The AL Central figures to be the toughest division in the American League, even with the subtraction of Johan Santana. With 2 powerhouses (Tigers and Indians), a hungry team looking for retribution (White Sox), a young up and comer (Royals), and a club changing it's way (Twins). This is going to be a very fun race to watch as the lead is sure to be ever changing through all the 162 games of the season. I had a very hard time with this division. This is a group of teams that can go so many ways that it's hard to grasp. The top 2 spots were the hardest to pick. I was stuck between the team that made all the noise this off season and the other team that made no noise whatsoever that everyone seems to be forgetting. Instead of going with the sexy pick at the moment, I went with my gut feeling on this one. A feeling most people would beg the differ on.
After being one game away from going to the WS against the Rockies, they did basically nothing this off season. They did improve their already solid bullpen with Masahide Kobayashi who is another import from the land of the rising sun. And they improved their bench with the addition of Jamey Carroll. But that's all. Which begs the question why would they be 1st without making any significant moves?
The Indians have not had a 20 game winner since Gaylord Perry accomplished the feat in 1974. With maybe the best 1-2 punch in baseball with CC and Carmona, they could have two 20 game winners this year. While both hurlers struggled at the end of the playoffs, you know they both have electric stuff. CC is one of the most dependable pitchers in baseball and the definition of a true ace. Carmona shown us that he has the potential to be another ace but must be consistent. That ghastly performance as the closer a while back is still in the back of my mind. And if he doesn't get his sinker down when he needs to (32 double plays induced by him last year) then he could struggle. But he's still so young and should be getting better. Westbrook and Byrd form a solid #3-#4 combo. Both pitchers are guys who will eat innings and keep you in most games. And with the top two starters and the bullpen they have, that'd be enough. Although Byrd's steroid story has to be in the back of your mind entering the season. The #5 spot is up in the air between Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee can win games but sometimes not in the best way. Among the pitchers who have won 50 games since 2004, he has the highest ERA=4.76.
Borowski led the AL in saves last year with 43. But his extremely high ERA (5.07) shows he can crumble at anytime. He's not the most dependable guy in the big spot. But if he does falter heavily, the Indians have a very sure supporting cast around him. Betancourt was the best set-up man in baseball last year with 31 holds while compiling a 1.47 ERA. He can certainly close if needed. Rafael Perez and Aaron Fultz will handle the lefties and Tom Mastny is the type of guy you put in to get though the meat innings of a game. The big newcomer in this gang is Kobayashi. His resume from Japan is very attractive. He's saved 227 games and had saved at least 20 games in 7 straight seasons at one point. On paper, he fits perfectly with this team. How he transits to American baseball might be a different story. As you can see overall, their pitching should be deep and hard to break.
1. Grady Sizemore CF
2. Asdrubal Cabrera 2B
3. Travis Hafner DH
4. Victor Martinez C
5. Ryan Garko 1B
6. Jhonny Peralta SS
7. Casey Blake 3B
8. Dave Dellucci LF
9. Franklin Gutierrez RF
The Indians' bats seemed to lose a lot of gas after the All-Star Break, hitting only .231 all together. To win the division, they will have to hit a ton times better than that. Sizemore is a great talent that still has some growing to do. He strikes out too much and his BA was mediocre for a lead off guy. Nevertheless, he's a bright star that should only get better as time marches on. As you can see, this line-up is not big on power. If Hafner doesn't bounce back from an "off" 2007, this team is in trouble. Even if he still knocked in plenty of runs, his BA took a sharp dive by 42 points. I'll be shocked if he doesn't explode this year because last year wasn't the real Hafner. Add the fact these are his peak years. Martinez was the best hitter on the Tribe last year and he's entering his prime also. Setting career highs in doubles, homeruns, and runs batting in, he carried the team at times. After the big 3, the rest of the guys must be clutch or else because this team will not be able to outscore all opponents in a sluggers match (cough, Tigers, cough). The OF is very shallow. Besides of Sizemore, there are no other big hitters here. Jason Michaels and David Dellucci are 2 veteran pieces capable of adding enough to a line-up, although usually you want a lot more from a corner outfield spot. The other guys available are Franklin Gutierrez, Trot Nixon, and Shin Soo Choo. The Indians are high on Gutierrez but he seems much better suited for a platoon role as he had problems against right-handers (.232 BA). I've always liked Trot Nixon. He's a tough scrappy player who can hit the righties very well. The last 2 regulars are somewhat odd. Garko has the power to be a real clutch slugger some day (batted .297 after 6th inning). He could break out this year and if he does this line-up gets a lot heavier. His D is resembling Jason Giambi's though, which isn't a good sign. Peralta rebounded nicely form a dismal 2006. Leading all AL SS in homeruns, he has retaken a firm grip on the job for now. He must be more consistent though.
