AL Central preview

AL Central preview

2009 AL Central preview: Baseball's tightest division
By David Chan

Cleveland Indians (81-81, third in Central)

Predicted 2009 finish: First place

The Indians were one of the league's most disappointing teams last year but they did finish strong, pulling back to the .500 mark by season's end. I don't see any reason why they can't be the team to beat in the Central in 2009.

Injuries to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez crippled the Tribe's offense a year ago. They both returned during the stretch run and will be fresh and ready to start this campaign.

Guys like Jhonny Peralta and Shin-Soo Choo stepped up in their absence and had career years. Cleveland will need more than just Hafner, Martinez and, of course, Grady Sizemore to carry the load. There are plenty of candidates to do so. Mark DeRosa could prove to be one of the more underrated additions this offseason. He'll move all over the field, but should be an everyday player. Hitting grade: B+

I'm not a big fan of the Indians starting rotation, particularly once you get past Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. It's hard to be a fan when you're talking about guys like Carl Pavano and Anthony Reyes filling spots.

The Indians bullpen might just make up for their lacking rotation. Kerry Wood has been brought in to close games. That means Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez and Rafael Betancourt can go back to their better-suited roles. It's been a while since the Tribe have had a true closer and that should make all the difference in the world this season. Pitching grade: B+

Minnesota Twins (88-75, second in Central)

Predicted 2009 finish: Second place

The Twins might just be the most balanced team in the Central and certainly have all the tools to make another run at a division crown.

Back is the entire core of the Twins offense. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be asked to do most of the heavy lifting but they'll have some help.

Guys like Denard Span, Alexi Casilla and Carlos Gomez bring a ton of upside and, perhaps more importantly for Twins fans, excitement to the ballpark. Jason Kubel is evolving into an excellent power hitter while the addition of Joe Crede can only help. Hitting grade: B+

Pitching has always been the Twins strong suit and this season should be no different. They have no fewer than five young and talented arms rounding out the rotation, lead by what they hope will be the successful return of Francisco Liriano. He missed much of last season but all indications are that he's healthy and ready to go in 2009.

The Twins bullpen is once again anchored by closer Joe Nathan. His supporting cast wasn't quite as dominant last year but have all the tools to get back on track this season. Luis Ayala will be added to the group, possibly in a setup role to Nathan. Pitching grade: B+

Detroit Tigers (74-88, fifth in Central)

Predicted 2009 finish: Third place

Maybe I'm naive, but I think the Tigers can return to prominence in 2009.

Gone are a couple of the team's biggest disappointments in Todd Jones and Edgar Renteria, replaced by lower priced and perhaps steadier contributors in Brandon Lyon and Adam Everett.

Offensively, the Tigers should have a bounce back year. Miguel Cabrera is entering the prime of his career and should take off in his second season facing American League pitching.

The aforementioned Everett and an aging Gary Sheffield look to be the only weak spots in the order from 1-through-9. The addition of Gerald Laird sends Brandon Inge back to third base. For whatever reason, Inge seems more comfortable hitting as a third baseman than a catcher. Hitting grade: A

The key for the Tigers rotation will be at the back-end, where they'll rely on guys like Armando Galarraga, newly-acquired Edwin Jackson and a list of vets including Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson. There's a ton of potential in this group but it remains to be seen whether or not they can put it all together. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman are hoping to rebound in 2009.

The bullpen could be the team's strong point if Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya can return to their 2007 form. Brandon Lyon takes over closing duties. Pitching grade: B-

Kansas City Royals (75-87, Fourth in Central)

Predicted 2009 finish: Fourth place

It wouldn't surprise me one bit to see the Royals contend near the top of the Central for much of the season. But I hesitate to move them up from last season's fourth place finish, only because of their track record of disappointment.

The Royals made a few savvy offseason moves to add veteran talent to their starting lineup and bench. Mike Jacobs, Coco Crisp and Willie Bloomquist all join the mix and can only improve what was an extremely young team a year ago. It's time for guys like DeJesus, Gordon, and Butler to bust out, while Jose Guillen provides some stability in the middle of the order, provided he can stay healthy. Hitting grade: B

There's not much change to report in terms of the Royals starting rotation. They did add Horacio Ramirez and Jamey Wright but only Ramirez has a legitimate shot at earning a spot. Meche, Greinke, and Bannister are all capable of being consistent winners, while the jury is still out on Kyle Davies.

Joakim Soria had a few rough patches closing games last season but there's no denying he's got explosive stuff. The Royals added Kyle Farnsworth and Doug Waechter to help solidify their middle relief, which doesn't look all that appealing, at least on paper. Losing Leo Nunez and Ramon Ramirez stings. Pitching grade: C+

Chicago White Sox (89-74, First in Central)

Predicted 2009 finish: Fifth place

I'll probably take some flak for putting the White Sox in the basement, but hear me out.

They did nothing to improve offensively and while they did have a fairly solid offensive ball club a year ago, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko aren't getting any younger and will once again be relied upon heavily to generate the bulk of the offense.

There is some young talent to work with. Carlos Quentin and Alexei Ramirez had breakout seasons in 2008, while Josh Fields should give them some production at the bottom of the order after spending most of last year in the minors. Hitting grade: B

On the mound is where I take issue with the Sox. Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and John Danks look good on paper but Buehrle has battled numerous injuries and Floyd and Danks aren't exactly pictures of consistency. After those three, it's a crapshoot. Right now Bartolo Colon, yes Bartolo Colon, has the inside track as their number four starter. Enough said.

If Bobby Jenks can work out some of the problems he had late last season, the bullpen should be in good shape. Like their starting rotation, there are still a lot of 'ifs' in this group, so only time will tell. Pitching grade: C+

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