Tuesday, February 28, 2006

MLB Preview 6: AL Central

Chicago White Sox

Scott Podsednik LF
Tadahito Iguchi 2B
Paul Konerko 1B
Jim Thome DH
Jermaine Dye RF
AJ Pierzynski C
Joe Crede 3B
Juan Uribe SS
Brian Anderson CF

Mark Buehrle
Freddy Garcia
Javy Vazquez
Jose Contreras
Jon Garland
Brandon McCarthy

There are two (relatively) new names in the White Sox opening day lineup. Anderson is the next in a line of (supposedly) superstar CF prospects. Thome, meanwhile, continues the pipeline of 90s Cleveland talent to the South Side. (See: Alomar, R., Alomar, Jr., S., Belle, A.) The big question, of course, will be Thome's health. If and when Thome can't go, Chicago will have to rely on two capable backups. 3B/SS Pablo Ozuna put up very respectable numbers in an expanded role last year. New acquisition Rob Mackowiak was, for a time, one of the closest things Pittsburgh had to a star. He can play six positions and brings a decent bat, too. The nice thing about these bench players is that they allow Ozzie Guillen to matchup easily - Ozuna is a right-handed batter and Mackowiak a lefty.
The lineup is decent, but Chicago won games last year with their pitching. If they want to repeat, they'll have to win with pitching again. It looks like an easy task, especially after a seeming upgrade from Orlando Hernandez to Javy Vazquez. But not so fast my friend. Virtually all of Chicago's pitchers are coming off of career years, and injury-free years at that. It will be very difficult to stay as healthy and pitch as well as last year. Add to that the fact that the White Sox relievers are all old news. The pen worked wonders last year, but Major League hitters know how to adjust. Can Neal Cotts, Cliff Polittle, Bobby Jenks, and Dustin Hermanson repeat the lights out, closer-by-who's-hot results of Chicago's championship run?

Cleveland Indians

Grady Sizemore CF
Jason Michaels LF
Jhonny Peralta SS
Travis Hafner DH
Victor Martinez C
Ronnie Belliard 2B
Ben Broussard 1B
Casey Blake RF
Aaron Boone 3B

CC Sabathia
Jake Westbrook
Clifford Lee
Paul Byrd
Jason Johnson

A GM that took a step back? An owner that won't spend money? Bull. An organization without a third base prospect at any level traded away one starter for a guy who is perhaps the best third base prospect on any team. Sure, Andy Marte won't be an immediate impact, but when has an extra year (or month) of preparation ever been a bad thing? Boone is coming off of an atrocious year, but he's got a solid glove and is veteran enough to bounce back. Oh, and immediately after Cleveland gave up their one starter, they replaced him with a guy who, for all intents and purposes, is an identical player. Coco Crisp was a switch hitting LF/CF who did a good job of getting on base. Michaels is entering his first season as a full-time starter, and it looks like he'll put up numbers similar to Crisp's. He's a right-handed hitter in a lineup that needs balance for its lefties. Michaels also plays LF/CF. I haven't seen him play much. However, I do know that Crisp had slightly above average range and a below average arm. So, I'm going to assume that Michaels has a little less range than Crisp, but a stronger arm. As for the rest of the lineup. Well, four of the first five guys are fantasy studs (and, of course, if Michaels performs like Crisp, he'll be one too). Belliard is an emotional leader with a decent bat. He knows his strengths and weaknesses on defense, and he has mastered positioning himself to complement his strengths and counteract his weaknesses. He also has a knack for big defensive plays. Broussard is average on defense, and his long swing makes him incredibly streaky at the plate. Blake is coming off of a "terrible" year, where he hit .241 with 23 HR. Of this lineup, Broussard, Boone, and Blake's jobs are most in jeopardy. Broussard will platoon with new acquisition Eduardo Perez, who will mostly bat against lefties. Broussard also needs to worry about Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Garko. The young Shoppach is fighting for the backup catcher role. If his hitting comes along, Cleveland fans could see Shoppach behind the plate and Vic Martinez at first to give Martinez' legs a rest. Garko is a catcher by trade. But, with a lack of defensive development (and with the Tribe being set at catcher but needing a 1B), he is seeing more and more time at first. Blake will need to hit well to keep his job over fourth outfielder Jason DuBois. Also waiting in the wings is Franklin Gutierrez, a very athletic super-prospect from Venezuela. The utility infielder role will go to Ramon Vazquez, unless Brandon Phillips has a spectacular spring. Phillips, once the centerpiece of the Bartolo Colon trade that included "throw ins" Sizemore and Cliff Lee, still is a Gold Glove quality shortstop, but is lost at the plate.
The big question for this team looks to be the pitching staff. Scott Elarton and AL ERA leader Kevin Millwood are gone, replaced by Byrd and Johnson. Byrd may not put up Millwood-like ERA numbers, but everyone in Cleveland will be happy if he avoids Millwood's luck (Millwood was last in the league in run support in 2005). Elarton was a reconstruction project from a bad team when he joined the Indians. I expect Johnson to be similar. Top prospect Fausto Carmona and fireballer Jason Davis are waiting in the wings as emergency starters. The bullpen features Bob Wickman, a year older and a bit richer. He did tie for the league lead in saves, but he always made it interesting. The Indians lost shutdown lefty Arthur Rhodes. Scott Saurbeck is still around, but he's more of a finesse guy. Jason Stanford is back from injury, but he's more of a long reliever. For the righties, Guillermo Mota replaces David Riske. Fair trade off. Rafael Betancourt and Matt Miller are back. After them, will it be young talents Fernando Cabrera and Andrew Brown, or retreads David Graves and Steve Karsay? Of these four, only Cabrera seems assured of a roster spot.

