AL Central Preview
AL Central Preview
MLB Season Preview: A.L. Central
by Robert Ferringo
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will get all of the hype as Major League Baseball's biggest and best rivalries. But for my money, for one season, I think the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians will be staging the league's best 19-part drama.
The Indians are the reigning champions of the American League Central. But no team made more noise in the offseason than the Detroit Tigers. Now we get to watch as two young, exciting, talented teams take it to one another for the right to the only guaranteed playoff spot coming out of that division.
The rest of the A.L. Central? Well, here's a direct quote from my 2006 preview. You tell me if anything has changed:
"The AL Central remains a hodgepodge of teams and talent. There are journeymen starters, unproven outfielders, and long-forgotten middle relievers. This division is a wasteland of low-budget teams from small-market cities. It's a sad commentary on the State of Baseball, but the only way a team can rise up from this situation and compete is through outstanding fundamentals and some great pitching."
It always works out that the division crown may not be determined by the head-to-head tussling between the Tigers and Indians. Instead, one of the other mighty-mites will likely end up playing spoiler.
Here's one man's look at the American League Central:
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
2005 Record: 72-90 (fourth)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 28/1
Odds to win World Series: 7/2
Wins Over/Under: 77.0
Strengths: Bobby Jenks gives them a hammer at the end of games. Now the trouble is just getting the ball to him with a lead. Mark Buehrle remains one of the least-heralded aces in the league. They did bolster their club with moves to get Orlando Cabrera and Nick Swisher, but those are more complementary parts than frontline studs.
Weaknesses: Last season, Murphy's Law was the operative dynamic in the Sox's clubhouse. Should we have karmic concerns about a crew with a racist GM and a homophobic manager? These guys just couldn't hit last year, and they scored the fewest runs in the league. They really didn't do much to overhaul the lineup so it appears they are just banking on bounce back seasons from their mainstays.
Player to Watch: Nick Swisher, OF. If you don't know by now, he's a versatile hitter and fielder with a great attitude. He folded under the pressure of trying to carry an A's lineup last year but we'll see how he handles himself in Chicago.
Outlook: The White Sox were as much fun as a broken condom in 2007. Their lineup still appears jagged and uncomfortable, and if they can't score runs then management may lose its top. There are just too many past-their-prime guys on this roster for the Sox to be a threat for 162.
2005 Record: 93-69 (second)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 4.5/1
Odds to win World Series: 14/1
Wins Over/Under: 89.5
Strengths: Cleveland is a physically young team with a core of players entering its prime. But they also are a very experienced bunch. Their backbone is up the middle, as any good team should be built, and the two-headed monster of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona give them the best one-two punch in the game.
Weaknesses: Their fielding went from pathetic to adequate last year, but it's still an issue. And, interestingly enough, they have the same bullpen issues that plague the Tigers: a weak closer and not enough quality setup men.
Player to Watch: Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B. He came out of nowhere to stabilize the infield last year. Now we're going to see how much talent this kid possesses.
Outlook: I'm actually looking for a little step back from the Indians this year. I don't think that C.C. and Fausto will replicate last year's success after throwing so many postseason innings. We also don't know how this crew will handle success or handle the pressure that Detroit is already putting on them. Cleveland will be in the mix. But I look for them to come up just short.
2005 Record: 79-83 (third)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 30/1
Odds to win World Series: 60/1
Wins Over/Under: 75.5
Strengths: Minnesota just keeps on keeping on. Their system is in place and, much like Oakland, they will win games based solely on fundamentals and playing the game the right way. This team does have a backbone in its lineup, with Morneau and Mauer providing the pop. They also brought in some solid veterans like Adam Everett and Mike Lamb, while adding "upside" guys like Craig Monroe and Delmon Young.
Weaknesses: The Twins have some nice arms. But their staff is unsettled. Francisco Liriano is a huge question mark, and Scott Baker may start the season on the D.L. There is also a lingering chemistry issue developing from the fact that the players have to sit back and watch the team's best players get traded or leave in free agency each season.
