Wednesday, March 25, 2009

AL Central Preview: Anybody's Game

Over the past three years, four of the five teams in the AL Central have gone to the postseason. Each year, one team takes a step forward and then stumbles back. Is this the year that somebody finally dominates? Or will it be another photo finish?

My Predictions:
1st: Minnesota Twins
2nd: Cleveland Indians
3rd: Chicago White Sox
4th: Detroit Tigers
5th: Kansas City Royals

Minnesota Twins
The Twins made a valiant effort in 2008, finishing the season tied with the White Sox for the AL Central title. They lost a one-game playoff for the division crown, but none the less they made a great effort.
Still, when you have such a close call, you have to look for those opportunities you missed to improve your team. With the Twins, these were pretty clear. They left Francisco Liriano in the minors far longer than was necessary, with Livan Hernandez wreaking havoc in his place. More importantly, they utterly failed to improve the left half of their infield, even though they've had the same problem for years. If the Twins had been willing to spend just a moderate amount of money to acquire a decent third baseman a few years ago, they may have made it to the World Series, after failing to get there with postseason appearances in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006.
Have the Twins learned their lesson and added that last piece or two to make their team complete? Not at all. Even when the cost of a replacement was relatively low, the Twins failed to sign Joe Crede, trade for Adrian Beltre, or otherwise make a move to upgrade at third base, their most vulnerable position. The problem has been compounded by a farm system that failed to produce even decent hitters for nearly a decade, and even now is trying to build some sort of support for Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
Despite these problems, the Twins finished third in the AL in scoring last year. This is reason for optimism. I don't think the Twins' offense will be that good again in 2009, but they are starting to get good (if not great) supporting efforts from Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, and Jason Kubel. Young Carlos Gomez is a defensive whiz in center, but has so far failed to turn his offensive tools into performance (258/296/360* in '08). * — Slash stats indicate (Batting Average/ On-Base Percentage/ Slugging Percentage)
In addition, the Twins should have one of the league's best pitching staffs in 2009. There's significant room for improvement here, most notably from ace Francisco Liriano, who threw just 76 innings in 2008. The Twins have a fine set of young arms to back him up, and an ace closer in Joe Nathan. If they can get better support from their middle relief, they should have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

I put the Twins in first place with some trepidation. They will need to evaluate and address on-field problems as the season continues. Over the past few years, they have been terribly slow in addressing these issues, if at all. Last year's mistake was the choice to leave Liriano languishing in the minors while tolerating Livan Hernandez. In 2007, it was the use of Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson in the rotation, when better options were readily available. In short, if the Twins can't or won't address their most pressing problems in-season, they're a lot less likely to win. And in a division this competitive, they can't afford to come even one game short because of their own mistakes.

Cleveland Indians
This team just can't catch a break. One year, it's the lineup. Another year, it's the bullpen. Last year, it was fighting off injuries and battling slumps. In each of the past five seasons, I've picked the Indians to win the AL Central. They only succeeded in doing so in 2007. Was I wrong? Yes and no. The Indians looked like division-winners on paper every year. But for a wide variety of reasons, they weren't able to capitalize. The Indians could very well win the division in 2009. But they're not overwhelming favorites, and until they are, I'm not going out on a limb and predicting that everything goes right for them this year.
On paper, the Indians have a fearsome lineup. They've got two impact players in Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez, as well as a potential impact player in Travis Hafner. They also have strong support for their superstars, with players like Mark DeRosa, Jhonny Peralta, and Asdrubal Cabrera. While they don't have a hole in their lineup; the weakest spot is probably left field, where the Indians are counting on young Ben Francisco to improve upon his 2007 numbers (266/332/438).
But, as usual for Cleveland, there are many ways this could go wrong. The 2008 team had to deal with poor production from first baseman Ryan Garko, Hafner, Cabrera, and Martinez. Only one or two Cleveland regulars actually played up to their abilities in 2008. It's basically inevitable that things will improve in 2009, but the terrible year in 2008 is still worrisome. Hafner, who's still got a lot of money left on his contract, may actually be reaching the end of the line. Cleveland insiders are saying that Hafner's 2008 troubles were just caused by injury. For their sake, I hope they're right.