Overall- The Indians are not a flashy team that many people will flock too. But they will play fundamentally sound baseball and win the games they should win. If Borowski struggles, they have guys waiting behind him that can close out games just fine. The 1-2 punch of C.C. and Carmona will be a headache for their opponents. The only area here that you can point at as a weakness is the hitting. While it's by no means bad, it could use some more sure power. Trading for a slugger is possible but the Tribe can not take on a big contract. That might hold them back from adding a large fish. But even so, I just think this team is the best combination of talent to win this incredibly tough division.
A-, 1st Place In AL Central
The Tigers went from 43 wins in 2003 to a WS berth in 2006. Even if they lost to the Cardinals in 5, this is an organization that has shown things can change very quickly in baseball. Last year though, they hit a speed bump. The starting pitchers seemed to get tired, the bullpen got bashed with injuries, and their offense wasn't as clutch as before. In response to last year's disappointment, the Tigers went bonkers and added 3 huge pieces. Too bad for them for them, they didn't improve their biggest weakness. With a great manager, some massive players, and 1 absolute superstar in the making this team is a very solid. But in the AL, I don't see this team making the playoffs. Games are won and lost with pitching. The Tigers are lacking in that aspect.
One thing that looks encouraging right away is the ace. Verlander is the definition of a stud that is only going to get better. If his wins pattern continues, he could win 20 games this year. He's just a great hurler who looks about as dependable as you can get. He's very close to the "untouchable" plateau. Verlander is the least of the Tigers issues right now. After Justin, it'd be worried stiff with this rotation. Bonderman had maybe the most funky year of any pitcher in baseball. Even though hitters had a .348 OBP off him in the 1st inning, he still managed to go 10-1 before the All Star Break. After the rest, he caved in going 1-8 (7.38 ERA). All the while piling up an ERA above 5 all together. There is nothing wrong with his elbow so it's not medical. I think his arm was just so tired. The guy is 26 and has already thrown 923.1 innings. That is one mighty workload for a pitcher this young. On the other side of the coin, he's just entering his prime. So an exceptional year is not out of the question. But it's not a given either. Same thing goes for Robertson. I think he's reached his peak already. He's a solid #4 starter but he won't give you 18 wins anytime soon. He was never really that great of a pitcher in the first place. In all, the guys that matter most are the ones I didn't mention yet: Kenny Rogers and Dontrelle Willis. I think both pitchers will disintegrate this year. Roger couldn't stay healthy at 42 years of age and now he's 43 years old. Even if he does pitch, he doesn't have much left. Willis is a different situation with the same conclusion in my mind. His ERA has increased the past 3 years while pitching in the NL and in one of the best pitcher parks in baseball. I understand he didn't have much around him but that shouldn't effect a pitcher's ERA. I can understand that for the argument against his W/L (22-27 past 2 years). But with his ever increasing ERA, even that makes sense. He's got a lot of talent and a very live arm, but him in the AL at this point in his career just doesn't seem to fit. This rotation can either be great or even more disappointing than last year. I'm leaning towards disappointing. Not terrible, but not great.
