Sunday, March 29, 2009

MLB Previews #6
American League Central

Cleveland Indians

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Grady Sizemore CF
Mark DeRosa 3B
Travis Hafner DH
Victor Martinez C
Jhonny Peralta SS
Shin-Soo Choo RF
Ryan Garko 1B
Ben Francisco RF
Asdrubal Cabrera 2B

Cliff Lee
Fausto Carmona
Carl Pavano
Scott Lewis
Anthony Reyes
Jeremy Sowers
Aaron Laffey
Zach Jackson
Jake Westbrook

After a bittersweet 2007 and a disastrous 2008, the Indians are predicted to win the Central in 2009. That's thanks in no small part to their offense - one that scored 800 runs last year despite prolonged injuries to third and fourth hitters Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez. Martinez is back, as is Hafner to an unknown extent, and they're joined by legit two-hole hitter Mark DeRosa. DeRosa and Kelly Shoppach give the Indians infield flexibility. DeRosa can play second or third (or outfield), which gives Cleveland the chance to decide what they want to do with Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera defensively. For the time being, Peralta will remain at third and Cabrera at second, with DeRosa playing third. Meanwhile, Kelly Shoppach has proven himself to be an everyday catcher, even if he won't have a chance in that role this year. He will have plenty of chances to play though, and give Victor Martinez opportunities at first base and DH. In the outfield, Grady Sizemore is joined by Ben Francisco and the emerging Shin-Soo Choo. To some, Francisco is just a placeholder until Matt LaPorta arrives, but Francisco is still a solid ballplayer in his own right.

On the bench, Jamey Carroll returns as a versatile utility infielder with good on base skills. Speaking of versatility, former up-and-coming second baseman Josh Barfield appears to have made the 2009 club out of spring training after adding third base and all three outfield spots to his repertoire. David Dellucci will fight for playing time in the outfield, but with guys like Choo, Francisco, LaPorta, Trevor Crowe, and Michael Brantley waiting in the wings (and Barfield, Carroll, and LaPorta's ability to play outfield), Dellucci's days in Cleveland may be numbered.

To some extent, Cleveland's starting rotation looks good on paper, but it relies on some faith and optimism. No one expects Cliff Lee to repeat his 2008 performance, but the hope is that he'll pitch at least as well as he did prior to his 2007 collapse. Fausto Carmona dominated in 2007, but then the league learned to be patient and ride out his control problems. Now the ball's back in Carmona's court when it comes to making adjustments. Carl Pavano, it appears, is healthy again, and the Indians hope he can repeat the flashes of brilliance he showed with the Expos and Marlins. Rounding out the rotation are Scott Lewis and Anthony Reyes, two pleasant surprises in 2008 who look to repeat in 2009. If they cannot, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson and a host of others are waiting in the wings. Jake Westbrook will also be a much needed shot in the arm when he returns from Tommy John rehab in June.

As Michael Taylor of Baseball Digest put it, "it's an odd year, so the Indians bullpen must be good. After a horrendous 2008, Cleveland made active strides to improve their bullpen, signing closer Kerry Wood and trading for setup man Joe Smith. Joining Wood and Smith are the two bright spots from 2008, bulldog interim closer Jensen Lewis and left setup maestro Rafael Perez. Rafael Betancourt is also back, and will look to rebound from arm troubles that limited his speed and effectiveness in 2008.

Detroit Tigers

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Curtis Granderson CF
Placido Polanco 2B
Carlos Guillen LF
Magglio Ordonez RF
Miguel Cabrera 1B
Gary Sheffield DH
Gerald Laird C
Brandon Inge 3B
Adam Everett SS

Justin Verlander
Edwin Jackson
Armando Galarraga
Jeremy Bonderman
Nate Robertson
Dontrelle Willis

Detroit's projected lineup is an interesting mix of on base skills, power, and defense. The batting order breaks down pretty neatly that way too - the top three guys get on, the next three hit them in, and the final three are mostly there for defense. Of course, Carbera and Ordonez are quality on base guys too, and Laird is a fairly good hitting catcher. But it's not often you see an offense broken down so neatly.

Detroit's bench features the same familiar names Tigers fans are used to - Ramon Santiago in the infield, and Brent Clevlen, Ryan Raburn, Marcus Thames, and Clete Thomas in the outfield. Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge give the Tigers some position flexibility, which may mean increased playing time for Marcus Thames. Of course, with Guillen moving to the outfield this year, it may mean plenty of playing time for one of the other outfield backups as a defensive replacements. Inge, meanwhile, may not need to strap on the tools of ignorance this season, as Detroit has found a capable backup in Matt Treanor, husband of some Olympic volleyball player you may have heard of.

Baseball Prospectus expects fairly good things for Detroit's pitching staff, predicting they will lead the division with only 777 runs surrendered. But that may come as little comfort to Tigers fans. For starters, Detroit has taken Edwin Jackson - the odd man out in Tampa Bay's rotation - and made him their No. 2 starter. They're also expecting fairly big things from last year's surprise ace Armando Galarraga. "Young veterans" Verlander and Bonderman have had their ups and downs, but they'll have to pitch well to get Detroit back in the playoffs.

When none of their young fireballers could hold down the closer's role, Detroit acquired experienced stopper Brandon Lyon. Lyon will be supported by two of those fireballers - Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, familiar face Bobby Seay, and young veteran Zach Miner.