The Indians also changed up their infield by adding Mark DeRosa to play third base. Picking up DeRosa from the Cubs was a great steal, but it also creates a unique opportunity for the club to improve their infield defense. As it is, DeRosa is slated to play third, with Peralta at shortstop and Cabrera at second. But DeRosa is better at second base. And that's great, because Cabrera is a fine shortstop, and Peralta is not; his arm strength makes him better suited for third. But as of yet, the Indians haven't pulled this bold infield switcheroo. It may end up not making a difference, but in a division this close, you have to look for the edges where you can.
But the main reason I'm not picking the Indians to win the division is because of their starting rotation. As it stands, the rotation should include some combination of Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, Anthony Reyes, Aaron Laffey and Carl Pavano. It looks good to see Cliff Lee up there, but consider that Lee has never pitched remotely as well as he did in 2008 (22-3, 2.54 ERA). Even if he does retain some of the brilliance he discovered as a 29-year-old last year, his ERA will likely bump up by a full run or so. Fausto Carmona represents the opposite case. It's highly unlikely that he'll be as bad as he was in '08 (5.44 ERA, 70 walks, 58 strikeouts in 120 2/3 IP). But we can't just forget last year and expect him to magically reprise his excellent 2007 campaign.
Even worse is that the Indians are relying heavily on cast-offs like Reyes and Pavano. That's not to say that there isn't any upside there, and it's worth pointing out that they came cheaply. But you can't really run that risk with your #3 and #4 starter and count on contending in the American League.The Indians have the ability to win the AL Central, no question. But they're surrounded by too many questions, and this is a team that can't seem to answer their questions in time for October.

Chicago White Sox
It seems like the White Sox are always on their last legs. Their key contributors are getting older, and their farm system is pretty thin. Then, GM Kenny Williams comes in, makes some moves and somehow adds another year to the team's life. This is great strategy in the short run, but eventually you have to stop patching and start building. And with an aging lineup and several holes to fill, the Sox don't have much time to waste.

Chicago's best hitters — Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko — are the same guys who have been carrying this lineup since 2006. The Sox have added Alexei Ramirez, who has achieved hero status on the South Side despite his propensity for swinging at pitches in other time zones. Other fill-ins, such as Jerry Owens and Josh Fields, may be able to handle the job, but neither has much upside.
Chicago's farm system is getting better, but as it is, they're still far too reliant on their older hitters. If just one of them goes down or struggles, they're going to need a heroic effort from their pitching staff just to contend.
The problem there is that the pitching staff isn't likely to do as well as it did last year. The Sox have a great 1-2 punch in Mark Buehrle and John Danks, but things get pretty thin after that. Sure, Gavin Floyd turned heads by winning 17 games last year, But not only has Floyd never been this good before, he was amazingly hit-lucky in 2008 and allowed 30 home runs in what was nominally a good year. Don't get fooled by the wins on this one.
Not only that, but their rotation depth took a hit in the off-season when they traded Javier Vazquez to Atlanta for prospects. It's not a bad move in the abstract, but how does it help you win this year to lose consistency in your rotation? The in-house replacements for Vazquez aren't too attractive, and the Bartolo Colon experiment probably won't result in anything but a new series of creative expletives from manager Ozzie Guillen.
The White Sox are win-now team whose window of opportunity may have already closed. This year's squad should be competitive, but if they want to return to the postseason, they'll probably have to wait for prospects Gordon Beckham, Tyler Flowers, and Aaron Poreda to arrive.

Detroit Tigers
The second-highest payroll in all of baseball ($138 million) earned the Tigers a last-place finish in 2008. Are they really that bad? Not really. But like the White Sox, they're an old team with a barren farm system, and that's not the formula for a big comeback.
It's the starting rotation, more than anything else, that has dragged the Tigers down to the bottom of the division. Justin Verlander should bounce back from a poor 2008, but who else do the Tigers have? Nate Robertson also had a dreadful '08, but he has a lot less margin for error than Verlander. And while rookie Armando Galarraga did well when thrust into the limelight, he's not your ideal #2. As for Jeremy Bonderman, there's absolutely no telling what this maddeningly inconsistent pitcher will do next. The team did address their pitching problems by trading for Edwin Jackson, but Jackson is no sure thing either. He won 14 games for the Rays last year, but did so with a dismal ERA (4.42) and a bare 108 strikeouts in 183 1/3 innings pitched. He's got great stuff, but the "big step forward" he took last year was largely illusory.