Player to Watch: Delmon Young, OF. As long as they can keep Young from developing a Nicholson-in-The-Shining psychosis he could be an X-Factor. He's a $1 mil. talent with a 10-cent head.
Outlook: From a betting perspective, this team is going to be a shaky bet. They should score a bit more than last year and you know they will be one of the better fielding teams in the league. But the unpredictability of their starters - lights out one night, lit up the next - will make this team tough to get a grasp of. However, back-to-back losing seasons are a certainty.
2005 Record: 88-74 (second)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 3.5/1
Odds to win World Series: 7/1
Wins Over/Under: 93.0
Strengths: It helps when your lineup is likely the best in baseball. But tired and/or injured arms in the rotation last year submarined the Tigers. With Dontrelle Willis and a healthy Kenny Rogers holding it down, on top of Verlander, Bodnerman, and Robertson, Detroit's starters are among the most accomplished in the A.L. They have also added enough pop in the lineup with Miguel Cabrera that if Sheff gets injured again the lineup shouldn't drop off.
Weaknesses: For as loaded as this team is in its lineup and starting rotation, they still have some glaring weaknesses in the bullpen. Todd Jones doesn't strike me as a championship closer, and they are a little light in the middle relief. Nothing can sabotage a season quicker than shaky setup men.
Player to Watch: Curtis Granderson, OF. He's starting the year on the D.L. But once the stylish leadoff man gets going he can be one of the most exciting players in the game.
Outlook: With their marquee offseason acquisitions the Tigers have to be considered a World Series frontrunner. If their pitching stays healthy and the bullpen produces then this team will be playing in October. Injuries were really all that slowed them last year. If they avoid them they will be fine.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
2005 Record: 69-93 (fifth)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 75/1
Odds to win World Series: 150/1
Wins Over/Under: 71.0
Strengths: They have the best announcers in the game and their promotional team is one of the most creative in the business. On the field? I guess they have some "good, young talent". But we'll see.
Weaknesses: Stop me if you've heard this one: the Royals have a shaky starting rotation. It's an epidemic in the Central and K.C. is not immune. They lack pop in the middle of the order and Jose Guillen is as reliable as an Iraqi infantryman as far as clubhouse chemistry goes.
Player to Watch: Zach Grienke, P. He is a head case, but Grienke has nasty stuff. He was awful as a starter, and then was fantastic in the bullpen last year. I thought they should have kept in as their No. 1 setup man, but he may be the key to the rotation.
Outlook: Unbelievably, the Royals are my nemesis. I joked that if I had simply bet against the Royals every game last year they would have won the pennant. This team is improving. They have some ripe young talent and are building a respectable staff. Unfortunately, the rest of the division is still a step ahead. But don't dismiss this club as a solid value play.
Re: AL Central Preview
AL Central Preview
By Josh Jacobs
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the AL Central, particularly Detroit, has huge expectations to fulfill after adding a tremendous amount of substance heading into the 2008 season.
Cleveland is looking like a balanced team. With a solid starting three on the mound and a batting order led by Grady Sizemore, the Tribe is hoping to replay the ’07 regular season with a 96-66 record.
Kansas City, Chicago and Minnesota will all be battling for the middle of the division. The Sox are coming off a season that witnessed the team batting a league low .246, the Royals continue developing the club from in house talent and Minnesota is hoping to survive without Torii Hunter and rising star Matt Garza on the field (both leaving during the off-season).
With just a handful of days standing in between the start of the season what can the baseball world expect from AL Central?
Chicago (72-90, -1114)
After a disappointing, face first fall into the turf in ’07, general manager Ken Williams decided it was time to rid the landscape of overgrowth.
Shortstop Orlando Cabrera was imported from Los Angeles in exchange for starter Jon Garland. Next up for GM Williams was pulling the trigger and acquiring Nick Swisher from the A’s while bolstering a bullpen that completely unraveled in the second half of last season.
Setup man Scott Linebrink inked a four-year, $19 million deal and Octavio Dotel (4.11 ERA in 30.2 innings worth of work) was added to the pen in hopes improvement.
