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 look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issue some predictions on standings and award-winners. Finishing the series is the AL Central:
'Duk: Well that was quick, Mr. Brown. After zipping through the previous five divisions, let's close things up a little nearer to our homes with a look at the AL Central. This is a grouping with a lot of shortcomings and it seems like a lot of people are fitting the Chicago White Sox for the AL Central crown, just because their rotation is the most impressive unit of any lineup, starting staff or bullpen in the division. Believe it or not, the South Side's fab five even caused Ken Rosenthal to tab the Pale Hose as his World Series pick.
The quintet of Jake Peavy(notes), Mark Buehrle(notes), John Danks(notes), Gavin Floyd(notes) and Freddy Garcia(notes) is arguably the best top-to-bottom rotation in the league and we've seen what a rotation like that can do for the White Sox. But I'm a lot less confident in a team that is 1) still extremely challenged on defense, 2) expecting major contributions from Juan Pierre(notes) and Mark Teahen(notes) while hoping that Carlos Quentin(notes) and Alex Rios(notes) return to their old selves and 3) wants us to believe that Mark Kotsay's(notes) hot spring will translate into a role on that funky DH committee.
Maybe Ozzie Guillen works his mad scientist best and conjures up some 2005 magic with this squad. But I'm not seeing how they've worked their way into a consensus division pick.
David Brown: OK, Mr. 'Duk. Not to be argumentative — we're just talkin' here — but if the White Sox are the consensus pick in the AL Central, it's not a very wide consensus. I'm not even sure it's much of a plurality. The Y! Sports readership picks them first, yes, but after checking other Web sites, some of which we don't name unless we have to, the Minnesota Twins seem to be the world's narrow choice. I think more people would pick the Twins if closer Joe Nathan(notes) hadn't gotten hurt, though it figures that general manager Bill Smith will add a competent guy if Jon Rauch(notes) (and others?) fail for manager Ron Gardenhire.
The White Sox do have many question marks, though I wouldn't lump Quentin into the same pile as Rios, who seemed to get mentally fat after signing a big contract in Toronto. Quentin just needs to chill out a little (which they claim he has) and he'll be All-Star caliber. And you're right; they're assuming they'll get a lot more from Teahen and Andruw Jones(notes) than they probably should, though Jones is in great shape (really!) and had a great spring. Pierre is his who he is. Basically Scott Podsednik(notes) in another body.
But I'm a believer in Jake Peavy. Getting him was the best move Ken Williams made since trading for Jim Thome(notes). His stats probably won't be as sharp as in San Diego, because of the league and because of the park difference, but Peavy's one of the best pitchers in the majors no matter where he plays. The starting pitching will keep them in every game, and the bullpen is strong too. They probably need at least one more bat, perhaps more. I like them to win with 87 or 88 victories and it might take 163 games to decide the division again.
'Duk: Can it be a three-peat for the AL Central requiring a tiebreaker to settle things? Hey, if the Twins can start playing baseball outdoors again and the Tigers can trade away the face of their franchise in Curtis Granderson(notes), anything can happen.
I'm actually surprised at how many folks were spooked away from tabbing the Twins after Joe Nathan went down for in spring training. Now, don't get me wrong: Nathan was one of the top three closers in the league and the Twins will miss his presence on the mound and in the clubhouse in 2010.
But we're also not talking about Minnesota missing out on Joe Mauer(notes) or Justin Morneau(notes) or even Denard Span(notes) for an entire season. Closers, even when they're named Joe Nathan, can be replaced and that belief has been reflected in the declining value of free agent closer market. You wouldn't automatically predict doom for the White Sox or Tigers if Bobby Jenks(notes) and Jose Valverde(notes) went down, so why do it with the Twins?
Elsewhere, the average baseball fan probably couldn't pick Scott Baker(notes), Kevin Slowey(notes) or Nick Blackburn(notes) out of a lineup, but Minnesota's rotation has the potential to be "sneaky good," especially if Francisco Liriano(notes) lives up to the reborn hype/attention he received in spring training. The lineup will again be strong, though I'm eager to see how Target Field affects things. Moving won't change Gardy's emphasis on playing a fundamental game, but the advantageous days of freaking out opponents with unpredictable turf and a blinding roof are over.
