MLB Preview: American League Central

Well, after playing beat the clock to produce the AL East and AL West predictions, I took a couple days off from the blog (‘ja miss me?) to embark on the exciting world of municipal reporting. Yeah, journalism!

Anyway, having completed my real world assignments, I’m back to competing with time as I try to fire out the remaining four MLB previews before Opening Night/Day.

It would probably make sense, then, to start off this next set with the National League East, seeing as how the Nationals will open their new stadium tomorrow night by hosting the Atlanta Braves on Sunday Night Baseball. However, I still have a little bit of unfinished business with the American League, namely the AL Central. I never got around to finishing the AL off last week as I had hoped. So I figured, in the interest of symmetry and/or completeness, that I would get that preview out of the way first before graduating to the Senior Circuit.

2008 American League Central
1.) Detroit Tigers
2.) Cleveland Indians
3.) Kansas City Royals
4.) Chicago White Sox
5.) Minnesota Twins

DETROIT TIGERS
2007 Record: 88-74 (2nd place, AL Central)
2008 Prediction: 1st place, AL Central
Key Additions: Miguel Cabrera, 3B; Edgar Renteria, SS; Dontrelle Willis, SP
Key Losses: Sean Casey, 1B
Biggest Strength: Entire Starting Lineup
Biggest Weakness: Bullpen
Biggest Improvement: Lineup Depth (traded for Cabrera, Renteria)

Projected 2008 Lineup:
Curtis Granderson, CF
Edgar Renteria, SS
Gary Sheffield, DH
Magglio Ordonez, RF
Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Carlos Guillen, 1B
Jacque Jones, LF
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Placido Polanco, 2B

Projected 2008 Starting Rotation & Bullpen:
1.) Justin Verlander, RHP
2.) Jeremy Bonderman, RHP
3.) Kenny Rogers, LHP
4.) Nate Robertson, RHP
5.) Dontrelle Willis, LHP
Closer: Todd Jones, RHP
Key Setup Man: Fernando Rodney, RHP

The Detroit Tigers are the most improved team in baseball. Two years after reaching the World Series, the Tigers boast a team that on paper blows that American League championship team away.

While most of the off-season trade talk revolved around Johan Santana’s eventual arrival to the New York Mets, I would argue that the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis trade holds greater significance. I’ll delve further into this when I do my NL East post a little later, but I don’t understand all the love for the Mets. Okay, they have certainly upgraded their rotation by going from Tom Glavine to Santana. There’s no question. But are we really ready to hand them a World Series, or even the National League East, based on that deal? Frankly, the Marlins trading D-Train and Migs out of the division and to Detroit may make a greater impact for the boys from Queens, given Willis’s knack for making the Mets his bitch.

But I digress. My argument is that the Cabrera/Willis deal actually makes the Tigers the favorites, in my mind, to win the World Series. Yes, there are weaknesses that need to be addressed on this team — maybe they could turn Brandon Inge into a nice arm down the road — but the team that vanquished the so-called “greatest lineup of all-time” — “Murderers’ Row and Cano,” my ass — en route to the 2006 World Series now has a pretty damn great lineup of its own. Assuming they get full seasons out of Verlander, and Rogers (this is a big question mark, in my opinion) and the good versions of Willis and Bonderman show up, this team will be a nightmare for opponents to deal with.

CLEVELAND INDIANS
2007 Record: 96-66 (won AL Central, lost to Boston Red Sox in ALCS)
2008 Prediction: 2nd place, AL Central
Key Additions: Masahide Kobayashi, RP
Key Losses: None
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: General Depth
Biggest Improvement: Bullpen

Projected 2008 Lineup:
Victor Martinez, C
Ryan Garko, 1B
Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B
Jhonny Peralta, SS
Casey Blake, 3B
Jason Michaels, LF
Grady Sizemore, CF
Franklin Gutierrez, RF
Travis Hafner, DH

Projected 2008 Starting Rotation & Bullpen:
1.) C.C. Sabathia, LHP
2.) Fausto Carmona, RHP
3.) Jake Westbrook, RHP
4.) Paul Byrd, RHP
5.) Cliff Lee, LHP
Closer: Joe Borowski, RHP
Key Setup Men: Rafael Betancourt, RHP; Rafael Perez, LHP; Jensen Lewis, RHP

Whereas the Tigers responded to a disappointing finish to their season by going on a trading spree, the defending AL Central champs responded to their loss in the ALCS to the eventual World Champion Red Sox by essentially standing pat. An interesting strategy given the fact that Boston chose to do the same, and that was the team that beat Cleveland in last year’s playoff, not to mention — though I already have — that Detroit clearly made vast improvements to a team that finished eight games back of the Tribe last year.

Now, did they make eight games worth of improvements to their roster? That’s a tougher question to answer. I would imagine that they at least came close. But I’ve picked them to place first in the division not only because of their own improvements, but also because I expect several Indians to regress this year.

