The AL Central continued it's recent trend with 2 really good teams, 2 average teams, and the Royals. More of the same can be expected this season with the Indians and Tigers vying for playoff spots; the White Sox looking to regain their form; the Twins looking to rebuild; and the Royals struggling to resemble a AA team.
The Indians played about as well as could be hoped last season. Making it to the ALCS and coming very close to eliminating the eventual World Champion Redsox, the Indians have gotten back to basics that made them a dominant team in the 90s by developing their own players. In fact, nearly every player on the roster spent at least some time in the Indians' farm system. The team made no major moves in the offseason, but should be primed to win the division again.
Victor Martinez is one of the finest all-around catchers in Major League Baseball. Capable of hitting for power (25 HRs, 40 doubles, .505 SLG), Martinez also provides great defense behind the plate. At third base, Casey Blake is a consistent bat. He can be counted on to provide 18 or so HRs with a.440 SLG. His on-base numbers are low, but his power production and good defense make him a great fit in the bottom of this lineup. Ryan Garko is a slightly richer man's Blake. Garko hits for good power and pretty good on-base numbers. He should only get better as he plays more. Up the middle, the combo of Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera have funny names but produce well. Peralta had a good season swatting 21 HRs and .430 SLG. He strikes out a lot and doesn't run particularly well, but he's more than adequate while providing good defense. Cabrera was a late-season revelation for the team. He porjects as putting up similar numbers to Peralta with less power but better base-running numbers. Cabrera is also a very versatile fielder, though not particularly spectacular at any position. In centerfield, Grady Sizemore has established himself as one of the best players in the league. He does it all with 24 HRs, 34 doubles, a .390 OBP, .462 SLG, 33 SBs, and stellar defense. He once again will be called upon to be the centerpiece of the team. RF Franklin Gutierrez performed well in the second half of the season after taking over as the starter. A former top prospect in the Dodgers' system, Gutierrez seemed to finally show flashes of his tremendous talent at the highest level. The LF platoon of David Dellucci and Jason Michaels is a good lefty/righty combo. Very similar players, both can hit a homerun now and then, but in general have good doubles power and show reasonable plate discipline. Their defense is pretty average. DH Travis Hafner had a down year by his standards. Still, he hit 24 HRs with a .451 SLG and 102 walks. He should rebound and be closer to he career norms. The bench is deep but not special with players like Andy Marte, Jamey Carroll, and Kelly Shoppach.
The rotation was a team strength last year. The tandem of CC (standing for Colossal Circumference) Sabathia and Fausto Carmona was one of the best in baseball. Sabathia became the 4th fastest player to reach 100 wins (behind only Christy Mathewson, Greg Maddux, and Walter Johnson...that's good company) while winning the AL Cy Young Award. A true workhorse who threw an absurd 241 innings, Sabathia strikes out a lot of batters and should continue to be one of the best lefties in the league, especially in his contract year. Carmona stepped into the rotation and performed above and beyond expectations last year. He's not as over-powering as Sabathia, but he has 3 good pitchers and uses them all well. He may not be as good as he was last year, but he should be a great #2. Third and fourth starters Paul Byrd and Jake Westbrook are league average pitchers. Byrd doesn't strike out many, but he places his pitches well enough that he forces bad contact. Westbrook averaged 6 IP per start last year and with a decent 1.4 WHIP and giving up only 13 HRs, he provides the team with a chance to win most of the time. The 5th spot is up for grabs. It was Cliff Lee's spot but with injuries and a few ineffective outings, he now seems to be on the outside looking in. The other options are the young, left-handed tandem of Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey. Neither pitched well in limited appearances last season, but both should be capable of filling the final spot. Closer Joe Borowski is causes a heart-attack for Indian fans every time he goes out there, but he somehow gets outs. By far the best reliever for the Tribe is Rafael Betancourt. Posting an aburd 0.75 WHIP in 68 games, Betancourt was near-unhittable, striking out just over a batter an inning. The rest of the bullpen is solid with Aaron Fultz, Masahide Kobayashi (no relation to the Eating Champ), Rafael Perez, and Jensen Lewis.