DB: That's right; The Hump Dome wasn't so much a home-field advantage as it was a road-team disadvantage. It was always 10 against nine when the White Sox went to Minneapolis. Now, it will be like going to Detroit or Cleveland. It could be the nicest ballpark in the league, but it won't act like an extra opponent. And don't forget the sound. The Metrodome was like a living, breathing, screaming person. No matter how hard Twins fans' lungs work at Target Field, the volume won't be able to match that of the Dome. It could cost them a win or two, which might be enough to cost them the division.
Most folks are going with the Twins or White Sox, but what about the Detroit Tigers? Other than Zack Greinke(notes), Justin Verlander(notes) is the best pitcher in the division, a guy anyone would want to lead their staff. Miguel Cabrera(notes) is in the top percentile of great hitters in the majors. What's been the problem the past two seasons? More people would pick them, except for how they started the 2008 season and how they finished '09 — embarrassingly.
I'm not one to quickly blame the manager when things go wrong, and not too many folks would argue that Jim Leyland is somehow a problem, but seriously, what's been going on in that clubhouse the past two years? They have lots of good players on whom they've spent lots of money. Did Leyland not have these guys ready coming out of spring training in '08? Did he let them freak out in the final weeks of '09, leading to one of the worst collapses anyone has ever seen? Can the Tigers put together a 162-game effort and factor again for the championship?
'Duk: It's not hard to see a scenario where Verlander and Cabrera are again competing for the Cy Young and MVP award, but there are just so many question marks behind them. Yeah, the Tigers are paying their team enough to bail out the entire auto industry, but a lot of that is headed toward the pockets of Dontrelle Willis(notes) and Magglio Ordonez(notes). I'm sure they're appreciative, but they'd almost be better served in telling the team that they shouldn't feel the need to give them a lot of playing time. They're sunk costs at this point.
Speaking of shelling out big dollars, what the heck was with Dave Dombrowski crying poor when trading away Granderson and Edwin Jackson(notes), then turning around and handing Valverde two year and $14 million? I know the guy says he can save 74 games — yes, over one (1) season — but I'm just not following the logic in his addition.
There are things to like about team and maybe they do work their way into the scrum. But Austin Jackson(notes) is going to need time to get acclimated in center and at the plate and I'm worried about the expectations being placed on barely-old-enough-to-drink Rick Porcello(notes) and a yet-to-fulfill-his-expectations Max Scherzer(notes). I'm just not seeing it for Motown.
DB: I won't condone the contract given to Valverde, but if you look at the rest of Detroit's bullpen, Dombrowski needed to add someone. You've got Joel Zumaya(notes) back there, and he's been on the comeback trail going on four years now. Phil Coke(notes), if you're into him. Not much else. These Tigers starters are going to have to get pretty deep into every game and considering two of them are Dontrelle and Jeremy Bonderman(notes) (whose comeback trail is even longer than Zumaya's). It does look like third place is a safe bet for Detroit.
I'd like to pick the Cleveland Indians higher. Or maybe I need to get higher to pick the Cleveland Indians. One or the other. The Tribe has some very intriguing young players. Matt LaPorta(notes) and Michael Brantley(notes) are on the verge of something, they hope. I like Lou Marson(notes) a lot behind the plate and even if he's not so good, Carlos Santana(notes) awaits in the high minors. Chris Perez(notes) has closer's stuff — which is good, because Kerry Wood's(notes) annual trip to the disabled list has already begun.
And not all of their players are 17 years old. Asdrubal Cabrera(notes) is one of the better young shortstops in the majors. Grady Sizemore(notes) will bounce back from injuries and be himself again, and Shin-Soo Choo(notes) is a good little soldier in right field. The starting staff, honestly, terrifies the heck out of me. I root for Jake Westbrook(notes) because he's unlucky. I shy away from Fausto Carmona(notes) because he is unreliable. I don't know if Justin Masterson(notes) would make a better set-up man or starter. David Huff(notes) and Mitch Talbot(notes), I don't know. Maybe Talbot will make like Jason Hammel(notes), another Rays castoff, and be a good No. 4 or 5.
