Sunday, March 23, 2008

MLB Preview #6: AL Central

Cleveland Indians

Chris Niesel

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball Musings Rotation Evaluation
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Grady Sizemore CF
Asdrubal Cabrera 2B
Travis Hafner DH
Victor Martinez C
Ryan Garko 1B
Jhonny Peralta SS
David Dellucci/Jason Michaels LF
Franklin Gutierrez RF
Casey Blake 3B

CC Sabathia
Fausto Carmona
Paul Byrd
Jake Westbrook
Clifford Lee
Aaron Laffey
Jeremy Sowers

The Indians tied for the best record in baseball last year, despite playing three "home" games at neutral sites (including one at their opponent's park). They also came tantalizingly close to the World Series. So the Tribe didn't need to change much... or so they hope. Their lineup is basically the one they road into the postseason last year, with a healthy David Dellucci replacing Kenny Lofton. Presumably, Jason Michaels will still sub for Dellucci against lefties. This team is not without questions. Can Asdrubal Cabrera hit well enough over a full season to keep his job? If not, can Josh Barfield come back to replace him? What about Andy Marte and Shin-Soo Choo, who are out of options? And how can you keep Ben Francisco in the minors when he'd likely start for many teams? Speaking of starting for many teams, the bench features Kelly Shoppach, one of the best backup backstops in baseball. Shoppach played the role of Paul Byrd's personal catcher, which got him a start once every five days. He definitely hit well enough to continue that role into this year, but manager Eric Wedge said that he won't continue that this year. Also on the bench is utility infielder Jamey Carroll, who brings the position versatility that Marte and Barfield lack.
In the rotation, the fifth spot was up for grabs this spring between Cliff Lee, Aaron Laffey, and Jeremy Sowers. No one distinguished himself, but Lee played the least poorly and has likely worked his way back into the rotation. CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are both considered injury risks due to the high number of innings they threw last year. I'll believe that for Carmona, since the sinkerball can put a good deal of stress on a young arm. But Sabathia has proven himself to be very durable, always disproving those who criticize his body size. In the bullpen, Joe Borowski returns as closer coming off a year in which he led the AL in saves. He'll once again be supported by Raffy-R (Betancourt) and Raffy-L (Perez). Betancourt broke out last year, and is now considered one of the best relievers in the game. Joining the Raffy brothers is Japanese import Masahide Kobayashi, who was the biggest signing for the Tribe this offseason (easily beating out Jamey Carroll). Youngster Jensen Lewis is back, as is Tom Mastny - unless he's beaten out by non-roster invitee Jorge Julio or Scott Elarton.

Detroit Tigers

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball Musings Rotation Evaluation
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Curtis Granderson CF
Placido Polanco 2B
Miguel Cabrera 3B
Magglio Ordonez RF
Gary Sheffield DH
Carlos Guillen 1B
Edgar Renteria SS
Jacque Jones LF
Pudge Rodriguez C

Justin Verlander
Jeremy Bonderman
Kenny Rogers
Dontrelle Willis
Nate Robertson
Zach Miner
Jordan Tata
Yorman Bazardo

Yes, that is quite the lineup. But check out the Baseball Musings offense links - they're about even with the Indians. It helps that Polanco, Jones, and Rodriguez aren't exactly on base marvels. Speaking of guys who aren't on base marvels, a disgruntled Brandon Inge has been bumped to the bench. He could be groomed as Pudge's incumbent at catcher, or he could be traded to a team that needs a third baseman. We shall see. The rest of the bench is a roll call of journeymen - Vance Wilson, Mike Hessman, Ramon Santiago, Ryan Raburn, and Marcus Thames. Raburn, Cabrera, and Granderson are the only offensive players born in the 80s on this team. So exciting as the lineup is, it may already be starting to decline.
After all these years, the Tigers still have a very young starting rotation - even with the ageless Kenny Rogers. Sure, the lineup is aging, but the same isn't the case for the pitching staff. For those that haven't been paying attention, Dontrelle Willis has been on the decline over the past few years. But I can't help but think of the last blockbuster Marlins trade, where a declining player was thrown in so the Marlins wouldn't have to pay his contract anymore. That player is Mike Lowell, and he's bounced back quite well in Boston. The same could go for Willis. Of course, Dontrelle is making the difficult jump from the NL to the AL, so he could go in the other direction. The Tigers bullpen is a solid one, when they're all healthy. Todd Jones is back at closer, supported by fireballers Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, former Indians farmhand Francisco Cruceta, and Jason Grilli and Bobby Seay.

Minnesota Twins

Jeff Manship

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball Musings Rotation Evaluation
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Carlos Gomez CF
Brendan Harris/Nick Punto 2B
Joe Mauer C
Mike Cuddyer RF
Justin Morneau 1B
Delmon Young LF
Jason Kubel/Craig Monroe DH
Mike Lamb 3B
Adam Everett SS

Francisco Liriano
Livan Hernandez
Boof Bonser
Scott Baker
Kevin Slowey
Nick Blackburn
Glen Perkins

This is definitely a rebuilding team. It's a shame, too, because Justin Morneau is just entering his prime years, and Joe Mauer is still a year or two away (unless you age him a few more years due to his injury history and position). As usual, the Twins feature absolutely no hitting in the middle infield. Nick Punto was the worst hitter of any regular player last year, and Adam Everett is a classic good hit, no field shortstop. Actually, Everett is easily the best shortstop playing south of the Canadian border (John McDonald), and it would have been fun to watch him play on the old Astroturf. The Twins also added some exciting new outfielders in Gomez and Young. The bench isn't much to speak of - it's basically catcher Mike Redmond plus the losers of the second base and DH battles.
The pitching rotation is an exciting one. Livan Hernandez was brought in to eat innings for the youngsters. Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser were both brought over in the AJ Pierzynski trade. Baker and Slowey are good ones as well. And as always, Minnesota has a solid bullpen. Joe Nathan is back, soon with a contract extension, and he'll again be supported by the likes of Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, submariner Pat Neshek, and asthmatic veteran Dennys Reyes.
There is one very positive consequence of the Twins' rebuilding. Notre Dame alumni Jeff Manship (SP) and Matt Macri (3B) have both been getting rave reviews in the Twins minor league system, and the team's youth could speed their paths to the majors.

Chicago White Sox

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball Musings Rotation Evaluation
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Orlando Cabrera SS
Nick Swisher CF
Jim Thome DH
Paul Konerko 1B
Jermaine Dye RF
AJ Pierzynski C
Josh Fields/Joe Crede 3B
Carlos Quentin LF
Juan Uribe/Danny Richar/Alexei Ramirez 2B

Mark Buehrle
Javier Vazquez
John Danks
Jose Contreras
Gavin Floyd

The White Sox are definitely better than last year's team. Are they good enough to compete in the division again? Most likely not, but at least they improved. Their core is still too old, but at least they've injected some new life with the likes of Nick Swisher and the apparent promotion of Josh Fields. Swisher is quite an athlete, but it will still be interesting to see if he can play center field every day. Second base is up for grabs, especially if Juan Uribe is cut as expected. Cuban signee Alexei Ramirez may not be ready for the job, but Richar or supersub Pablo Ozuna could be. This team unfortunately isn't too deep. There's Ozuna, catcher Toby Hall, and outfielders Jerry Owens and Brian Anderson. Anderson's inability to hit is the reason the Sox traded for Swisher in the first place.
Those five starters are the only guys left with any experience. That could spell trouble. The bullpen is a good one, but you can't just march them out there for nine innings every game. Bobby Jenks will be supported by former Royals closers Octavio Dotel and Mike MacDougal.

Kansas City Royals

Danny Tamayo

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball Musings Rotation Evaluation
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

David DeJesus CF
Mark Teahen LF
Billy Butler DH
Jose Guillen RF
Alex Gordon 3B
Ross Gload 1B
John Buck C
Mark Grudzielanek 2B
Tony Pena, Jr. SS

Gil Meche
Brian Bannister
Zack Greinke
Kyle Davies
Jorge De La Rosa
Luke Hochevar
Brett Tomko
Leo Nunez

The Royals are finally headed in the right direction. It's actually a shame that the White Sox made their improvements, or else the Royals might have threatened for fourth place. Of course, I say that by looking at the top five spots in the Royals lineup, not the bottom four. Oh, John Buck is a very good hitting catcher, and veteran Mark Grudzielanek definitely has acquired his share of cageyness. But I'm not sold on Ross Gload as an everyday first baseman. Justin Huber and Ryan Shealy are still on the 40 man, but they're not exactly prospects anymore. Miguel Olivo is the backup catcher, and that's not a bad option for a backup. Veteran utilityman Esteban German and prospect Alberto Callaspo are the infield backups, and Joey Gathright will fight for playing time in the outfield.
Kansas City is slowly putting together a good starting rotation as well. Gil Meche, Zach Grienke, and stathead hero Brian Bannister all posted ERAs under 4 (with Meche and Grienke's under 3.70). I wonder how many teams can say that about their top three starters? There's a big dropoff after the big three, but top prospect Hochevar and the veteran Tomko should provide some help. Rule V pick Joakim Soria burst onto the scene as the Royals closer last year, and now he's back for more fun. He'll be supported by Jimmy Gobble, Joel Peralta, Brandon Duckworth, and Ron Mahay. Again, you may not have heard of those guys, or the others in the KC pen, but they all posted ERAs under 5 last year, and most put up ERAs under 4. Not too shabby.