Hello again everybody...
Welcome to Wednesday. Or is it Thursday? Let me explain...
I have Friday off because I've got a ticket to the Twins' exhibition game at Target Field versus the St. Louis Cardinals. So while the calendar says “Wednesday”, it's technically my Thursday.
I mention it because as we get closer to Friday, it appears possible that Mother Nature's not going to cooperate with the Twins' plans. The grounds crew had a Monday press conference where they assured the assembled media that the field would be able to handle anything Mother Nature might throw at it. That's all well and good, but I've never had to wear a poncho to a baseball game before. I'm not complaining mind you. I'm actually kind of curious to see how it's all going to work out. Unless there's a tornado bearing down on that part of Minneapolis, I'm definitely going to be at Target Field on Friday.
I'll have more on that for you on Monday. But today, I've got one more division to look at in my 2010 MLB Preview series. Today I look at the AL Central. The Twins have played in two straight Game 163's. Will they finally be able to win the division in 162 games? Will the Tigers finally win the Central crown? Will the White Sox get back into the hunt? I've got that and plenty more!
Let's do this...
”I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”
- Augusten Burroughs (1965 - ), American writer
Sounds a lot like my picks now that I think about it.
Speaking of which, it's time for my...
2010 MLB Preview: AL Central
Last year's AL Central preview can be read here.
In 2009, I correctly predicted the winner of the AL Central. Little did I know it would take 163 games for the Twins to confirm my prediction. But it still counts!
So how are they going to finish in 2010? I think it'll end up something like...
1. Minnesota Twins: Last year the Twins went 87-76, won the AL Central and lost to the New York Yankees in the ALDS.
The Twins entered Spring Training as clearly the most balanced team in the AL Central. That changed when we found out that closer Joe Nathan was going to require season-ending elbow surgery. That being said, I still think they're the clear favorite in the division.
CF Denard Span will be the lead-off hitter again this season. Spans .311 batting average, .392 on-base percentage, 23 stolen bases and 10 triples in 2009 earned him a new 6-year contract from the Twins. It's a deal he deserved, and a deal I have no doubt he'll continue to earn. Batting second will be newly-acquired 2B Orlando Hudson. Hudson hit .283 with the Dodgers last year and earned his second All-Star berth. He'll help the Twins solidify that 2nd spot, as well as combine with J.J. Hardy to form a formidable double-play combination. C Joe Mauer (he of the 8-year extension, thank the maker) will hit third. What am I going to say about Mauer? He's in the discussion of the best players in the game. Yeah, I guess he can hit third. 1B Justin Morneau hits clean-up. Morneau missed the end of last season with a balky back. He's back (damn you Lon) and healthy, and won't have to run on turf anytime soon. That can only benefit his health. DH Jason Kubel hits fifth. Kubel had a sneaky-great season last year, hitting an even .300 with 28 home runs and 103 RBI. And now, without the outfield log-jam they had last year, Kubel should get even more regular at-bats. RF Michael Cuddyer hits sixth. Actually, he and Kubel may flip sometimes to break up the Twins parade-o-lefties. It makes it much tougher for opposing managers to bring in a lefty-specialist if they have to contend with Cuddyer amidst all those left-handed hitters. LF Delmon Young will hit seventh. Young's had a big Spring, and may finally be ready to realize his potential. If he does, it makes the Twins' line-up very dangerous. As to those speculating that Jim Thome will take over full-time DH duties while Kubel heads to left to replace Delmon? Not unless somebody gets hurt folks. That's not the role they brought Thome in to fill. SS J.J. Hardy hits eighth. Hardy came over in an off-season trade for Carlos Gomez and I couldn't have been more pleased with the deal. I was never a huge fan of GoGo's, and if Hardy is fully healthy and able to return to his previous form, it'll be a steal for Minnesota. 3B Brendan Harris (or Nick Punto depending on the day) will hit ninth.
The Twins rotation is utterly devoid of a true Ace. That being said, they might have the deepest stable of starters in the division. Scott Baker returns as the number-one pitcher. Baker would probably be better served as a second or third pitcher, but by virtue of his experience if nothing else, he'll be the top guy for the Twins. Carl Pavano re-signed with the Twins in the off-season. He went 5-4 with a 4.64 ERA for the Twins last season. Not great numbers, but he owned the Tigers, and threw a total of 199 innings in 2009. And for those reasons alone, he's of value to Minnesota. Nick Blackburn throws third. Blackburn's coming off his second-straight 11-11 season. In 2008 he had a 4.05 ERA, in 2009, he had a 4.03 ERA. If nothing else, the guy's consistent! And a solid number-3 pitcher to boot. Kevin Slowey returns from his arm injury to pitch fourth. Slowey's had a great Spring for the Twins, and I'm sure expectations are high. In a utterly predictable move, Francisco Liriano is the 5th starter. Liriano's name had surfaced related to the now vacant closers spot, but the Twins would be nuts to put him there, at least not unless they have no other option. Starting pitching is flat-out more valuable than relief pitching, so the Twins will give Liriano every chance to be an effective starter before moving him to the bullpen.
Speaking of that bullpen, we still don't know who the closer's going to be. Manager Ron Gardenhire said over the weekend that he'll start with a “closer by committee”, meaning that Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain will all get looks in the 9th inning. Whoever steps up and performs well in that role will likely make it more permanent as the season goes along. I guess that's a decent way to handle it, only it means that the guys will come to the ballpark every day not knowing for sure what their role's going to be. Jose Mijares will be the lefty-specialist. Pat Neshek will be the designated “weird wind-up” guy. And free agent Clay Condrey is going to get a chance in the regular season to show he doesn't suck as much as he did during the Spring (read: expect a quick call-up for Anthony Slama after Condrey's eventual release).
Bottom Line: The Minnesota line-up can score runs, their starting staff is deep and the bullpen has talent, if not a designated closer. I'm not saying they'll run away with the division, but I truly believe if they stay healthy, they'll win it.
2. Chicago White Sox: Last year Chicago went 79-83 and finished third in the AL Central.
After Joe Nathan's injury, Chicago has become a chic pick to win the Central. Their starting staff is certainly impressive. But their line-up isn't as deep as Minnesota's and I don't think their bullpen is markedly better.
LF Juane Pierre left the Dodgers to join Chicago. He doesn't take quite as many walks as you'd like from a lead-off guy, but he more than makes up for it with his speed and high average. He'll be a solid addition for the Whities. 2B Gordon Beckham hits second. Beckham finished 5th in last year's Rookie of the Year balloting and will be trying to avoid the sophomore slump. RF Carlos Quentin will likely hit third. Quentin was in line for the 2008 MVP before getting hurt, then struggled with health issues again last year and only hit .236. So which Quentin is Chicago going to get? I have no idea, and I doubt they do either. 1B Paul Konerko hits fourth. Konerko's not “done” per se, but he's closer to the end than to his prime. C and all around pain-in-the-ass A.J. Pierzynski hits fifth. A.J.'s never been the greatest defensive catcher in the world, but the kid can still rake. DH Andruw Jones hits sixth. Jones may hold the key to the White Sox offensive prospects. If he shows the kind of power he had last year with Texas, Chicago could score plenty of runs. But if you build a line-up around trusting Andruw Jones? You've got troubles. CF Alex Rios hits seventh. Rios didn't show much after coming over in a trade from Toronto last year. Plus he costs a lot of money. Perfect! 3B Mark Teahen hits eighth. He'll just be happy to be out of Kansas City. SS Alexi Ramirez hits ninth.
Chicago's greatest strength will be their rotation. Mark Buehrle can be had. He can also be perfect as he showed last season. Jake Peavy is finally healthy and ready to take over the number-two role. If Chicago gets the pre-injury Peavy, then they'll have a phenomenal one-two punch. If they get a somewhat less-effective Peavy, they'll still be pretty damned good. John Danks pitches third. Danks was the winning pitcher in Game 163 in 2008. I still hate him for that. Gavin Floyd could pitch second or third on most clubs, but on the White Sox he goes fourth. Freddy Garcia will likely pitch fifth. That's a damned-solid rotation, no doubt.
The bullpen is still anchored by closer Bobby Jenks. Jenks' save numbers have decreased the last three years running. He's serviceable, but not the dominant closer it appeared he might become back in 2007. J.J. Putz comes over from his failed time with the Mets. If he's healthy, he'll be a valuable addition. Tony Pena, Matt Thornton and Scott Linebrink form a solid core.
Bottom Line: If Chicago's line-up comes together, they'll be dangerous. I just don't think they have quite as much potential as the Twins. But they'll be in the mix for most of the year.
3. Detroit Tigers: Last year the Tigers went 86-77 and finished second in the AL Central.
Two years ago I picked the Tigers to win it all, and they sucked. Last year I picked them to finish fifth in the division and they were in contention until the Twins beat them in Game 163. So I figure my safest bet is to pick them in the middle of division. Make sense? I thought so. The Tigers have taken a step back losing Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Edwin Jackson and Fernando Rodney. But while they try to compete in 2010, they're really looking ahead to next season when they'll have some dead-weight off the payroll and a lot of young talent to build around.
