Posted by: Nate | March 3, 2008

2008 Baseball Preview: American League Central

[I apologize for the delay in getting these posts up here, but I am feeling much better and thus am capable of writing again. Expect a more regular posting schedule from here on out. Wihtout further ado, the AL Central!]

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Cleveland
2.    Detroit
3.    Chicago
4.    Minnesota
5.    Kansas City

Breakdowns:

1.    Cleveland Indians:
The way I see it, this is Cleveland’s division to lose. Detroit made the biggest splash in the off-season as we all know, but Cleveland has a very strong team and a shrewd General Manager who will make any moves needed to aid the stretch run (see Kenny Lofton from last year). The 1-2 punch of Sabathia and Carmona is one of the most formidable in baseball and they have a strong offense is Sizemore, Martinez and Hafner with support from many of the other lesser-known players.

Keys to Success:
First and foremost will be the performance of the rest of the rotation, as I feel pitching is where their advantage lies over Detroit. Their top two should have seasons in line with their performance last year (which netted Sabathia the Cy Young) so the onus will be on the rest of the bunch to step up and deliver. Byrd isn’t blowing anyone away with his pitches, but he was effective last year to the tune of 15 wins and will need to duplicate that success this year as well. Jake Westbrook had some injury issues and only recorded 6 wins, down from 14+ the previous 3 years so a rebound from him would be a huge help to this club as well. The bullpen was strong last year, despite some of the roller-coaster saves Joe Borowski delivered last year. He did convert 45 of 53 opportunities however, in spite of his 5+ ERA, so it just goes to show that he didn’t have very clean outings when he was in a non-save situation which I don’t expect to continue this year. Even if it does, when he needs to close the door he proved more than capable last year.

Offensively, you know about what to expect from Martinez and Sizemore, but Hafner is going to be a key cog this season. He wasn’t awful last year, but he did experience significant drops in his HR’s, AVG and R totals from the past 3 years. If he can get back to the 30+ HR, .300 AVG plateau’s then the Indians will be looking very strong. Other than that, they are going to need solid production from the rest of the team. That is what makes the Indians so dangerous, is that while you focus on getting those big three I just mentioned out, the other guys could kill you if you aren’t on your game. They have a real team-oriented offense, so when they are successful like they were last season, everyone is pitching in and they can cover for a down season from one of their big players.

Major Off-season Moves:
The Indians didn’t make a whole lot of moves this winter. Their big acquisition was RP Masahide Kobayashi from Japan, who will be an excellent late-inning option for them and could be this year’s version of Hideki Okajima, the less heralded but very effective Asian pitcher. Other than that, the rest of the moves the Tribe made were giving people invitations to spring training and make some speculation signings (Brendan Donnelley for instance) that may or may not pay dividends.

2.    Detroit Tigers:
So everyone is well aware of the big splash that the Tigers made in getting Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida this winter. We have all also heard a ton about how prolific their offense is going to be and that 1-9 are all awesome hitters. I don’t disagree with any of this, however, the state of their pitching staff in the aftermath of that trade is not strong and any sort of injury or ineffectiveness is going to be trouble for the rotation. Not to mention the bullpen questions they have. So I think the Tigers will be good, and that if they can stay healthy and have someone step up in the ‘pen that they could challenge for the division, ultimately I see them falling a bit short.

Keys to Success:
The aforementioned rotation is the biggest piece to this puzzle. In making that off-season trade the Tigers are essentially banking on Kenny Rogers (44 years old) being able to pitch 200 effective innings coming off surgery last year to fix a blood clot. They are also hoping for a smooth transition from the NL to the AL for Mr. Willis, who I think is massively overrated and don’t see his 5+ ERA season last year to be an anomaly. Lastly, Nate Robertson, while capable as a fifth starter, isn’t going to make or break your season either. If these guys can put together healthy, effective 180+ inning seasons then the Tigers should be in good shape, but I just don’t see that happening. Rogers will struggle to be effective and Willis will probably experience a transition year like Josh Beckett did in 2006 – not to mention that he just isn’t as a good as Beckett either.

Offensively, they should be a formidable club as expected. The need Magglio Ordonez to have another strong campaign now 3 years removed from his experimental knee surgery, they need Sheffield to stay healthy because he can still rake and they need a strong season behind the plate from the aging Pudge Rodriguez. They should be fine scoring runs this year.

The other area of concern though, is the bullpen. Their best reliever (Zumaya) is hurt again and won’t be ready until Post-ASB at the earliest. Their replacement for him in the setup role (Rodney) is having early spring shoulder trouble and their closer (Jones) is not an awe-inspiring figure closing out games. He has a poor K/9 ratio, and has a career ERA of almost 4. I have some serious reservations about the Tigers ability to close out games this year even if they get strong starts across the board and this is why I have them falling short to the Indians. Offense is flashy and important, but dominant pitching wins you championships.

Major Off-season Moves:
Obviously here the major headline grabbing trade of Cabrera and Willis was their biggest move. They sent RHP Burke Badenhop, RHP Eulogio De La Cruz, RHP Dallas Trahern, LHP Andrew Miller, C Mike Rabelo and OF Cameron Maybin to Florida for those two players. Miller and Maybin are strong prospects and should be great players down the line (starting this season) and Rabelo is a solid catcher who provides depth at that position for the young Marlins. They made several other moves as well of a slightly smaller scale in the acquisition of reliever Denny Bautista from the Rockies and OF Freddy Guzman from the Rangers to provide some depth. In a trade with the Cubs they got OF Jacque Jones for Omar Infante, and Jones should provide some help in shoring up the LF position for the Tigers.

3.    Chicago White Sox
The bottom 3 spots in this division are probably going to be pretty hotly contested, as I see these teams as relatively equal. The Chi Sox are probably the best of the three though, so I am going to stick them here although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota make a run at them. I just liked the off-season moves the Sox made much more than the other two clubs and think they will be a better team. Keep in mind they won the World Series in 2005.

Keys to Success:
I see this season as a big “What are you going to get from X?” year for the White Sox. They made a number of moves this off-season and depending on how some of these guys perform will determine their record. For starters, what are you going to get out of the OF. New additions Nick Swisher and Carlos Quentin need to improve their batting averages and Quentin needs to get on base at better than a .300 clip. If both of them can hit in the .260-.270 range, Swisher won’t be such an offensive liability since he sees a ton of pitches and has good power. Quentin is entering his second full season, so I expect him to make some adjustments and improve his performance. What will 2008 hold for Jermaine Dye as well? He had an awesome 2006 season and then suffered a steady drop-off in every category last year, showing a slight rebound towards the end of the season. If he can get back to a level in between his ’06 and ’07 campaigns then the Sox should be in good shape, but if the ’07 Dye continues to decline, they could be in trouble. Additionally, the contributions of newcomers SS Orlando Cabrera (via trade) and 2B Alexi Ramirez (rookie) along with the play of 3B Joe Crede (injury) will play roles in the success of the team from both an offensive and defensive standpoint.

Pitching wise they have a totally revamped bullpen, so the question is: “What will they get from them?” The bullpen was a HUGE weakness for the 2007 White Sox outside of closer Bobby Jenks, so the new arms need to turn around the poor performance of last year. New comers Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink are very good relievers with proven track records who, if healthy, should bolster the ‘pen and provide a strong bridge to Jenks. In the rotation, Jose Contreras needs to demonstrate that he has something left in the tank and young arms Danks and Floyd need to be consistent and attack hitters.

Major Off-season Moves:
Signed free agent RHP Scott Linebrink to a four-year deal, strengthening their bullpen. Acquired SS Orlando Cabrera and cash considerations from the Angels in exchange for RHP Jon Garland and in a separate move acquired OF Carlos Quentin from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Minor League 1B Chris Carter, a move that could pay great dividends is Quentin develops a little this season.  In another bullpen move they signed RHP Octavio Dotel to a two-year contract complementing both Jenks and Linebrink nicely. Lastly, they picked up OF Nick Swisher from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for LHP Gio Gonzalez, RHP Fautino De Los Santos and OF Ryan Sweeney, which should significantly improve their CF situation.

4.    Minnesota Twins
It is hard for me to see the Twins being as competitive as they have been in recent years after their latest off-season. Then again, the Twins always seem to be competitive and get great productions from unknown players, so it wouldn’t be huge shock if they gave the White Sox a run for their money. They will need to address the numerous holes that opened up this winter and try and find people to step up and fill the gaps if they want to be at all relevant this year.

Keys to Success:
Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano. If Mauer can recover from last year’s injury problems, Morneau can have an MVP type season like he did in 2006 and Liriano can prove he is both healthy and as deadly as he was before Tommy John surgery, the Twins may be just fine. These three will really need to set the tone and if they are successful don’t be surprised to see the rest of the team follow suit.

Delmon Young, the very talented but trouble OF the Twins got back in the Garza deal needs to demonstrate that a change of scenery is all he needed to put it together. He has the tools to be an excellent player and the Twins can use any and all help offensively to fill in for the loss of Torii Hunter in the OF. Their essentially new infield of Mike Lamb, Adam Everett and Brendan Harris should be good defensively, but if the struggle with the bats then this team will have a very difficult time supporting Morneau and Mauer.

The biggest questions though, lie in the pitching staff. The Twins bullpen is one of the best around, so if the rotation can be at all serviceable this won’t be a lost season in Minnesota. Right now it looks like Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Livan Hernandez, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey will be the starters. Baker, Bonser and Slowey are all young and somewhat unproven and continued improvement and development from them is going to be imperative. Liriano needs to return to his dominant 2006 form and keep his arm in good shape and in a rotation filled with X factors and wild cards, veteran Livan Hernandez needs to live up to his billing as an innings eating competitor.

Major Off-season Moves:
They lost CF Torii Hunter to the Angels in free agency to start the winter off. Then they traded promising starter Matt Garza to the Rays for Delmon Young in a deal that also included SS Jason Barlett and RHP Eduardo Morlan going to Tampa Bay for IF Brendan Harris and OF Jason Pridie. Acquired OF Craig Monroe from the Cubs for a player to be named later in an effort to shore up their outfield in the post Hunter Era. The big trade of the year in all of MLB was the much-maligned deal with the Mets sending OF Carlos Gomez, RHP Philip Humber, RHP Kevin Mulvey and RHP Deolis Guerra to the Twins for LHP Johan Santana. To address their now depleted rotation they singed veteran Livan Hernandez to a one-year deal. They also grabbed 3B Mike Lamb from the Astros with a two-year contract. Lastly they signed SS Adam Everett to a one-year contract to provide strong defense up the middle of the infield.

5.    Kansas City Royals

Make no mistake about it; the Royals are getting better every year. While I have them in the cellar again this year, they should be in the hunt for the 4th spot for a large portion of the year and I like the direction that GM Drayton Moore has the team going in. Young players like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler give them a lot of promise for the future and if the pitching staff can improve they will be contenders in a few years.

Keys to Success:
In order for the Royals to be successful they need Alex Gordon to realize his potential and cure his inconsistency from last year. Seeing as he was a rookie last year, I think his sophomore campaign will demonstrate the he is the future in KC and that he has made the needed adjustments. They have a decent outfield in Teahen, DeJesus and Guillen (once he returns from suspension) but they are weak in the middle with Pena and Grudzielanek not really intimidating anyone with the bats and Buck behind the plate is not an offensive force by any stretch.
As usual with clubs perennially struggling, pitching is the problem. Their rotation has made strides in recent years with the addition of Gil Meche, who is a solid starter, but they are a ways off from having a competitive rotation. Atlanta castoff Kyle Davies isn’t the answer, and players like Zach Grienke and Jorge De La Rosa are also not going to be the answer either. Young arm Luke Hochevar is intriguing and could contribute this year and be a strong cog in years to come.

The bullpen is the real disaster, constantly letting the Royals down the past few years. Losing Octavio Dotel at the trade deadline last year didn’t help them in that department either but management has brought a lot of arms in since last year to inspire strong competition for the bullpen and rotation jobs this year, so perhaps with all those guys in the mix some of them will stick and emerge as good pitchers. Any sort of consistency from the Royals will go a long way in improving their record this year.

Major Off-season Moves:
In a series of moves designed to promote depth and competition to the pitching staff the Royals signed LHP Mike Maroth and RHP Hideo Nomo to Minor League contracts with an invite to Spring Training, and signed RHP Brett Tomko to a one-year contract. They also got in on the foreign pitcher market by signing RHP Yasuhiko Yabuta to a two-year contract and he could be another contender for the 2008 Hideki Okajima unknown pitcher who dominates award. Continuing the pitching depth moves they also signed LHP Ron Mahay to a two-year contract away from the Braves. Their biggest name moves of the off-season was inking OF Jose Guillen to a three-year contract and then having him start the season on a steroids related suspension courtesy of the Mitchell Report. Just another year in Kansas City…

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