Minnesota Twins

Luis Castillo 2B
Shannon Stewart LF
Joe Mauer C
Rondell White DH
Justin Morneau 1B
Torii Hunter CF
Tony Batista/Mike Cuddyer 3B
Lew Ford RF
Jason Bartlett SS

Johan Santana
Brad Radke
Carlos Silva
Kyle Lohse
Scott Baker
Francisco Liriano
Dave Gassner
JD Durbin

I clicked on the Twins website, and it said manager Ron Gardenhire was struggling to figure out a lineup. Yeah, where have you been the last 5 years? In Castillo, at least, he'll finally have a middle infielder at the top of the lineup that can actually hit. With an OBP of .391, I'd bat him leadoff, but Gardenhire will probably go with Stewart. Mauer put up good numbers when healthy. White gives the lineup some of the pop that this team has strongly needed for years. (Whatever happened to that David Ortiz guy?) Morneau didn't hit for average last year, and Hunter never did. Cuddyer hit .260, so they replaced him with a guy who hit .240. I'd stay with Cuddyer personally. Ford is a gritty fireplug. Bartlett is the future, but he may not be the present. Infielder Juan Castro had a career resurgance on defense and behind the plate, so look for him to steal a few at bats from Bartlett. Catcher Mike Redmond hit well in limited at bats. Jason Kubel is an outfield prospect who impressed in limited playing time last year. Nick Punto is a gritty backup infielder who can handle starting when needed.
Johan Santana may be as good as it gets. The guys behind him aren't too bad themselves. Radke is a staple in Minnesota. Silva and Lohse are decent bottom-of-the-rotation pitchers. Baker is a good young prospect, but not as good as Durbin. Durbin's the star in training. Oh, and if needed, they have Boof Bonser, too. The bullpen once again features a good young closer and a slew of young closers-in-training (and Terry Mullholland). Joe Nathan is of course the closer; he had 40+ saves last year. The closers-in-training are Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, and Francisco Liriano. It looks like this team will need its pitching to do well this year.

Detroit Tigers

Placido Polanco 2B
Carlos Guillen SS
Pudge Rodriguez C
Magglio Ordonez RF
Dmitri Young DH
Craig Monroe LF
Chris Shelton 1B
Brandon Inge 3B
Curtis Granderson/Nook Logan CF

Kenny Rogers
Jeremy Bonderman
Mike Maroth
Nate Robertson
Justin Verlander
Wilfredo Ledezma
Roman Colon
Jason Grilli

Let's play Optimist/Pessimist. Optimist: Polanco led the AL in batting average last year. Pessimist: This is his second year in the league - pitchers are going to figure him out. Optimist: Guillen has broken out all over Detroit. Pessimist: Health - only 334 at bats last year. Optimist: Pudge and Mags are legit stars. Pessimist: Rodriguez normally stays in excellent health, but he is 35 this year. Ordonez has the body of a 45 year old. Optimist: Dmitri Young is a veteran staple who can play multiple positions. Pessimist: Have you seen him play third? Optimist: Brandon Inge hit well enough to spend some time in the leadoff spot. Pessimist: He struggled to find the good side of the Mendoza line in years past, and who knows if he'll go back. Optimist: Two capable guys can play center. Pessimist: Who are Granderson and Logan, and who are Shelton and Monroe for that matter? Optimist: The bench features Vance Wilson, Omar Infante, Carlos Pena, and Marcus Thames. Pessimist: The bench features Vance Wilson, Omar Infante, Carlos Pena, and Marcus Thames.
Kenny Rogers is an ace, and he's just the pickup this young rotation needs. The rest of the staff falls into one of thee categories:
Gammonsesque Established Star: Bonderman
Gammonsesque Up and Comers: Maroth, Robertson
Gammonsesque Super Gammonsesque Prospect: Verlander
The bullpen has two established, albeit old, closers in Todd Jones and Troy Percival. Also in the bullpen are fireballer Franklyn German and the rubber armed Jamie Walker.

Kansas City Royals

David DeJesus CF
Mark Grudzielanek 2B
Mike Sweeney DH
Reggie Sanders RF
Emil Brown LF
Doug Mientkiewicz 1B
Angel Berroa SS
Mark Teahen 3B
John Buck C

Zack Greinke
Scott Elarton
Runelvys Hernandez
Mark Redman
Joe Mays
Jeremy Affeldt
JP Howell
Denny Bautista
Mike Wood
Jimmy Gobble
Elmer Dessens

There are three key veteran acquisitions in this lineup. Grudzielanek fills a hole at second until Ruben Gotay can hit at the Major League level. Mientkiewicz allows the injury-prone Sweeney to move to full-time DH. Sanders is a solid all-around hitter. The only odd thing about these pickup is that they knock Matt Stairs out of the lineup. Sure, you could replace Brown, but Brown is one of the few young players hitting well. I suppose you could argue that Sweeney and Sanders will need their days off, and that Stairs can start at first if Mientkiewicz isn't hitting. Angel Berroa still sucks, and John Buck is disappointed that his last name is only a third as long as Grudzielanek or Mientkiewicz'. On the bench is veteran catcher Paul Bako and Team Canada outfielder Aaron Guiel.
Zack Greinke will continue to learn on the job. Behind him will be the recently improved Elarton and a trio returning from injury. Hernandez was the top young stud on this team until the injury bug bit him. Redman and Mays are solid veterans, but have always been injury plagued. Affeldt, after a trial as closer, will try to get back into the starting rotation. Returning to the closer role is Mike MacDougal, whose struggles put Affeldt in that spot in the first place. The bullpen includes Jimmy Gobble, another player who has split time as starter and reliever.