2B in Mark Grudzielanek. Grudzielanek isn't great, but he'll solidify the position. But he's another case of over-spending; the difference between 65 and 70 wins is negligible when you could be investing money in your long-term future.
The good news is that Brown isn't a bad hitter (286/349/455 in '05) and should have gotten more of a shot at the majors before now. But the bad news is that he's a 31-year-old journeyman who is a bad left fielder -- I'm talking Manny Ramirez bad.
CF David DeJesus is probably the greatest long-term hope for the Royals, now that Greinke's taken off. With an excellent minor-league track record, the 26-year old DeJesus has done a fine job in his limited time in KC (290/361/427 over 3 years).
The Royals went yet again to the unnecessary free agent pool. They signed Reggie Sanders, the good-hitting but aging (38) former Cardinal. Sanders should do well for the team in the short term, but he and his money will be long gone by the time the games matter in Kansas City.
The other part of the KC youth movement is catcher John Buck, obtained in the Carlos Beltran trade. Buck showed solid hitting skills in the minors, but these have yet to materialize at the major league level (239/284/402 in 639 ABs). Buck turns 26 in July and is not strong enough defensively to justify his spot in the lineup if he keeps hitting like that.
Mike Sweeney and his contract sit at DH, meaning the Royals have to do something else with the two or three other DHs they have on their roster. The days of Sweeney the great hitter are likely over, but he's still a good hitter when healthy (300/347/517 in '05). The Royals are just hoping that will be more often, with Sweeney averaging just about 115 games over the past 4 seasons.
The bench is about what you'd expect from the Royals.
Incompetent, at worst. Ill-informed, misguided, and hopeless optimistic at best. The Royals seem more interested in spending their money on C-level stars to maintain a 70-75 win level of mediocrity than sacrificing the short term to actually develop a winner. GM Allard Baird deserves the responsibility, and he should end up taking it full-force sometime soon. Manager Buddy Bell is just another warm body sent down to occupy the bench.
Projected Finish: 5th place