March 20, 2008

A Look At The AL Central

The American League Central really is one of Baseball's most talented divisions. There are 4 legitimate playoff contending teams, two of which are arguably the best teams in the majors, and another team that looks like they are preparing to join the competition in another year or two. There's no doubt that the division is one of the best in the majors, and the Twins definitely have their work cut out for them if they plan on making any noise not only this year, but next few years as well.

Here's a look at the division, in order to my predictions of best to worst records.

Detroit Tigers

Projected Lineup:
CF - Curtis Granderson
2B - Placido Polanco
RF - Magglio Ordonez
3B - Miguel Cabrera
DH - Garry Sheffield
1B - Carlos Guillen
C - Ivan Rodriguez
SS - Edgar Renteria
LF - Jacque Jones/Marcus Thames
Projected Rotation:
1. Justin Verlander
2. Kenny Rogers
3. Jeremy Bonderman
4. Dontrelle Willis
5. Nate Robertson
Lineup: The Tigers made one of the biggest splashes of the off-season by acquiring Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins in return for a number of highly regarded prospects. The Tigers already very strong offense got a whole lot stronger with the addition of Cabrera who's one of the best young hitters in the Major Leagues. They also acquired Edgar Renteria from the Atlanta Braves. The move allows the Tigers to move regular shortstop Carlos Guillen to first base to replace Sean Casey. The one downfall against the Tigers is their extremely right-handed favored lineup, but that didn't matter in 2007 when they hit .285/.342/.452 as a team with Casey being the only left-hander who played regularly. This season, Jacque Jones is the lone left-hander with Carlos Guillen being a switch hitter, which gives them 2 (out of 9) batters who can bat from the left side. It should be interesting to see how they produce.

Rotation: The Tigers pitching staff really disappointed last season. Jeremy Bonderman had a great start going 9-1 with a 3.48 ERA in his first 16 starts, but he took a U-turn after the All-Star break and went 2-8 with a 7.39 ERA in his final 12 starts. Kenny Rogers was also dreadful after the All-Star Break as an injury delayed his start to the season, but went 3-0 with a 1.04 ERA in his first 3 starts, but went 0-4 with a 5.72 in his final (and next) 4 starts. Rogers seems to be fully healthy which should improve their rotation this season. The team also acquired Dontrelle Willis in their trade with the Marlins which also brought them Miguel Cabrera. Willis also had a rough 2007 season as he went 10-15 with a 5.17 ERA. But there's plenty of optimism surrounding him to rebound this season as the 26-year-old has a career 3.78 ERA and is 68-54 in his 162 career starts. The rotation is likely what will hold them back this season, but I think that their offense is strong enough to easily take them far into the playoffs, and if their pitching shows up at least a little bit, I think we'll be seeing the Tigers in the World Series.

Cleveland Indians

Projected Lineup:
CF - Grady Sizemore
2B - Asdrubal Cabrera
DH - Travis Hafner
C - Victor Martinez
1B - Ryan Garko
SS - Jhonny Peralta
3B - Casey Blake
LF - David Delucci/Jason Michaels
RF - Franklin Guitierrez
Projected Rotation:
1. C.C. Sabathia
2. Fausto Carmona
3. Jake Westbrook
4. Paul Byrd
5. Cliff Lee
Lineup: Grady Sizemore is a real treat for the Indians at the top of the lineup. In case you haven't noticed, both the top two teams have great lead-off hitters who also play great defense in center field. Sizemore should continue to blossom into one of the games best young hitters and better defenders in center field. The Indians lineup is very young and although they don't look as "beefy" as the Tigers lineup, however in 2007 the Indians hit one more home run that the Tigers. I doubt it's the same story this season, but the Indians still have one of the better all-around lineups in the game. They will definitely benefit from a more productive year by Travis Hafner in 2008 after a disappointing 2007 where he hit 18 less home runs and saw his average dip .42 points from 2006, despite playing in 23 more games in 2007.

Rotation: The Indians had the best one-two punch in the American League last season, and they also had the American League Cy Young Winner. Both C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona should come close to repeating their production in 2007. Paul Pyrd, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee all need to have better years if they want to win more games than the Tigers this season.

