American League Central handicap
(Predicted order of finish -- Worst to First)
5. Cleveland Indians (last season: 65-97; finished tied for 4th place)
Short of suiting up Willie Mays Hayes and Pedro Cerrano -- this year's version of the Tribe
could be just as much Major League as it is MLB. New skip Manny Acta brings his career mark of 158-252 with the lowly Nationals to the Cleveland bench, taking over for Eric Wedge. The gig won't prove easy. Just three years removed from a Game 7 loss in the ALCS, the Indians are in rebuilding mode. The lineup continues to be led by CF Grady Sizemore (coming off injury), DH Travis Hafner (perennially injured), and solid RF Shin-Soo Choo. Beyond that there's not much more than the youthful promise of SS Asdrubal Cabrera and LF Matt LaPorta, along with the hope that 1B Russell Branyan can battle through a herniated disk and offer a repeat performance of his fine '09 with Seattle. The defense is acceptable here, but the rotation is a mess and closer Kerry Wood is already injured. Should Jake Westbrook not battle back from Tommy John in a big way, then (gulp) Fausto Carmona deals his lifetime 4.69 ERA and 1.486 as the staff's ace. Perhaps the best these guys can hope for is that Rene Russo somehow finds herself in the stands.
4. Kansas City Royals (last season: 65-97; finished tied for 4th place)
For yet another campaign: there is nothing regal about the Royals. K.C. is a fine and storied baseball town whose fans will be forced to suffer yet another losing season. Hell -- since the
inception of the Central Division in 1994, the Royals have finished better than 3rd just once. Moreover, K.C. hasn't finished above .500 in a full season since back in '93. There is reason for some positivity here, and that of course starts with Cy winner Zach Greinke who led the Bigs with a barely visible 2.16 ERA last year. Despite 26 Quality Starts, poor run support limited Greinke to just 16 wins, a mark that gave him the distinction of winning the Cy with the fewest wins ever for an A.L. pitcher in a full season. At the back end for the Royals is fellow stud Joakim Soria, who boasts 72 saves in 79 opportunities over the last two seasons. If K.C. could somehow find a way for these two to pitch in, say, 125 games, then the Royals would have a major shot at sitting in the Central throne. But trending back to reality finds the roation and lineup best described as "tolerable." Familiar names like 1B Billy Butler, RF David DeJesus, and DH Jose Guillen will mesh with newcomers CF Rick Ankiel, LF Scott Podsednik, and C Jason Kendall to find an improved defense and heightened win total this year, but a below-average rotation and bullpen makes 80 wins a stretch. 3B Alex Gordon starts the season injured. As the only guy to ever be named Baseball America's College Player of the Year and Minor League Player of the Year (2005, 2006), Gordon seemed like he could be the guy to tighten this ship beside infielder options SS Mike Aviles and 2B Alberto Callaspo and the fast-improving Butler. But Gordon has offered more flop than pop to date. If he can ever reach his full potential, K.C. may have something here . . .someday.
3. Detroit Tigers (last season: 86-77; finished in 2nd place)
The Tigers late-season descent and eventual loss in Game #163 to the Twins segued into an active off-season that favored youth over experience (and cash). Gone are longtime Tigers CF Curtis Granderson, 2B Placido Polanco and RP Fernando Rodney, replaced in the lineup up
respective positional rookies Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore -- both of whom appear to have very bright futures. Rodney's closer role is now filled by free agent signee Jose Valverde, which should serve as an improvement. Valverde led the N.L. in saves in both 2007 and 2008, and is a far better control pitcher than the talented, but oft-wild Rodney. The lineup is buoyed by the stellar (and sober) 1B Miguel Cabrera, who'll need hit every bit of his lifetime, 162 game averages of .311 batting, 33 home runs and 117 RBI to carry a lineup that includes aging vets 3B Brandon Inge, DH Carlos Guillen, SS Adam Everett, RF Magglio Ordonez and newcomer LF Johnny Damon. The rotation is solid at the top with workhorse Justin Verlander (MLB-best 240 innings last year) and upstart Rick Porcello, who won 14 games as a rook. Behind those dudes, the growl begins to purr. Young and talented Max Scherzer came over with Jackson in the Granderson trade and he'll no doubt chart some serious strikeouts, but the fact remains he still brings just nine career wins to the #3 slot. After that, it's Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis. Bonderman enters his eighth Major League season at age 27, but has been beset by injury and claims just three wins in the last two seasons. Wills, the 2003 N.L. Rookie of the Year who later got screwed out of the '05 N.L. Cy, has gone from one of the funkiest pitchers in the majors to one of the flunkiest. After signing a 3-year/$29 million deal to come to Detroit, he's won just one game in 14 starts over two seasons. The Tigers definitely have some pieces in play, but youth and a host of those with injury-history will hold them back. Skip Jimmy Leyland will find Michigan's new anti-smoking laws especially taxing this season.
