Chicago White SoxpW-pL: 89-74
W-L: 89-74 (1st in AL Central)
Payroll: $121,189,332 (4th in AL)
R/G: 4.98 (5th in AL)
ERA: 4.11 (6th in AL)
DER: .686 (8th in AL)
Team MVPs: Carlos Quentin, John Danks, Jermaine Dye, Mark Buehrle, Jim Thome
A Drag on the Payroll: Jose Contreras (4.54 ERA, 70 K in 121 IP)
What Went Right:
An offense that wasn't supposed to be that great ended up more than respectable. Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye hit well, and guys like A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko provided solid bat work. The biggest surprise was Carlos Quentin. Acquired from Arizona in the off-season, Quentin (288/394/571) achieved his potential faster than anyone expected. Alexei Ramirez proved to be a better version of Juan Uribe (290/317/475), except that Ramirez' defense was terrible (-16 FRAA).
The pitching had its ups and downs, but the ups came from two unexpected sources: John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Floyd was considered a busted prospect until he went 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA and 145 K in 206.1 IP. If Floyd's performance was taken with a grain of salt, there was no such seasoning surrounding John Danks. Danks was a star prospect with the Rangers who had fallen on hard times. The White Sox acquired him for another ex-prospect, Brandon McCarthy, taught Danks a cutter, and are reaping the rewards. Danks went just 12-9, but managed an excellent 3.32 ERA, along with a 57:159 BB:K ratio in 195 IP. These two more than made up for disappointing performances from Jose Contreras and the team's fifth starters.
What Went Wrong: Speaking of Contreras, the Cuban hurler had another tough year, posting a 4.54 ERA and striking out only 70 batters in 121 IP. The team's fifth starters were disappointing, but then you could say that about other teams.
On offense, the team managed fine, but were plagued by trouble at third base and center field. At third, the team tried Joe Crede, who wasn't bad when he was healthy (248/314/460) and Juan Uribe, who was (247/296/386). In center, the team made a clever trade for Nick Swisher in the offseason, but unfortunately got stuck with a down year from the former Athletic (219/332/410). Swisher also spent some time at first, spotting Paul Konerko (240/344/438), who hit well but not up to first base standards.
In center, the team tried to replace Swisher with Ken Griffey, Jr. Junior's defense in center has become terrible, but he was hitting fairly well in Cincinnati. In Chicago, Junior hit 260/347/405 in 41 games, which isn't terrible, but didn't really help the team much either.
Notes: The trade for Junior was pretty inexplicable; the team needed a center fielder, but Junior didn't fit the bill. Luckily for them they didn't give up much to get him ... The scouting consensus seems to be that John Danks' breakout is pretty much for real, whereas Gavin Floyd's isn't. I'm not a scout, but it seems to me that as long as Floyd can pitch 175+ league-average innings, it's not such a big deal. Especially since they got him in a trade for a damaged-goods Freddy Garcia ... I was worried about Mark Buehrle's bad year in 2006 (4.99 ERA, 48:98 BB:K ratio). But he's had two good years since then, and his strikeout rate is back to normal (140 in 218.2 IP in 2008), so Buehrle proved me wrong. And did you know that he'll just be 30 years old next year? If he can keep up this level of competition throughout his 30's, he could sneak into the Hall of Fame a la Don Sutton ... Carlos Quentin may not be an MVP every year, but even if he's just an All-Star, that's one hell of a good, cheap pick-up by Kenny Williams. And the Diamondbacks should be shamed for letting him get away. The culprits are the owners, who insisted on giving a long-term contract to Eric Byrnes, who's got nothing on Quentin except a cooler hairdo ... I still think the 4-year deal given to Scott Linebrink was a bad idea, but he gave the Sox one good year, at least, in 2008 (2.69 ERA, 9:40 BB:K ratio in 46.1 IP).
Cleveland IndiansW-L: 81-81 (3rd in AL Central)
Payroll: $78,970,066 (8th in AL)
R/G: 4.97 (6th in AL)
ERA: 4.46 (9th in AL)
DER: .685 (9th in AL)
Team MVPs: Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta
A Drag on the Payroll: Jake Westbrook (3.12 ERA in 34.2 IP, $10MM), Travis Hafner (197/305/323 in 57 G, $8.05 MM)
What Went Right: Cliff Lee went really, really right.