The starting rotation will be on vigilant watch. While proven ace Mark Buehrle and born again slinger Javier Vazquez (15-8, 3.74) will serve anchor for the start arms, lefty John Danks and veteran Jose Contreras will be monitored closely.
Relievers Dotel and Linebrink should provide spark for a pen that totaled a 5.47 ERA last year. However, bounce back performances from Matt Thornton and Mike MacDougal (combined for 6-9 record with a 5.80 ERA) will be integral. Bobby Jenks was able to log 40 saves in season past, but without proper support his role as a closer was nullified.
From the plate, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermiane Dye are expected to produce high impact numbers with newly added Swisher and Cabrera adding to the mix. Expectations for third baseman Josh Fields appear to be high, minus his 125 strikeouts in 373 appearances at the plate.
From 99 wins and a World Series victory in 2005 to a lonely 72 wins in 2007, the White Sox have attempted to redesign the club instead of cleaning house. There are plenty of expectations for manager Ozzie Guillen to dig his way out a deep hole and upper management has attempted to pull enough strings to make this possible.
Chicago is currently looking at a season win total of ‘over/under’ 77 ½ games, while most books have installed the club at 7/1 odds to take the division.
Cleveland (96-66, +1305)
A 59-year drought to the promised land was just that close to ending for the Tribe in ’07. Holding a 3-1 lead in the ALCS, the Red Sox would come storming back and another season for Cleveland was in the books.
The Indians have put those events in the rear view mirror. Instead of wondering what could have been improved in its series with Boston, a new concern has risen; Detroit.
The division rival Tigers stacked up on super talent at the plate and on the mound. While Cleveland was unable to grab a Miguel Cabrera type bat in free agency or a trade, manager Eric Wedge knows exactly where his strong suit sits.
Southpaw starter C.C. Sabathia typifies the same ingredients that makeup the rotation. Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook and workhorse Paul Byrd will all continue hurling from their respective spots. Official word that left-hander Cliff Lee will nab the No. 5 spot is the latest coming out of Indians camp (beating out Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers).
For the most part, Cleveland will be returning with most of its roster intact (23 of the 25 players from the final games of the playoffs will be returning).
That means the batting order will throw out the kitchen sink early on. Grady Sizemore, who produced a low .279 BA with only three RBIs in the postseason, will once again take leadoff responsibilities. Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez will all return back to their battle stations. The only real change, or possible lack of, will emanate at second base. Asdrubal Cabrera (.283/ 22 RBIs/ 3 HRs) and Josh Barfield continue to battle for the starting job.
The Indians have remained relatively untouched since losing to the Sox in the postseason. An old age war against Detroit should be a classic, with Cleveland hoping the pitching staff can push it over the hump come October.
Bodog.com has installed the Tribe at 7/5 odds to take the Central Division, while 14/1 odds have been applied for a World Championship.
Detroit (88-74, +162)
AL Central, watch out because there’s a new sheriff in town and it hales from Detroit.
After going shopping like owner Mike Ilitch had just won the lottery 12 times over (well, he’s not the most financially strapped entrepreneur), the Tigers where able to pull in third baseman Miguel Cabrera and starter Dontrelle Willis for mega money.
What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?
With Detroit adding to the already potent lineup of Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordonez, opposing pitchers must prepare to face a wall of swingers looking to bat around the lineup.
It might be easy to overlook the additions of veteran shortstop Edgar Renteria and left fielder Jacque Jones. Renteria finished up a fine 2007 season, hitting for a .332 BA with 57 RBIs. Mix in Jones’ .994 fielding percentage (with playing time mixed between center and right field) and these two under the radar transactions could very well payoff in dividends.
Mentioned earlier, Granderson is expected to continue his bang up job in the lead off spot. Becoming only the third player to register 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homes runs and 20 steals, Granderson is expected to miss the first few games of the season. The fifth year veteran was placed on the 15-day DL after breaking a finger in a spring training contest.
Pay attention to third baseman Brandon Inge, who’s likely to be inserted into a utility player’s role. In 2004, Inge accomplished this feat quite well, batting for a career high .287 with 64 RBIs.