Minnesota Twins

Projected Lineup:
CF - Denard Span
C - Joe Mauer
RF - Michael Cuddyer
1B - Justin Morneau
LF - Delmon Young
DH - Jason Kubel/Craig Monroe
3B - Mike Lamb
2B - Brendan Harris
SS - Adam Everett
Projected Rotation:
1. Livan Hernandez
2. Scott Baker
3. Boof Bonser
4. Kevin Slowey
5. Francisco Liriano
Lineup: If you take a position by position analysis from a year ago, I think the Twins are going to be much better offensively. Obviously replacing both Torii Hunter and Jason Bartlett's production is going to be hard, but I think the Twins did a fine job by acquiring Delmon Young and Brendan Harris who could make people forget about the beloved center fielder and shortstop by years end. I know that many "experts" predict Young to hit close to 20 home runs this season, however I believe that he could easily hit 30 home runs this season. He's really improved his plate discipline this Spring and should get on base at a much higher clip than last year. Besides the additions of Harris and Young, the Twins also added Mike Lamb to replace Nick Punto as the starting third baseman and Craig Monroe will replace Jason Tyner as the platoon DH and 4th outfielder. I think the Twins will also benefit by having a healthy Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau should rebound after a dreadful second half.

Rotation: This is where things start to look dark for the Twins. What's been their strongest point for so long, now is their weakest. With the losses of Johan Santana, Carlos Silva and Matt Garza, the Twins don't seem to have a legitimate #1 starter, and even don't seem to have a true #2. Livan Hernandez was brought in to eat up innings, and looks to be Ron Gardenhire's choice as the opening day starter. Scott Baker had a successful season in 2007, but he's got to prove that it was not just a "hot streak" and he needs to continue to progress as a pitcher this season. Boof Bonser had a very disappointing 2007 season, but after losing nearly 30 lbs. this off-season, Bonser is determined to have a successful 2008. Kevin Slowey was one of the Minor League's best starting pitchers last season, but had a difficult time adjusting to Major League hitters. He has had a rocky time this spring, but he will likely earn his spot with a strong finish to Spring Training. Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Philip Humber seem to be in a strong competition for the #5 spot in the rotation. I think it's Liriano's job, but it will depend on how the Twins want to handle him this season. They could let him work his troubles out in the rotation, they could start him in the bullpen like they did in his very successful rookie season, or they could have him start the season in the minor leagues where it will be easier for him to gain his confidence back. If the Twins choose either of the latter two options, I think Blackburn will get the spot, but Humber is also deserving as well.

Chicago White Sox

Projected Lineup:
CF - Nick Swisher
SS - Orlando Cabrera
1B - Paul Konerko
DH - Jim Thome
RF - Jermaine Dye
C - A.J. Pierzynski
3B - Joe Crede/Josh Fields
LF - Carlos Quentin
2B - Danny Richar
Projected Rotation:
1. Mark Buehrle
2. Javier Vazquez
3. Jose Contreras
4. John Danks
5. Gavin Floyd
Lineup: The White Sox's lineup looked drastically different from 2006 to 2007. Once thought of as one of the most potent lineups in Baseball, the White Sox looked very poor offensively last season. What played a large part to this was the drastically down years of '06 MVP candidate Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome. They should be good bets to rebound this season, and if they do, the rest of the league will have to watch out. The additions of Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera will be immediate impact bats for their lineup, and Carlos Quentin still has the potential to be a very solid hitter someday. They need to get Josh Fields into the lineup, and that'd likely mean trading Joe Crede. They have holes at second base and in the rotation, I think they should be able to find someone who could fit.

Rotation: But like the Twins, the White Sox's Achilles Heal will be it's rotation. The White Sox have a good 1-2 punch in Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez, but Contreras had a dreadful '07 season. John Danks looked promising at some points, and disappointing in others. Gavin Floyd doesn't look like anything special, but the Sox don't want to lose him by passing him through waivers.

Kansas City Royals

Projected Lineup:
CF - David DeJesus
2B - Mark Grudzielanek
RF - Mark Teahen
LF - Jose Guillen
3B - Alex Gordon
DH - Billly Butler
1B - Ross Gload
C - John Buck
SS - Tony Pena
Projected Rotation:
1. Gil Meche
2. Brian Bannister
3. Zack Greinke
4. Kyle Davies
5. Luke Hochevar
Lineup: The lineup continues to improve, and soon enough they will be able to be considered as one of the better lineups in the league. How you might ask? Well they have 2 batters who could be top 20 hitters in the next decade. Alex Gordon, 24, has the potential to be one of the best hitting third baseman in the league. I think of him as being a left-handed David Wright. Billy Butler, 22, could be one of the best DH's in the American League by this time next year. He has the potential to hit 35+ home runs with well over 100 RBI, all while keeping a good average and on-base percentage. The team needs for Mark Teahen to progress this season, otherwise it might be his last in a Royal blue uniform.

Rotation: Gil Meche was a pleasant surprise for an improving rotation. Meche, along with Zack Greinke, Brian Bannister, and Luke Hochevar have the potential to be one of the best 1-4 groups in the Major Leagues. If Greinke can progress from a solid '07 campaign and if Hochevar can live up to his potential, I think this rotation will be a very feared group, even for teams with lineups like the Tigers and Indians.