Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The American League Central

1. Minnesota Twins
Pitchers: The Twins pitching staff isn’t nearly as stacked as it used to be, but with the history this team has of finding guys who will get the job done, it’s foolish to not have faith in their starting five or bullpen. The rotation is led by unanimous 2004 Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. By now, you probably know about Santana’s overall numbers (20-6, 2.61, 265 K, 13-0 after the All-Star break) from 2004, and you should probably know about this: he was coming off elbow surgery last season, which contributed to his slow start, he’s only 26, and he’s entering just his second full season as a starting pitcher. If that’s not enough, the steady veteran Brad Radke is back, joined by Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse. Joe Mays, who missed last season recovering from elbow surgery, is poised to rejoin the rotation. If Mays is 100 percent, the Twins will boast four starting pitchers who are capable of logging 200-plus innings.

Like Santana, Joe Nathan spent his first full season in a new role in 2004, and he thrived like no one could have rationally expected. Nathan was the Twins’ closer after Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins both left in free agency, and his numbers were incredible (1.82 ERA, 44 saves). The All-Star leads a bullpen that contains some uncertainty heading into 2005, but uncertainty is nothing new for these Twins. Jesse Crain, 23, figures to hold down a more significant role this season, joined in the pre-Nathan corps by Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, and Grant Balfour (once he’s fully healthy).

Position players: Super-rookie Joe Mauer played just 35 games last year because of knee problems, but his presence is key to the Twins’ offense and pitching this season. The Twins will keep him behind the plate, but common sense dictates that they won’t tolerate too many more problems with his knees before they move him. His bat’s too valuable. With the power of Justin Morneau available for 600-plus at-bats this season, the Twins’ offense looks much more formidable than in past years. They’ve always scored enough runs to be a winning team because of their pitching and defense. If Lew Ford avoids a sophomore slump, Michael Cuddyer proves he can play every day, and Shannon Stewart can stay healthy, the Twins suddenly have some serious offense. With Morneau hitting in front of him, Torii Hunter becomes a serious 30/30 threat, and Jacque Jones should be better after a streaky season (.254-24-80).

Overall analysis: The Twins are in good shape, contrary to what many will believe. They aren’t the sexiest team in baseball, and many still think their success is predicated on pitching and defense. But these Twins are different than the last three years. Morneau and Hunter could combine for 65-70 home runs. Mauer is a legitimate .325-type hitter with good pop in his bat. Cuddyer is a good hitter who should benefit from a chance to start and play every day. The bullpen is full of flamethrowers, and the starting staff is as strong as any in baseball. Though this division as a whole is better, only the Indians appear improved enough to contend, and the Twins still have to be considered the favorites.

2. Cleveland Indians
Pitchers: With the free-agent signing of Kevin Millwood (9-6, 4.85 in Philadelphia), the Indians hope they have upgraded their rotation and added a solid veteran arm. If healthy, he should fit in the third spot in the rotation behind sinker specialist Jake Westbrook (14-9, 3.38) and 300-pound lefthanded C.C. Sabathia (11-10, 4.12). Sabathia struggled with weight and control issues in 2004, but at only 24 years old, he has time to tap into his vast talent and fulfill his potential in Cleveland. Cliff Lee and either Jason Davis or Scott Elarton will finish out the rotation. Lee won 14 games as a rookie, but posted an unsightly 5.43 ERA. Without Millwood and Sabathia at 100%, the staff will likely bog down and underachieve, which would be a deadly blow to the team’s chances.

Bob Wickman appears fully healthy and ready to reassume the role of closer for the Indians. Off arm issues, Wickman posted 13 saves in his return, and Cleveland felt strongly enough about his recovery to re-sign him. Arthur Rhodes was brought in as the primary left-handed setup man, with David Riske and Rafael Betancourt also filling setup roles from the right side. Bobby Howry should also win a job in the bullpen after he bounced back from elbow surgery in 2003. Rhodes will get left-handed help from Scott Sauerbeck.

Position players: While it’s not as potentially deadly as the Yankees or Red Sox, the Indians boast a talented lineup. With Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Ben Broussard, Casey Blake, and Coco Crisp (combined 111 HR, 458 RBI in 2004), it’s hard to imagine the Indians not scoring enough runs to post a winning record and make serious noise in the division. The addition of Aaron Boone, assuming he can stay healthy, helps both in the lineup and in the field. Brewer castoff Ronnie Belliard and Crisp set the table for the power hitters, and the Indians are hoping for a big year out of the middle of their order, where they signed Juan Gonzalez to shore things up. Gonzalez will start in right field, and the Indians hope his numbers will improve with a healthy season (.276-5-17 in just 33 games). However, since his huge 2001 season in Cleveland, Gonzalez has only played in 185 games in three years.

