Throughout the week I'll be looking at each team in the Central Division to see what things and players, if any, we should be watching out for as Twins fans. We start, as we did last year, with the Chicago White Sox.
2005 Suspects Grade
Scott Podsednik B+
Aaron Rowand B
Starting Rotation A
Jermaine Dye B+
Frank Thomas F
Looking back at some of the things I wrote last year about Chicago, some of them were earily accurate. My warning of Podsednik leading off, my caution about how good the rotation could be, and how Dye could be an under-the-radar offensive force. Of course, Thomas didn't play much of a role, but I figure 4/5 ain't too bad.
After putting together an unbelievable first half, a solid regular season, and winning their first World Series since 1917, Chicago made a few moves to shake things up and keep them at the top of the division. Aging slugger Jim Thome was acquired in a trade that sent defensive whiz Aaron Rowand to Philadelphia; Javier Vasquez was added to an already deep and talented rotation; Rob Mackowiak was picked up from the Pirates as a 10th man. There's no doubt that Chicago is a talented and dangerous club, but let's take a look at some of the things that could be a barometer to the success of the Sox in 2006.
THE STARTING ROTATION
As it stands right now, the White Sox have the best rotation in the AL Central. There's no doubt that Johan Santana is the best pitcher in the division, if not the American League, but for depth and talent no one can touch Chicago. They had too many suitors; Brandon McCarthy will more than likely start the season in the bullpen.
A one-two punch of Buehrle/Garcia is formidable. Jose Contreras had a fantastic finish to 2005, and has experience in big games. Javier Vasquez was once a young ace, and frankly still has the talent to be an ace. If he can find a comfort zone in Chicago, he could light it up. Finally there's John Garland, who may have lucked out last year but still put up some good numbers. Here are the lines from last year at a glance.
Name Age IP ERA W L K
Buehrle 27 236.2 3.12 16 8 149
Garcia 31 228.0 3.87 14 8 146
Contreras 34 204.2 3.61 15 7 154
Vasquez 29 215.2 4.42 11 15 192
Garland 26 221.0 3.50 18 10 115
As a Twins fan looking at those numbers, a few things should hit you. First, every single starting pitcher went over 200 innings last year. Now that they all play in the same jersey, it's not just incredible, you can count the number of times this has happened in baseball's modern era on one hand. If they all stay healthy, the bullpen should be fresh all year. Second, you're probably looking for things to pick apart. Start with Garland's career numbers compared to what he threw last season, and you'll see he lived quite the charmed existence in 2005. Don't expect it in 2006. Finally, there is one helluva lot of talent in that starting five, and it's a bit unnerving.
If that isn't unnerving enough...
Brandon McCarthy, RHP, 23
Seasons IP ERA K/9 W L WHIP
2002-05 351.1 3.20 10.40 30 14 1.07
Those are McCarthy's minor league numbers. He will pry a spot in the rotation from someone this year, and he won't give it up.
JIM THOME, DH
Sure, we all knew he'd make the list, but there's good reason for it. He's a murderer. He averaged 41 homers a year from 1996 through 2004. In 2002, his last year with Cleveland, he hit .355/.474/1.032/1.506 in the Metrodome. I don't want to say he was comfortable hitting here, but in 31 at-bats he hit 7 home runs, driving in 10, walking 6 times and even stealing a base. Yes, Jim Thome stole a base. It was the last one he stole but he still stole it. Remember when I said I didn't want to say he was comfortable hitting here? Well, I lied.
Obviously the issue with this beast of a man isn't whether or not he could be dangerous, but whether or not he's still able to be dangerous. At 35, players in the mold of Jim Thome peak between the ages of 28-32, and then fall into a steep decline and quickly fade out. Cecil Fielder peaked earlier in his career, but after his '96 season (age 32) he was toast. Mo Vaughn's last great season was in 2000 (age 32) with the Angels. He had one more good year in 2002, but his numbers were still down. Albert Belle had a great season in 1999 at age 32, his numbers dipped in 2000 to below career levels, and then injuries knocked him out of the game. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but with the player mold of Thome and the injury-plagued year he's coming out of at his age, there's got to be a serious question of what's left in the tank.
If he is healthy, he's fully capable of holding down the middle of the Sox lineup. With Konerko in front and Dye behind, he's going to see pitchers pitch to get him out. There will be men on base and he'll have the chance to do what he does best. He'll have what could be one last opportunity to play a human wrecking ball in the AL Cenral.
