Thursday, March 22, 2007

MLB Preview #6: AL Central

Minnesota Twins

Luis Castillo 2B
Nick Punto 3B
Joe Mauer C
Mike Cuddyer RF
Justin Morneau 1B
Rondell White LF
Torii Hunter CF
Jason Kubel DH
Jason Bartlett SS

Johan Santana
Ramon Ortiz
Boof Bonser
Carlos Silva
Matt Garza
Scott Baker
Glen Perkins

At first glance, you see essentially the same lineup that won the division last year. A pessimist would point out that at least half of the lineup had career years, and that those players's numbers are bound to revert to the mean this season. Of course, an optimist would point out that most of these players are young, so their numbers are simply on the rise. Which is the case, then? Mauer and Morneau are no doubt on the rise, although they may have trouble duplicating their MVP-caliber 2006 performances. Luis Castillo has just been consistent throughout the years. Punto may have just had a career year, but then again, hitting in front of Mauer didn't hurt last year and it won't this year. Cuddyer's numbers may dip, or maybe he's just finally living up to his big hype. Hunter put up his second best offensive performance in 2006, and only now is he going into a contract year. So the offense will still perform. On the bench, the outfield is deep, but that's about it. The outfield depth is a good thing, though, as White is aging, Hunter's body is starting to break down, and Jason Kubel has yet to prove himself.
Well, the lineup had better perform, because they're not getting much help from the rotation after Johan Santana. Francisco Liriano is out for the year, and the best replacement avilable was Ramon Ortiz. Carlos Silva struggled last year, and statheads would point to his tendency towards low strikeout totals and high home run totals as a cause. Boof Bonser has had a slow road as a prospect, and it's finally time for him to step up. Matt Garza admitted to succumbing to pressure last year, so look for him to improve the second time around. If anyone falters, the Twins still do have JD Durbin on the horizon. Of course, Minnesota can afford to give a little with their rotation, because their bullpen is traditionally lights out. Always a farm for future pitching stars, the Twins pen features closer Joe Nathan, perhaps the best in the game at what he does. Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, and Juan Rincon all have futures as closers. If that isn't good enough, they added Dennys Reyes, who only went 5-0 with an ERA of 0.89 in 66 games last year.

Detroit Tigers

Curtis Granderson CF
Placido Polanco 2B
Pudge Rodriguez C
Gary Sheffield RF
Magglio Ordonez DH
Carlos Guillen SS
Sean Casey 1B
Craig Monroe LF
Brandon Inge 3B

Jeremy Bonderman
Kenny Rogers
Justin Verlander
Nate Robertson
Mike Maroth
Zach Miner
Wilfredo Ledesma

This team only made the World Series last year, and then all they did was add Gary Sheffield. Granderson doesn't quite have the on base numbers to bat leadoff, but he appears to be there by default. The only question I have for this lineup is whether Rodriguez will bat third, or whether he will move down to 6 and bump everyone else up a spot. I suppose that all depends on his production. Either way, though, this is the second competitive lineup in a competitive division. The bench is deep, with veteran backstop Vance Wilson; three guys who can play shortstop (and several other positions) in Omar Infante, Neifi Perez, and Ramon Santiago; and Chris Shelton, who may have trouble breaking camp this year. Former starter Marcus Thames will spell Sheffield and Ordonez in right field, when Shef and Mags aren't spelling each other in the DH spot.
It was just a few years ago when Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Mike Maroth were racing to not be "that guy" with 20 losses. Now they're the core of a rotation that also features a resurgent Kenny Rogers and star sophomore Justin Verlander. Rogers is one of the most athletic pitchers in the game, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that his body has held up so well. Verlander, meanwhile, ran out of gas somewhere in late August, and the wear and tear on his arm will no doubt carry into the beginning of this season. Like Minnesota, Detroit has stocked is bullpen with potential closers. Todd Jones is the current closer, but that may not last long. As long as Joel Zumaya can lay off the Guitar Hero, the fireballer may be Detroit's closer by the trading deadline. Speaking of fireballers, Fernando Rodney isn't too far behind. And for good measure, the Tigers also brought Jose Mesa back to the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox

Scott Podsednik LF
Darin Erstad CF
Jim Thome DH
Paul Konerko 1B
Jermaine Dye RF
AJ Pierzynski C
Joe Crede 3B
Tadahito Iguchi 2B
Juan Uribe/Alex Cintron SS

Jose Contreras
Mark Buehrle
Jon Garland
Javier Vazquez
Gavin Floyd

In theory, this is a decent lineup. In practice, however, things may not play that way. Ozzie Guillen will stubbornly keep Podsednik and Erstad at the top of the lineup, even though Iguchi is much better at getting on base. JI
JIM THOME, Konerko, and Dye could go either way as they continue to age. Juan Uribe's future may be in jeopardy after legal accusations in his home country. If Uribe can't go, Chicago does have two capable backups in Alex Cintron and Pablo Ozuna. The outfield bench features former prospect Brian Anderson, whose hitting never panned out and who may be on the trading block, and the versatile Rob Mackowiak.
The Sox traded away Freddy Garcia for a package that included Gavin Floyd, whose career ERA is a shade under 7 in the National League. This rotation struggled to repeat its success from the 2005 season, and it won't be able to repeat that success this year either. The bullpen isn't much better. They did add a former closer (and starter) in Mike MacDougal, but other than that there isn't much in the cupboard. Without some major moves (including, perhaps, a manager), I would be surprised if this team finished above fourth in a very competitive division.

