Wednesday

4-1-09: 2009 MLB Preview: AL Central

(Ed.'s note: Blogger's spell-checker decided it didn't want to work today. Please forgive any spelling errors.)

Hello again everybody...

It's mid-week time again. Happy April to you all. No worries, there won't be any April fools jokes here. Unless you think my picks are that lousy. But hopefully you have a little more faith in me than that. Okay, a very little more faith. Some more faith? Any more faith?! Oh hell, never mind!

Today marks the 6th edition of the 2009 MLB Preview and the final divisional predictions. After today all that's left is to break down the playoffs. Opening day is Monday! (Okay, there's a game on ESPN Sunday night, but just because Bud Selig chooses to screw with a perfectly good tradition, doesn't mean I have to acknowledge it!)

So let's get to the previewing!

"Maturity is only a short break in adolescence."
- Jules Feiffer (1929 - ), American cartoonist and author


For some of us, the break is shorter than for others.

«Read More...»


Today's edition of the 2009 MLB Preview focuses on the division with my all-time favorite team: the Minnesota Twins. So without further ado, I give you...

2009 MLB Preview: AL Central

1. Minnesota Twins - Last year the Twins finished 88-75. They lost a play-in game to the Chicago White Sox and missed the playoffs.

I'm going to be accused of some homerism in this pick, and I accept that. I'd only point out that Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com senior writer Peter Pasquerelli have also chosen the Twins as their pick to win the Central. I said in an earlier preview column that those types of pundits don't seem to have any more success making predictions than I do, but I point them out as examples that I'm not going that far off the reservation.

So why am I picking the Twins to win the Central? To put it simply they were the best team in the division last year which actually made improvements in the off-season. Other teams also improved, but they were starting with less than the Twins had.

The rotation is back intact. Scott Baker will open the season for the Twins on Monday and he'll be followed by Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins. Their lack of experience worried me last year, but they managed to not only survive the season, but they thrived in a pennant race, and that experience will be invaluable this season. There's a theory that pitchers tend to take a step back after their first season of big-time innings. If that happens to one or more of the Twins starters, that'll be a hit, but I haven't seen anything this Spring that makes me think it'll happen.

The line-up is improved from last year with one major addition: 3B Joe Crede. A White Sox fan I spoke with down in Arizona told me that the Twins won't get more than 85 games out of Crede due to his injury history. But from all reports I've read, the surgery he had this past off-season seems to have cleared up his back troubles. And the only injury he's dealt with during the Spring is a sore hand from getting hit by a pitch.

I say that he improves the line-up not only due to the addition of his bat, but because of what it does to the rest of the roster. In effect, adding him allows the Twins to have Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris/Matt Tolbert as depth instead of needing them to be everyday guys. That depth may be as important as the increased power Crede should provide at a corner infield spot.

And speaking of depth, few teams have as much in the outfield as the Twins do. Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gomez, Denard Span and Delmon Young have all shown enough to be a starting outfielder in the big leagues. And though he doesn't play the defense that those four do, Jason Kubel might hit better than any of them. So you have 5 guys who qualify to fill 4 spots (3 outfielders and a DH). That'll give manager Ron Gardenhire a challenge to try and keep everyone happy. But in the category of "problems you'd like to have", that rates pretty highly.

The only fear for the Twins line-up is the health of C Joe Mauer. "Inflammation of the Sacrociliac joint" is the diagnosis Mauer finally received after enough tests to qualify him for NASA astronaut training. Mauer won't be ready for opening day, but the Twins insist he's getting better and will be able to join the team sometime in April. If his injury drags out over the season, losing a batting champion will be a big blow to the Twins line-up and defense. But that seems to be an unlikely worse-case scenario.

Finally, there's the Minnesota bullpen. And that might be the team's weak spot. Closer Joe Nathan is as good as it gets. No problems there. And it looks like the long-relief spot actually has a lot of depth, even with the loss of Boof Bonser for the year due to injury. It's the middle relief that has Twins fans kvetching. Craig Breslow has the "situational lefty" spot nailed down. And he may be joined by Brian Duensing to add some depth there. It's the right-handed set-up guy that's up in the air. The Twins signed Luis Ayala in the off-season with the hopes that he'd be that guy. And he's been pretty good during the Spring. But you never really know what you've got until he faces competition for real. After him you've got Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier coming back, though neither one of them was able to make the role theirs last year.

