Friday, February 29, 2008

AL Central Preview

Chicago White Sox
2007 W-L: 72-90
2007 pW-pL: 67-95
Strengths: Star Power
Weaknesses: Age, Contrition, Wrong Division
Biggest Change from '07: Shuffling of some names, but not enough to matter
One Reason:
One reason the White Sox will win in '08 is that there is some upside here. The lineup has some holes, but it's not hard to imagine Jim Thome, Nick Swisher and Paul Konerko putting up good numbers. And maybe Bobby Jenks, Jermaine Dye, A.J. Pierzynski, Orlando Cabrera, and young Carlos Quentin can, too. The rotation is still solid, headed by Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez, but it got much thinner with the departure of Jon Garland.
One reason the White Sox will lose in '08 is I'm not very optimistic about most of those names. Thome and Swisher are the only ones that are pretty much a lock for All-Star production, although keeping Thome healthy is an issue. Konerko is still strong, but is on a slippery slope towards becoming offensively average at first. Pierzynski is -- and has been -- average for years, and I wouldn't expect much more than that from Dye, who's getting older (34) and farther removed from a career year in 2006. And I'm not buying Bobby Jenks as the next big thing -- he's as volatile a closer commodity as there is, meaning his ERA is just as apt to be 4.00 as 2.50.

The Sox are another team that's been wheeling and dealing like they're contenders, although they're not within shouting distance of Cleveland and Detroit. Swisher is a solid pick-up, and Orlando Cabrera is certainly an upgrade over Juan Uribe, but at what cost? The Sox lost much of what was already a very slim group of prospects in those trades, which means that even if they shoot up to 80 or 85 wins, they've hit their ceiling. Most of they key contributors on this team are on the wrong side of 30, and will either be gone or unproductive by the time the Sox can surround them with a stronger base. You don't break the bank to shoot for 82 wins. Actually, I think that the Sox see themselves as much better than they are. But like it or not, they were a 90-loss team last year (95 according to the Pythagorean record), and they're not going to break past Cleveland and Detroit in the near future ... I've publicly praised GM Kenny Williams for his guts in the past, but now he needs to use his brains. Quit while you're ahead; you won the Series, so you can afford to get younger ... I wasn't the biggest fan of Jon Garland, but even I won't deny that he's valuable, and that without him, the Sox rotation got seriously worse. Buehrle and Vazquez should be fine at 1-2, but can they match up with Verlander-Bonderman or Sabathia-Carmona? I doubt it. And it's even worse as you go back in the rotation to Jose Contreras, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd ... Garland was lost in exchange for Orlando Cabrera, a player that management seems to have a crush on. Cabrera is a good defender, but so was Juan Uribe, the man he's replacing. Cabrera's bat (average or slightly above) is an upgrade over Uribe's (terrible), but does it make up for the hole in the rotation created by losing Garland? In 2005, the Sox could spare a starting pitcher, but that was no longer true by the 2007-8 offseason. And Cabrera, 33 and expensive, just isn't enough to bridge the gap ... I really think Ozzie Guillen is crazy. I just don't know if he hurts the team more than he helps it. I'm inclined to say the latter, and Ozzie's personality is such that he's going to be even more intolerable as the Sox keep losing ... The Scott Linebrink contract will prove to be one of the worst signed this off-season, and one that is just indefensible. If the Sox are really that ignorant, it doesn't bode well ... The only young player on the team who still has significant upside to attain is outfielder Carlos Quentin, although he didn't look ready last year in Arizona.