Jim Thome, 2005
BRIAN ANDERSON, CF
Anderson turns 24 in a few days, and has been one of the biggest prospects touted out of Chicago since his arrival to their rookie league in 2003. He's being asked to take over center field, a position held down by Aarond Rowand for the last few seasons. Offensively, Rowand blew up in 2004 but regressed to mediocrity again in 2005, meaning Anderson won't have to do much to make up what was lossed in Rowand's departure. The primary area I'd target as an area for dropoff is defense.
At 24, Anderson has seen time at The Show (if only 13 games) and is a very mature player. He won't be privy to some of the shortcomings involved in making the jump. Regardless, this is his first real shot at a permanent place with a major league team and this usually leads to a learning curve.
There are high expectations for Anderson. He's been earmarked for the major league club since he started with the Sox in the minors. Overall he's a decent player, and if he lives up to the expectations held for him, he'll be pivotal in Chicago's reign at the top. More than likely, he'll remain a primary piece in what the Sox do in 2006, but he won't be one of the reasons for their success.
Minor League Numbers
BOBBY JENKS, RHP
Jenks, like Anderson, has a birthday in a few days. He'll turn 25. Jenks came out of nowhere last year to help lead what was one of the best bullpens in all of baseball. The AL Central had three very solid bullpens in Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago, and Jenks was one of Chicago's pleasant surprises.
Any success Jenks had last season is essential in the success of the bullpen again this season. Chicago needs to be able to rely on guys like Bobby Jenks, because even though the core of their relief staff returns, the Sox are asking at least two of them to repeat what could have been career years. Neil Cotts was hideous in 13 innings in 2003 and wasn't much better in 2004. Cliff Politte may be solid (2000, 01, 02, 05) or unreliable (1998, 99, 03, 04). Dustin Hermanson's ERA was the lowest it's been (2.04) in his 11-year career (4.21 career ERA).
Minor league numbers on Jenks don't support an extended-year run of seasons like he had in 2005, but they don't have to. He has one hell of an arm, but doesn't always have his head in the game. John Sickels gives his talent an 'A', but gives Jenks' intangibles a 'C/C-'. If Jenks and just one of the bullpen studs from 2005 can show up in 2006, Chicago will be tough to come back on again this year.
Splits IP ERA K/9 WHIP
Minors 282.1 4.91 9.34 1.58
CWS, 2005 39.1 2.75 11.44 1.25
PAUL KONERKO, 1B
The Dodgers traded Konerko and Dennys Reyes to the Reds for something named Jeff Shaw. Six months later the Reds sent Konerko to Chicago for Mike Cameron. No one is wondering who got the best of these deals. Eight years later he's still going strong, and Paulie Nerk-Nerk only turned 30 yesterday.
If Konerko flails for some unforseen reason in 2006...so will the rest of Chicago's offense. It's all based around this guy. He hits for average, he hits for power, and he's not to be toyed with. You could say he's not as solid against southpaws, but in spite of the lower average against them last year (.261 vL, .290 vR), his OPS was outrageous (.956 vL, .895 vR). Not exactly a bad year. But really he's had only one bad season since becoming a full-time player in 1999, and after signing a very expensive contract this offseason he'll be looking to extend that streak and keep the Sox offense formidable.
Honestly, there's not a whole lot more you can say about the guy. He's one of the remnants of Chicago's old days; the days where power ruled with a wooden bat and the Sox lived and died on the strength of the pitching that day. If Konerko falls, Chicago will have to rely on their pitching and defense to win. If he plays himself, it's going to be another uphill battle for Minnesota in 2006.
Year Age HR RBI OPS
1999 23 24 81 .863
2000 24 21 97 .844
2001 25 32 99 .856
2002 26 27 104 .857
2003 27 18 65 .704
2004 28 41 117 .894
2005 29 40 100 .909
CHICAGO versus MINNESOTA
Until someone can prove otherwise, Chicago is still the team to beat in the AL Central. As far as the Twins are concerned, we match up pretty well. Our rotation's depth isn't quite on Chicago's level, but we're still the second best rotation in the division. Our bullpen is strong, our defense is improved (especially up the middle), and our offense should pack a little more punch this year with the additions of White, Castillo and, yes, hopefully Batista.
5 THINGS HONORABLE MENTION
LF Scott Podsednik
C A.J. Pierzynski
UT Rob Mackowiak
2005 Suspects Grade
A.J. Pierzynski B
Demaso Marte C+
Tadahito Iguchi C