The Tigers' best hope is that they can wring some more value out of the aging hitters in their lineup. Magglio Ordonez (317/376/494) and Placido Polanco (307/350/417) looked good last year , so they're pretty safe bets. Carlos Guillen hit well last year while being jerked across the infield, but he'll be moving to left field in 2009, where his numbers don't look nearly as potent. And the Tigers are just the latest team to find out what a joy Gary Sheffield is, especially in the last year of his contract. Sheff hit just 225/326/400 as DH last year and isn't likely to improve at age 40. If nothing else, I guess the team can sell tickets to the impending Sheffield .vs. Leyland grudge match.
Detroit does have two reliable young studs in Curtis Granderson and Miguel Cabrera, but their offense isn't nearly as deep as you'd think. GM Dave Dombrowski did sign free agent Adam Everett to man shortstop. Everett is one of the best defenders in baseball, but even that isn't enough if you hit as poorly as he does (213/278/323 with the Twins in '08). Dombrowski also traded for Texas catcher Gerald Laird. But of all the catchers in the Rangers' arsenal, Laird has the least upside and is really a place-holder.
If you look at the Detroit roster, you have to admit that any team with this many good players is a threat to compete. But few of those good players are pitchers, and the hitters are getting older every year. The team traded away the fruits of its farm system to get Cabrera and the horror show also known as Dontrelle Willis (35 walks and 18 strikeouts in 24 IP last season). Their win-now philosophy got them as far as the World Series in 2006, but it looks like that will be as high as they go.

Kansas City Royals
You have to wonder sometimes if the Royals are run by Dr. Henry Jekyll. One day, Dr. Jekyll will make a public statement about the value of on-base percentage. Then he transforms into Mr. Hyde and trades away a good relief pitcher to acquire a slugging first baseman, Mike Jacobs, with a terrible OBP (.299 mark last year). This despite the fact that they already had a few slugging first basemen on the roster (Billy Butler, Ryan Shealy, Kila Ka'aihue). As if that weren't bad enough, Hyde then goes out and signs free agent Willie Bloomquist — a career 263/322/324 hitter — to a two-year free agent deal. Bloomquist, who Rob Neyer once
said resembles a hitter about as much as he resembles a fire truck, is a problem because his popularity earns him far more playing time than he merits. If the Royals wanted to sign a clubhouse spark plug, they could at least have signed one who can hit.
But then Dr. Jekyll reappears and makes a smart move, like signing Zach Greinke to a contract extension. Greinke's deal, which runs for four years and $38 million, rewards one of the league's most underrated hurlers at a below-market price (thanks to Cot's Baseball Contracts for the contract info).
With Greinke and Gil Meche, the Royals have a potentially solid starting rotation. But until they get a third or a fourth decent starter on the team, their success will remain potential. Luke Hochevar has more promise than anyone else in the back of the rotation, but he's coming off a terrible 2008 and may not be able to turn things around quickly. Kyle Davies seemed to be getting the hang of things late last season, but he needs to show better strikeout numbers before we can give him the benefit of the doubt. And the fact that Horacio Ramirez is on the team — and that the Royals went out of their way to get him — is another one of those Mr. Hyde moments that just defies belief. GM Dayton Moore has brought over several former Braves since taking over the team, but shouldn't you draw the line somewhere?
If there is good news here, it's that the Royals bullpen is much more productive. Closer Joakim Soria has quietly made a name for himself as one of the best closers in baseball; so good in fact, that many teams wonder what he would look like as a starter. The team will miss Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez, traded away in the offseason, but they still have some promising arms in Ron Mahay and John Bale. Less promising is the free agent deal given to Kyle Farnsworth — 2 years and $9.25 million. It's always cringe-worthy when a last-place team spends nearly eight figures on a middle reliever. And not just any middle reliever, but one who alternates periods of good pitching with periods of spontaneous combustion. Mr. Hyde strikes again.
The silver lining is that the team has the makings of a decent offense. Free agent signee Coco Crisp is a pretty good leadoff man, and Mike Aviles turned in a surprisingly good rookie season at shortstop. Moving Mark Teahen to second base will help the offense, although the infield defense will be bowling-shoe ugly for a while.
But more than anything else the Royals need two players to step forward: Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Both are highly-touted products of the farm system who have so far failed even to approach their potential. Accepting these guys as anything but stars is not an option; to a great extent, the future success of the club rides on their shoulders.

There's a lot of room for hope in Kansas City, but there's an equal amount of fear. You never really know what's going to happen next. The only thing you can do, I guess, is hope Dr. Jekyll comes back and keeps Mr. Hyde from signing any more contracts.

The AL Central looks to be the most wide-open division in the league. First place is there for the taking, which is why more than ever teams should look to get that extra edge and avoid making all those little mistakes. Because when October comes, it's just going to be a matter of a few mistakes and a few lucky breaks that separates first place from last place.

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