Sunday, April 5, 2009

2009 AL Central Preview

Chicago White Sox
2008 Record: 89-74

You've got to be a little lucky to outplay your projections, and the Sox certainly had their share of good breaks in 2008, at least until Carlos Quentin's bad break late in the season. They were able to turn numerous losses into victories with late-inning HR. Getting exactly what you need exactly when you need it that often is not something that can be expected to be repeated. They'll keep hitting HR in the Cell, but their lineup is starting to get pretty long in the tooth, with 4 middle-of-the-order bats beginning the season at age 32 or older. Outside of Quentin and Jim Thome, there isn't a lot of OBP in their order, so they figure to have trouble scoring when the ball doesn't go over the fence.

Where they're really going to suffer is in run prevention. Subtracting Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera leaves them with one of the weakest all-around defenses in the league - a lot of balls are going to slip through the infield or drop into the outfield. Add to that a weak rotation after Mark Buehrle and John Danks - Gavin Floyd is primed to regress, and Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon haven't been good since 2005 and have since been injured - and I think the Sox are a team that can expect to allow more runs than they score in 2009.

Minnesota Twins
2008 Record: 88-75

The Twins roster I've summarized over the last few days is essentially the same as that which finished the 2008 season, minus Joe Mauer for the first few weeks (we hope that's all it is). My argument all winter long has been that that roster should be capable of matching their run differential from last season. Though the offense will certainly be less efficient with RISP, I expect the drop in total runs to be offset somewhat by an increase in HR from 1B, 3B, and all 3 OF positions. In other words, the Twins will be better at scoring runs when they don't have someone in scoring position. With 3 of Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Alexi Casilla and Nick Punto likely in the lineup on any given day, the Twins should continue to rack up large numbers of sacrifices, bunt hits, and steals, putting them in position to score, as they often did last year, without the benefit of a well-hit ball. I see the Twins scoring about 50 fewer runs.

They should be able to make up those 50 runs with improved pitching and defense. Last year's staff saw 361.1 IP (nearly 25% of its total IP) given to Brian Bass, Livan Hernandez, Boof Bonser, Juan Rincon and Eddie Guardado, while suffering the fatal late-season collapse of the previously reliable Matt Guerrier. The remainder of the staff did quite well, and those are the ones who will be relied upon in 2009, with Guerrier likely returning to form. Most importantly, the young rotation, brimming with upside, should get a larger proportion of the total IP this season, leaving fewer innings in the hands of a suspect bullpen. Add to that a defense that should be much better than what the Twins brought to the field in 2008 - they allowed by far the most errors and unearned runs of Gardy's tenure, something that looks to have been addressed this spring - and the Twins shouldn't have any trouble keeping their total runs allowed around 700. They'll need some breaks to win 90, but it will be a disappointment if they don't finish with at least 85 wins.

Cleveland Indians
2008 Record: 81-81

One of the luckiest teams in 2007, the wheel of fortune spun the other way on the Tribe in 2008. They lost several key players to injuries/ineffectiveness and managed to finish just .500 despite a +44 run differential. Retaining their offensive numbers is certainly possible, and they could exceed them with bounce-back years from Victor Martinez and, especially, Travis Hafner. They'll also have to maintain the breakout performances they got from Shin-Soo Choo and Kelley Shoppach. Grady Sizemore is awesome, Asdrubal Cabrera should be better and Mark DeRosa is a nice addition to their lineup. This ought to be the best offensive team in the division.

They should have no such hopes for the defensive half-innings. Cliff Lee has never had consecutive good seasons, Fausto Carmona has had one good season, and the rest of their rotation features fringe talents and reclamation projects. Their bullpen should be rock solid, especially if Kerry Wood holds together. Defensively, they don't look all that strong in the corners, and they insist on beginning the season with a mis-aligned IF of Jhonny Peralta at SS, Cabrera at 2B and DeRosa at 3B. Though they should certainly win more games in 2009, there are so many ifs with this team, I'm skeptical that they'll be a lot better than last year.

Kansas City Royals
2008 Record: 75-87

The Royals have seen their record improve by about 6 games in each of the last 3 seasons, meaning that they're poised to finish .500 this year if they maintain the trend. Slow-starting prospects Billy Butler and Alex Gordon ought to start reaching their potential about now, which should provide a bit of a jolt to what has perennially been a punchless offense. New additions Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp could provide upgrades in production from CF and 1B. However, top to bottom, there isn't a lot of OBP or deep counts, letting opposing pitchers off the hook with a lot of quick AB.

Gil Meche and Zach Greinke will be a solid top of the rotation, and Juan Cruz and Joakim Soria are as strong a setup/closer combination as there is in baseball. However, the back of the rotation is almost laughably bad, and there are some dicey options in the bullpen in Kyle Farnsworth and Jamie Wright. The Royals are only about half of what they need to be contenders right now, even in an especially weak division. They'll need a lot of things to go right to make the .500 mark.

Detroit Tigers
2008 Record: 74-88

Was there a bigger disappointment in baseball last year than the Tigers? Their enormous investments in Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis and Edgar Renteria not only failed to take the Tigers to the next level, they actually created a backslide as a thinned minor league talent pool was unable to support an aging, injury-prone roster. This offseason they've opted to invest what limited funds they have available in upgrading their defense, but at the expense of offense. There are still quality hitters at the top of the lineup in Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez, but only two of those guys are on the happy side of 33. Adam Everett, Gerald Laird and Brandon Inge aren't going to hit a lick.

The defensive improvements the Tigers made are real, and should help their pitchers out a lot, particularly on the left side of the field. On the right side, the range is limited. The real problem with the Tigers is their pitching. I'm skeptical that Armando Galarraga can regain his first-half success from last year, which makes the rotation pretty thin after Justin Verlander - and how much can they even count on him? As for the bullpen, the guy they brought in to be the closer, Brandon Lyon, was too hittable, so they gave the job to Fernando Rodney, who walks about 4.5 batters/9 IP. Juan Rincon made their bullpen. That defense is going to be busy.

I won't predict a winner for the Central this year - in a division so evenly matched I might as well guess which team I think will be lucky. All things being equal, I think it will come down to the Indians and Twins in September, with the other three teams striving for the 81-win mark.

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