If there’s one sore spot in all the greatness it starts with losing relief hurler Joel Zumaya to shoulder surgery for an undisclosed amount of time. Zumaya, who’s fastball has been clocked at 104 MPH on several occasions, has been throwing in spring training as part of his rehab and Jim Leyland has been quoted in saying, “He’ll be fine, it’s just a matter of when he’ll return.”
There’s no secret about the Tigers. This club is the team to beat in the AL Central, at least when viewed on paper. A starting staff including Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and veteran Kenny Rogers looks to be highly effective.
The underlying question is whether or not Dontrelle Willis can improve his numbers from last season. Add some concern surrounding an average bullpen and Detroit might have trouble over a short period of time. But once the bats get swinging, opponents better head for the hills.
Detroit has been listed at 7/2 odds to take the American League Pennant, and is a 5/6 favorite to take the division.
Kansas City (69-93, -108)
While a team like San Francisco decided to keep a bunch of veterans around with very little left in the farm system, the Royals have gone the opposite way.
Manager Trey Hillman and his Kansas City club have improved on paper in almost every position. On offense, free agent Jose Guillen (99 RBIs last season with Seattle) was signed to a three-year, $36 million deal. Joining him is a youthful squad made up of Alex Gordon, southpaw swinger Mark Teahen (is heading into his fourth year) and Tony Pena Jr. (.267 BA with 47 RBIs).
The lineup has received a face lift, and so has the pitching staff.
The Royals finished 2007 with the AL's seventh best ERA (4.48). Starter Gil Meche returns to the hill after tossing a 3.67 ERA with a 9-13 record. Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke will be relied on down the stretch, with both starters combining for a 19-16 record and a 3.78 ERA in ’07.
Closer Joakim Soria will resume his work in the pen. Soria climbs back into the driver’s seat after boasting a 2-3 record with a 2.48 ERA and 17 saves last year.
Right-hander Brett Tomko should be able to provide some of that veteran flavor to much of the youth, and Japanese slinger Yasuhiko Yabuta (2.80 ERA in three years with Japanese team Chiba Lotte Marines) will be another experiment with an off-shore slinger. His close ties with manager Hillman (when Hillman managed in Japan) provided the edge in the signing process.
All-in-all, this is a Royals team with plenty of upside in the near future. Will they be a playoff contending team? Probably not, but after finishing in last place in the Central for four straight years, rock bottom seems to be a thing of the past.
Most books have installed the total wins for Kansas City at 72 ½ games, while 40/1 odds to win the division has been set.
Minnesota (79-83, -1405)
Call it a transitional period or just straight rebuilding, Minnesota is knee deep in shuffling around the organization. Gone are the days of starter Johan Santana taking the mound, Torii Hunter roaming center field and manager Terry Ryan barking commands from the dugout.
It’s a new team, or at least a clubhouse void of some of the bigger names.
Catcher Joe Mauer, right fielder Michael Cuddyer and first baseman Justin Morneau are household handles in Minnesota that will be welcomed back. The Twins offense was a lackadaisical part of the team last season, ranking ninth in BA (.264), 12th in RBIs (671) and 13th in total bases (2159).
But more importantly what will Minnesota do without Santana?
This is a club ripe with questions and not so fresh full of answers.
Starters Livan Hernandez and Francisco Liriano (coming back from reconstructive surgery) will be the wheels that turn the rotation. Beyond that, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey will be litmus tests to how manager Ron Gardenhire installs his weekly starting pitching staff.
At least Joe Nathan returns with a fat four-year, $47 million deal. His 37 saves in 71.2 innings of work last season continued the four-year stretch of pure, major league production.
And backing up the meat of the arms will be a bullpen consisting of seven-year vet Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek (7-2, 2.94 ERA in ’07).
One of the biggest moves on the off-season was acquiring the rights to outfielder Delmon Young. Coming out of Tampa Bay, Young brings with him disciplinary problems. But through all the trouble a .288 BA with 93 RBIs in only his second year in the majors looks to be very positive upside.
Where will Minnesota be in a division where Detroit and Cleveland look to be super powers? And how about a Chicago and Kansas team attempting to take flight after reconstructing its own rosters?