Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Division by Division Preview - AL Central

Division by Division Preview

This will be, as you might be able to guess, a six part series. I will carefully look at each major league division, discussing the moves they made and predicting where they will finish in the coming season. Additionally, I will discuss key additions and loses as well as briefly mention a potential breakout candidate. I will do my best to remove any biases, although I cannot promise anything! Let’s kick it off with the AL Central.

AL Central

I decided to begin with the AL Central as I am an Indians fan, and obviously I have more interest in what goes on in that division then I do around the rest of the league. Without strain, I can name too many players and prospects within this division. I worry about meaningless moves and transactions and wonder when Ernie Young will sign with the Minnesota Twins, making him the ultimate ‘journey-man’.

1. Cleveland Indians

As obvious of a homer pick as there is, but how often do we hear ‘Champs until proven otherwise’? With that, the youth of this ball club allows for consistency in this, the second of their back to back years as champions of the American League Central.

The rotation is set with two bona fide number ones and depth in the Minors in the ‘When’s he going to break out’ Adam Miller and my personal favorite Chuck Lofgren. No matter which pitcher wins the three horse race for the final spot in the rotation, the Indians are as deep as any club in terms of starting pitching.

Bullpens are often vulnerable, and the Indians have been an epic display of that. Over the last three seasons, the Indians have finished 1st, 24th and 6th in terms of team bullpen ERA. While they bring in essentially the same crew as they had in 2007 there really is no telling what type of season the unit will have. Strangely, the biggest move Mark Shapiro made for his Indians this off season was in adding to the bullpen. Not a terrible move, however I would have preferred to see the unit stay entirely intact and giving Jensen Lewis a more prominent role.

While the bullpen is annually inconsistent, the hitters have been 7th, 2nd and 8th in the Majors in terms of runs scored. 2008 should be another strong season for the hitters, in one I am predicting as the best of the last three years. Travis Hafner may not return to being the fierce hitter he was in the final two years of his 20s, but he will nonetheless be a better hitter then he was in 2007. The Michaels/Dellucci platoon begins the season healthy and could very well be the best left field in the American League. The 2008 season also bids farewell to epic failures Josh Barfield and Trot Nixon in favor of Asdrubal Cabrera and Franklin Gutierrez. Outside of that, the youth alone should remain course, or even improve from the levels they reached in 2007.

Major Additions: Masahide Kobayashi – As I mentioned, I would have been happier without this deal. If Masa can provide quality innings and add depth to an already deep bullpen, I’ll change my mind.

Major Subtraction: None!

Breakout Candidate: Franklin Gutierrez – The kid has loads of talent and finally began to show that his tools were legit. Thirteen homers in fewer then 300 at bats with a sustainable home run per fly ball rate; I am expecting Frankie to challenge 30HR in 2008 with enough at bats.

2. Chicago White Sox

What do you do when your team has the third worst bullpen in all of the major leagues? You go out and bring in two of the best relievers on the free agent market, not caring that you over paid or are stuck with players on the downside of their careers for longer then you should. This, coming two seasons after the club put out the forth best bullpen which helped guide the team to winning the World Series.

Nobody is going to confuse the White Sox with having a dominant starting rotation, but in this division, it’s sadly the second best unit that will rely on bounce back and breakout seasons to be just good enough for this potent offensive lineup. Word has it Jose Contreras’ struggles in 2007 were due in part to a nasty divorce which occurred a few days before the start of the season.

As mentioned the bullpen was awful in 2007, although that was to be expected given the riffraff they had manning key roles. The additions of Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink should add stability to what now looks like team strength. Consider this, if the Indians and White Sox swapped places in bullpen earned runs, the Chi Sox would have ended up allowing nearly 20 fewer runs on the season.

Offensively, the Sox will be potent. Hoping for a healthy season from Thome, a bounce back year from Konerko and Dye, and the additions of Swisher and Cabrera, there is little reason to believe White Sox will not come closer to their 2006 production then that of 2007.

Major Additions: Nick Swisher – Moving from a terrible hitter’s park to an outstanding one, Swisher is a guy who I am anticipating major things from. Add to the fact that he will now have outstanding protection, this is the year Swisher makes Billy Beane look smart.

Major Subtraction: Jon Garland – I am not a huge fan of Garland, but there is no denying his value to a major league ball club. He eats innings and does it with fairly solid numbers.

Breakout Candidate: Nick Swisher – Again, I know! But if he jumps into the 40+ home run club, as I anticipate, there is no reason he won’t be classified as breaking out.

3. Detroit Tigers

I don’t care what anyone says, you tear apart your farm system and make additions to the place you were the strongest is NOT how you win a championship. This team is old and has too many players that had career and unsustainable seasons. True they suffered some key injuries, but when you field a team with that many 30 year olds, it is to be expected, no? The club has zero depth at any spot and the farm system is so weakened that they have very few chips to play with. Essentially, any player this club wants to go after, the Indians can block if they feel the urge to do so.

What is to like about the rotation? Verlander is an ace, despite my proclamation that Sowers was the superior youngster in 2006. However, he has thrown a lot of high leverage innings, and will have absolutely no help from the bullpen this year. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Pitcher Abuse Points, Verlander was the 9th most abused pitcher in 2007. Given his age and the stress he will put on his arm this season, whoever is banking on him putting up career highs is better off placing their dollars on a 16 seed beating a 1 seed in the tournament this weekend. Outside of that, Willis may be able to get by the first time or two through the American League, but with consistent eyes on him, the hitters will adjust as they did in the Senior Circuit. In addition to all of this, the Tigers have an embarrassing assembly of ‘fill ins’, in fact, the team is so shallow, super prospect Rick Porcello will probably play an important role with the club at some point in the 2008 season.