I do like some of the middle relievers, like Tony Sipp(notes). Sounds like a Sopranos character. But is he just a friend of yours or is he a friend of ours? I expect Jensen Lewis(notes) to turn into the best middle man in northern Ohio this year. What will that be worth when your team is already losing 8-4? Who can say?
Bottom line: Any team with Austin Kearns(notes) on it can't expect to do any better than third or fourth. I can't pick the Royals to finish ahead of the Indians, though, because nobody can get that high.
'Duk: Here's an amazing but true fact for you, my friend: The Royals, despite all the punchlines they've created over the past two years, haven't finished in fifth place the past two seasons. OK, so maybe you'll point out that they actually shared fourth place with the Indians last season with a 65-97 record and that it still qualifies as last, but I say that it's all about the little victories at Kauffman Stadium these days.
It's also something that the Royals can use to outrun the Indians in 2010 and I'm not sure how you can't see that they're clearly a better team. The Tribe is Sizemore, Choo, the shell of Travis Hafner's(notes) former self and 22 other guys. The Royals, meanwhile, are the reigning AL Cy Young award winner (Zack Greinke), one of the best young hitters in baseball (Billy Butler(notes)) and one of the best closers of any age (Joakim Soria(notes)). Those three are enough to ensure they won't serve as the AL Central's caboose instead of Cleveland, but I'll also throw in David DeJesus(notes), Mitch Maier(notes) and maybe even Alex Gordon(notes) if he can figure out how to reverse the hex that was placed on him at some point the last three years. I also think that history will show Dayton Moore to be the winner of the Mark Teahen-Chris Getz(notes)-Josh Fields trade (which isn't saying that much) and that Rick Ankiel(notes) isn't done just yet.
Spending the ammo before you can turn it on me: The rotation beyond Greinke and Gil Meche(notes) is awfully scary as Luke Hochevar(notes) needs some more experience and Brian Bannister(notes) and Kyle Davies(notes) have proven you can't really answer any question with their names. Also, I have nothing nice to say about Yuniesky Betancourt(notes) or Kyle Farnsworth(notes).
DB: You, nor their own families. Hey, did you just mention Mitch Maier a prominent reason the Royals will stay out of last place? Look, you don't have to make my own case for me, 'Duk. Why don't you try to sell me Willie Bloomquist(notes) while you're at it?
Speaking of nothing nice to say, I don't have much nice to say about Dayton Moore. I'd blame him for ruining the Royals, but it already had happened by the time he got to Kansas City. So, no matter how terrible things go, it'll be something of a wash on his watch. I'll give him this: He's at least humoring Brian Anderson(notes) on his mid-career switch to pitcher. The Royals don't have to do that and they are. That's a nice thing! I was wrong.
Gil Meche's back is not safe. I saw Hochevar throw a few nice innings in spring training. Brian Bannister probably would be better off doing Dayton Moore's job than pitching. Kyle Davies is still in the majors, probably, because he came through the Braves system and somehow people think Leo Mazzone or Bobby Cox pixie dust collects on him like dandruff.
The bullpen, other than Soria — who is awesome — is not any damn good. Farnsworth, to his credit, sometimes fails spectacularly. Juan Cruz(notes) is going to surprise us all one day and admit he's in his 50s. I do like Robinson Tejeda(notes) (you say "Tejada") for some reason, though I won't say why.
If I offer any guarantees about these picks we've been making, it's that KC will bring up the rear of the AL Central. I bet Jeff Passan's paycheck on it.
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AL Central predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Twins, 2. White Sox, 3. Tigers, 4. Royals, 5. Indians
DB: 1. Twins 2. White Sox 3. Indians 4. Tigers 5. Royals
AL Central MVP
'Duk: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
DB: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
AL Central Cy Young
'Duk: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
DB: Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals
'Duk: Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers
DB: Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers