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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mike Bradley: AL Central Preview

Last season, the Detroit Tigers made all the offseason noise with the trade for superstud Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, supposedly fortifying an already formidable lineup and rotation with even more established talent. Unfortunately for them, the big splash bought them a last place finish and a lot more money on the payroll. Meanwhile, the White Sox and Twins battled to a tie for the division, which resulted in a Chicago playoff win, the Indians salvaged a .500 season, and the Kansas City Royals, showed a pulse by finishing outside of last place for the first time since 2003. 

With the Tigers dying to prove last year was a fluke, the Twins trying to win the division with their small-market methods, the Indians looking for a bounce-back in their own right, and the White Sox looking to assert their division dominance once again, the AL Central could shape up to be the most competitive division in baseball. Oh, and here's to hoping the Royals continue to work their way back to relevancy. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the AL Central:

1. Cleveland Indians 91-71

This time last year, the Indians were looking towards a year of watching Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner put up runs in bunches behind the pitching efforts of CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook. Instead, Hafner and Martinez battled inconsistency and injuries over the whole season to combine for a grand total of 7 home runs and 59 RBI. CC Sabathia found himself packing for Milwaukee while Carmona and Westbrook combined for 27 starts total. Luckily for them, Cliff Lee's 22 win Cy Young effort and Grady Sizemore's 33 HR-38 SB season was able to salvage a .500 record for the fortunate Indians. A few experts had predicted (quite incorrectly, to say the least) the Indians to be the AL representatives in the World Series. While I won't go that far this year, I do like the Indians' chances in the American League. Lee looked like he put it all back together last year after a demoralizing year spent in the minors, and there shouldn't be much drop-off as he leads a staff with seemingly healthier pitchers Carmona and Carl Pavano, as well as young guns Anthony Reyes (former Cardinals top prospect) and Aaron Laffey. The bullpen also finally found their end game solution in Kerry Wood. If he can stay healthy, he'll be a welcome addition to the subtraction of Joe Borowski's inflated ERA. With Jensen Lewis, Masa Kobayashi, and Adam Miller anchoring the middle innings, the pitching corp looks prepared for the long haul this time around. The offense is another story, however. Grady Sizemore is a known entity, but it's anybody's guess if Martinez and "Pronk" Hafner will bounce back. Between the two, Martinez is more likely to bounce back due to his age, his complete recovery from his injuries, and the team's plan to limit his time behind the plate. However, 31-year-old Hafner and his bum shoulder is the only thing keeping Cleveland from being the legitimate postseason contender everyone thought they were last year. The keyword there is postseason. The AL Central crown should be theirs for the taking.

2. Minnesota Twins 88-74

It's hard to understand how the last time the penny-pinching Twins always seem to be involved in the AL Central chase. Despite consistently sending one of the lowest payrolls in the game out onto the field, the Twins counter their financial ineptitude with masterful scouting, drafting, and player development. Homegrown talent like Joe Mauer,  Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel, as well as acquired prospects like Francisco Liriano and Carlos Gomez, look to lead the Twins to the playoffs after a heartbreaking tiebreaker loss to the White Sox in '08. With a full season of a healthier, craftier Liriano on the horizon, another year of smooth 9th innings behind Joe Nathan, and the continued progression of batting champion Mauer and former MVP Morneau, it's easy to see why there is so much hype around this team yet again. However, this team seems to have a bunch of flaws that will keep them from the ultimate success they hope to achieve. Even with Liriano anchoring the rotation, there doesn't seem to be enough behind him to get them over the hump. A lot of nice prospects seemed to cash in on their talent last year as Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Nick Blackburn all recorded double-digit wins for the team. But as the story usually with young pitchers, it's hard to envision all four of them sustaining their early success into the 2009 season. And outside of Morneau, Mauer, Kubel, and right fielder Michael Cuddyer, the Twins aren't going to put up a ton of runs. Will the young pitchers be able to maintain 1-0 and 2-1 leads over the course of a whole season? Will Carlos Gomez prove he was worth being the centerpiece for Johan Santana? Can Delmon Young keep his head on straight? Will Liriano be able to last a whole year? Too many uncertainties usually spell doom for a team battling for a playoff spot in a competitive division. Look for the Twins in 2010, not 2009.

