Big League Stew - MLB

Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will look at a division each day this week and hold a conversation about the issues therein. Up next is the pick'em pennant race that will be the AL Central.

'Duk: And down the stretch we come, Dave! There are thousands of pundits out there who say this AL Central is so ugly we should type this preview while blindfolded. Sounds kinky, but I really don't know where that would get us.

Look, the AL Central might not be the strongest class on paper, but it's full of teams that have both a few strong spots and a corresponding amount of worrisome areas. I'd say it's best to keep our eyes open while diagnosing this division.

Also, being able to see makes it a lot easier to throw that dart once someone asks us to pick a winner. My throw landed just south of Lake Erie on the Mistake by the Lake the city of Cleveland (a.k.a. Gradytown). Where did your offering end up?

David Brown: I changed my mind on the winner three times before settling on the defending champion White Sox, whom I picked fourth last year. One moment, I picked the Indians, then the Twins, then the Sox. I really think the Twins have the best team, but this injury business with Joe Mauer's back and Scott Baker's shoulder — egad! Best player in the division and his team's best pitcher. Just not the way you want to start your season. I don't think the overall quality in this division is bad at all. The top three teams in the AL Central are much better than anyone after the Angels in the AL West, or the Cubs in the NL Central. Blindfold yourself if you want, but I want a look-see. I'm pretty sure Cleveland has enough nicknames, already, though. Now you want to call it Gradytown?

'Duk: The boyfriends of Grady's Ladies need something to wear, too, don't they? You should know it's all about those T-shirt royalties, Dave! Truthfully, I tossed and turned over my pick last night, too and I'm almost certain that whatever we come up with, it's going to be monumentally wrong. Last year, everyone had Cleveland and Detroit leaving the other three in the dust, but the Twins and White Sox ended up in a hot-potato pennant race that Chicago begrudginly accepted finally clinched by winning three elimination games over three different teams over three straight days — including a victory in Game No. 163 over the Twinkies at friendly U.S. Cellular Field. 

Still, I'm going to "tab the Tribe in '09" (another t-shirt slogan!) because they have the division's best player in Grady Sizemore, its reigning Cy Young winner in Cliff Lee, its best manager (sorry, Gardy) in Eric Wedge and they made the best offseason moves of anyone in their group. Am I worried about the health of closer Kerry Wood and a rotation that will cross its fingers and *hope* Carl Pavano to win 12-14 games? You bet. But I like their lineup and their problems are small when compared to the competition.

DB: I don't even remember Carl Pavano, it's been so long since he was relevant. I'm a sucker for a good comeback story and that one might even top Josh Hamilton, minus the stimulants. They're also going to need a comeback from Victor Martinez, who needs to at least octuple (what's 10-uple?) his home run output. Otherwise, get out of the way and let Kelly Shop-vac play. I'm not going to even mention Woody, out of fear that he'll be jinxed. Wedge is going to be managing on a high wire all year. I am noticing a lot of people on the Shin-Soo Choo bandwagon this spring. They'll need him to be Matsui-like for a whole season. It can happen. Or maybe it won't. Bah! This would much easier if Mauer and Baker weren't hurt for the Twins. I'd just pick them and be done with it.

'Duk: Agreed. It's never good any time a team is so vague about an injury all spring training like the Twins were with Mauer — five bucks for anyone who can confidently tell me exactly what's wrong with him — and then puts him on the DL with no timetable for a return. Maybe he's caught a case of Prioritis? Scott Baker's injury is troubling and Justin Morneau and Joe Crede are injuries waiting to happen, too. If Baker is healthy in that rotation and the mashers are medically relevant, I think the Twins easily have enough to get to the 87 wins (and that might be a high estimate) it will take to win this division. Now it looks like they'll be scratching and clawing to get out of the cardboard box just like everyone else.

Let's go back to your pick of the White Sox to repeat at AL Central champs, though. Tell me that your selection of a team that will feature DeWayne Wise in center field doesn't have anything to do with the fact that you plan to name your future sons after the 1983 Winnin' Ugly rotation. (Dewey Lamarr! Britt! Floyd!)

DB: What do you think of "Jerry Koosman Brown"? And don't forget Dot, after Richard Dotson, if it's a girl. It's true, the White Sox are reckless in starting the season without a center fielder. It's a fairly important position and the Sox are relying on D. Wayne Wise. Not too wise. They also have a rookie at second base, Chris Getz, though his minor league numbers are encouraging, and what could be a really troubling third baseman, Josh Fields. Jermaine Dye can still hit but his performance in right field last year — disturbingly bad. Jim Thome's back — hanging by a nerve.

OK, that's the bad. The rest is quite good — from Carlos Quentin, who was going to lead the AL in homers before he attacked his own bat with his wrist — to Alexei Ramirez, the Cuban missile, at short. Konerko is Konerko is Konerko. I'm also very comfortable with the top of the pitching staff and the bullpen. You have Danks winning the division's Cy Young, and Gavin Floyd keeps impressing. Buehrle is Buehrle is Buehrle. I don't necessarily think Colon will make it out of the commissary, but Contreras is going to be fine. Cuban engineering is made to last a long time out of necessity.