Overall analysis: Fair or not, there have been some questions about Eric Wedge’s managerial skills in Cleveland. Some have wondered if the Indians have had the necessary focus defensively and on the bases. Other observers think Wedge is one bad stretch away from potentially losing this team. On a young club hungry to contend and play into October, the last thing needed is a managerial change. Wedge might not need to deliver a division title, but a step back from last year’s 80-82 record, which was surprising to many in baseball, will not be tolerated. Unfortunately for Wedge and his team, they don’t have the offense or the consistent pitching to beat out Minnesota, though a healthy Cleveland club could certainly make things interesting in the Central.

3. Chicago White Sox
Pitchers: With the additions of Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, the White Sox hope they have solidified the bottom of their starting rotation. The organization is confident that they have a talented 1-2 punch in Mark Buehrle (16-10, 3.89) and Freddy Garcia (13-11, 3.81). Hernandez and Contreras will fight with Jon Garland (12-11, 4.89) for the final three spots in the rotation. The Sox like the ability of Buehrle and Garcia to eat innings (both were over 200 innings last season), and they’re banking on Contreras and Hernandez to stay healthy and provide stability.

White Sox fans have taken a quick liking to closer Shingo Takatsu, who had 19 saves in 20 chances and should reclaim the closer’s job to start the season. Even though he’s 36, the Sox figure he has at least one or two good years in his arm given how he pitches (he keeps hitters off balance with his slow stuff, ala former Brewer closer Doug Jones). Damaso Marte is better suited for a setup role than closing. He bounced between the two roles last year, and his numbers paid a price (6-5, 3.42). Chicago picked up Luis Vizcaino (4-4, 3.75) from Milwaukee in the Carlos Lee trade. There was speculation he would have a chance to close in Milwaukee when Danny Kolb was traded, but he’ll work as a setup man for the Sox. Vizcaino has mid-90s heat, but is prone to the home run ball.

Position players: With Lee traded and Magglio Ordonez having signed as a free agent in Detroit, the White Sox needed to upgrade the offense. They got leadoff man Scott Podsednik from the Brewers in the Lee trade, and they signed outfielder Jermaine Dye and catcher A.J. Pierzynski as free agents. Podsednik (.244-12-39, 70 steals) has to prove his numbers from last year were a fluke, Dye (.265-23-80 in Oakland) has to prove he can stay healthy, and Pierzynski (.272-11-77 in San Francisco) has to shed his “clubhouse cancer” image acquired with the Giants. Frank Thomas (.271-18-49 in just 74 games) needs to prove he can stay healthy at age 36, and he’s not off to a good start, being that he probably won’t be ready for Opening Day. Aaron Rowand (.310-24-69) is ready for a breakout year, and Paul Konerko (.277-41-117) is coming off his breakout year. The Sox have a solid infield with Konerko, Willie Harris, Juan Uribe, and Joe Crede. Podsednik should be better off defensively in left field, as Rowand will continue to man center field.

Overall analysis: Manager Ozzie Guillen wants to run more, as he tries to employ more of a National League style. This team is more capable of playing that style effectively, but there could still be glitches. Guillen needs to hope his rotation stays together, and that his bullpen doesn’t fall apart. Because of depth problems in the pen, this might be easier said than done. Without Lee and Ordonez, the offense won’t be nearly as good, especially if Thomas and Dye have more health issues, and if Podsednik hits anything close to .244 out of the leadoff spot.

4. Detroit Tigers
Pitchers: The youth of this staff is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. On one hand, the progress guys like Mike Maroth (11-13, 4.31) and Jeremy Bonderman (11-13, 4.89) have made is very encouraging, especially considering their age (27 and 22, respectively). Bonderman has been named Detroit’s Opening Day starter. Nate Robertson (12-10, 4.90) was the only starter to post a winning record. The elder statesman of the rotation, 31-year-old Jason Johnson (8-15, 5.13) needs to improve his consistency. He’s joined in the rotation by Gary Knotts (7-6, 5.25), who will serve as the fifth starter.

The Tigers took a huge step toward making their bullpen a strength when they signed closer Troy Percival (2.90 ERA, 33 saves) from Anaheim as a free agent. Percival is 35, but still has a powerful arm and a deadly fastball to go along with an improved mix of pitches. Late news this spring had former closer Ugueth Urbina requesting a trade because he wants to be a closer somewhere else instead of a setup man in Detroit. As of this writing, Urbina was still a Tiger. If he stays, he’ll serve as the primary setup man, with Jamie Walker, Fernando Rodney, and Chris Spurling also working out of the bullpen. Knotts will see some long relief work during stretches where the Tigers don’t need a fifth starter.