In particular, I expect Carmona and Byrd to have rough years. In Byrd’s case, the guy just isn’t a very good pitcher. His tightrope act might work against the Minnesota Twins this year, but I’m not so sure I’d give him the benefit of the doubt against the rest of the division, let alone some of the other daunting opponents in the league. The guy can’t strike anybody out, doesn’t have impressive ratios, and won fifteen games last year almost entirely through luck (seriously, the guy only had 15 quality starts). Unfortunately for the anti-aging enthusiast, luck often has a way of evening itself out in the Big Leagues.

I could write the same essential paragraph for Carmona, but I’ll give him some credit. The guy has some nasty stuff. However, I suspect it’s not quite as nasty as his 2007 numbers indicate.

If the Indians want to remain the class of their division, they’re going to need me to be wrong about Carmona, they’ll need Sabathia to remain healthy for the entire year after throwing a career-high 241 regular season innings (256.1 including the playoffs) a year ago, they’ll need God to inexplicably remain on Byrd’s side, and they’ll need Hafner to rediscover his form at the plate.

It’d also help if that bullpen remains stellar — maybe Kobayashi could be of some assistance.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
2007 Record: 69-93 (last place, AL Central)
2008 Prediction: 3rd place, AL Central
Key Additions: Jose Guillen, OF
Key Losses: Reggie Sanders, OF; Mike Sweeney, 1B; Emil Brown, OF
Biggest Strength: Bench
Biggest Weakness: Power Hitting
Biggest Improvement: Power Hitting (signed Guillen)

Projected 2008 Lineup:
David DeJesus, CF
Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Alex Gordon, 3B
Billy Butler, DH
Jose Guillen, RF
Mark Teahen, LF
John Buck, C
Ross Gload, 1B
Tony Pena Jr., SS

Projected 2008 Starting Rotation & Bullpen:
1.) Gil Meche, RHP
2.) Brian Bannister, RHP
3.) Zack Greinke, RHP
4.) Brett Tomko, RHP
5.) John Bale, LHP
Closer: Joakim Soria, RHP
Key Setup Man: Jimmy Gobble, LHP

I’m not quite sure why — it may be a matter of attrition — but I like Kansas City this year. Now, when I say I like the team, don’t think I mean that I expect them to compete for a division title (though I almost had them finishing second in the division). That’s a little bit down the road, at least. Still, I think this is a team headed in the right direction under the leadership of former Braves executive Dayton Moore.

Last year was something of a learning year for many of the young players on this team. Alex Gordon was supposed to burst upon the scene and turn into a star overnight. Instead, the young third baseman struggled at the plate, often looking overmatched. This is perhaps best exemplified by his 137 strikeouts compared to just 41 walks. Still, if he’s as good as advertised, a year in the Big Leagues will do him good when it comes to making adjustments.

Billy Butler also made his Major League debut last year, and had more encouraging results, batting .292 (OBP: .347) and slugging .447 in 329 at-bats. Butler’s biggest problem seems to be that he’s a liability on defense — something the Royals tacitly acknowledged when they let Sweeney walk. The move allows Butler to fill the veteran’s slot as the team’s designated hitter.

The signing of Jose Guillen to a deal best described as exorbitant had a lot of people scratching their heads. And, while Guillen is by no means a $12 million-per-year player, he’s a good investment in terms of a need for this team. He’ll supply a much-needed power threat in the middle of a lineup for a team that was led in homers in 2007 by John Buck, who belted a whopping 18 round-trippers. Guillen’s signing also ensures that Joey Gathright and Esteban German will both be available off the bench, where I feel they have the most value (this is to say they’re quality situational plays, rather than that they have no value).

From a pitching standpoint, the Royals have a solid, if unspectacular, ace in Gil Meche. He wouldn’t be a #1 for a lot of teams, and he’s another guy that they probably overpaid for, but he’s by no means the worst #1 starter in baseball, and he’d probably be better than the majority of the #2s around the league. He’s a little underrated, in my mind.

Behind Meche, it gets a little dicey. Zack Greinke was able to bounce back last year after essentially taking a year off from baseball in 2006. However, he did so while bouncing back-and-forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation. He was outstanding in the second half of the year, however, pitching to a 2.42 earned-run average in 23 appearances after the all-star break, seven of which were starts. He finished the year with a 3.69 ERA in 122 innings, and looked like he had rediscovered the stuff that had put him among the elite pitching prospects in the game not so long ago.

Brian Bannister also quietly had a heck of a year for the Royals in 2007, posting a 3.87 ERA in 165 innings pitched. He’s penciled in as the number two starter, and even though he doesn’t strike a lot of guys out, he seems to know how to make adjustments.

That gives the Royals three solid starters who may be able to get the game seven innings deep and turn it over to Jimmy Gobble and Joakim Soria. They’re not huge names, but, like Meche, they get the job done.