What Went Wrong: Cliff Lee had a fantastic year, perhaps worthy of the MVP. So who was the second-best starting pitcher on the Indians (after they traded Sabathia)? Probably Aaron Laffey. Laffey (who sounds like one of the Joker's henchmen) posted a 4.23 ERA in just 93.2 IP. That's not so great, is it? But he was still better than Paul Byrd, Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Sowers, Jake Westbrook, and Zach Jackson. Now there's some room for bounceback in '09 (obviously), but this is still the team's biggest problem, no doubt.
The troubles of Travis Hafner (197/305/323) sent a chill up the collective spine of Cleveland fans, because he was supposed to be the core of the offensive for the next few years. Instead, people are scared to death that he's headed for an early-career decline that players with his skills sometimes suffer. My first thought is that it's too early to go to the doomsday scenario, but we can't rule it out, either.
Notes: The Indians traded for Cardinals ex-prospect Anthony Reyes in 2008. Reyes pitched well in short duty in '08 and may find a spot in a barren Cleveland rotation in 2009. This is the kind of move that the Yankees and Mets don't often make, but should. The short-term return isn't much, but in the long term, you might be getting a mid-level starting pitcher. You know, the guys who cost $10-12 MM per year over 3-4 years ... The Indians again got sub-par production from the outfield corners. Last year, they went with free agents (Michaels, Dellucci) in those spots, and it didn't work. So this year they went with the kids (Choo, Gutierrez, Francisco) . . . and it still didn't work.
Detroit TigersW-L: 74-88 (Last in AL Central)
Payroll: $137,685,196 (2nd in AL)
R/G: 5.07 (4th in AL)
ERA: 4.91 (12th in AL)
DER: .683 (11th in AL)
Team MVPs: Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Magglio Ordonez
A Drag on the Payroll: Gary Sheffield (225/326/400, $14 MM), Kenny Rogers (5.70 ERA in 173.2 IP, $8 MM), Jeremy Bonderman (4.29 ERA, 36:44 BB:K in 71.1 IP, $8.5 MM), Dontrelle Willis (9.38 ERA in 24 IP, $7 MM), Brandon Inge (205/303/369, $6.2 MM)
What Went Right: The offense didn't score 1000 runs, but it did well enough. Miguel Cabrera got off to a slow start, but ended up hitting 292/349/537, which isn't great but was a good bounceback from where he was. Curtis Granderson (280/365/494) continues to prove himself as one of the best all-around players in the league. Magglio Ordonez (317/376/494)continued his mid-30's renaissance. And among pitchers, the team got a fine debut from Armando Galarraga (3.73 ERA, 126 K in 178.2 IP).
What Went Wrong: PITCHING.
You can't spend $137 million without making some mistakes. But it seems to me that the Tigers lead every other team in players listed under "drag on the payroll." Some of them are understandable, like Bonderman. But Sheffield and Rogers were unacceptable risks. And the Dontrelle Willis contract was just unforgivable.
Notes: I'm not one to say I told you so (OK, yeah I am), but I thought the Tigers were batty to sign Gary Sheffield to the 3-year extension they gave him after trading for him. I didn't mind trading for him per se, but the extension was crazy: 2 years and $28 million. This for a crabby, brittle player in his 40's? I'm sorry, but you bear the responsibility if you go $14 MM per on that guy ... or this guy for $8 MM ... The starting pitching problems won't just go away. And the offense, while good, is -- except for Cabrera and Granderson -- old: Polanco and Guillen are 32, Ordonez is 34, Sheffield is 39, and even Inge is 31. This is a win-now team, especially after the Cabrera/Willis trade. If they can't find some pitchers to support Verlander, Bonderman and Galarraga, they're going to waste all of this money.