This is where the Tigers will stumble hard. Because of injuries and so-so options, Leyland can't feel that comfortable with this group. They need to find another closer. Jones will give you saves during the regular season, but in a big spot with so many things on the line he's just way too wobbly to trust. He was never a shut-down closer and he's 40 years of age. He's got no big pitch and no one behind him to back him up if he starts to crumble. Which brings us to the 2 big injuries. Both set-up men, Zumaya and Rodney, will start the season on the bench as they both are damaged goods at the moment. Zumaya is out till mid-season with a oddball shoulder injury and Rodney is out until at least mid-March. Without those guys, this bullpen becomes incredibly shallow. Without a shut-down closer and a set in stone set-up combo for about half the season, the bullpen could be a mess. The other arms will have to work a lot in the first half. Jason Grilli is used to working a lot. He was 4th in the AL in innings pitched last year for relievers even though he wasn't that splendid. It's not the rest of the guys they have are terrible but you need more to win a division like this. Byrdak, Seay, and Miner did sound last year. But the Tigers are going to have to play all 9 innings in every game.
1. Curtis Granderson CF
2. Placido Polanco 2B
3. Magglio Ordonez RF
4. Miguel Cabrera 3B
5. Gary Sheffield DH
6. Carlos Guillen 1B
7. Edgar Renteria SS
8. Ivan Rodriguez C
9. Jacque Jones LF
While the bullpen is the weakest part of this team, the line-up is by far the strongest. This is going to be a slugging machine. The reason why the Tigers could win the division even without great pitching is because they have the best line-up in baseball on paper. The Tigers have everything you can want in a line-up present here. Young, energizing sparkplugs, big boppers, and wise veterans. They already had this last year. What's scary is they somehow found a way to improve this unit. The line-up has speed and a frustrating combo for pitchers in Granderson and Polanco. Granderson had a mesmerizing year last season, becoming only the 3rd player ever to get 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homeruns, and 20 stolen bases. The only hole in Granderson's game (including defense) is lefty pitchers. He hit only .160 against lefties. If he can fix that, Granderson will be as close to a perfect ballplayer as you can get. It's amazing when a player improves in every category while cutting down his strikeouts at the ripe age of 26. Polanco is one of the peskiest hitters in baseball. A perfect #2 guy, he works pitchers, rarely swings and misses, and has speed to burn. After these 2, the power comes big. When the Tigers signed Ordonez, it looked like a useless addition that would just waste money. The Tigers were terrible and Maggs had injury problems the year before. But since he has come in, the line-up has been so consistent. Granted, he won't hit .363 again, but he won't hit much worse. Cabrera was the big addition and the 2nd biggest of the whole off season (behind Johan to the Mets). He's had the most RBIs of any player born since 1983 (523). Now he has protection around him. He's one of the top 5 hitters in baseball. The line-up takes a minor dip from here on out but it's still loaded with power. Sheffield is a year older and has had too many injury issues, but he can pop one out at anytime still. Him and Guillen are very dangerous. The Tigers really just replaced Sean Casey with Guillen because Renteria will take over at SS. Renteria will be just fine. I think he's having a big year. Boston just wasn't the right place for him. In Detroit, he will have less pressure and more protection. Ivan (only 9 walks last year) and Jones (shaky but gives the team left-handed pop) round out this group.
Overall- If you get into a slugging match with this team, you will lose. But pitching is more important than hitting. I think the Tigers will realize that this year. Jim Leyland is a great manager with a great line-up and a dynamic ace. But for some reason, I can't see this team winning anything big. The back of the rotation will be a mess and I'll bet a kidney Jones is out as closer by May. Call me crazy.
B+, 2nd Place In AL Central
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox did the complete opposite of the Tigers. They went from the best team in baseball to nauseating garbage. They didn't hit, didn't pitch, and got beaten over the head with injuries. 2007 was a lost year for this franchise. With a new slugger and 2 dependable set-up guys, this team still thinks they can contend. With the talent they have, a rebound year appears in order.
The reason why the White Sox won't make the playoffs will be because of their rotation. While it has the potential to be pleasantly surprising, it doesn't look that way on paper. Buehrle and Vazquez are the strengths. It's impossible for Buehrle (107 career victories) to not pitch 200 innings and Vazquez went 15-8 last year. On a team that was 18 games below .500. On a better team, he could win 20. After these two, it gets rocky. Contreras looked altogether shot last year. Then again, he usually follows a putrid year with a superior campaign so that's somewhat encouraging. Or maybe it was because of his divorce. We already know Jose can get distracted. Danks and Floyd might have to win their jobs as they both faced some big hardships last year. Danks was doing pretty respectable until he fell apart in every way, pitching to a 7.11 ERA after the All Star Break. Floyd has always shown flashes of great potential but he can never sustain it for extended periods of time. It's now of never for him at this point in his career. A very welcome sign was he finished well last season. All together, you have to be very cautious here.