The Tigers regressed from their AL Championship season in 2006, due to injuries and starting pitchers slumping. With a number of question marks on the pitching side, what did the Tigers do? Get more offense. Taking advantage of salary dumps of the Braves and Marlins, Detroit was able to acquire Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cabrera. The improved offense and a rehabbed pitching staff but the Tigers in position to make a playoff run.
Catcher Ivan Rodriguez is one of the best of all-time. But at 37 years old and tons of mileage on his body, Pudge's best days are long past. He still has pretty good power for a catcher and is still an asset defensively and his contributions to the rebirth of the Tigers are immeasurable, but we are seeing the tail end of a great career. New 3rd baseman Miguel Cabrera is one of the best hitters in baseball. He immediately becomes the best or second best player on the Tigers and should be an awesome presence in Detroit for years. First base is manned by Carlos Guillen. Guillen is a very good hitter who can hit for power, average, and even steal a few bases. Renteria comes from Atlanta in 2007 with what might have been his best season. Renteria hits for good power and his .470 SLG was 4th best amongst shortstops in the bigs. He also provides really good defense. Placido Polanco is an excellent contact hitter who provides good defense. He can fit in nicely at either the top or bottom of the lineup an produce (as an added bonus, his head is rounder than any other human being I've ever seen). In the outfield is housed the tandem of Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez, two of the best in the game. In center, Granderson is a 5-tool player. Last year, he become the 2nd player ever (joining Wildfire Schulte) to have at least 30 doubles, 20 triples, 20 HRs, and 20 SBs in a single season (NL MVP Jimmy Rollins joined the two later in the season). The Tigers gave him a 5-year contract extension a couple of weeks ago, and if he continues to produce like he did last year, the new contract will look like a major bargain. RF Ordonez was the AL MVP runner up in 2007 and few could argue with the choice. He had a great .595 SLG, .434 OBP, with 76 walks, 28 HRs, and a big-league leading .363 BA and 54 doubles. Ordonez suffered for deblitating knee and back problems, and while that has limited his mobility somewhat, he has clearly gotten over those to be one of the best players in the league. In left, the expected starter is the newley acquired Jacque Jones. Jones had a rough season last year with the Cubs battling nagging injuries and eventually being benched. A free swinger who hits for pretty good power when he hits it, the Tigers are banking on a return to better days with a return to the AL, but that seems unlikely and Jones is probably past his days as a useful full-time player. If Jones doesn't work out, expect the Tigers to turn ot Marcus Thames. Thames only had a .278 OBP (which is terrible), but did slug 18 HRs and .498 SLG in only 86 games of part-time duty. The bench is solid mainly due to Brandon Inge, who returns to super-sub duty with the acquisition of Miguel Cabrera. In isn't a great player, but he can hit for good power and can play every position including catcher. However, Inge has become upset with the team after spending a few years as a starter and being sent back to the bench and has requested a trade. His situation will be one to monitor. The rest of the bench includes Ramon Santiago, Ryan Rayburn, and Vance Wilson.