Kansas City RoyalsW-L: 75-87 (4th in AL Central)
Payroll: $58,245,500 (11th in AL)
R/G: 4.27 (12th in AL)
ERA: 4.50 (10th in AL)
DER: .688 (6th in AL)
Team MVPs: Zack Greinke, Gil Meche, Mike Aviles, Joakim Soria
A Drag on the Payroll: Jose Guillen (264/300/438, $12 MM)
What Went Right: Well, there were good signs of progress from the pitching staff. Zack Greinke had another fine season (3.47 ERA, 56:183 BB:K ratio in 202.1 IP), where he was among the 10-15 best pitchers in the league. "Eleven-Mil Gil" Meche had a strong year (3.98 ERA, 73:183 BB:K ratio in 210.1 IP). The staff was a bit thin after that.
The bullpen did quite well, as the team had five relievers with an ERA under 3.50 (closer Joakim Soria, Ron Mahay, Robinson Tejeda and recently traded pitchers Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez). Soria is the real star, a true ace closer at age 24 (1.60 ERA, 42/45 in SV, 66 K in 67.1 IP).
The Royals also had the rare pleasure of a Rookie of the Year candidate in Mike Aviles (325/354/480). Aviles may not be a star, and he likely won't hit .325 next year, but the Royals need all the good news they can find for the lineup.
What Went Wrong: Said lineup was at the bottom of the league in runs scored. There are numerous culprits for this. The most troubling problem for the Royals was the lack of development from young studs Alex Gordon (260/351/432, -18 FRAA) and Billy Butler (275/324/400). It's hard to say what's going on with either player. Gordon is hitting pretty well, but not nearly as well as he was supposed to based on his college/minor league track record. And the same goes for Butler, who has much less room for error as a defensively-challenged DH.
While the Royals were getting decent hitting from most of the skill positions -- SS (Aviles), 3B (Gordon), CF (Dejesus) -- they got little or nothing from the offense-first positions. Their first baseman was Ross Gload (273/317/348), their left fielder was Mark Teahen (255/313/402), their right fielder was Jose Guillen (264/300/438), and their DH was Butler. Getting offense from these positions is supposed to be relatively easy, but that hasn't stopped the Royals from struggling to get it. Just recently they traded for first baseman Mike Jacobs (247/299/514), under the mistaken impression that he's a big upgrade over Gload.
Notes: The Royals have all the time in the world to let Gordon and Butler develop, but unless they can surround them with more young talent (like Mike Moustakas) it won't really matter ... If the Royals could afford Gil Meche, he'd be a lot more enjoyable ... The Jose Guillen contract was inexplicable then, inexplicable now, and will be inexplicable in the future. The Royals are looking into a trade. A good analogy would be Jack trying to trade the magic beans.
Minnesota TwinsW-L: 88-75 (2nd in AL Central)
Payroll: $56,932,766 (12th in AL)
R/G: 5.09 (3rd in AL)
ERA: 4.18 (7th in AL)
DER: .684 (10th in AL)
Team MVPs: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Scott Baker, Joe Nathan
A Drag on the Payroll: Livan Hernandez (5.48 ERA, 54 K in 139.2 IP, $5 MM)
What Went Right: The Twins really succeeded in upgrading their offense. Their infield was still a big issue, but apart from Justin Morneau, everybody was at least tolerable (which is something; the Twins' recent infields have been execrable). Delmon Young struggled (290/336/405) at the plate, but there's still good potential there. Center fielder Carlos Gomez couldn't hit worth a darn, but is a great athlete and is already one of the best defenders in the game. And to top it off, the Twins were able to get good work out of Denard Span (294/387/432).
And any team with Joe Mauer (328/413/451) has a whole lot going for it.
Pitching-wise, the Twins got good work from Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Joe Nathan, and the rescued Francisco Liriano. And they would have won the division if they had one extra pitcher. You know, one extra Cy Young Award-winning pitcher . . .
What Went Wrong: Management's decision to stay with Livan Hernandez was beyond unforgivable. What really makes it despicable is that they made the exact same mistake a year before, sticking with useless veterans while better players twiddled their thumbs in the farm system. Until this pattern ceases, this club has no one to blame but themselves for their abject failures.