Position players: If Magglio Ordonez’s knees hold up, there is a chance that he won’t be a huge free-agent bust in Detroit. Ordonez played in just 52 games last year, and many around baseball thought it was foolish of Detroit to give him $70 million. The Tigers jettisoned Alex Sanchez in spring training, opening up center field for Craig Monroe (.293-18-72). Rondell White (.270-19-67) is back, as are infielders Carlos Pena (.241-27-82) and Dmitri Young (.272-18-60). Former catcher Brandon Inge (.287-13-64) starts at third base, as the Tigers are set behind the plate with veteran Ivan Rodriguez (.334-19-86), who is the unquestioned team leader. The pitchers are comfortable with him, and his numbers show he is still a huge offensive threat. The lineup, though, is likely predicated on the health of Ordonez, who gives the Tigers a legitimate veteran thumper in the middle of the order if his body holds up. Sanchez’s departure leaves a hole at the top of the batting order. The Tigers are likely to give second baseman Omar Infante (.264-16-55) the first shot to win that job, with shortstop Carlos Guillen (.318-20-97) also in the running.

Overall analysis: The Tigers have the makings of a very good starting rotation. Bonderman and Robertson will be keys this year as they continue to come into their own. Maroth will get better, and the Tigers hope Johnson can be a steadier influence on the staff than he was last year. Monroe could hit 30 home runs playing every day in center field, and Ordonez has that kind of power if he’s healthy for 150 games. There’s no doubt the Tigers need to score more runs, but they also need the pitching to continue to improve. Even with veterans like Rodriguez and Ordonez around, everything points to the Tigers still being a year away from making serious noise in the Central.

5. Kansas City Royals
Pitchers: The youth movement in Kansas City (and you thought they couldn’t get any younger…) starts with the rotation, led by 21-year-old Zack Greinke (8-11, 3.97 in 24 starts). Greinke is joined in the starting rotation by 23-year-old lefty Jimmy Gobble (9-8, 5.35), 26-year-old righty Runelvys Hernandez, who did not pitch in 2004 but looks good after arm surgery. Veterans Jose Lima (13-5, 4.07 in Los Angeles) and Brian Anderson (6-12, 5.64) should earn jobs in the rotation as well. Youngster Denny Bautista might force his way into the rotation, too. Greinke is a big key for the Royals. They’re banking on his continued development in a “learn on the job” mode, a situation not unlike that of Jeremy Bonderman in Detroit the last two years. Greinke, though, is off to a much better start than Bonderman was.

Jeremy Affeldt converted from a starter into a reliever last year, then became the Royals’ closer. Affeldt was okay in that role (13 saves in 17 chances), but has been positively horrible this spring, leading to speculation that Mike MacDougal (1-1, 5.56 in 13 games) could win his old job back. For now, the Royals seem committed to Affeldt as closer and MacDougal working primarily as a setup man. As for the rest of the bullpen, expect Scott Sullivan, D.J. Carrasco, Chris George, and Jamie Cerda to see some innings.

Position players: The Royals have more of a veteran presence in their lineup than they do their pitching staff. Team captain Mike Sweeney (.287-22-79) missed more than 50 games because of back issues, but went through an offseason program designed to help his back. Ken Harvey (.287-13-55) is trying to become more of a pull hitter and better utilize his strength. The Royals need him to hit for more power. Terrence Long (.295-3-28) was signed as a free agent after a season of part-time play in San Diego and should start in left field. The Royals also have 31-year-old Eli Marrero (.320-10-40 in Atlanta), who could make for a dangerous fourth outfielder and emergency catcher. Projected leadoff man David DeJesus (.287-7-39) was impressive in center field after Carlos Beltran was traded. The Royals also have veteran Matt Stairs (.267-18-66) available for duty in the outfield. The Royals have some youth along the infield, with 22-year-old Ruben Gotay set to start at second base, and 23-year-old Mark Teahen trying to force his way into the lineup at third base over veteran Tony Graffanino. Catcher John Buck, 24, hit for good power (.235-12-30) after being acquired in the Beltran trade, and he should be the starter this season.

Overall analysis: The Royals have gotten younger, as Allard Baird responded quickly when the 2004 season went downhill pretty much from the start. Manager Tony Pena will do everything he can to keep things positive in the clubhouse, but can he squeeze enough wins out of this team to keep it out of the cellar? The answer is probably “No”, unless Sweeney and Harvey have big years with the bats, and Greinke develops into a number one starting pitcher quicker than can be realistically anticipated.

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