At long last, the chapter that I could never find the end of is done, and I can focus my attention on previewing the Twins' division, four weeks after I expected to. Well, better late than never.
It's hard to come at this objectively, since I'm known as the biggest homer around here. But I'll do my best to view this team with a skeptical eye. I've been turning over every possible issue and I just can't find too many beyond potential health issues. And even those are more of the nagging than the season-threatening variety. A lot of people expect regression, but with the exception of Denard Span, the guys who had years above their norm last year are built for the long haul and on the good side of the age/performance bell curve. So I don't see huge regression from anyone but Span. And the Twins outfield depth should be able to absorb that. If both Scott Baker and Joe Mauer return to this team in April as expected, it should be the clear favorite for the division with around 90 wins.
Line-up: This should be the best Twins line-up since 91. It has a lot of speed at the top and bottom and a lot of power potential in the middle. I say potential because the guys who need to produce power to make this line-up as good as the one that hit .305 with RISP are question marks. Joe Crede must stay healthy all year. Michael Cuddyer must return to somewhere near his 2006 form. And Delmon Young must progress to somewhere near his 2007 form. So far so good, if spring training is any indicator. The guy who will take a step forward is Jason Kubel, who will give the Twins three formidable left-handed sticks in the middle of the order.
Defense: The Twins sport the league's best defense, with the best center field combination in Carlos Gomez and Span, the best catcher, and average to above average middle infielders. The black hole the last few years has been admirably filled with Joe Crede at third. And Justin Morneau continues to improve into the upper third of first basemen in the league.The lone weakness is the corner outfielders, who lack range and only make up some of that with their arms.
Rotation: I was about to claim that defense is the strength of this team but then I realized that the rotation is. Five starters who should average 180 innings and a FIP around 4 means the Twins should be in just about every game. In particular, I'm impressed with the improvement from Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey, who form a very solid middle of the rotation. The only worry is Scott Baker's shoulder. Twins fans can only hope it is just stiffness as the Twins medical staff has claimed. Nick Blackburn's knee is also somewhat of a concern, but if he's healthy, he should at least duplicate what he did last year.
Bullpen: On paper this is a good but not great bullpen. Joe Nathan is one of the top closers in the game. And Jesse Crain and Luis Ayala should be solid if not shut- down set-up guys. But the pen lacks depth. Matt Guerrier is coming off the worst implosion by a Twins pitcher since Dan Serafini. I don't expect much out of him. Philip Humber has yet to establish himself in the big leagues. Ditto for Brian Duensing. The lone bright spot in the middle relief corps is Craig Breslow. Hopefully manager Ron Gardenhire decides to use him in close and late situations. If not, this could get ugly like last year, when this unit blew 26 saves. The Twins can only hope that Jose Mijares makes it back and eitehr Rob Delaney or Anthony Slama can emerge. Otherwise, 20 blown saves is a reasonable projection.
If the season were played on paper by analysts who stare at fantasy baseball stats, the Indians would be the team to beat. They sport the most dangerous line-up in the division, a strong bullpen, and a solid manager and coaching staff. Fortunately for Twins fans, the season is not played on paper. And the stats you track for fantasy baseball do not tell the whole story. The two things that worry my frined the Indians fan are starting pitching and defense. Because pitching and defense win and lose divisions, I'm picking them to finish second, with 84 wins.
Line-up: The Indians sport the deepest line-up in the division, led by Grady Sizemore at the top and with solid middle guys such as Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach, Jhonny Peralta, and Ryan Garko. The big question mark is DH Travis Hafner, who was often hurt and otherwise awful last year. If he can return to form, this should be a great line-up. But if last year was just the first step in an inevitable decline, the line-up suddenly seems so-so. Even if Hafner returns to form, Manager Eric Wedge will have his hands full trying to get at bats for Shoppach, Martinez and Garko since you can only have one catcher and one first baseman in the line-up at one time. If Hafner continues to decline, Martinez takes over at his natural position--DH--and Pronk becomes the left-handed bat off the bench, which would not be the worst thing.
Defense: The Indians are not a good defensive team, despite the fact that they have the second best center fielder in the league. Peralta is a third baseman who might end up playing a lot of short this year, as Mark DeRosa plays out of position at third. Garko is mediocre at first. And Martinez is miserable behind the plate. The corner outfielders should be somewhat better this year as the Indians inject some youth into the team. But overall, this team lacks range.
Starters: Typically an Indians strength, starting pitching will be the main weakness of this team this year. They effectively traded CC Sabathia for Carl Pavano and chose not to resign Paul Byrd. The last full season those two were in the rotation, they logged 431 innings. Since Pavano last pitched an inning, Sabathia and Byrd have pitched over 1600 innings between them. Cliff Lee is coming off a career year and should regress some. Fausto Carmona should also regress to the mean, in the good direction. But if you just average his production the last two years, you get about 160 innings and a 4.5 FIP. Beyond those two, there's a bunch of question marks. This could be a long season in Cleveland unless some of these marginally talented guys in the back of the rotation unexpectedly shine.
Bullpen: For the first time since Bob Wickman defaulted on his pact with the Voodoo Queen, the Indians have a real closer in Kerry Wood. He's still not not best closer in the division--not even second or third best--but he's not the worst, which is an improvement for this team. The set-up guys are nothing special, but there are four solid guys, assuming Rafeal Betancourt can return to form without the pressure of the closer's role. That's a big if: He was suspended for using steroids about the time Juan Rincon was and their careers have been strikingly similar since. But it's a good sign that the Indians no longer carry Juanie on their active roster at least. Instead they have a guy named Kobayashi, who was last seen eating like 50 hot dogs in a minute. That's an improvement over Rincon.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox have gone backwards this offseason as GM Kenny Williams attempts to rebuild on the fly. Like the Indians, the Sox traded their biggest innings eater in Javier Vazquez, who logged over 600 innings for the Pale Hosers over the past three years. Still, the rotation is the strength of this aging team of slow sluggers, and it's matched by a bullpen that should save enough games to keep manager Ozzie Guillen in a job for at least one more year. They'll finish third with an even record.
Line-up: The White Sox will rely on the three-run homer but struggle to get enough guys on base ahead of their bombs to hit many of them. Alexi Ramirez is the lone guy on the club with much speed. But with 18 walks and a .317 OBP last year, he was just slightly better than Carlos Gomez in that category. The Sox will rely on Carlos Quentin, Germain Dye, Jim Thome, AJ Pierzinski and Paul Konerko to generate offense this year. So much for small ball.
Defense: This is where the Sox will really struggle. AJ is a decent backstop and Ramirez should be OK at short. But the rest of this team is S-L-O-W. Brian Anderson is a corner outfielder playing center. Fields and Konerko are tree stumps. And Dye and Quentin are not much better.
Rotation: The Sox have the makings of a solid rotation with Mark Buerhle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd at the top. Unfortunately, both Danks and Floyd had years last year even Sox fans don't expect to see again this year. And Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon at the back of the rotation is a nightmare for Sox fans. This is a rotation that should just squeeze out enough wins to break even, and that's it.
Bullpen: This is the strength of this team, anchored by Bobby Jenks and set up by Octavio Dotel, Scott Linebrink, DJ Corasco and Matt Thornton. They will not blow too any leads this year, unless their defense fails them. But fortunately for them, they strike out enough batters to leave less to their defense.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have improved more than any other team in the division this offseason. Along with the maturing of some of their young stars, might this be the year they make more than incremental improvement and leap-frog over teams they have looked up at for two decades? No. They have two great starters and three scrubs in the rotation. That's not enough for an even record, though they will go over 500 a couple times this year, they won't finish above .500. Still, they won't be last in the division either.I see 80 wins and fourth.
Line-up: The additions of Coco Crisp at the top of the order and Mike Jacobs in the middle will help a weak line-up score more than last year, when they only managed 691 runs. But the team will struggle to score enough and will fight to win a lot of close games unless two young stars finally emerge: Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. If those two can take the next step forward, there's enough solid guys like David DeJesus, Mark Teahan and Mike Aviles to make this team dangerous.
Defense: This team should be strong up the middle this year with Crisp in center, Aviles and Alberto Callaspo up the middle and John Buck and Miguel Olivo sharing catching duties. They're still somewhat weak on the corners. Gordon is average at third and Teahan is a poor corner outfielder. But up the middle is what really counts, so overall they should be above average defensively.
Rotation: The Royals sport the best top of the rotation in the division with Zach Greinke and Gil Meche. Unfortunately, if goes downhill from there. Kyle Davies looks like a fifth starter to me. Horatio Ramirez and Jamey Wright look like seventh and eighth starters. This rotation will struggle to win half its games.
Bullpen: This might be the strongest bullpen in the division with Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth setting up Joakim Soria. Doug Waechter and Ron Mahey round out a very deep pen that will have its hands full with this starting staff, except when Meche and Greinke pitch.
This is a bad ball club. They're the most defensively challenged team in baseball playing in the most defensively challenging ballpark. And they have the worst pitching in the division. I've seen lots of teams attempt to slug their way and fail without the pitching they need. The 1977 Twins come to mind. It just doesn't work. I see around 75 wins, last place in the division, and a house cleaning at the top. Wasn't it just three years ago that GM Dave Dumbrowski and Manager Jim Leyland were hailed as the saviors of Tigers' baseball?
Line-up: This is clearly the strength of this team. With Granderson and Placido Polanco at the top of the order and Maglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera in the middle, this team will score runs. The question is, will it be enough?
Defense: The good news is, the team has a very good center fielder in Curtis Granderson and should be solid up the middle in the infield with Adam Everette and Placido Polanco. But that's the only good news. If Leyland puts Miguel Cabrera at DH and Carlos Guillen at first and Brandon Inge at third, they won't be awful. But Ordonez and Thames on the coners in that huge outfield is a gapper machine. The worst news is at the catching position: Gerald Laird and Matt Tranor? I thought the White Sxx were hard up with Corky "Corky" Miller as the back-up.
Rotation: The Tigers have some arms. Verlander, Bonderman, Zumaya, Willis. It sounds good, unless you actually do your research. Veralander is the ace and he could rebound. But the other three are out with various ailments. Willis is done for good, I think, with anxiety over the fact that he never was as good as he seemed. Zumaya's shoulder won't come back (I know he's a bullpen guy, but people talk about him becoming a starter). Bonderman might come back at some point this year, but who knows? He had the same procedure that Jay Rainville had. Jay is still trying to get his velocity back after two years. Beyond that, we're talking about Armando Gallaraga, who is a solid starter, And Zach Miner, Nate Robertson and Edwin Jackson, who are not solid starters.
Bullpen: Tiger's fans say Brandon Lyon is a savior. Um, if he's a savior, this bullpen is really in trouble. He had a Matt Guerrier-like year last year. Fernando Rodney has been a good set-up guy when healthy. But who knows if he can stay healthy? The only thing you need to know about this bullpen is that Juan Rincon is one of the set-up guys. I can't wait to play theses guys so I can watch the Twins gap hitters feasting on Rincon's fat fastballs and shooting triples into the gaps at Comerica Park.