Lets get this out of the way first: Bobby Jenks is one of the most underrated closers in baseball. After helping the White Sox win a championship, he's been almost automatic in the back of that pen. Last year was no different. Even on a bad team, he was one of the few bright spots. 21 times he got a save without allowing anyone to get on base. So we know that the Sox have the 9th inning covered. It was the middle innings that murdered them last year. Luckily for them, they shored up that situation with 2 free agent signings. The Scott Linebrink signing looks ridiculously idiotic at first glance. 4 years at $19 million for a pitcher that fell on hard times last year might hurt them in a few years, but they needed something in the later innings and you have to overpay to get good pieces nowadays. It'll help them now. Dotel is another vet that should add much needed stability in the end of contests if he can stay healthy. Both Thornton and MacDougal had their moments but overall it was a disappointing year for each. A bounce back year from these guys seems about right. The middle relief will be at the hands of Sisco and Wasserman. Maybe even Tomo Ohka. Wasserman is the younger version of Chad Bradford, killing righties last year (.174 BAA). This group should definitely improve.
1. Orlando Cabrera SS
2. Nick Swisher CF
3. Jim Thome DH
4. Paul Konerko 1B
5. Jermaine Dye RF
6. A.J. Pierzynski C
7. Josh Fields LF
8. Joe Crede 3B
9. Danny Richar 2B
Two more of the team's biggest problems came from the line-up. It aged considerably last year and hitting .243 with men in scoring position never helps the matter either. While some of the big pieces are still heading close toward retirement (Thome, Dye, Pierzynski) they are not done yet. The team has a very solid core with Thome, Konerko, and Dye. They'll drive in their share of runs. The bottom 3rd of the order isn't great but it'll due for this club. Crede will probably be traded before July 31st. Everyone forgets he hit over 30 homeruns a couple years back. If he is fully recovered he can be a great quick fix for a team starving for power (he's a free agent after the season). Fields would take over for Crede at 3rd when he departs. The main reason why this line-up will jump in production is because of the top of the order. Cabrera adds a real lead off hitter into the mix who rarely makes mistakes out on the field and is much better than Juan Uribe. Giving up Garland was too much in my mind as this team needs pitching more than hitting, but at least they got something very nice in return. The biggest acquisition for the South Siders was Nick Swisher. While his power numbers dropped last year, his BA and OBP improved. His power numbers should increase right back up again as he now has more protection around him and he's going to be hitting in a much better park. He'll get on base and create plenty of RBI opportunities for the meat of the order. Great pick-up by the White Sox.
Overall- Once again, everything going wrong like it did last year would be a rare occurrence. Especially because of the prime pieces they added during the off season. If Danks and Floyd can finally rise to the occasion throughout the whole year and they can avoid injuries, this team will make a run at a WC spot. Next year will be very interesting for this team. Reflection of the manager.
B, 3rd Place In AL Central
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have endured through a very challenging stretch the last few years. The last winning season they had was 2003, when they finished 2 games over .500. Ever since then, they've been in the 55-65 win range. Because of the fact this team doesn't have the most money and that they are in such a competitive division, a quick-fix is out of the question. But, very slowly, they are heading in the right direction. Give credit to Drayton Moore for giving this franchise a breath of fresh air.
Everyone at least chuckled when Kansas city signed Meche for 5 years and $55 million. But he was everything the Royals wanted him to be last year. Don't judge him on his 9-13 record. He didn't get the best breaks, specifically when it came to run support. In fact, it was the worst support of any pitcher in the AL, getting backed up only by an average of 3.92 runs a game. And it wasn't only for Meche either but more on that later. Getting Meche was one of the 2 big moves that have pointed this team in the right way. The other one being possibly the best steal of the season. The Mets gave the Royals Brian Bannister to them for Ambiorix Burgos, a pitcher who could never put it together. Actually, he still hasn't. The Mets got nothing out of him while the Royals reaped the rewards of the surprising Bannister. He isn't a flashy pitcher with no big pitch but he gets the outs. Kyle Davis was taken from the Braves to Kansas City midseason and La Rosa has had strong moments but is anything but a sure thing. The pitcher to watch very closely here is Greinke. He was considered a huge talent heading into 2005 after a very bright 2004 but he fell hard. Eventually it was said that he had social anxiety and clinical depression. After recovering, working his way all the way through the minors, and finally reaching the majors again last year and pitching really good he appears to finally be at least close to the ace everyone once thought he was. The Royals ERA in 2006 was 5.65. Last year, it improved greatly to 4.48. That trend could very well continue this year.