Rookie CF Austin Jackson will likely lead off for the Tigers this season. That's a lot to ask of a rookie, but there's a reason that Detroit felt comfortable sending Granderson to the Yankees. This kid's got loads of talent, but we'll have to wait and see how he adjusts to life in the big leagues. LF Johnny Damon comes over from Boston (whom I hate) as a free agent and will bat second. Damon's not a great defensive player - if you're a runner on first, and there's a ball hit to deep left, don't even look, just take third - but he can still get it done at the plate. Comerica Park won't help his power numbers, but count on Damon spraying the ball all over that park in 2010. RF Magglio Ordonez seems to have lost his power, but still hits for a solid average. Detroit can't wait to be rid of his contract, but for now, he's their best bet in the 3-hole. 1B Miguel Cabrera has slid away from the bar (What? Too soon?) long enough to be asked to clean-up for the Tigers. His .324/34/103 certainly warrant it. But given the off-field distractions he's been prone to, I wonder how much the Tigers can trust him? DH Carlos Guillen hits fifth. Guillen missed half of 2009 with injuries and at 33, you have to wonder how much he really has left. 3B Brandon Inge is a guy it's tough not to root for. He's one of those guys who may not have a ton of talent, but works his tail off and doesn't leave anything on the bench. He'll hit sixth. C Gerald Laird hits seventh. He doesn't add much from the plate, but he's a solid signal caller. Former Twin SS Adam Everett hits eighth. He's light in the bat as well, but is a plus-defensive player. 2B Scott Sizemore rounds out the line-up.
Justin Verlander is still there as Detroit's ace. He went 19-9 with a 3.45 ERA in 2009. That was good for third in the Cy Young balloting. He might be the best arm in the division, and I say that knowing that Zack Greinke won the Cy Young last year. Greinke's good, but Verlander's been doing it longer. Call them 1 and 1A if you must. Rick Porcello becomes Detroit's number-two pitcher. Porcello had an outstanding first half of 2009 in his rookie campaign. The second half? He was still good, but the strain of the long Major League season clearly affected him. How he adjusts in his sophomore season will help determine the quality of the Tiger staff in 2010. Max Scherzer comes over from Arizona to become Detroit's number-three pitcher. Scherzer showed a ton of promise in Arizona, but like most rookies had trouble reacting to batters adjusting based on scouting reports. Manager Jim Leyland has a record of cultivating quality pitching-staffs, so perhaps he'll have an good influence on Scherzer. Jeremy Bonderman will pitch fourth (Gatorade jugs beware). Dontrelle Willis finally locked down the fifth starter spot (talk about your bad contracts... oof).
Jose Valverde comes over from Houston to close games for Detroit. He's the best closer they've had in a while in Detroit. The only question is whether the line-up will be able to score enough to get him opportunities. Joel Zumaya is putting down Guitar Hero long enough to set up for Valverde. With Rodney gone, that job's Zumaya's as long as he can stay healthy. The rest of Detroit's bullpen is rather unremarkable, although Fu-Te Ni may make the WftC All-Name Team in the very near future.
Bottom Line: As I mentioned earlier, this is sort of a year for Detroit to tread water. If they are close to contending near the trade deadline maybe they'll try to bring in some bats to go with their pitching. If not, they'll play out the string and look forward to an active off-season leading in to 2011.
4. Kansas City Royals: Last year the Royals went 65-97 and tied for fourth in the AL Central.
Picking between the Royals and the Indians is a coin-flip. Cleveland's offense is probably a little better, but Kansas City likely has the edge in pitching. Since I lean more towards pitching and defense, I'll go with Kansas City in fourth place.
LF Scott Podsednik hit .304 for the White Sox last year and should greatly upgrade the lead-off spot for KC. C Jason Kendall resuscitated his career with Milwaukee the last two seasons... to a point. He's got virtually no power left (his on-base percentage is higher than his slugging percentage), but he's a decent contact hitter and knows how to handle a pitching staff. Both things the Royals desperately need. RF David DeJesus hit 13 home runs to go with 71 RBI for Kansas City last year. On the Royals, that's good enough to hit third. 1B Billy Butler cleans up. He has as much power as anyone in this line-up, and as you might expect, strikes out a bunch too. Not at a Mark Reynolds clip, but more than you'd care for from a kid entering his fourth full season in the majors. DH Jose Guillen hits fifth. The best thing I can say about Guillen? Now that Milton Bradley's back in the AL, Guillen's no longer the “most likely to kill a teammate - AL” designate. 3B Alberto Callaspo hits sixth, replacing Alex Gordon who once again was bitten by the injury bug this Spring. CF Rick Ankiel comes over from St. Louis and will be an intriguing figure in Kansas City's line-up. Ankiel made the transition from pitcher to position-player at the highest level possible, which shows his potential. But so far, he's struggled to stay healthy. If he can play a full season with the Royals, he'll be a great acquisition. I'm just not counting on it. SS Yuniesky Betancourt (another All-Name candidate) and 2B Chris Getz fill out the line-up.
