Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 15, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the American League Central.
When it is over, the Bud Selig era may have no greater legacy than the AL Central. Not billions in shared revenues, though they played a part. Not interleague play. Not the new ballparks. Certainly not drug testing.
Resisting the game's competitive drift toward all things New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, sure-thing television ratings and bi-coastal obsessions, the AL Flyover Division has put a team in consecutive World Series. In 2006, it boasted three 90-game winners, two playoff teams and, granted, one World Series no-show.
Moreover, it produced the league's MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young Award winner (Johan Santana), Rookie of the Year (Justin Verlander), Manager of the Year (Jim Leyland), a batting title (Joe Mauer), four Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers, Nos. 2 (Jermaine Dye), 3 (Travis Hafner) and 4 (Jim Thome) in home runs, No. 1 in runs scored (Grady Sizemore) and 15 All-Stars.
And, all this while dragging the Kansas City Royals.
First impression: It was an interesting winter for general manager Kenny Williams, who traded starting pitchers Freddy Garcia (Philadelphia Phillies) and Brandon McCarthy (Texas Rangers), leveraging today for a more manageable and worthwhile tomorrow. He was condemned, of course, by the very fans who'd booed Garcia's inconsistency just months before. But, along with preferred parking and a loopy catcher who moonlights as Jerry Springer's guest bouncer, that comes with the gig. After watching his bullpen amass one of the five worst ERAs in the league, Williams made that his priority, but his rotation is thinner.
Competition: Assuming he is healthy again after a wash-out 2006, Darin Erstad will take someone's job in Chicago, either Scott Podsednik's in left field or Brian Anderson's in center. Podsednik (groin) is not expected to be at full health until sometime in March, leaving him vulnerable. Anderson batted .225 in a disappointing rookie season, leaving him more vulnerable. If Erstad opens in center and Podsednik is not quite ready, Rob Mackowiak and Pablo Ozuna would platoon in left, unless Josh Fields makes a rapid transition from infield to outfield, or Ryan Sweeney has a monster spring. Right-hander Gavin Floyd (obtained in the Garcia trade) and left-hander John Danks (from the McCarthy trade) will vie for fifth rotation spot behind Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez, with right-hander Charlie Haeger as a dark horse.
Healing: A lot revolves around Podsednik, who had Jan. 22 groin surgery that was expected to cost him six to eight weeks. Speed's his game, and the White Sox have insured themselves against a slow recovery.
Next: Unless Williams is going to spend the season explaining himself, it had better be one or two of the pitchers he acquired. Nick Masset, a stringy, 23-year-old right-hander, appears headed to middle relief or a set-up role. Danks is maybe a year away from a full-time rotation spot and Floyd used up a lot of his "next" in Philadelphia. Scouts like left-hander Gio Gonzalez, a starter who came with Floyd.
First impression: Before the Detroit Tigers remade themselves in the Central, the Cleveland Indians had, going from 94 losses in 2003 to 93 wins in 2005. But, rather than sustaining that organizational momentum, the Indians were undone by injuries (C.C. Sabathia), horrendous infield defense (catcher Victor Martinez, first baseman Ben Broussard, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and third baseman Aaron Boone), and the malaise that inevitably chases injuries and bad D. But, GM Mark Shapiro has tried to rebuild the infield with Andy Marte at third, Josh Barfield at second and a platoon at first, which might get Martinez out from behind the plate at times. Shapiro also put Peralta on an off-season program designed to improve his range. Enough has been done here that, with the same starting pitching and an improved bullpen, the Indians should contend again. If not, Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge are in the final years of their contracts.
Competition: David Dellucci was signed with the notion of giving him left field, but his average in limited at-bats against left-handers the past four seasons is .132, .107, .242 and .200. So, Jason Michaels will eventually get those at-bats. Shapiro signed potential closers Joe Borowski in early December and Keith Foulke a month later, setting up a battle for the ninth inning. Foulke hasn't been a regular and effective closer since 2004, but is believed to be healthy after a bout with elbow tendonitis last season.
Healing: Sabathia had knee surgery in late September and has missed starts in consecutive seasons because of a faulty oblique muscle. In his first start of 2006, he got into the third inning before it gave again, and by the time he returned – on May 2 – the Indians already were 5½ games out.