2. Chicago White Sox (last season: 79-83; finished in 3rd place)
Despite ubiquitously abhorring the White Sox vibe herein over the past years, I gotta say -- I enjoy the way both manager Ozzie Guillen and GM Kenny Williams do business. They're
zany, weird, aggressive, sometimes heretical (Ozzie) baseball guys who undoubtedly have a passion to win. That still doesn't mean I "like" the ChiSox. But I do like their chances to make a run for the Central this year. Their staff is stellar and it seems highly improbable that their bats will finish last in the A.L. in runs for another season. Hell, even if they do struggle to score as they did in '09, the pitching will keep this crew in a lot of games. The rotation of Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Freddy Garcia is a prime mix of righty/lefty, age, and experience -- together they sport nearly 420 lifetime wins and a .580 win percentage. Offensively, Williams added LF Juan Pierre atop the order, venerable UT Omar Vizquel to the bench, and Andruw Jones in the DH slot to compliment youngsters 2B Gordon Beckham and SS Alexei Ramirez, along with vets 1B Paul Konerko, RF Carlos Quentin, CF Alex Rios and C A.J. Pierzynski. Really, this lineup could play out with polarity. While all of these guys have had success at certain stages of their respective careers, consider that Konerko is now 34, Rios hit just .199 in 41 games with Chicago, and Quentin is coming off injury. Moreover, Pierre's 30 steals with the Dodgers last year were the active steal leader's career low and Jones (who had a fine Spring season) has hit just .190 since leaving Atlanta two years ago. Again: the pitching here in scary, and if three or even four of the starters get cooking it's gonna get interesting. But with Guillen as the helm -- would you expect anything else?
1. Minnesota Twins (last season: 87-76; finished in 1st place)
Since the Twins claimed the Central from 2002-04, there has yet to be a repeat champion in the division. That looks to change this year. With off-season personnel gains outpacing the losses, a payroll explosion from $65 million to $95 million, and the exalted opening of Target Field -- the 50th season of Twins baseball portends an anniversary campaign that appears every
bit golden. The Twins lineup is stacked with MVP's C Joe Mauer and 1B Justin Morneau, cemented producers CF Denard Span, DH Jason Kubel, and RF Michael Cuddyer, along with keystone newcomers SS J.J. Hardy and 2B Orlando Hudson. There is a dearth of speed here, but power and average should readily usurp that concern. At first blush, I wasn't a proponent of the Hardy trade that sent Carlos Gomes to Milwaukee, namely because the playoff-seasoned (albeit aging) Orlando Cabrera seemed a fine fit hitting in the two-hole and also due to the fact that Gomez, just 24, will someday be a most serviceable player once he finds a way to get on base with far more regularity (lifetime OBP just .292). But once the Twins landed Hudson and his four Gold Gloves, that lineup worry was assuaged with Hardy aptly moved to the eight-hole. Hudson may not bring either the ideal speed (just 50 lifetime steals in eight season) or proven Sacrifice history (just 24 lifetime Sac bunts) to that spot in the lineup, but his .282 lifetime clip and .348 OBP is solid and really -- with all the bang in the Twins lineup there's no longer the overt necessity to scratch out runs. Hardy did spend some time in AAA last year, so despite a fine Spring he's still got a lot to prove with the bat in a new league. But together with Hudson, Hardy shores up a stellar defensive that will be among the best in the A.L. DH Jim Thome is 39 and brings 564 career bombs to the table (57 of those against the Twins), so it's great to have the Midwest-native on our side. Just three of those HR's have come in a pinch hit role in Thome's 19 seasons, so it will be interesting to see how often Gardy plays Kubel in the outfield with Thome at DH.
The Twins' rotation is solid if not spectacular, so it's of great importance both that the starters are entering the season in good health, and that they remain as such. While the ChiSox tow those afore-noted 420 lifetime wins, the Twins' rotation counters with 195. Of some concern is pitching in a new, outdoor environment that doesn't serve to provide any real home field advantage (atmosphere aside) this season. That, of course, extends to the team as a whole, but it's worthy of note (while considering the comfortability of pitching at home) that the Twins' starters have a combined, lifetime 89-64 (.580) win record indoors compared with a 108-108 (.490) outdoors.
With Mauer's contract extension locked up, losing Joe Nathan for the year has served as the lone splash of sobriety in this potent hardball elixir. Some hard-core number crunchers will debate the gravity of losing a player that appears in fewer than half a team's games, but the blunt reality is that without a proven substitute -- losing Nathan brought the ChiSox a few games closer to the Twins' level. The "closer-by-committee" approach was aptly received with pause by fans and media, as said job description suggests something akin to, "The gig is yours . . . until you fail." Given the wealth of celebrated moves and signings by the front office, it would have been a lot to ask for one more maneuver. A week after Gardy's "committee" statement, the skip announced the gig would go to Jon Rauch. The 6-11' Rauch claims 26 career saves (Nathan had 47 last year alone), but seems make up for a lack of a closer's strikeout stuff with a stopper's scowl and ample tattoos. Should Rauch get tattooed, perhaps San Diego's Health Bell (who led the N.L. in saves last year) will resurface as a trade option in mid-summer.
Even as the closer situation plays out, the Twins can rely on a wonderfully fleshed-out lineup and defense to compliment a sound staff in what is one of the finest rosters in team history. Target Field opens in earnest a week from today, and with the lauded unveiling comes the hope and expectation of a club that should contend for the A.L. pennant.
Jacked up for baseball? So is Judd. Follow the Twins all season long on the C.P. Sports Twitter -- each new follower receives a fresh pine tar rag!
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