Thursday, March 29, 2007

2007 MLB Preview - American League Central

American League Central

Chicago White Sox: One year after ending their own World Series drought, the White Sox failed to even make the playoffs in 2006, finishing third in their own division behind Minnesota and Detroit. Their 90 wins last year were only good enough for a 6-game deficit behind the division-winning Twins. Their pitching just wasn’t what it was in ’05, and although they certainly were not lacking in offense (five players with 20+ home runs and 70+ RBI), they simply didn’t have enough to hang with the younger, feistier teams in the division.

So what needed to happen this year? Well, for starters, they needed the other teams in the toughest division in baseball to get worse. Didn’t happen. They needed to make a splash in the free agent/trade market. Well, they dealt Freddy Garcia away to Philadelphia (in a contract year, no less) in return for underachieving Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. In essence, the deal was made to open a spot in the rotation for Brandon McCarthy, who the White Sox felt was a potential ace in the making. Unfortunately, before he could be made, he was dealt to Texas in exchange for a former first-round pick and a couple of highly regarded prospects, including outfielder David Paisano (watch out for him in the next 2-3 years).

The offense was off the charts good in ’06, and if they can get even 80-85% of the output they had last year (236 team home runs, 868 runs scored, and a team OPS of .806) they should be in good shape.

Biggest subplot this season?

How many people had career years on offense last year (*cough* Jermaine Dye *cough*) that will most likely never be duplicated?

Best player you should start looking out for?

White Sox fans have been hearing about Brandon McCarthy for years now. And the season that they finally open up a spot for him in the rotation, they deal him away. For now, Gavin Floyd & John Danks (acquired from Texas) will probably fill in the fifth starter role. But if there’s a serious drop in production, Chicago will be in the market for another starter by mid-June.

Biggest unseen roadblock?

As much as I love watching him hit, Jim Thome is not getting any younger (he turns 37 in August). In 2005, he lost most of the season in Philadelphia to a myriad of injuries. If anything starts flaring up during the year, the entire offense suffers. He truly is the anchor to an unforgiving lineup.

Minnesota Twins: Minnesota has managed to stay competitive year in and year out with almost no free agent movement. This year’s big signing was a one year, $3.1M deal with Ramon Ortiz. Not exactly breaking the bank. What they have done with their scouting and drafting departments is unbelievable. Where the Pirates’ model has failed, the Twins have excelled. They are always in the hunt for the playoffs, with last season’s remarkable late season run to the top of the division just more proof that they have found a way to beat the “big boys” at their own game.

And yet, with all of that, they haven’t been to a World Series since they last won it all over the Braves in 1991. They’ve made plenty of trips to the playoffs, and even an ALCS appearance or two, but never all the way to the big show.

Last year’s run to the postseason was almost short-circuited by the sudden loss of super stud rookie Francisco Liriano to a ligament injury in his pitching arm. With Johan Santana & Liriano as the 1-2 punch, the Twins’ rotation would rank among the top three in all of baseball. With “only” perennial Cy Young favorite Santana atop the rotation, they are probably a top-10 staff.

The loss of Liriano and the retirement of Brad Radke leave a couple of big holes in the pitching staff, but they still have the best starting pitcher in the league, and one of the three best closers in the entire game. They should be right in the thick of the race come August and September.

Biggest subplot this season?

Aside from the loss of Liriano, the contract year of centerfielder and “Face of the Team” Torii Hunter should provide plenty of distractions for both the rest of the team and the front office all year long.

Best player you should start looking out for?

Guess the cat’s out of the bag on Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau (a batting title and an MVP tend to do that…), let’s go with Boof Bonser for two reasons. First, he’s got one of the best names in the bigs, and second, he is (sadly) only three weeks older than me. I feel like such a waste.

Biggest unseen roadblock?

There’s a good chance this team overachieved for the better part of 2006, meaning there’s plenty of room for a backslide into the mediocrity of an 82-88 win season. They need to keep playing at a high level for a full 162 games, and not have to finish the season at a 49-26 clip the way they did last year.

Detroit Tigers: I’m just not sold on them. Too many things fell just right for them last season, from getting 49 wins out of four pitchers under the age of 30, (not to mention 17 wins from 42-year old Kenny Rogers), to the renaissance of Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez and Todd Jones. And let’s not forget the ridiculous April of Chris Shelton. You know… before he remembered he was Chris Shelton.

So they caught some breaks, and it took them to the World Series. Big deal. Every team needs to catch some breaks along the way, whether it’s a favorable call, a lack of injuries to key players, or calling up the right guy from the minor leagues in June. The Tigers just seemed to catch all of the breaks last season. And in a division as tough as the AL Central, it’s going to be VERY hard to duplicate that type of success.

They’ve got the pitching to stay competitive, as long as Kenny Rogers keeps his hand well coated in pine tar. They’ve got the “natural leader” type of guy in Pudge Rodriguez, they made huge strides on offense by stealing Gary Sheffield and the Bronx-sized chip on his shoulder from the Yankees, and they’ve got enough young talent to take advantage of every other team’s mistakes. They just need to do it all at once.

Biggest subplot this season?

World Series Runner-Up Hangover. The ’04 Yankees and ’05 Cardinals stayed hot, but fell short of the World Series. The ’06 Astros missed the playoffs altogether (though not by much). Will the Tigers be able to break the jinx? I say no.

Best player you should start looking out for?

