Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Today, the American League Central (in alphabetical order).
First impression: There probably was a moment – maybe midsummer, or in the fall after his club was eliminated after four games of their division series – when Kenny Williams looked across his roster and saw too many thick salaries, too many thickening legs, and decided to act. Other than Billy Beane, there perhaps is no other GM in the game who gets behind change like Williams. So, rather than stand pat on a division champion, Williams instigated the transition into whatever the White Sox would become. As of now, that looks like a ballclub slightly less reliant on power, and more willing to live with the comings and goings of youth. He saved about $45 million across three seasons by trading Javier Vazquez and Nick Swisher; saved more by letting Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede and Juan Uribe walk; and kicked some back in with the Dayan Viciedo signing. What's left is a ballclub sorting through players at a small handful of positions and rotation spots, and hosting daily debates over who should bat leadoff – a discussion that goes four deep. After a lot of speculation otherwise, it does appear Jermaine Dye will be back in right field. Of course, that could change.
Competition: It looks like Josh Fields gets an honest shot at third base. Alexei Ramirez slides from second base to shortstop. That leaves a few guys at second base, namely Chris Getz, Jayson Nix and Brent Lillibridge. In center field, they could go with Dewayne Wise, the journeyman who drove in 11 September runs, or Jerry Owens. This all adds up to a six-week tryout at leadoff hitter. It could be Owens. It could be Lillibridge. It could be Getz. Or, it could be Owens or Wise against righties and Lillibridge against lefties. If this seems insignificant, keep in mind White Sox leadoff hitters ranked 10th in the league in on-base percentage last season.
Hot seat: It has to be Williams, who has put so much of the season on a rotation that thins after Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, and who passed on established players at second base and in the outfield.
Next: Everybody's waiting to see what Viciedo looks like. The White Sox are hoping he doesn't look like a big fat guy. They've asked him to get on a fitness program and stay there. Scouts who saw Viciedo hit with the Cuban national team and in his big-league tryout say he has 40-home run potential. Many believe he'll ultimately play first base, which will better suit his body type. He goes into camp at third base on the depth chart.
First impression: In a division that could go five ways (all right, 4 ½ ways), the Indians have put their faith in the healing powers of the offseason, along with the 32 games they won after Aug. 7, which took some of the clubhouse sting from the departures of CC Sabathia, Casey Blake and Paul Byrd. The big deals in the Indians' spring camp and then going forward will be Travis Hafner's shoulder, Victor Martinez's body and Carl Pavano's history. GM Mark Shapiro seemingly has added enough – Kerry Wood for the ninth inning, Mark DeRosa for third base, Joe Smith for the bullpen – that if everyone shows up on opening day, they won't relive the 64 games they lost before Aug. 7.
Competition: A year ago, Sabathia, Byrdy and Jake Westbrook reported with the pitchers and catchers. Only Westbrook from that group returns, and he's recovering from Tommy John surgery, meaning the rotation gets a little dicey after Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. Management seems committed to Carl Pavano, so he gets the No. 3 spot. That leaves a good handful of guys – Anthony Reyes, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Tomo Ohka and prospects David Huff and Jon Meloan – for two places. Reyes is out of options and, if his elbow holds up, has a good chance to claim one place.
Hot seat: Eric Wedge has made the postseason in only one of his six seasons, but did a wonderful job in the second half of 2008 and seems to have management's support. One very interesting decision for him this camp: Is this the spring he (and management) pulls the trigger and moves Jhonny Peralta to third base, clearing the way for Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and DeRosa at second?
Next: The starting outfield for Triple-A Columbus: Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Trevor Crowe. If the Indians break camp with four outfielders (Grady Sizemore, Ben Francisco, Shin-Soo Choo and David Dellucci), they'll have outfield prospects massing at the big-league gate.
First impression: Well, that was kind of a mess. Tigers management is going to step away from 2008, assume that was a total fluke, straighten their hair and show up for '09. There is no doubting the talent. This is, after all, mostly the same team most of us picked to win the division a year ago. The same team, it so happened, that started 0-7 and could have called the season right then. The same team that had one winning month. One. Ahem. Presumably, they've got their position situations settled (Miguel Cabrera to first, Brandon Inge to third, Carlos Guillen to left and fresh bodies at shortstop (Adam Everett) and catcher (Gerald Laird) and their unhealthy healed (Gary Sheffield, Jeremy Bonderman, etc.) and their late innings covered (Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya).