Bottom Line: If the Twins get their bullpen sorted out and as long as Mauer doesn't miss any extended time, I think the Twins are the class of the Central. Call me a homer if you like, but there's a lot of talent on this club and I like the direction they're headed in.

2. Cleveland Indians - Last year the Indians finished 81-81. They were third in the AL Central and missed the playoffs.

The Indians are the other pick you'll hear most often for the Central. And there's no doubt that they've made some solid additions. But there are still some large question marks on this club, and that's why I'm picking them second.

Question mark number one is their rotation. Last year's AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee returns to anchor the staff. I'm not going to say that Lee's absolutely going to take a step backward, but his Spring ERA is in the double-digits. And if he's not the same as he was last year, this rotation gets awfully average in a hurry. Fausto Carmona is the Indians #2 starter. I saw him pitch down in Arizona. He's still got electric stuff, but his control is sketchy. He dominated White Sox batters most of the time, but walked way too many guys to be counted on over the long haul. Still, that's not a bad 1-2 combo. After that, the rotation goes Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes and Scott Lewis. Pavano is trying to come back after washing out with the Yankees. And if he's their 3rd best option, I can't get that excited about the Indians.

The Cleveland bullpen got a big boost with the addition of Kerry Wood as their closer. Beyond him, it's still pretty thin. And with Woods' history of injury troubles, if he goes down, I don't know what they're going to do at the end of games. Maybe they'll surprise me, but Cleveland's bullpen doesn't strike me as any better than the Twins'.

The other big addition for the Tribe was their new 3B Mark DeRosa who they got from the Cubs. DeRosa hit .285 with 21 home runs for the Cubs last year and will be an excellent edition to the Cleveland line-up. But those who tout the Indians as division champs are counting on bounce-back years from DH Travis Hafner and C Victor Martinez. Martinez I could see since he's still only 30 years old. But after seeing Hafner swing and miss, and swing and miss, and swing and miss in Spring Training, I'm of the opinion that he's cooked. And if they need him to compete, they're going to be in trouble. Grady Sizemore is still a solid player in center and Shin-Soo Choo had an excellent WBC with Korea and looks poised to break out in the big leagues.

Bottom Line: The Indians will be good. But there are far more questions about their team, especially in the pitching department, than with the Twins, so I'll pick them second.

3. Kansas City Royals - Last year the Royals finished 75-87. They were fourth in the AL Central and missed the playoffs.

If I had to pick a dark-horse in the Central it would be the Royals. I won't be the first person to draw parallels between the '09 Royals and the '08 Tampa Bay Rays, but I can see why it's a popular notion.

The major difference between the two clubs is their pitching. I still don't think Gil Meche is worth the $55 million he signed for, but he's a decent pitcher and will anchor their rotation. Zack Greinke seems to be over his struggles from the last few years and looked sharp in the start where I saw him. But the Royals' depth after those two is awfully questionable. Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister round out the top four. And winning the 5th spot battle? That would be the same Sidney Ponson who flamed out spectacularly for the Twins 2 years ago.

I do like the Royals line-up a lot. They traded for OF Coco Crisp in the off-season and he'll be their regular center fielder and lead-off man. Both roles he's excelled in previously. Plus his veteran presence will be welcome in an otherwise young locker room. David DeJesus and Jose Guillen make up the rest of the outfield. It's the Royals' infield that's stocked with talent. Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles, Mark Teahen and Mike Jacobs form a very young infield that's full of potential. C Miguel Olivo won't kill opposing teams with his bat, but he's a solid defensive catcher who'll help manage the younger pitchers on the staff.

