We are all too aware of how the race for the American League Central ended last year. If Ryan Raburn plays that ball on a hop. If Placido Polanco gets the extra centimeter to grab that double play ball in the hole. If home plate umpire Randy Marsh does his job and sees the Olde English D ripple as the baseball grazes Brandon Inge’s jersey. If Nick Punto is a hair late on that chopper up in the middle..ah, what could have been. New year, guys.
The American League Central has been one of the most competitive divisions in all of baseball. This year is no exception. There is simply no clear favorite. Let’s take a look.
2009 Record: 87-76, 1st AL Central
2009 AL MVP Joe Mauer will take his rightful place behind home plate, secure in the new addition to the Twins filing cabinet…an 8-year $184-million contract. Mauer was the first catcher to lead either league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in the same year. Oh yeah, he won a gold glove too. Mauer, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Michael Cuddyer, and OF/DH Jason Kubel all hit 28+ home runs last year. The Power is there.
Consistency remains in the form of developing centetrfielder Denard Span. Span hit .311 last year, while getting on-base close to .400 and stealing 23 bases. He continues to patrol centerfield with ease, and is a valuable leadoff hitter.
A brand new middle infield. The Twins added free agent JJ Hardy, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, to replace Orlando Cabrera at shortstop. They also brought in free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers. At the very least, this solidifies the Twins defensively up the middle. Mauer, Hardy, Hudson and Span are all above average defenders, and perhaps one of the best defensive middles in baseball.
Jim Thome was brought in as a free agent to play a role of Designated Hitter, adding power and depth to the Twins dangerous lineup.
For starters…the Starters. The Twins were the second only to the Indians for worst starter ERA within the division in 2009. They were 23rd in Major League baseball overall. With no designated staff ace, the Twins are relying on names like Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and the resurgence of Francisco Liriano.
Joe Nathan has been lost for the season. In winning 5 of the last 8 divsion titles, the Twins have relied heavily on their bullpen, namely Nathan, who has compiled a 1.77 ERA against the division since ’04. The Twins are now relying on Joe Raunch among a committee of closers.
The Twins don’t have the Metrodome. Enough idolizing of the Twins lineup. No one, NO ONE, has any idea how their games will translate to 81 more outdoor games. The friendly confines of the Metrodome padded statistics with its fast turf and short porch. We’ll see how pitchers react to 30 degree weather, and hitters react to that thing that real baseball is played on..what is it..uhh..oh, grass.
2009 Record: 86-77, 2nd AL Central
The Tigers pitching can compete with the best in the division. They boast staff ace Justin Verlander and his major league leading 269 strikeouts and admirable 3.45 ERA. Sophomore Rick Porcello had a phenomenal rookie campaign, compiling an ERA below 4.00, and winning 15 games, including, a gutsy start in game 163. Behind them is high-ceiling fireballer Max Scherzer, 2006 phenom Jeremy Bonderman, and rollercoaster Dontrelle Willis. Should any of these starters struggle, the Tigers depth in pitching is among the best.
The Tigers bullpen looks in ’06 form as well. A healthy Joel Zumaya, hitting 102 MPH this spring, joins reliable free agent closer Jose Valverde to solidify the 8th and 9th innings. When the Tigers get leads, barring injuries, it’s hard to see them losing them.
In the trade the sent Curtis Granderson to New York and Edwin Jackson to Arizona, the Tigers are welcoming prospect Austin Jackson to centerfield, fireballers Daniel Schlereth and Max Scherzer, as well as lefty specialist Phil Coke. The Tigers received 4 high-ceiling players with 22 years in contracts.
The Tigers signed Yankee free agent outfielder and grizzly veteran Johnny Damon to a 1-year, $8 million contract.
Taking over the closer role is reliable veteran Jose Valverde. Valverde posted a 2.33 ERA with 25 saves in Houston last year. 9th innings have never looked better.
Rookie Scott Sizemore, fresh off years of grooming on the farm, will take over duties at second base for the Tigers.
An offense that struggled to score runs in 2009 lost their first and second hitters. Not to mention, one had 30 home runs and one was a perennial .300 hitter who was known for his timely hitting.
The Tigers are looking to rookie Austin Jackson to leadoff. Jackson has never had an at-bat in the major leagues. The leadoff hole is a tough place for learning curves. Often times young hitters want to go up swinging and not have to worry about working the count or working in tough counts.
Outside Johnny Damon and Miguel Cabrera, there are numerous question marks surrounding the Tiger lineup. Who will get on base? Who will come up with timely hits? Where will they find power? If Magglio Ordonez cannot find his power stroke, and injury-prone Carlos Guillen cannot stay healthy, this team very well may score the least runs in the American League.
Kansas City Royals
2009 Record: 65-97, 4th AL Central
2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke is the ace of the staff. Every 5th day, the Royals can count on having a true stopper.
1B/DH Billy Butler hit 21 home runs and had and .853 OPS last year in a lineup that otherwise is rather weak. He’s got a clean stroke, and, at 23 years of age, is entering the prime of his career.
OF David Dejsus continues to be a true professional. He hit .280 last year, gets on base, and plays the game to a fundamental perfection.
The Royals have signed a couple veterans this off-season, perhaps to help move along youngsters like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Patrolling centerfield will be former Cardinal Rick Ankiel. In left, former White Sock Scott Podsednik. Behind the plate will be tested veteran Jason Kendall.