Cleveland Indians
2007 W-L: 96-66
2007 pW-pL: 91-71
Strengths: Offense, youth, CC, and depth
Weaknesses: Bullpen, outfield corners
Biggest Change from '07: None of note
One Reason:
One reason the Indians will win in '08 is that they did in '07, and they've got every chance to be just as good this season.
One reason the Indians will lose in '08 is that they may get passed up by the Tigers, and the AL Wild Card race will be very, very tough.
There's really no reason to worry about CC anymore (except that his contract is up after the season), but there is much worrying to do about Fausto Carmona. How for real was his 2007 campaign? It's hard to say. He does have the potential to be that good, but whether he can be that good consistently is hard to say, and that's true of any young pitcher. The Indians can always hope ... The back of the Tribe's rotation should be okay, but after Jake Westbrook there are major questions about Paul Byrd and Cliff Lee. Byrd is just getting too old to fool people anymore, and Lee is so maddeningly inconsistent, both with health and performance, that's it's hard to predict what he'll do. Aaron Laffey and top prospect Adam Miller are good back-ups in case someone goes boom ... Travis Hafner will return ... The Indians' offense should be as good as it was last year, if not even better. They'll get a full season of up-and-comers Asdrubal Cabrera and Franklin Gutierrez, a healthy Travis Hafner, and (likely) more solid work from Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Ryan Garko. Trouble spots could be third base (Casey Blake mans it now, and it doesn't look like Andy Marte's going to take over anytime soon) or left field (manned by some combination of Jason Michaels, David Dellucci, and Shin-Soo Choo) ... With Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach, the Indians have the best-hitting catching squad in baseball. Several teams seem desperate for a catcher, and while he's not going to win an MVP, I'd be more satisfied with a bargain like Shoppach than I would with somebody like Yorvit Torrealba ... The C.C. Sabathia contract situation will hang like a lead balloon over most of the Indians' season. My guess is that they get him re-signed, but not before some feathers are ruffled on both sides ... I was witness to Joe Borowski's Yankee Stadium meltdown last May, and so can personally attest to the dangers of putting him in high-leverage situations. (To be fair, the Yankee Stadium meltdown wasn't a high-leverage situation at all until Borowski started pitching BP.)

Detroit Tigers
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 89-73
Strengths: Killer offense, deep pitching staff
Weaknesses: Bullpen
Biggest Change from '07: His name is Miguel, he'll be 25 in May, and he's a career 313/388/542 hitter.
One Reason:
One reason the Tigers will win in '08 is that adding Miguel Cabrera and (to a lesser extent) Dontrelle Willis to a team that nearly won 90 games makes them the team to beat in the AL Central.
One reason the Tigers will lose in '08 is that they're relying a lot on some dodgy players for big contributions. Willis wasn't such a great pitcher in an NL pitcher's park (5.17 ERA after 3.87 mark in '06, BB's increasing and K's decreasing both years), so a fair assessment of his chances in the AL are an ERA between 4.00 and 4.50; 4.25 if he's lucky. He's simply not as good as people think he is, and the Tigers were crazy to sign him to a contract extension before he'd ever thrown a pitch in the AL. We can't assume that 43-year-old Kenny Rogers will be as good as he was two years ago, and we can't assume that closer Todd Jones (40 in April) will be as lucky as he's been as a Tiger. The Tiger bullpen (and Jones especially) will miss Joel Zumaya dearly. And I'm not about to bet money on Gary Sheffield playing much more than 100 games or Ivan Rodriguez being much better than replacement level.
The Tigers will also have to deal for some major "readjustments" in their lineup. Placido Polanco, a career 305/350/416 hitter, batted 341/388/458 last year. At age 32, he's not likely to keep that up. Ditto for 34-year-old Magglio Ordonez, whose 2007 stats were so far out of line (363/434/595 for a career 312/370/522 hitter) that we should expect him to come crashing back to earth. We all expect Miguel Cabrera to be a big improvement over Brandon Inge, but take this into account; Cabrera loses a lot of that advantage when defense is considered, and his contributions may be nearly wiped out by the regression experienced by Polanco and Ordonez ... Carlos Guillen loses a good deal of his value when his offense comes as a first baseman, but he's still a lot better than Sean Casey. That will be a major "what were they thinking?" for future generations ... Chad Durbin, the pitcher Dontrelle Willis is replacing in the Tiger rotation, actually had a better season last year. But Willis should still rack up more K's and innings than Durbin, even if his ERA is not significantly better. Considering the salary they're paying him, I hope for the Tigers' sake that Willis sells a lot of T-shirts ... I'd love to predict Jeremy Bonderman as a sure thing for All-Star caliber production, but it's getting harder and harder to explain the poor results he gets (career 4.78 ERA in 5 seasons) with such fine stuff ... It's sad that an otherwise impressive lineup should be spoiled by the presence of Jacque Jones. The Tigers have a fair amount of money in their pockets; there are so many better choices for the role than Jones (who turns 33 in April) ... If the bullpen looks like I think it will, it won't be long before you'll see "Zumaya Clocks" at Comerica counting down his return.