1 through 4, the Royals pitching rotation has the potential to be pretty good. Zack Greinke won the Cy Young last year and deservedly so. Can he repeat that effort in 2010? I don't see why he can't. I'm not sure Gil Meche has really earned the 5-year $55 million contract he signed, but 2009 was the first time he didn't top 200-innings for Kansas City, and his value as a guy who goes deep into games shouldn't be underestimated. Luke Hochevar will be key for Kansas City this year. The kid dominates at triple-A, but hasn't been able to translate that success to the big leagues yet. If he can do that, Kansas City suddenly has a formidable rotation. Brian Bannister's numbers don't knock you out, but he's decent for a fourth starter. Kyle Davies will likely pitch fifth.
The bullpen is solid at the end, but soft in the middle. Joakim Soria is a young, quality closer. Juan Cruz is a solid set-up guy. But it'll be bridging the gap from the starters to them that will cost Kansas City some wins this season. Kyle Farnsworth is worthless (forgive the play on words). Matt Herges might be okay. Outside of that, you've never heard of the rest of the guys. Not good.
Bottom Line: Kansas City has been down so long, that I'd sort of like to see them get good again. But it's not going to happen this season. The best they can hope for is to not finish last.
5. Cleveland Indians: The Tribe went 65-97 last season and finished tied for fourth in the AL Central.
Cleveland was supposed to be a contender last season. Instead, things fell apart and they finished tied with the Royals. They traded Cliff Lee. They traded Victor Martinez. And now it's full-on rebuilding-time for the Indians.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (a fixture on the All-Name Team) leads off for Cleveland. Cabrera had his best season in the majors last year, and should be the Indians' shortstop for years to come. CF Grady Sizemore likely hits second. Sizemore played in only 106 games last season due to injury, and his numbers clearly suffered for it. RF Shin-Soo Choo hits third. Choo doesn't look like he should have a lot of power, but he hit 20 home runs last year, and in this line-up? That's pretty good. DH Travis Hafner is clinging to his career. He's played in 151 games... in the last two seasons combined. But he's signed for a lot of money, so Cleveland's got to give him a shot to play. 3B Jhonny Peralta hits fifth. No, that's not a typo, that's how Jhonny spells his name. 1B Matt LaPorta was the key to the CC Sabathia trade two years ago, and finally will get a full-time shot in the big leagues. LF Michael Brantley hits seventh. He played in only 28 games last year, so technically this will be his rookie year. C Lou Marson and 2B Luis Valbuena round out the line-up.
Pitching is where Cleveland really runs into problems. Jake Westbrook is their number-one pitcher. Westbrook didn't pitch at all last year. And he's made only 30 starts in the last three years. And this is Cleveland's number-one guy? Oh my. Fausto Carmona has always been full of promise - witness his 137 strikeouts in 2007. But for whatever reason, he's never been able to fully harness his natural ability. Perhaps it's a case of “million-dollar arm” and “ten-cent head”? I don't know. Whatever it is, I have no reason to think that he'll figure it out in 2010. Justin Masterson came to Cleveland last season in the Victor Martinez trade. He proceeded to go 1-7 in 10 starts with a 4.55 ERA. If Masterson couldn't win consistently with Boston's (whom I hate) offense, I'm not sure how he's going to do it with Cleveland's. Mitch Talbot has only seen action in three big league games... for Tampa. Why wouldn't you make him your fourth starter? David Huff actually went 11-8 for Cleveland last year. And he's pitching fifth? Wow.
Kerry Wood returns to close games for Cleveland... at some point... for a bit... then I'm pretty sure he'll re-take his designated spot on the Disabled List. Here's how I know this will happen... two reasons actually: one, Kerry Wood always gets hurt, and two, if Wood finishes 55 games, it triggers an $11 million option in his contract. Think Cleveland wants to pay that? Mmm, nope. Chris (don't call me David) Perez fills in until Wood is healthy enough (a relative term) to go. David Perez is also in that bullpen. Boy, I bet that has to be uncomfortable. I'm sure there'll be some other arms in Cleveland's 'pen, but at the time I left Arizona, they hadn't finished conducting the “pay us $5 and win a chance to pitch in Cleveland's bullpen” contest, so I can't tell you exactly who'll they'll be.
Bottom Line: I like “Major League” as much as any baseball fan, but Willie Mays Hayes, Rick Vaughn, Pedro Cerano, and Jake Taylor aren't coming through that door. Fans of the Tribe should take heart. Usually when I cheap shot a team as much as I did in this preview, they do pretty well. So you have a shot!
So there you have them. My predictions for the 2010 AL Central. That wraps up all six divisions. But wait, there's still one more column before Opening Day, right?!
Yes, you are correct my dear, dear readers. Friday brings my playoff predictions. Sure you know who I think the six division winners will be, but there are two Wild Cards to predict, as well as a World Champion to select. Tune in Friday to find out who I like to win it all!
Until then, thanks for reading!