All these guys will serve a purpose in 2010. Ankiel will really help them defensively, and also provide some pop that the Royals were lacking in 2009. Podsednik is a guy that I would want on any team of mine. He hits .300, he steals bases, he plays good defensive–he’s yet another true professional. Kendall is obviously not who he once was, but the Royals hope he can provide some average numbers to move this team along.
After Greinke, the Royals are really thin. Gil Meche has not been the starter the Royals once thought he would be (in fairness he has been slowed by shoulder problems). In 2009 he posted over a 5.00 ERA. Brian Bannister has good stuff, but has yet to figure out how to put it together for a full season. He walks way too many hitters. After that, relative unknowns in Luke Hochevar (6.55 ERA in 25 games) and Kyle Davies (5.27 ERA). Hochevar has shown brilliant stretches, but overall is marked by inconsistency.
Outside of Billy Butler, it’s a pretty dull lineup in terms of power. They will have guys on base, as Podsednik and Dejesus are at the top. Getting them home will be an issue, especially facing rotations like the Tigers and White Sox for so many games.
The Royals don’t have a dependable bridge to their sensational closer Jakim Soria, either.
Chicago White Sox
2009 Record: 79-83, 3rd AL Central
The starting rotation allowed the second fewest runs in the American League in 2009. Now they have a healthy Jake Peavy, who they acquired from the Padres in July, for a full season. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Freddy Garcia round out the rotation. Buehrle posted a 3.84 ERA last year, over a horse-like 213 innings.
Not only will the White Sox be difficult to score on early, but their bullpen will be tough late. J.J. Putz joins a healthy Bobby Jenks and Matt Thorton at the back end of the pen. They will hold onto leads.
Saying goodbye to Jermaine Dye and Scott Podsednik, the White Sox will be asking a lot of newcomers Juan Pierre, Mark Teahen, and Andruw Jones.
Pierre comes off a fantastic season where he was asked to fill the shoes of Manny Ramirez, and did a better than adequate job. Teahan has been a fundamentally solid player for Kansas City, and don’t expect anything different as he moves Gordon Beckham to 2B in the windy city.
The Sox ranked 12th in the American league in runs scored last year, and they have just said goodbye to power hitter Jermaine Dye. Paul Konerko struggled in the second-half of the season last year, hitting just .243, although he did hit 28 home runs in 2009. Alex Rios hit just .199 for the Sox after being acquired from the Blue Jays.
Andruw Jones is a huge question mark at designated hitter, as he certainly has not been the same Andruw Jones that used to patrol centerfield in Atlanta.
Much like the Tigers, it’ll be interesting to see if the White Sox can find runs. They will be asking a lot of Konerko, Pierre, and Carlos Quentin.
2009 Record: 65-97, 5th AL Central
The Indians have two of the most dynamic players in the division in centerfielder Grady Sizemore and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo.
Sizemore was limited to just 106 games last year after suffering a shoulder injury, but is healthy and looking to pick up on his 2008 season in which he blasted 33 home runs, and stole 38 bases. Choo often goes overlooked in the Central. Last year he hit .300, had 20 home runs, and 21 stolen bases. He is a very dynamic 3 hitter.
Also, Asdrubal Cabrera has been a very valuable shortstop for the Tribe, as he hit over .300 last year.
Mitch Talbot was once a highly regard prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. After being traded to the Indians in the off-season, Talbot posted a 0.79 ERA this spring.
Journeyman power hitter Russell Branyan is back with the Tribe. Although he only hit .250, he did blast 31 home runs last year with the Mariners.
The Indians rotation does not have one starter who can be deemed reliable. Staff “ace” Jake Westbrook has not thrown a pitch since May 2008 when he was forced to have Tommy John surgery. Fausto Cormona has been an absolute disaster after his 19-8 campaign in 2007. Justin Masterson will be getting his first opportunity to start since being traded to the Indians from the Red Sox. Despite his high-ceiling, it’s tough to imagine the Tampa Bay Rays letting Mitch Talbot go for Kelly Shoppach if they didn’t believe there was something that kept him from being a star at the major league level. The back of the rotation isn’t even worth mentioning at this point.
The bullpen was horrendous last season. Southpaw Rafael Perez was not the specialist/setup man the Indians once thought, and Kerry Wood will once again be opening the season on the disabled list.
After making the organizational decision to rebuild, the Indians have said goodbye to fan favorite and cornerstone Victor Martinez. They now can only hope for a resurgence from guys like Travis Hafner. Asdrubal Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta are also going to be heavily relied upon.
2010 AL Central Projection
1. Minnesota Twins
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians
Same order as last year, friends. Unfortunately, as much as it pains me to say it, the Twins are the team to beat right now. I am in no way sold, especially considering the outdoor stadium and that rotation. Bullpen Talk said this about the Twins rotation, “The rotation features a couple kids who have some promise.” We not only disagree, but invite anyone to make a case for what “promise” means. This is a rotation that was 23rd in the league in ERA, and second to last in its own division. Their pitching is NOT something to be feared, nor is their bullpen without Joe Nathan.
That being said, the Twins order is something to be feared. Although I believe the stadium will affect some, their are too many productive players in that lineup not to score runs in bunches. Morneau, Mauer, Cuddyer, Kubel, Thome–it goes on and on.
The Tigers will be in this thing all season, which will make for a wonderful summer in the D. The good news is there is no team in this division that is a finished product. There are question marks with every team. Maybe, just maybe, their pitching will be as good as it can be, and their hitters will do just enough to take the crown in 2010.