The Royals bullpen could very quickly become a force this year. And it all starts with Soria at the front. Being recently compared to Papelbon, he shown flashes of it during last season when he was put into the closer's role almost right away. He is one of the young superstars in the making on this club. And with more experience comes better numbers. On paper, this pen looks like a bunch of random names made up by someone (Jimmy Gobble? Come on). But this is a pretty solid group of throwers. Gobble is the type of pitcher that could be a workhorse in the middle innings, Mahay gives the team a seasoned specialist, and Bale has nasty stuff. Yabuta was the biggest addition for the pitching during the winter as they are hoping he will be the same big surprise that Okajima was with the Red Sox. Peralta was good sometimes but still has some growing to do. This isn't a shut down group, but if everything breaks right this could be a sleeper strength for this team.
1. David DeJesus CF
2. Mark Teahen LF
3. Billy Butler 1B
4. Jose Guillen RF
5. Alex Gordon 3B
6. Ross Gload DH
7. John Buck C
8. Mark Grudzielanek 2B
9. Tony Pena Jr. SS
While the pitching took a huge step up last year, the hitting fell back down. Even though they only made one move to fix the problem, they should score more runs this year. The 3,4,5 spots will make or break this line-up. Gordon and Butler have hitting potential to the heavens and we'll start to see that this season. Gordon struggled out of the gate but he improved after getting his feet wet. Unlike Butler, who started crushing the ball right away. While it may be hard to find a capable position for Butler, it seems he will be what they thought Mike Sweeney would be. That is a consistent slugger who will be the anchor of the line-up. Jose Guillen had a resurrection year with the Mariners but I still don't like the signing of $36 million through 3 seasons. He's not the best attitude to have around young players and he won't improve the line-up much. He'll get his power numbers to a desirable level but he's not the type of player to help carry a team. The rest of the line-up shows moderate potential. DeJesus must improve this year for him to stay as the lead-off guy. The Royals are going to start getting impatient if they haven't already waiting for him to fully arrive. Teahen is a very flexible player who will hit acceptable but for some reason he had close to no power last year. Without his power, he's a platoon/bench player on a good team. Pena is really nice on defense but he has to learn to take a pitch once in a while. If he learns to be more selective, Royals got a pesky little player in their hands. Gload is an underrated hitter who will add pop and Mark is always the same. Good BA and dependable up the middle. They need another catcher because Buck is at the end of the line. The bench is looking much more well rounded with Joey Gathright (ridiculously fast), Esteban German (can play practically everywhere) and Miguel Olivo (will be lurking behind Buck for the catcher's role). The pinch hitters hit a stunningly bad .170 last year.
Overall- Once again, they are on the right track. They are one of those teams to keep an eye on as the year progresses. If their young hitters fully develop, the bullpen remains healthy, and Greinke regains his magic, we could see something very surprising in the AL Central. But those are large "If's" and all must happen for this club to have a shot this year for contention.
C, 4th Place In AL Central
The most attention the Twins got this off season was at the hands of a subtraction, not an addition. When they traded Johan Santana, the Twins still didn't get the publicity you usually want because everyone was criticizing what they got in return. Other then that, this is an incredibly quiet organization. They always float under the radar. Yet, they are very competitive almost every year. Last year was their first losing season since 2000. They've won 4 division championships since. So while they just lost the best pitcher in baseball in the toughest division in baseball, never count this silent killer totally out. They got some prime components going on the field this season. If this team was in the NL Central, they could win the division. But alas they play in the AL. And wins will be much tougher to come by.