Well, for the first two weeks, I’d be all over Chris Shelton unless he starts in the minors. Otherwise, keep an eye on Brandon Inge. He puts up solid numbers every year, and he’s gotten consistently better over his six major-league seasons. Seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 29.

Biggest unseen roadblock?

The Tigers’ offense now revolves around three older players with a well-documented injury history – Pudge, Magglio Ordonez and Gary Sheffield. While injuries are a worry for any team, when your three biggest offensive threats have appeared in only 695 of a possible 972 games over the past three years (an average of 47 games missed per season, per player), there’s even more reason to be worried.

Cleveland Indians: A lot of people have pegged this team as “This Year’s Tigers” – the American League team that will come out of the depths of the previous year’s misery to surprise a lot of people and make the playoffs. I’m not buying it. They’ve done very little to get better from where they finished last season – they acquired Josh Barfield from the Padres and signed Trot Nixon as a free agent. Every other signing was focused on bolstering a dismal bullpen that cost them nearly as many games last season as they saved.

Unfortunately, when your biggest bullpen signing retires only days after you give him $5M guaranteed, you might have a slight problem. Keith Foulke retired from the game of baseball just after signing his contract with Cleveland, leaving the Indians’ bullpen in the semi-capable hands of new acquisitions Joe Borowski, Aaron Fultz, and Roberto Hernandez. Not exactly three guys who are going to be shortening too many games for The Tribe this season.

The starting rotation is still fairly good, though it looks as though C.C. Sabathia may never develop into that bona fide #1 ace type of pitcher - he was 12-11 in 28 starts last season with a very respectable 3.22 ERA. Good numbers, to be sure. But not the type of numbers that anchor a major league staff. Of course, 1/3 of the losses can probably be blamed on his pen.

Luckily, they still have a solid all-around offense led by “Pronk” Travis Hafner and his yearly .300/40/115 stat line. How this man has yet to win an MVP award, but Alex Rodriguez has two is completely beyond me.

Biggest subplot this season?

The bullpen. They had one of the worst in the bigs last season, blowing 23 saves in 47 chances. For those of you quick with numbers, you’ll note that they had only one more converted save than blown chance. They’ll need a much better effort this year if they’re even going to think about 85+ wins.

Best player you should start looking out for?

If you haven’t already stumbled across Grady Sizemore, then you shouldn’t even be reading this page. And as much as I’d like to say Lou Merloni is finally a star on the rise, this nod has to go to Josh Barfield. As a 23-year old rookie in San Diego last season, he put up a very nice line of .280/13/58 with 72 runs scored, 21 steals and solid defense at second base. Now in an American League lineup, with Pronk behind him, look out for a legitimate shot at 100+ runs and a handful more steals.

Biggest unseen roadblock?

The closer’s role currently belongs to Joe Borowski. The question is if he fails in that position, does Cleveland have anybody else on the roster that can step up and take over the reigns? If not, they’ll either have to close by committee (never a good option) or else sacrifice some young talent to bring in an outsider, which is never a guarantee. Trust me – I’m a Red Sox fan. I know this dilemma all too well.

Kansas City Royals: Every year, when I get to the Royals’ preview, one word comes to mind: ugh. This team hasn’t had a reason to be excited in a very long time – even a few years back when Tony Pena injected some life into the roster and almost led them to a .500 season, the park wouldn’t sell out, the players never seemed like they even believed what was happening, and the rest of the baseball world wrote it off as a fluke. And they were right.

But now, years after Pena jumped ship and the majority of the players from that season have left, been traded, or gone back to their rightful places in the minor leagues, the Royals have a new word to describe their season: hope.

The Royals finally seem to have a solid core of young talent at multiple positions on the diamond, and while the pitching still isn’t there, it isn’t out of the question to think this team could threaten that .500 mark again this year, if not even break it. Players like Mark Teahan, Joey Gathright, Alex Gordon, Ryan Shealy and former AL ROY (even if the vote was a sham) Angel Berroa make up ¾ of the infield and at least one of the starting outfield spots.

Admittedly, they blew the budget with the ridiculous 5yr/$55M contract handed to Gil Meche. But I don’t look at that signing as wholly incompetent – if nothing else, it proves to future free agents that the Royals might just be willing to pay you the money you’re looking for, so don’t write them off your list entirely. Meche will probably never be more than a .500 pitcher (especially not when he’s facing the other AL Central lineups for about 3/5 of his projected starts), but he can be a masthead from which the Royals can fly their banner reading “Open for Business”…

Biggest subplot this season?

Mike Sweeney. A couple years ago, there was talk about him opting out of his contract because of a clause tied to the team’s record. He chose to stay, saying he believed in what the organization was doing. Multiple Neck/Back/Arm injuries and extended trips to the DL later, he’s no longer an everyday first baseman, and he ties up $11M a year on the Royals meager payroll. When he decided to stay, the fans lauded him for his commitment and loyalty to the team. Now, most of them would rather he had left.

Best player you should start looking out for?

Alex Gordon, the early front runner for AL ROY. He’s torn up the minor league system and this spring he’s been a beast at the plate, not to mention playing solid defense at third base. Oh, and he’s being handed the #5 spot in the order, just behind Teahan and Sweeney. Not bad for a kid who just turned 23 last month.

Biggest unseen roadblock?

Listen, it’s the Royals. No one is penciling them in for a 90-win season and a trip to the playoffs. But if they play to their potential, they’ve got a legitimate shot at 75-80 wins. Small victories people…

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