The pitching staff was the main issue for the team last year. While it should be better with fewer injuries, the team should be wary. Ace Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter last year and has established himself as one of the best young pitchers in the league. He strikes out a lot of batters and keeps his walks down. He does give up a lot of HRs, but he keeps his WHIP low enough that they don't usually hurt him too much. The ancient Kenny Rogers is penciled in as the number two. By all accounts a wonderful clubhouse presence, he is far past his prime and really should not be relied on as much as he is. Still, he is still capable of providing a few quality starts and with the Tigers wonderful offense could win 10 games if he stays healthy. If he falters, the Tigers don't have much in the way of big league-ready pitchers so a low-price free-agent may been added. If not look for righties Yorman Bazardo and Brandon Hamilton to step in. Jeremy Bonderman is the next starter. A top prospect who was rushed to the majors, Bonderman has never put it all together. He seems stuck in the 2nd or 3rd tier of starters. He strikes out a lot of hitters but gives up a lot of HRs and gives up a lot of hits. The same can be said of Nate Robertson, though he never had the same pedigree as Bonderman. Still, both Bonderman and Robertson get enough outs to win games for the top-level offense. The 5th starter is Dontrelle Willis, who was acquired from the Marlins along with Cabrera. Willis is a big name without the big-production. A pitcher who doesn't have particularly great stuff, Willis got by because of his extremely deceptive delivery and calling Dolphins' Stadium, an extreme pitchers' park, home. That probably won't be good enough in the much tougher American League. Still, the funky delivery might work for the first half of the year and a change of scenery where he is not relied upon as the main-man might be good for the D-Train (but I wouldn't count of it). The bullpen is good but will get stronger. Todd Jones is the closer. Even though he barely throws hard enough to get it to the plate, he is reasonably effective. Setup man Fernando Rodney can gun it like few others (though not even the hardest on his own team). He, like many flame-throwers, struggles with control at times, but he is generally very effective as a reliever. The rest of of the bullpen has players such as Jason Grilli, Bobby Seay, and Tim Byrdak, who all are solid. The X-Factor for the entire team is the insanely entertaining Joel Zumaya. Zumaya can consistently hit 100 MPH on the radar gun and has a filthy changeup and slider. However, Zumaya often lets his emotions get the better of him and loses effectiveness. In addition, he will be out for probably half of the 2008 season because of a tendon issue in his arm. If Zumaya can come back strong around the All-Star break, he can either stabilize the bullpen or even provide a quality starter for the Tigers.
Chicago White Sox-
The White Sox suffered a miserable year last year, losing 90 games and being saved only by their comically inept bretheren in Kansas City from complete oblivion. But hope springs enternal on the South Side of Chicago as it was only two years ago the Sox won it all. The biggest difference between 2005 and last year? Pitching woes. Those really haven't been addressed as more offense seemed to be the theme of the offseason, but the White Sox are counting upon an improved defense and rebound years from some pitchers to lead them back to the playoffs. That likely won't happen.
I dislike David Eckstein more than almost any player in MLB. That being said, I'm sure he's a perfectly good guy who just happens to be terrible and kinda buys into his own hype. But my dislike for Eckstein does not begin to approach my hatred for the White Sox's catcher, AJ Pierzynski. Straight up, he's an asshole. In addition, he's not a very good player. Pierzynski has decent power for a catcher, but his OBP numbers are abysmal and he is poor defensively. I hate AJ Pierzynski. At first base, Paul Konerko is a pretty stereotypical free-swinging power hitter, who convienantly walks pretty often. He has averaged 36.75 HRs the last four years and over a .500 SLG, so you can expect more of the same. A spring training battle between Joe Crede and Josh Fields will determine who starts at 3rd. Crede was injured for most last year. He was a hero of the 2005 World Series. However, he has lost effectiveness at the plate (though he never was particulary proficient with the bat). Still, he can hit a homerun occasionally and provides excellent defense, so at worse he could become a great backup. The favorite in this position battle is the younger Josh Fields, who hit 23 HRs in only 373 ABs. Still fairly young and unseasoned, Fields should improve with playing time and if he cuts down on his strike outs he could become an etremely dangerous hitter. For now we can expect him to provide good power numbers and adequate defense. The middle infield has an all-new look for the White Sox. At short, Orlando