You have to wonder, if the Royals get off to a solid enough start, how long it’ll be before either Bale or Tomko (who I feel is better suited for a bullpen slot anyway) is ousted from the rotation, perhaps in favor of Luke Hochevar.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
2007 Record: 72-90 (4th place, AL Central)
2008 Prediction: 4th place in AL Central
Key Additions: Orlando Cabrera, SS; Nick Swisher, OF; Scott Linebrink, RP
Key Losses: Jon Garland, SP
Biggest Strength: Power-Hitting First Basemen
Biggest Weakness: Ozzie Guillen Sucks
Biggest Improvement: Bullpen (signed Linebrink and Octavio Dotel)

Projected 2008 Lineup:
Orlando Cabrera, SS
Nick Swisher, LF
Jim Thome, DH
Paul Konerko, 1B
Jermaine Dye, RF
A.J. Pierzynski, C
Joe Crede, 3B
Juan Uribe, 2B
Jerry Owens, CF

Projected 2008 Starting Rotation & Bullpen:
1.) Mark Buehrle, LHP
2.) Javier Vazquez, RHP
3.) Jose Contreras, RHP
4.) John Danks, LHP
5.) Gavin Floyd, RHP
Closer: Bobby Jenks, RHP
Key Setup Men: Scott Linebrink, RHP; Octavio Dotel, RHP

It’s interesting. The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005 based almost entirely on a hot streak from their starting rotation. That 2005 rotation consisted of Buehrle, Garland, Orlando Hernandez and Freddy Garcia. Three years later, the White Sox have one of those pitchers left and now I’m picking them to place fourth in the AL Central. Five of the nine members of the 2005 lineup remain, and it’s not like there have been drastic changes in talent level of the departed players and their replacements. In fact, I’d argue that the quartet of Thome, Cabrera, Owens and Swisher edges out the group of Aaron Rowand, Tadahito Iguchi, Scott Podsednik and Carl Everett in terms of offensive production.

So what does this mean? Well, it means that pitching wins championships, and Ken Williams still hasn’t received the memo. It becomes more and more apparent by the day that White Sox management lucked into a 2005 World Championship. They have done very little to demonstrate a knowledge of what it takes to build and sustain a winning franchise in sports. Darin Erstad was on this team. In 2007. This team expressed interest in David Eckstein. Who the hell does that? This franchise thinks that grit, hustle and stolen bases wins championships. This organization is hopeless.

This organization is going to field yet another team that will underperform in 2008.

At least it improved its bullpen, though.

MINNESOTA TWINS:
2007 Record: 79-83, (3rd place, AL Central)
2008 Prediction: Last Place in AL Central
Key Additions: Delmon Young, OF
Key Losses: Johan Santana, SP; Torii Hunter, OF; Matt Garza, SP
Biggest Strength: Bullpen
Biggest Weakness: Starting Rotation
Biggest Improvement: Second Base (acquired Brendan Harris in Young/Garza trade)

Projected 2008 Lineup:
Brendan Harris, 2B
Joe Mauer, C
Justin Morneau, 1B
Michael Cuddyer, RF
Delmon Young, LF
Mike Lamb, 3B
Jason Kubel, DH
Adam Everett, SS
Carlos Gomez, CF

Projected 2008 Starting Rotation & Bullpen:
1.) Francisco Liriano, LHP
2.) Livan Hernandez, RHP
3.) Boof Bonser, RHP
4.) Scott Baker, RHP
5.) Kevin Slowey, RHP
Closer: Joe Nathan, RHP
Key Setup Man: Pat Neshek, LHP

I think it just hit me when I typed in the Twins lineup. This team has switched places with the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals don’t have a lot of big names on their roster, and yet for some reason I expect them to achieve respectability. The Twins, meanwhile, have a couple of pretty solid hitters on their roster, and yet I can’t imagine a scenario where they’ll achieve much better than a fourth place finish. It’s more than a little reminiscent of when the Royals used to have Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney when Sweeney could still hit. How does this team keep failing?

Oh right. The starting pitching. The team’s de facto ace is recovering from Tommy John Surgery and will start the year in the minor leagues as he tries to get his velocity back. The number two pitcher in the starting rotation for the Minnesota Twins is Livan Hernandez. In 2008. Seriously. I don’t think the Royals were ever this bad. At least they usually had Kevin Appier or something. Livan is worse. Much worse. In fact, if the Twins gave Appier a call and asked him if he wanted to come back and pitch, I wouldn’t blame them. Maybe they could get Jeff Suppan from Milwaukee, too. Just get it over with.

On a personal note, I hope that if things do go as sour for this team as I’m anticipating, that former Mets farmhand Kevin Mulvey gets the call to the Big Leagues so he can be beaten with little mercy, perhaps at the hands of the Detroit Tigers. In case any Twins fans reading this were optimistic of Mulvey’s chances to be an impactful big leaguer, I present to you this damaging sequence of thoughts: I raked against Mulvey in high school tryouts. And I didn’t even make the team. And this is what you got for Johan Santana.

It’s going to be a long year in Minnesota.

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