Kansas City Royals

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Coco Crisp CF
David DeJesus LF
Mark Teahen 2B
Jose Guillen RF
Mike Jacobs 1B
Alex Gordon 3B
Billy Butler DH
Miguel Olivo C
Mike Aviles SS

Gil Meche
Zack Greinke
Kyle Davies
Brian Bannister
Luke Hochevar
Horacio Ramirez
Sidney Ponson
John Bale

Yes, that's the Kansas City Royals that Baseball Prospectus has in first place, two games ahead of last year's division winner and tied with the team that took that division winner to a one-game playoff. The Royals are a team on the rise, but at the same time they seem to match every good move with a baffling one. Good move: trading for Coco Crisp to move David DeJesus down toward the heart of the lineup and out of center field. Baffling move: trading for Mike Jacobs, a guy who hits for some power but who doesn't get on base and doesn't play good defense. Good move: getting Mike Aviles and in the lineup. Baffling move: trying Mark Teahen at second base, especially with the aforementioned poor fielding Jacobs at first. Of course, you do have to give the Royals credit for doing what it takes to put all their best bats on the field.

Bonus baffling move: signing Willie Bloomquist. Bloomquist plays at least average defense at every position, and he's a good piece to have on a contending ballclub. But a team like the Royals have much more important things to spend their money on. John Buck will back up Miguel Olivo, and the starting nod will probably go to whomever is hitting better at the time. Tony Pena, Jr. was statistically the worst offensive player in baseball last season, and this year he'll fight to keep a job with the parent club. Maybe the Royals should think of moving him to pitcher. In one mound appearance last season, Pena threw in the low 90s with decent movement. Imagine how he'd do with the proper training and practice.

One of the big reasons for Kansas City's predicted success is its stockpile of young, talented pitching. Gil Meche was a baffling move ($55 million free agent signing) that turned into a brilliant move. Meche is joined in the rotation by homegrown talent in Zack Greinke and Luke Hochevar and crafty trade acquisition Brian Bannister.

Good move, bullpen addition: picking up Joakim Soria in the 2008 Rule V draft and making him a closer. Baffling move, bullpen edition: throwing millions of dollars at Kyle Farnsworth. Sure he throws hard, but there's a reason why Major League hitters are the best in the world: they'll catch up to speed eventually. Fortunately, Kansas City does have some other versatile arms in their bullpen, including Juan Cruz, Ron Mahay, Joel Peralta, Robinson Tejada, Jamey Wright, Brandon Duckworth, and Doug Waechter.

Minnesota Twins

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Denard Span/Delmon Young LF
Carlos Gomez CF
Joe Mauer C
Justin Morneau 1B
Mike Cuddyer/Denard Span RF
Jason Kubel DH
Joe Crede 3B
Alexi Casilla 2B
Nick Punto SS

Francisco Liriano
Scott Baker
Kevin Slowey
Glen Perkins
Nick Blackburn

The Twins have always been over-infatuated with slap hitters, but they've always seemed to make it work, especially in the Metrodome. It'll be interesting to see how playing time shakes down in the outfield, especially considering that to date, Denard Span is basically a better version of Carlos Gomez. Minnesota had been looking for a third baseman since the middle of last year, and they found one in Joe Crede. The Twins left side of the infield will rival Detroit's in terms of its defense first, offense second mentality. As always, the offense will revolve around Justin Morneau (this generation's Don Mattingly?) and Joe Mauer, and as always Minnesota's main concern will be keeping Mauer healthy.

If Mauer can't stay healthy, Mike Redmond has always been a capable backup. On the infield, the utility spots are up for grabs between Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, and Matt Tolbert.

Minnesota has been a factory of young pitching talent for the past two decades. Even with Boof Bonser out for the season, the Twins still have a respectable rotation headlined by Francisco Liriano and featuring Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Nick Blackburn.

Joe Nathan is still one of the best closers in the business. As usual, he'll have a great supporting cast. Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier are back, as is Craig Breslow, who pitched brilliantly for Minnesota after being released by division rival Cleveland.

Chicago White Sox

Baseball Musings Team Offense
Baseball America Top 10 Prospects

Dewayne Wise CF
Chris Getz 2B
Carlos Quentin LF
Jermaine Dye RF
Jim Thome DH
Paul Konerko 1B
AJ Pierzynski C
Alexei Ramirez SS
Josh Fields 3B

Mark Buehrle
John Danks
Gavin Floyd
Jose Contreras
Bartolo Colon
Clayton Richard
Jeffrey Marquez

As always, the computers hate the White Sox. Fortunately for Chicago, their combination of small ball and power hitting always seems to outperform the predictions (much as Minnesota's combination of small ball and speed normally does). Chicago's aging core of Dye, Thome, Konerko, and Pierzynski remains intact, with 2008 breakout stars Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez added to the mix. The question is whether this year's new faces - Wise, Getz, and Fields - will hit well enough to keep their spots.

If Wise, Getz, and Fields can't, the White Sox may not have anyone to replace them - unless they want to rush 2008 top draft pick Gordon Beckham to the majors. Outside of new pickup Wilson Betemit, most of Chicago's bench is comprised of players whose bats never developed enough to become everyday players. That mix includes Brent Lillibridge, Colorado castoff Jayson Nix, Jerry Owens, and Brian Anderson. (Arguably, Betemit may belong in this category as well.)

After trading away Javier Vazquez, questions begin to creep in concerning Chicago's starting rotation. Mark Buehrle is a stalwart ace. But behind him are too much youth in John Danks and Gavin Floyd, and not enough youth in Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon.

At least the back end of the bullpen won't be a question for the ChiSox. Bobby Jenks is back as the closer, with Octavio Dotel working the eighth and Scott Linebrink, Matt Thornton, and DJ Carrasco leading into them.