The Royals' bullpen might be one of the better in the division. Joakim Soria is back for his second season as KC closer. He had some adventurous moments early last year, but by the end of the year, he looked pretty lights out to me. Juan Cruz joins the Royals from Arizona and Kyle Farnsworth signed on after several seasons with the Yankees. Both of which greatly improve KC's depth.

Bottom Line: I fully expect the Royals to exceed the 80-win mark, and if things fall just right, they could contend for the division title.

4. Chicago White Sox - Last year the White Sox finished 89-74. They won the AL Central and lost to Tampa Bay in the ALDS.

First to fourth?! Really?

Really.

The White Sox got markedly worse this off-season, and this may finally be the year that manager Ozzie Guillen goes completely off the deep end. Trust me, it will be entertaining if it happens.

In the outfield, the Sox are okay at the corners with Carlos Quentin, who was in line to win an MVP last year before he got hurt, and Jermaine Dye. But center is a mess. Dwayne Wise won the competition in Spring, but that was almost by default.

In the infield, Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrerra are gone from the left side. They're replaced by Josh Fields and Alexei Ramirez who moves over from second. Not an even swap. The light-hitting Chris Getz takes over at second. And the "well past his prime" Paul Konerko remains at first.

Jim Thome returns to DH and A.J. Pierzynski returns at catcher.

There are some elements to like in that line-up, but there are a lot of holes also.

The White Sox rotation is pretty good, but it's depth is pretty old. Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and John Danks are a solid top 3. After that, the Whities are counting on Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon to not be too old to function. Not a bet I'd take.

The bullpen is built around closer Bobby Jenks, who's not shabby at all. Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink form a decent core. Mike McDougal has shown flashes of talent, but can't seem to stay consistent.

Bottom Line: I may be under-rating Chicago a bit here, but I can't see where they got any better in the off-season. And in fact, I think they got worse. It won't shock me if they finish 3rd, but I think the Royals have enough to get by them.

5. Detroit Tigers - Last year the Tigers finished 74-88. They were 5th in the AL Central and missed the playoffs.

Last year I got suckered in by the Tigers on paper and picked them to win the World Series. In fact, when I think about it, as comical as my pick of the Mariners was, the Tigers might have been worse.

And they've done nothing in the off-season to make me think they'll be any better this year.

Pitching was the problem last year, and it looks to be unchanged this year. Justin Verlander struggled last year, but returns to try and anchor the rotation. Nate Robertson will start the season on the DL which leaves Edwin Jackson and Armando Galarraga to try and nail down the top 3 spots. And as for Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis? Also DL casualties. Bonderman may be back by the end of April. Willis might just be done.

Detroit's bullpen is equally as messed up. Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya began last year on the DL and never really got untracked. Zumaya's repeating that start this year. Rodney seems healthy but doesn't have much around him. Detroit signed Brandon Lyon from Arizona to be their closer, but he was lit up by NL hitting last year, and the AL hasn't treated him any more kindly this Spring. Also joining the Detroit pen? Juan Rincon. Let's see, flamed out with the Twins, flamed out with the Indians. Why not make a 3rd stop in the AL Central? That should work!

The Tiger line-up looked fantastic on paper last year, but in reality had all kinds of problems finding set roles for their hitters. They've tried adding Adam Everett for defense even though he can't hit. And they've recently added OF Josh Anderson from Atlanta to try and shore up their outfield. That trade resulted in Detroit cutting ties with OF/DH Gary Sheffield who's one home run short of 500. 1B Miguel Cabrera is a defensive liability, but may be the best hitter Detroit has. Unfortunately, I just don't think he's got the make-up to carry that team for long stretches of the season.

Bottom Line: Jim Leyland is an excellent manager, but there are rumors that he and GM Dave Dombrowski aren't seeing eye-to-eye. And to me, that spells trouble right from the off. Maybe Jim will have more time the summer to hit the horse track!

So that's the Central. I think it'll be the Twins. Others will say it's the Tribe. And for those of you who love a good underdog, keep an eye on the Royals.

Now you have your 6 division winners. Who'll be the Wild Card teams? And how will the playoffs play out? That's why you'll come back on Friday and find out!

Until then, thanks for reading!

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