Next: Ryan Garko, who hit .292 in 185 at-bats last season, could share time at first base with Casey Blake. Right-hander Adam Miller – 15-6 with a 2.75 ERA at Double-A Akron – could arrive in midseason, particularly if the Indians struggle and Jake Westbrook, in his walk year, is moved.
First impression: We're still trying to swallow the screams that escaped every time a Tigers pitcher turned to throw to third base during the World Series. But, these things happen. The Twins won't have Francisco Liriano and the White Sox have taken a subtle step backward, so the Tigers – with a great acquisition in Gary Sheffield and a good one in Jose Mesa – return as the favorites in the division.
Competition: The Tigers have little to settle. The rotation is set with Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Justin Verlander and Mike Maroth, so Andrew Miller gets a full season of minor-league starts. Reliever Wil Ledezma could feel a push from a fellow left-hander, Rule 5 acquisition Edward Campusano, and Joey Eischen, Felix Heredia and Tim Byrdak, among others, could fill a bullpen role.
Healing: Maroth missed more than three months last season after having bone chips removed from his left elbow. He returned in time to make four September relief appearances and was not on the postseason roster, but is expected to be his old innings-eating self come April.
Next: Miller, the 6-foot-6 left-hander, likely will start in the minors, but could arrive by midseason if the Tigers need him. A first-rounder in June, Miller made eight late-season appearances in the big leagues and the ball jumps out of his hand.
First impression: The Royals lost at least 100 games for the third consecutive season and for the fourth time in five years. That's a lot of bad baseball. It'll be another long season for the franchise that finished 12th in runs scored and 14th in runs allowed (by 72 runs over 13th-place Baltimore) in 2006. They swapped one 11-game winner (Mark Redman) for another (Gil Meche), tried to beef up the bullpen (Octavio Dotel, David Riske, Ken Ray) and took a few fliers (Ross Gload, Jason LaRue, John Bale), and still have a lot of ground to cover just to be respectable again. Mike Sweeney is in the final year of a five-year, $55 million contract that slowed the rebuilding. If nothing else, maybe they can build on the season-ending sweep of the Tigers.
Competition: As it should be on a last-place team, there are plenty of jobs available. John Buck and LaRue will compete at catcher. The starting rotation is open after Meche, Odalis Perez and Luke Hudson. The organization really needs right-hander Zack Greinke to find his way. Dotel probably will be the closer, but he pitched only 10 innings last season for the Yankees.
Healing: Right-hander Scott Elarton, who won 11 games for the Indians two years ago and 17 for the Houston Astros six years ago, had shoulder surgery in August and is not expected to pitch until June.
Next: Everybody's waiting on left-handed-hitting third baseman Alex Gordon, the second pick overall in the 2005 draft and Baseball America's minor league player of the year in 2006. He batted .325 with 29 home runs and 100 RBI at Double-A Wichita. The Royals plan to start Gordon in Triple-A Omaha, but already there's talk of moving Mark Teahen to the outfield to make room for him. Outfielder Billy Butler is another bat on the way.
First impression: Terry Ryan is very close to having two young, strapping arms step in to ease the one-season loss of left-hander Francisco Liriano and retirement of Brad Radke, departures that will cost him wins, innings and daily optimism. Very close, but not quite. The plan is to have right-hander Matt Garza, who began last season in Class A and ended it in the big leagues, and 23-year-old left-hander Glen Perkins start out in the minors. That probably means some tough nights around Johan Santana starts and plenty of reliance on a sound bullpen and potentially the best Twins offense since the Hrbek-Gaetti-Puckett-Brunansky years. If the Twins happen to struggle, expect Torii Hunter to land in a pennant race somewhere.
Competition: Everything after Santana. The rotation will go something like: Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson or Scott Baker, at least until Garza and/or Perkins arrive. If this is Silva of '06 (5.94 ERA, 38 home runs allowed) rather than '05 (3.44 ERA, 25 home runs), and Ortiz's NL ERA (5.57) swells in the AL, and Ponson is simply done, then the young guys get rushed and the season gets scary.
Healing: DH Jason Kubel missed all of 2005 because of left knee surgery and limped through parts of last season. He then had arthroscopic surgery on the right knee and the Twins will try to keep him out of the outfield. When healthy, he's a powerful left-handed bat.
Next: Garza throws hard (mid-90s with his fastball), has four pitches, is very mature and dominated three minor-league levels before struggling some in the majors last season. Perkins is another hard thrower with a polished curveball and high strikeout rates. Both could be in the rotation by mid-season.