'Duk: I'm a fan of Sox GM Kenny Williams (though not as big a fan as he is of himself). He always has a confident plan, he always sticks to them and they usually end up working much better than anyone thought they would. He turned Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy into Danks and Floyd. Pair them with the Ramirez-Quentin-Dayan Viciedo trio and you have a core that's going to keep them in the hunt for the forseeable future.

That said, I still think the Pale Hose are a year away from becoming a team that you can predict a division title from. I'd say their defense is going to be horrendous, but I'll be nice and say "adventurous" instead. Watching Thome, Dye and Paul Konerko makes MY bones creak and don't you even think about counting me as someone who believes in Contreras or Colon. If you actually really believed in them, wouldn't you have at least suggested naming your goldfish Bartolo or The Bronze Titan? Or is that honor reserved for your man Zack Greinke down in Kansas City, where the Royals are said to have a real chance in surprising people this season?

DB: If I were a real predictifier, I'd have the Royals higher. Any of my top three are one false move away from Tigertown (ie: the cellar) and the Royals seem primed to jump in there. But it's almost like picking the Pirates to improve. After your brain actually thinks about it for a moment, it overrules your heart. But, if Alex Gordon finally shows some progress, if Jose Guillen shows some leadership by staying on the field for 155 games, if Mike Aviles can be 80 percent of what he was last year over a full season, and if Kyle Davies can make 32 starts, I can see these guys finishing second. One or two of those things probably will fall through, so here they sit in fourth with an 81-81 record. And I can't get past they have a guy whose name is, almost, Alberto Collapse-o.

'Duk: The sad part is that I've talked with a few Kansas City friends this past week who said they would take a .500 season right now if it was offered to them. The even sadder part is that I think they SHOULD, even with the highest payroll in team history. Yes, there are plenty of people making that "Royals are this year's Rays!" prediction, I still don't see it. The team's power is laughable (the 1B-3B-DH combo of Mike Jacobs, Gordon and Billy Butler didn't even reach your magical number of 60 homers last season, even with Jacobs hitting 32 himself) and I'm not convinced they're experienced enough to consistently win the other way using the proverbial small ball and defense.

That's not to say they don't have some nice pieces. Anyone in this division would love to have Aviles playing up the middle and closer Joakim Soria isn't called The Mexicutioner for nothing. They're definitely going to be a pesky team for any AL team that might take them lightly and I'm going to follow them on Extra Innings, but I still think this is a ChiaPet — "water 'em and see if they grow" — year for the Brutes of Barbecue.

Now how 'bout those denizens of Detroit? Shall we put those blindfolds on now? 

DB: Sad. When I was a kid, the Detroit Tigers were a franchise to be admired. Kind of like the Orioles. "Why can't my team do it like them? They play ball the right way." Now, they are a franchise to be shunned. Just a few years ago, they were chasing 120 losses. Fairly quickly, they built themselves up to a World Series team. Now, in even faster fashion, they're crap again. What happened? Fans in the Motor City better get as much enjoyment out of the Spartans in the Final Four as possible, because this summer is going to be torture on them.

GM Dave Dombrowski spent a carload of stimulus money on this roster and what's it going to get him? If Sheffield wins a ring with the Mets, do the Tigers get a share of his share? Why am I supposed to be impressed with Brandon Inge at third, Adam Everett at short and Gerald Laird behind the plate every day? That's gonna fix everything? And WHAT is going on in the bullpen? I don't give Rodney no respect as closer. Seay what? And Lyon? Oh my!

'Duk: I have another idea for a t-shirt! ... "The Detroit Tigers: The Last Place Mess Everyone Can Agree On!" Seriously, though, it hasn't been a good run for recent World Series losers. The Astros were in it in '05, now they're not very good. The Tigers were in it in '06, now they're destitute. The '07 Rockies? Yick.

I'm not saying the Rays are going to follow in that tradition, but I'd be just a tad bit nervous about the Rays being jinxed this season. I definitely feel bad for our TiggerTown friends, though. Their main entertainment this season will be derived from the Jim Leyland Firing Squad Watch, which leads to the question: What are they going to do from May onward?

DB: Good thing the three-time WNBA champions, the Detroit Shock, are accepting season ticket applications. Get 'em while they're hot!

* * *

AL Central predicted order of finish

'Duk: 1. Indians, 2. White Sox, 3. Twins, 4. Royals, 5. Tigers

DB: 1. White Sox, 2. Indians, 3. Twins, 4. Royals, 5. Tigers

AL Central MVP

'Duk: Grady Sizemore, Indians

DB: Grady Sizemore, Indians

AL Central Cy Young

'Duk: John Danks, White Sox

DB: Zack Greinke, Royals 

AL Central Rookie of the Year

'Duk: Rick Porcello, Tigers

DB:  Chris Getz, White Sox

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