Kansas City Royals
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 74-88
Strengths: More young assets
Weaknesses: Starting rotation
Biggest Change from '07: Jose Guillen, that old jokester
One Reason:
One reason the Royals will win in '08 is that they weren't really so bad in '07, and there's a lot of room for improvement, especially from young Alex Gordon.
One reason the Royals will lose in '08 is that their best starting pitchers last year were Gil Meche and Brian Bannister. Meche had a fine season in '07, but that doesn't mean that his history prior to that has disappeared. Everyone else has gotten amnesia about the old Gil Meche, but don't rule out the possibility that he returns, even if it's just in small doses. And Bannister deservedly won a lot of praise for his pitching in '07, but he did so while notching just 77 strikeouts in 165 IP. Unless that number goes up dramatically, he's as big a risk for a nosedive as anyone.
Signing Jose Guillen for 3 years and $36 million isn't awful, but it's also just not that good ... With some prospects finally emerging from the system, we can expect to see the Royals improve all around and resist the temptation to fix a 90-loss team by signing some C-level free agents ... 2007 was a rough year, but keep your eye on Alex Gordon. And Billy Butler, too ... It's great to see Zack Greinke return from off-field problems that looked like they might derail his young career. But despite a long absence from baseball, he showed last season that he can still be a key member of the pitching staff ... As usual, try to avert your eyes from the bullpen, although rookie Joakim Soria did a fine job as closer in '07. He'll get the chance to prove he's for real this year.

Minnesota Twins
2007 W-L:
2007 pW-pL: 80-82
Strengths: Young starting rotation
Weaknesses: An offense that wouldn't scare your local high school team
Biggest Change from '07: Bye-bye Johan, bye-bye contention
One Reason:
One reason the Twins will win in '07 is if they post a team ERA of 2.50.
One reason the Twins will lose in '07 is because they won't, and with their offense, they won't win many high-scoring games.
I like Michael Cuddyer, but he's not much more than just "good," which doesn't really rate a big pay-raise or the #5 spot in any lineup other than this one ... It looks like Denard Span might make the Twins' starting rotation, if only to provide a laugh for the sabermetric community. Seriously, as good as the Twins have been at developing pitchers over the last 8-10 years, that's how bad they've been at developing hitters ... Trading for Delmon Young was a good move; they dealt from an area of strength (young pitchers) to address an area of need (offense) ... Adam Everett may be a worse hitter than Jason Bartlett, but he's a genuine Gold Glover. Too bad this lineup doesn't have any spots to waste on punchless glove men ... Other than Justin Morneau, the Twins' infield of Everett, Mike Lamb, and Alexi Casilla/Brendan Harris may be the worst in the league. If Nick Punto gets any playing time, replace "may be" with "is" ... The Twins have a lot of talent in their young pitching staff, but a lot of it is still raw and inexperienced, so while the talent may be there (and it is), don't expect it to go smoothly. Since the Twins will basically be battling the Royals and White Sox for last place, there's no need to risk anyone's arm, especially the returning Francisco Liriano ... The Twins' new ballpark should give them an influx of cash that could bring in some good talent. Like, for instance, a #1 starter with a great changeup. Maybe somebody from Venezuela, say. With a goatee. Wait a minute ... Closer Joe Nathan's contract is up after this season, and the Twins are currently negotiating an extension. I wouldn't be so eager. If you're willing to trade away the best pitcher in baseball, why hold onto an expensive closer? Nathan should and would net good value on the trade market, but not if he's tied down to an expensive extension. Nathan probably won't be around when the Twins start winning again, so there's no need to keep him.

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