Cabrera was acquired for starting pitcher Jon Garland during the offseason from the Angels. He is a consummate light-hit, great glove player. One of the better defensive shortstops in the league, Cabrera can occasionally hit for power (35 doubles last year) and he steals bases (20 last year with only being caught stealing 4 times). His new double-play partner is Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez. Ramirez is the reigning Cuban-league HR king and considered one of the finest position players to come out of the commie island. His defense is probably not too good as he was constantly switching between 2nd, short, and center in Cuba. At 26 years old, he should be able to adjust to the Major League game and be an intriguing player for the White Sox. The lone returning outfielder is Jermaine Dye. A hitter with high power numbers (28 HRs, 34 doubles in 2007), he had an off-year in the on-base department. While this is probably an abberation and Dye should return to previous form, Dye is likely in decline as he gets older. The Other two outfielders, Carlos Quentin and Nick Swisher, were acquired in trades with the Diamondbacks and Athletics, respectively. Quentin was traded for 1st baseman Chris Carter in an exchange of prospects. A former top prospect in the D'Backs system, Quentin has struggled in his brief Major League stints. Still he was a solid 3.5-tool prospect with a developing power game, a should play pretty well with a full-time job, something the D'Backs couldn't give him. Swisher comes from the A's in their constant mission to dump salary. Swisher has good power numbers that should get better as he moves to a better hitters' park, and is an on-base machine (in the A's mold). He also is an underrated fielder and was one of the best pickups of the offseason (uncharacteristic of Ken Williams). DH Jim Thome continues to chug along as one of the finest hitters of the past two decades. Practically immobile and useless with the glove at this point, Thome continues to be effective because of his great batting eye and sweet but powerful stroke. The bench is solid with veterans such as Toby Hall, Juan Uribe, and Pablo Ozuna combining with youngsters Brian Anderson, Jesse Owens and Danny Richar to form a deep and versatile group.
Ace Mark Buehrle has been one of the most consistently good pitchers this decade. Churning out quality starts with alarming frequency (save an abberation year in 2006), Buehrle strikes out his fair shar of batters while not walking many. There is concern about the high number of innings he has thrown, but Buehrle should once again be one of the better pitchers in the AL. After a high-pressure year in New York in 2004, Javier Vazquez has quietly returned to form as a high-strikeout innings eater. He is not as dominant as he was in Montreal, but he should once again have a good WHIP with around 200 Ks in about 200 innings. Every year since defecting from Cuba it appears that Jose Contreras is either really good or really bad...2007 was really bad. His WHIP ballooned to 1.55 and he was completely ineffictive in almost every start. If he can return to his 2005 form, he could be one of the better starters in the AL. However, that is unlikely and he's much more likely to be his 2006 form, which certainly isn't bad and would greatly help the White Sox. 23 year old John Danks (Samuel's new favorite player) will be expected to make progress from last year when he struggled with control and gave up 28 HRs, second in the AL (after only uber-stud Johan Santana...odd). Danks is a promising prospect and did make 8 quality starts when he flashed some brilliance. He will almost certainly be better this season. The 5th rotation spot is currently scheduled to be held by Gavin Floyd. A former top prospect for the Phillies, Floyd has struggled mightly despite being given multiple chances. The White Sox are hoping he can finally realize at least some of his potential. If that fails, look for righty Lance Broadway to get the call-up. Closer Bobby Jenks is a hard thrower who strikes out a lot of batters and is one of the finest closers in the league. The rest of the bullpen is average. Scott Linebrink is a very good pitcher who was signed during the offseason for closer money. While he should perform well and is a good insurance policy should Jenks go down, but it does seem like a misappropriation of funds. Other key members of the pen include former closers Mike MacDougal and Octavio Dotel in addition to Matt Thornton and Ehren Wassermann.
The Twins, after years of competing well with an under-sized payroll, are in a full-fledged rebuilding project. The biggest storyline of the entire offseason was the will they?/won't they? trade rumors surrounding Johan Santana. Eventually he was traded to Mets for what seemed to be a poor haul, which garnered a lot of criticism for new General Manager Bill Smith. But Smith did make a few other moves that will help in the rebuilding process. Still, it would be a long shot for the twins to top 80 wins this season with 60-70 seeming more reasonable.
Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball. That's all there is to it. He plays superb defense, he hits for a very high average, he has good power numbers, he even runs well. Only Russell Martin of the Dodgers approaches Mauer in overall skill (plus his sideburns are some of the finest in baseball since Brady Anderson). At first base is former MVP Justin Morneau. Morneau had a slightly worse season in 2007 than his 2006 MVP year, thanks to a slow star, but still finished with 31 HRs, 31 doubles, and a .492 SLG. He received a big contract extension this offseason, and should play through it as a durable and consistent force at first base. Over at third is free agent signee Mike Lamb, who had been with the Houston Astros. Lamb is good player who murders lefties and is slightly below average against right handers. He also is an average fielder and is a perfect low-cost option while prospects develop. Up the middle is brand new for the Twins. At short, Adam Everett for last year's starter Nick Punto. The two are similar players: they can steal a few bases, they can't really hit worth a lick, but are great fielders. Everett is the better hitter (not saying much) and better fielder, so he is another low-cost option that fills a spot til prospect Trevor Plouffe is ready. Punto now moves to a super-sub role that will utilize his versatility much better. The new second basemen is Brendan Harris, a major-league ready prospect from the Rays' system who was acquired along with Delmon Young for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. In almost a full season last year, Harris hit 12 HRs and 35 doubles while playing good defense. He is one of the few younger players who is ready to contribute now. In the outfield, Michael Cuddyer was the second hold-over player to receive a contract extension. He hit 16 HRs and 28 doubles last year, which was down from his 2006 numbers, but the Twins are banking on the fact that Cuddyer's nagging injuries were what slowed him down last year. In all likelihood however, Cuddyer is closer to his 2007 numbers, which really makes him a glorified 4th outfielder. But at worst he should be an acceptable place holder for the Twins' bevy of outfield prospects. The rest of the outfield will probably be filled by two new-comers. In center will likely be Carlos Gomez, formerly the Mets's second best outfield prospect. He was the top position player acquired in the Johan Santana trade. He's a lanky runner who can play good defense but he has never really projected as a great hitter and really wasn't a great acquisition. In fact, the Twins probably had better OF prospects in their system already. But Gomez will be given every chance to succeed and should at least be a poor-man's Torii Hunter (who left Minnesota for absurdly big money from the Angels). The final starting outfielder should be Delmon Young, the jewel of the overhaul in the offseason. Young was one of the most highly-touted prospects in recent memory and showed why at just 21 years old last season in Tampa Bay. However, he has also shown to be incredibly immature (he once threw a bat at an umpire). However if he can stay well behaved, his continued progress should make him an imposing threat in the middle of the Twins lineup. The DH situation looks to be a "who's hot at the time" platoon of Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe. Kubel is the better player, but both are similarly athletic players who hit for pretty good power. They also provide decent corner outfield defense and can play center in a pinch. The bench is full of versatile players like Punto, Kubel, Monroe, and Mike Redmond.
The rotation is young and promising but now without a true ace because of the trade of Johan Santana. The new de facto leader is free-agent signee Livan Hernandez. Hernandez's greatest contribution is his ability to throw forever. He has thrown at least 200 innings every year since 1998. and has been around league average in ERA for most of those years. He should prove to be a valuable piece for the rotation in that he should be able to make at least a 5 inning start every 5 days. The other two sure-things in the rotation are young Scott Baker and Boof Bonser. Both can strike out a lot of hitters and have shown flashes of brilliance, but they have struggled to be consistent. Baker has better stuff and projects as a good #2 starter. The big question mark is Francisco Liriano. Liriano was as good, if not better, than Johan Santana in 2006 til he went down with Tommy John surgery. After missing all of 2007, Liriano is healthy again and should be ready to return to dominance. If he does, Liriano will be one of the best pitchers in the AL. Of course, that is a big if. The rest of the rotation will be filled by Nick Blackburn and/or Kevin Slowey. Both are young right-handers who debuted last year and could probably use some more seasoning. Both will likely spend time making spot starts while pitching out of the pen. Joe Nathan has been the Twins' best pitcher not named Santana since coming over from the Giants before the 2004 season. He is one of the best closers in the game who consistently post low ERAs and WHIPs. The rest of the bullpen is a mix of vets and youngsters who should be worked with the young starting staff. Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain (who may be used as a starter), Pat Neshek and Denys Reyes, among others, fill out the pen.