Cleveland Indians

Grady Sizemore CF
David Dellucci LF
Travis Hafner DH
Victor Martinez C
Trot Nixon RF
Casey Blake 1B
Jhonny Peralta SS
Andy Marte 3B
Josh Barfield 2B

CC Sabathia
Jake Westbrook
Clifford Lee
Jeremy Sowers
Paul Byrd
Fausto Carmona
Adam Miller

This lineup is by no means static. In fact, this is only the lienup against righties; heavy platooning will factor into the lineup against southpaws. Between Dellucci and Nixon, the #2 and #5 spots will depend on each's production. Against lefties, Jason Michaels will take over for Dellucci in left and Blake will move to right. From there, it looks like Kelly Shoppach will catch against lefties, moving Victor Martinez to first. That is, of course, unless either Ryan Garko can prove that he can play a competent defensive first base, or Travis Hafner can prove that his elbow is healthy enough to play first. In that case, Martinez would stay at catcher and Garko would join the lineup. As of right now, though, it appears that Garko will begin the season in AAA. Also beginning the season in AAA is Shin-Soo Choo, a left-handed corner outfielder who has been pushed behind Dellucci and Nixon on the depth chart. Look for a big rebound this year from Jhonny Peralta. Last season, Peralta admitted to poor eyesight, but refused to wear the contacts prescribed to him. This offseason, he opted for laser eye surgery, although if he would have waited until April 10, he could have picked up some Wild Thing glasses. I kid you not. Peralta also claimed that his left arm was essentially paralyzed for the last two months of 2006; that condition has since improved, so look for Peralta's defense to improve with it. On the bench, as mentioned, look for Garko and Choo to start in the minors. There is a three way race for the utility infielder spot, and it appears that no on wants it. Joe Inglett has just returned from injury, and he was believed to be the third best of the three options coming into camp. Hector Luna flat out hasn't played well. Former Twins infielder Luis Rivas was playing well until he was sidelined by an injury. Perhaps that won't matter, though - with all the platooning, the utility infielder will be the only Indians player not to have a regular role against righties or lefties.
The rotation, at least the top of it, is rated by some experts as one of the best of the game. Cliff Lee will start the season on the disabled list; he will be replaced by the much-maligned Fausto Carmona. The crafty and wily Paul Byrd has been working on adding splitfinger pitch to his arsenal. Top prospect Adam Miller was untouchable in the big league spring training camp, but he will still start his season in the minors. The good thing about the Indians bullpen in 2006 was that, um, well, at least no one forgot their pants. This year Cleveland looked to improve their bullpen by signing nearly every reliever available. Originally, Joe Borowski and Keith Foulke we destined to fight for the closer's role. With Foulke's retirement, Borowski will now be the stopper. Supporting Borowski will be fellow veteran additions Aaron Fultz and Roberto Hernandez (who is only 19 years older than Sowers and Carmona). Effective side-armer Matt Miller will return from an injury. Fernando Cabrera, once this team's future closer, will look to bounce back from a rough 2006.

Kansas City Royals

David DeJesus CF
Mark Grudzielanek 2B
Mike Sweeney DH
Reggie Sanders LF
Emil Brown RF
Ryan Shealy 1B
Alex Gordon 3B
Angel Berroa SS
Jason LaRue C

Gil Meche
Odalis Perez
Luke Hudson
Jorge De La Rosa
Brian Bannister
Scott Elarton
Zack Greinke
Jimmy Gobble

This lineup doesn't look that much different from last year's, with two notable exceptions. Jason LaRue was picked up from Cincinnati. LaRue platooned with the Reds, and I wouldn't be surprised if he platooned again with last year's starting receiver, John Buck. Super prospect Alex Gordon has been named the starter at third base, displacing Mark Teahen. To keep Teahen's bat in the lineup, he will attempt to play the corner outfield spots. Considering Reggie Sanders' age and Mike Sweeney's injury history, Teahen should still see decent playing time. Angel Berroa has spent the last three seasons proving that he didn't deserve the 2003 rookie of the year award, and now he may be on his way out. Sports Illustrated went as far as suggesting that Teahen move to shortstop, even though that's a tough move up the defensive spectrum. The bench is highlighted by Ross Gload and Justin Huber at first; Huber played for Team Canada in last year's World Baseball Classic. In the outfield, Joey Gathright is perhaps the fastest man in baseball, but he's still trying to develop his other skills to complement that speed.
The Royals were criticized for spending big money on Gil Meche in the offseason. Like the Pirates, the Royals need that spending wisely is far more important than just spending. Meche may only be the third most important addition to this rotation, however. The Royals also picked up former Mets prospect Brian Bannister. And Zack Greinke, a year removed from serious thoughts of retirement, will hope to conquer his psychological issues to return as Kansas City's top pitching prospect. (Or, at the very least, their top pitching prospect not named "Hochevar.") After years of trying and failing with prospects in the closer's role, the Royals have picked up an established veteran in Octavio Dotel. If nothing else, Dotel has a reputation of warming the closer's seat for a future star. (See Lidge, Brad, and Street, Huston.) Supporting Dotel are David Riske, now playing for his third AL Central club, and a bunch of guys that not even I've heard of before.