3. Detroit Tigers 84-78

A year after the franchise's big splash and burn, the Tigers should finally get a little something out of their money. A wealth of starting pitching is one of the first things seen when looking at the Tigers. However, the biggest acquisition the Tigers need is the return to form of ace Justin Verlander. As he goes, the Tigers go. Behind him, you find pleasant rookie surprise Armando Galarraga, Jeremy Bonderman, ex-Rays fireballer Edwin Jackson, and then your choice of Dontrelle Willis, Zach Miner, Nate Robertson, or possibly pitching phenom Rick Porcello. If Willis can resemble even a shadow of his Florida self, the Tigers are looking at one of the most talented groups of young starters in the game. The bullpen is also poised to do big things as opposed to last year's debacle. Todd Jones and his 4.97 ERA are now enjoying he retired life, and a combination of Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney, and currently healthy flamethrower Joel Zumaya will be plugged into his slot. The hope is for Zumaya to grasp the role he was being groomed to take over before his slew of injuries. Clocked at 100+ MPH with relative ease, Zumaya's potential is endless if he can stay on the field and develop a secondary pitch. As far as offense goes, you immediately have to look at Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez as the primary contributers. Look for Cabrera to absolutely rake in his second time around in the American League. If Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and Curtis Granderson can consistently get on base and Gary Sheffield can provide some protection for Maggs and Cabrera, the Tigers offense has the potential to put up runs with the best of them. This team is young, for the most part, and this year will be a year to build upon.

4. Kansas City Royals 79-83

In one of the nicer stories of 2008, the Kansas City Royals made their most significant strides back to respectability. Recording over 70 wins for the first time since 2003, the kids in KC are looking to build on their newfound "success." When you're a team that doesn't score all that often, pitching is a must. While the Gil Meche signing seemed ludicrous at the time, he has done a nice job filling in as the veteran ace on the staff while Zach Greinke slowly realizes the lofty potential he always possessed. If Brian Bannister can right the ship, Luke Hochevar can follow in Greinke's footsteps and pitch to his ability, and Kyle Davies keeps them in as many games as possible, this rotation can do more than enough to get the Royals close to .500 this year. If the games stay close, the Royals will win a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games with the dominance of Joakim Soria holding down the 9th inning. But the problem with that is the Royals need to score runs in order to keep most games close. Outside of the disgruntled Jose Guillen's 93 RBI, the light-hitting David DeJesus was next in line with a paltry 73 ribbies. If the Royals are to make any progress, superstar-in-waiting Alex Gordon has to do better than 16 home runs and 59 RBI with a .260 average. A little more production from Billy Butler and Mark Teahen is also necessary for this team to get to where GM Dayton Moore promised they would achieve. It's a long process, but the Royals are well on their way. For now, they'll probably settle for two straight seasons out of the AL Central basement.

5. Chicago White Sox 76-86

Call them the anti-Rays. This is a notorious case of first-to-worst. And the Southsiders can blame GM Kenny Williams. In the biggest move of their offseason, the ChiSox traded Nick Swisher and his 24 home runs to the Yankees so Wilson Betemit could come over and back up an aging Konerko and a swing-happy Josh Fields. If that isn't a negative move, I don't know what is. With the Jermaine Dye trade rumors refusing to die, it's fairly obvious the White Sox want to move in a new direction. Carlos Quentin had a lovely breakout season, but it's hard to see him replicating his 36 homers with his wrist problems flaring up. With both Jim Thome and Konerko getting up there in age, it will be up to the young guns in Quentin and Josh Fields (assuming Dye goes somewhere). Alexei Ramirez is a nice player in the Alfonso Soriano mold, but just how much he can do for the team this year is up in the air. His long swing spells "strikeouts galore." As far as the pitching staff goes, Mark Buehrle is the undisputed ace of this staff with Javier Vazquez exiled to Atlanta. He's generally consistent, but looking for John Danks and Gavin Floyd to come close to their 2008 performance is wishful thinking at best. After a somewhat undesirable "Top 3," you have Bartolo Colon attempting a comeback in a different pair of Sox. Over/under 20 starts, smart money would be the under. Then the 5th spot in the rotation is up for grabs between the likes of Chris Richard, Lance Broadway, and the immortal Jose Contreras. It's a shame, because this staff, combined with a bullpen loaded with big names with spotty reputations, probably won't keep leads for Bobby Jenks to record more than 30 saves. I just see this team as one full of overachievers coming down to earth, aging veterans falling off, and power bullpen arms that can't stay away from the middle of the plate (See: Dotel, Octavio, and Linebrink, Scott). At least an underachieving White Sox team means quality sound bytes from Ozzie Guillen!

AL Central MVP: Miguel Cabrera

AL Central Cy Young: Fausto Carmona

AL Central Rookie of the Year: Kila Ka'aihue and Matt LaPorta

AL Central Best Mullet: Magglio Ordonez (Unanimously) *

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