The bullpen is in even worse shape. With injuries to Zumaya and Rodney, Dombrowski is scratching for any available help. He has very few chips left, so it is unlikely a deal can be made and the club is just going to have to suck it up until their two fire ballers are healthy. In essence, the Tigers will have to score to win games as they will be in a situation where no lead is safe.

Nobody in the majors has the offensive lineup that the Tigers do on paper. In terms of team performance, I anticipate league average or worse statistics from all but three positions. This will be due to a great deal of regression, age and overall lack of talent. Having zero depth, as mentioned, is going to be what kills this clubs in 2008.

Major Addition: Francisco Cruceta! Kidding. Obviously it is Miguel Cabrera. I wonder how he will adjust to playing in the American League as well as playing in meaningful games. However, he’s still one of the best hitters in the Majors, so he’ll eventually catch on.

Major Subtraction: Jair Jurrjens – While Jair did not have a great amount of influence on the Tigers in 2007, his capable ability to be the sixth starter will definitely be felt this season. Having Renteria aboard is nice, but not all that important, especially when you consider his age and previous American League experience.

Breakout Candidate: Rick Porcello – He has zero expectations to contribute to the big league club, but if the Tigers are going to be successful this season, they are going to need his arm eventually.

4. Kansas City Royals

Reviewing the Royals, I could simply write about breakout candidates and leave it at that. The club is so loaded with young talent that the window for the Indians, Sox and Tigers will close sooner then anyone expected. I’ve never been to Kansas City, but I imagine there is a buzz about this club for this season. Not so much because they are going to make a run at the World Series, but because the team has a solid foundation looking forward.

The Royals have a formidable rotation that is beginning to come into its own. They will not absolutely dominate any one club for a series, but they will pitch well enough to allow the hitters and young bullpen to win a few games they shouldn’t.

As mentioned, the club has a young bullpen that is not outstanding, but is far from terrible. If I had a choice of Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers pen for 2008 or Alex Gordon and the Royals bullpen, I would really have to be convinced Gordon is not going to take any steps further in 2008.

Speaking of steps forward, the Royals have a nice collection of young and old gathered for the 2008 season. Billy Butler is a player whom I anticipate will take Prince Fielder-like progress this year and the outfield is talented and deep. With any luck, the Royals will have an average offensive squad this season. With a lot of luck, they are above average.

Major Addition: Alberto Callaspo – Here is a young hitter whom I adore. The Royals will allow him to come off the bench to start the season, but it will be only a matter of time before Grudz is traded. Callaspo will not set the world on fire in 2008, but this was an outstanding addition and one that will pay dividends for years to come.

Major Subtraction: David Riske – It was a shame that the Royals didn’t trade Riske last season, but they managed to grab a supplemental first round pick, which is presumably more then would have gotten for Riske anyways.

Breakout Candidate: Zach Grienke – I saw Grienke face off against Roy Halladay in one of the quickest games in Blue Jays history. At the time, he was a youngster whom I wasn’t entirely thrilled with. In 2007, Grienke came out of the bullpen and was suddenly throwing darts! I recall seeing his fastball reach 98mph on one occasion while still displaying the incredible control he was known for coming through the system. Watch out if his September is a sign of things to come.

5. Minnesota Twins

Unlike most, I actually expect big things out of the Twins in 2008. By big I mean for them to be only a handful of loses from third place. Consider the major loses from the 2007 team: Silva, Santana and Hunter. In their place: Hernandez, Liriano and Young. By no means am I going to argue that the second trio is on par with the first, but I think the difference will not be as great as one might expect.

The rotation should be fine, but not outstanding. If Liriano can return to his old form, the starting five should be essentially the same as they were in 2007 with a little more potential in the form of Humber. The Tommy John survivor is having an outstanding Spring and is making his case to be on the Opening Day roster. Rumor has it that Bonser is back in shape-or at least in better shape and Hernandez will give them a quality veteran presence and an innings eater.

Somehow, someway, the Twins have found a way to develop outstanding arm after arm for the bullpen. The unit is deep and talented. Any and every lead is safe. There aren’t enough good things one can say about this pen.

Offensively, I expect a better season then 2007. Both Morneau and Mauer had weak showings-for them-which I don’t expect to be repeated this year. Young is too young and too talented to not have a quality season, I expect big things! And the rest of the lineup should see decent improvements. Essentially, what happened in 2007 will be the minimum to expect in 2008.

Major Addition: Francisco Liriano – Obviously they didn’t ADD him, but they didn’t have him last season. As Liriano goes, so go the Twins. This is not just a one time thing; Liriano is the future of the Twins. He also happens to be the present.

Major Subtraction: Carlos Silva – Wait for it, wait for it…There it is! Yes, Carlos Silva. Even though they replaced him with his Cuban clone, they lost him for nothing. Whereas with Santana, I don’t expect the amount of wins (WSAB) they lost, to be much more then what they are gaining in Young and Humber.

Breakout Candidate: Mike Lamb – His previous American League numbers are not incredible, but they are sufficient. He is 32 years old and just now being given a full time job. Batting low in the order, Lamb shouldn’t have a lot of pressure on him to perform, so really anything will be better then what the Twins got from Punto for 108 games in 2007.

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