Competition: New pitching coach Rick Knapp, who spent the past 12 years as the Twins' minor-league pitching coordinator, has a lot to sort through in the coming weeks. Of all the things that went wrong last season, none was more harmful than the collapse of the starting rotation, whose ERA since 2006 has risen from 4.00 (best in the American League) to 4.68 to last season's 5.03. Out went Chuck Hernandez, in came Knapp, and here comes the fresh start. The starters will arrange themselves behind Justin Verlander and Armando Galarraga. The candidates: Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Edwin Jackson, Dontrelle Willis, Zach Miner, Fu-Te Ni and Chris Lambert.
Hot seat: Jim Leyland. That was a pretty good club he ran into last place in 2008. It happens, you suppose. Now he's in the final year of his contract, the World Series miracle seems like a long time ago, and that big payroll isn't going to pay for itself.
Next: Cabrera and Willis didn't come cheap. The Tigers sheared off the top end of their farm system for, so far, one very crummy season. Right-hander Rick Porcello is coming fast. He's a year or more out, probably. Former Boston College right-hander Lambert could make a run at a starting spot in camp.
First impression: It's about becoming a legit big-league franchise again, about killing the second-division presumptions and spending a few dollars and, one day, showing up. The Royals – including GM Dayton Moore and manager Trey Hillman – think they're creeping up on the last part. They gave up a good and durable arm for Coco Crisp, a center fielder and leadoff hitter with potential walk-year motivation. For another good arm, they got Mike Jacobs' power bat (and, granted, ridiculously low OBP). They spent on Kyle Farnsworth's power arm, hoping the whole does-little-with-so-much tag was a New York phenomenon. And they'll have Hillman have another go at running a clubhouse that wasn't always sure about him. It feels like a critical year in Kansas City. One way or the other.
Competition: Mark Teahen has held a high profile in K.C. since arriving four years ago – at third base, in right field, in left, wherever the Royals have had him. He's still that guy, only standing in a different place. In fact, you might spot him at spring training. âI'll be the tall guy,â he recently told the Kansas City Star, âat second base.â It looks like a three-way contest at second between the 6-foot-3 Teahen, Alberto Callaspo and Willie Bloomquist. Teahen does take the unusual path. Not only hasn't he played any second base, but he'll take time away from camp to play his native position, third base, for Team Canada in the WBC.
Hot seat: He knew three years in Kansas City might include a few losses. Jose Guillen enters year two having put up decent but not great numbers, and amid talk he didn't always get along with Hillman. If Guillen comes out hot, if he comes out supportive of his manager in an important season for Hillman, it might go a ways toward convincing a young club it can hang in the Central.
Next: If either Alex Gordon or Billy Butler has his grow-up season, the Royals will be a better club. If they both break out (and the pitching staff hangs in there), they could contend. Gordon heads toward 1,200 career plate appearances. Butler should be in better shape.
First impression: Written off when their studs were dealt away, the Twins won 88 games; were eliminated only by the play-in game against the White Sox; and ultimately did what they do, which is win games where other teams lose them. They scored runs despite hitting the fewest home runs in the league. They played to the final day – and then one more – despite having one of the younger rotations in the game. So it appears they'll start this season with basically the same club that ended the last one, having put their faith in a year's worth of at-bats and starts, along with those 163 games of contending, in the AL Central.
Competition: What the Twins have in their outfield is four players for three positions. For weeks, and particularly during the early days of December, when these subjects were dragged up and down the Bellagio concourses, the presumption was GM Bill Smith would probably trade one of the four. Never happened, of course, and now we have a talking point for the next six weeks: Who sits among Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young? It has been suggested locally that Cuddyer be moved to third base, but that hasn't gained a lot of traction, and the Twins have been kicking around the idea of signing Joe Crede.
Hot seat: The consensus has Young being the odd man out, mostly because manager Ron Gardenhire led folks down that path during a candid moment early in winter. Since then, the Twins have mostly talked about letting the situation find its own solution. The guy everybody is looking at is Young, who a year ago cost the Twins Matt Garza – who won 11 games in the regular season and two in the postseason for the Rays – and Jason Bartlett, whom Joe Maddon said was the Rays' MVP. Young, meanwhile, has been OK but not great. At 23, great could come any day. We'll see how long the Twins are willing to wait.
Next: Arguably the critical piece of the Johan Santana deal, Gomez played mostly like the spirited, overly aggressive, slightly reckless 22-year-old he was. Gorgeously talented and utterly convinced of it, he had a .281 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot in 415 plate appearances. In the ninth spot, where he eventually landed and where life was a little less frantic, his OBP improved to .328. Gomez reportedly worked hard on that part of his game in the Dominican winter league.
- Kenny Williams
- American League Central