Kansas City Royals-
As my fine compatriot, Sir Nickalaus, put it "Preview for the Royals: BAD." Once again the Royals will be terrible. A collection of poorly developed former prospects, sub-standard vets, and one or two actual prospects. This season once again will be one for development. But recent strong drafts and the development and emergence of a couple players as even moderately decent have given the Kansas City faithful (all 3 of them) reason to hope.
Catcher John Buck is a good defensive catcher who hits for great power when he hits it. 1st Baseman Ross Gload is a fairly average player who does a little bit of everything but not much of anything. On the other side of the diamond is Alex Gordon, who has been favorably compared to former Royals' great George Brett. Gordon performed extremely well in his first pro season hitting 15 HRs, 36 doubles, and stealing 14 bases. Gordon's plate selection will increase as he matures and should be a mainstay and a perennial All-Star for the Royals for the next decade. The double play combo is comprised of Mark Grudzielanek and Tony Pena, Jr. Grudzielanek is a solid veteran who provides leadership and a good glove. He doesn't hit for a lot of power but he usually makes solid contact and is a fine placeholder while Albert Callaspo aclimates to the big leagues. Callaspo is a slick-fielding player who is a fairly light hitter bout has a good stroke and uses his speed to leg out base hits. Pena is a no-hit, great glove shortstop. While he has the frame to add weight and maybe some power, Pena will likely be nothing more than a utility infielder or a shortstop or second baseman for an otherwise powerful lineup. Pena is likely just keeping shortstop warm for uber-prospect Mike Moustakas who is still a couple years away. The outfield is full of basically the same player in three spots. Jose Guillen is the best of the trio. He plays like a poor man's Vladimir Guerrero. David DeJesus and Mark Teahen, the other two outfielders, play like a poor man's Jose Guillen. Teahen is a better fielder and hits for better average while DeJesus is speedier and hits for better power. The latter two could be supplanted by prospect Derrick Robinson. DH will be filled by the very young (just 21 on Opening Day) Billy Butler. A pure hitter, Butler hit 8 HRs, 23 doubles and had a .447 SLG in 92 games last year. He can't really field at all, but he is an indisputable talent who should combine with Gordon for form a great 3-4 duo for many years. The bench is solid mostly due to the lack of drop off from the poor starters. Joey Gathright (MLB's fastest man), Shawn Costa, Esteban German, Miguel Olivo, and Ryan Shealy should fill in a provide little drop off for most.
The pitching staff is in shambles, but perhaps for only a few more years. With highly rated prospects such as Daniel Cortes, Luke Hochevar, Blake Wood, Carlos Rosa, and Danny Duffy, the Royals have a lot of young talent waiting in the wings. But the current staff is not really good...at all. Gil Meche was signed to a very large contract before last season. And wouldn't you know it?...he actually performed well. Meche was consistent and struck out a lot of batters on his way to a respectable 1.29 WHIP with a solid 3.67 ERA. Brian Bannister is the teams number 2 and might have been better than Meche last year. Bannister doesn't strike out many batters but he doesn't walk many and uses his defense to get outs. Zack Greinke is the third starter. A pitcher with decent stuff highlighted by a devastating changeup, Greinke has great control and stays away from the long ball and is effect in the 3rd slot. After those three, the rest of the rotation is up for grabs. Hochevar, the most major league-ready prospect will be given a shot. The rest of the field includes various washed out and below-average vets including Kyle Davies, Jorge De La Rosa, Brett Tomko, Brandon Duckworth, Mike Maroth, and Hideo Nomo (huh?). The bullpen is just as much of an unknown. Closer Joakim Soria was a terrific find last year. He struck out 75 in only 69 innings while sporting a fantastic 0.94 WHIP. In front of him is former starter Jimmy Gobble who finally looked comfortable in the bullpen. Gobble had the problem of being good the first time through a lineup and hit hard the second and third time around, so naturally he fit as a 1 or 2 inning setup man. The rest of the pen will be filled by youngsters and journeymen like Joel Peralta, John Bale, Ryan Braun, Leo Nunez, Neal Musser, and Ron Mahay. Ouch.