The Twins are maybe the best organization in baseball when it comes to finding young pitching. Just look at the Liriano/Nathan for Pierzynski trade for proof. They know how to spot good arms. Speaking of Liriano, he will be back this season after sitting out because of Tommy John surgery all last year. But considering his stats in 2006:
IP W-L ERA Ks BB
121.0 12-3 2.16 144 32
We know he has a scary arm. And they will be expecting him to take over the rather large shoes of Johan Santana. But if anyone can do it, it's him. It might take a while to get the same level of domination he showed back then as you never know what the effect of Tommy John surgery will be. But once again, he's got that probable ace in him. The signing of Livan Hernandez was very nice. In a rotation full of young arms, he'll be the veteran who will work innings and give the rest of the starters and bullpen much needed rests. Very smart pick-up by this team. But he will be facing rougher line-ups in the AL. The other four young guns all are young but all have good to great stuff. The trio of Boof Bonser, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey went 21-22 last year, but you have to remember they are still very raw and this team had no offense last year. Baker was very solid last year and Slowey picked up steam as the season came to a close. The Twins are also very optimistic on Perkins. This is a very tough rotation to grade as it's hard to tell how good it'll perform throughout the whole season.
While rumors of Nathan getting shipped out of town were plentiful lately, none of them have appeared true or serious yet. Nathan is the most underrated closer in baseball. If the Twins are out of it by the trade deadline, he's probably gone. But lets not jump that far ahead yet. Even though Nathan has averaged around 40 saves in his career with Minnesota, he may not get as much opportunities as in past years. Even so, you must feel comfortable with him in the 9th inning. The Twins may have a hard time getting leads, but they should do just fine holding on to them. The supporting cast around Nathan is quite swell. Neshek and his offbeat delivery was money in the first half but he got overworked as the year went on. Guerrier had his best season last year while also appearing in the most games in his career. Reyes has pretty solid stuff and he'll be even better if he can sustain it for more games. Both Crain and Rincon struggled very much, especially Crain.
1. Carlos Gomez CF
2. Nick Punto 2B
3. Joe Mauer C
4. Michael Cuddyer RF
5. Justin Morneau 1B
6. Delmon Young LF
7. Jason Kubel DH
8. Mike Lamb 3B
9. Adam Everett SS
When the Twins shocked the baseball world and traded Johan to the Mets, Carlos Gomez was the biggest thing they got in return. He only hit .232 in limited duty for the Mets, but he had blazing speed and will probably mature in not much time. He better or the Twins will look very dimwitted for passing up what the Yanks and Sox offered. The other new guy is Delmon Young. He should mask the disappearance of Torii Hunter very well. The only thing he needs to fix is his sometimes questionable attitude. With that comes a great ballplayer and he will add thump to this team either way. Everett will do nothing on offense but he's one of the best fielding position players in baseball. Mike Lamb and Brandon Harris were also nice little pick-ups. They aren't winning any batting titles or silver slugger awards but they are great bargains that will give you hits and they'll work pitchers. If Morneau has another year like 2007, we can put him in the overrated category. 31 homeruns is fine and dandy but he needs to spike his BA and walks to be a truly elite player. Everyone forgets about Mauer because he suffered drop-offs basically across the board last year. But he had injury dilemmas. He's still an amazing talent. Kubel and Cuddyer are both interesting cases. Cuddyer is very underappreciated and Kubel has been a bit disappointing in his career thus far. While Kubel did pick it up in the 2nd half, he still has yet to have that one breakout year. Punto was terrible in 2007. He had one pleasant season but was an automatic out last year. Maybe he still has something in him but I doubt it. For the bench, Monroe has pop but misses most of the time and Mike Redmond could very well be the best back-up catcher in baseball.
Overall- This might be the toughest team to put on a scale. On one hand, they have some shining bright spots and they always surprise people. On the other hand, they lost their best pitcher/ace, still have many unproven players, and they're in this unforgiving division. I'm going with the latter. They just don't have the firepower to keep up in this spot.
C, 5th Place In AL Central
That's it. Recap:
3. White Sox B
I know Royals and Twins have the same grade, but I'm giving slight edge to the Royals. Thanks for reading. AL West on deck.