MLB Preview Bonanza: AL Central

This was probably the most exciting division last year, if only because it gave us that thrilling Wild Card Playoff (you may remember it as Game 163, because Chip Caray called it that approximately 162,886 times during the game) that cracked Tim’s top five games of the decade. A lot of that was due to Detroit falling off dramatically as the season went on, and the Tigers are still trending downwards. They lost Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson in the off-season, and Magglio Ordonez got another year older. The big news out of this division, though, is that the Twins just signed Joe Mauer to an eight-year extension, meaning that, at the very least, they have the MVP front-runner for the next nine years.

Minnesota Twins

Last Season: 87-76, 1st AL Central

This Season: 92-70, 1st AL Central

Well, the Twins have Joe Mauer, so that in and of itself is good for, I believe, 50 wins. You also may remember that Justin Morneau, the Twins’ other, decidedly less valuable, Most Valuable Player, actually missed the stretch run in which the Twins tied the Tigers for the division lead. Now he’ll be back, though, and you can probably pencil him in for another 30 home runs and 100+ RBIs. The Twins also made some nice additions to the infield, picking up Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy. Hardy is coming off a really bad year, but if he rebounds to 2007-08 caliber, then he’ll be a major upgrade over Orlando Cabrera, in addition to being younger.

As a Yankees fan, how devastated were you by the Twins signing of Joe Mauer? Beyond crushed. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly: The Yankees were saving money this off-season, Jorge Posada was getting older and catching less, and the negotiations between Mauer and the Twins were stalling. If he didn’t sign now, the Yankees were poised to offer him a contract worth maybe twice as much as the $184 million he got. But, if I’m being objective, it’s obviously better for baseball for Mauer to stay in Minnesota, even if it’s bad for the Yankees.

Would the Twins front office stop screwing over the Yankees? Seriously. This Mauer situation comes only two years after the Johan Santana debacle. People may not realize this, but the Twins picked up J.J. Hardy by trading Carlos Gomez, the centerpiece of the Mets’ package in the Santana trade. So the Twins managed to turn the best pitcher in baseball into a shortstop with a .302 OBP last year. How are Twins fans not outraged about this? They could have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Austin Jackson right now! Has a GM ever botched such a big trade so massively?

Oh poor you. The tragedy of the Yankee fan: You had to settle for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and the 2009 World Series title instead of Johan Santana. Boo fucking hoo… I guess it did all work out in the end. But I still think Twins should be upset that they didn’t get more for the most valuable trading commodity in baseball.

Can we go back to discussing the 2010 Twins? Did they make any other moves? Well, they got Jim Thome.

Thome? Really? He’s still around? Well, you may not have noticed because he was relegated to pinch-hitting duty in the National League at the end of last season.

Well, now that he’s back in the AL, where baseball isn’t played with antiquated rules, he’ll start again, right? Well, not so fast. The Twins still have Jason Kubel.

Jason Kubel? Kubel quietly put together a great year last season. He had .907 OPS and was a big reason why the Twins kept winning even after Morneau got hurt. The Twins lineup has a few guys like that—Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span: guys who are unheralded or unknown, but make the lineup productive besides Mauer and Morneau.

What about their rotation? This is where things get a little tricky. Like the Angels, the Twins have a very good lineup, but a rotation that lacks a strong No. 1 starter. Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn are solid and reliable, but not exactly guys you can count on to shut down an opposing lineup. They still see Carl Pavano as their No. 3, which is never a good sign, and they hope Kevin Slowey will stay healthy and improve.

What ever happened to Francisco Liriano? He’s still in the rotation, as of right now, but his story is kind of sad. He was absolutely lights out for a few months in 2006, but hasn’t been the same since he injured his elbow. He had some good starts at the end of 2008, but last year went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA. It’d be really nice, for Minnesota and for baseball, if Liriano could recapture his dominance, but don’t count on it.

Do you really think the Twins are going to improve by five games without a front-line starter and without a closer? Joe Nathan’s injury hurts them more than anything else, of course, but I still think this team wins the division. Their offense got better, they are playing in a weak division, and Baker/Blackburn/Pavano are all decent starters. This team seems built like a very solid regular season team that, once again, won’t win a game in the postseason.

Chicago White Sox

Last Season: 79-83, 3rd AL Central

This Season: 86-76, 2nd AL Central

Hey, remember when the White Sox won the World Series a few years ago? Yeah, that feels like a lot longer ago than 2005. But, as Tim has said before on NPI, that team was arguably the best team of the last decade. Their rotation was so good that they hardly needed a bullpen: They threw four consecutive complete games in the ALCS! The biggest problem with that team, though, was that they tried to hold on to that nucleus too long, and didn’t realize that guys like Jon Garland and Jose Contreras were not likely to duplicate their career years. As guys like Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko got older and the rotation got weaker, the White Sox gradually faded to the middle of the pack in the Central.

Doesn’t Ozzie Guillen deserve a lot of the blame? Ozzie Guillen is crazy and he doesn’t seem to understand the rules of baseball a lot of the time, but I just don’t think a manager makes that much of a difference. He fills out the lineup card and manages the bullpen and, I guess, tries to “inspire” the players, but overall a baseball manager can’t screw things up that much unless he is actively trying to sabotage the team. Unfortunately, as likable as Chicago GM Kenny Williams is, most of the blame belongs to him for letting the team get too old.

Psht, racist. Williams traded Aaron Rowand for Jim Thome and got Carlos Quentin from the Diamondbacks. Yeah, I generally think Williams is pretty good at recognizing value—it’s easy to forget, but Quentin was probably a month away from winning the AL MVP when he got injured and missed of all of September in 2008—but he seems to overrate certain veterans. Even so, he seemed to recognize the team’s problems and begin righting the ship last year. He made a couple of moves last season, like picking up Alexis Rios from Toronto and trading for Jake Peavy, that were perceived as a late-season pennant push, but were really about the 2010 season. Rios is a good defensive center fielder and is probably going to bounce back from his dismal 2009. And adding Peavy to a rotation that already includes Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, and John Danks means that the White Sox have probably the best rotation in the AL Central (which isn’t saying much, but it’s something).

Shouldn’t Major League Baseball just declare the White Sox the Division Champs right now as a reward for that amazing play by Buehrle on Opening Day? If there were any justice at all in baseball, yes.

Detroit Tigers

Last Season: 86-77, 2nd AL Central

This Season: 80-82, 3rd AL Central

God, John, when will your pro-Ozzie Guillen, anti-Jim Leyland agenda ever end? Well, if we did these divisional rankings based on manager likability, then the Tigers would probably be giving the Twins a serious run for their money, but that’s not how it works.

But why don’t they get some credit for being in first for almost all of last season? The truth is that the Tigers simply weren’t that great a team last year. In terms of run differential, they were only six runs better than the White Sox. Pythagorean win-loss pegged both teams as .500 teams, and while the White Sox should get better, the Tigers should get worse. They lost Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson, and Marcus Thames–all, interestingly, to the two teams who played in the World Series. Even though Polanco and Granderson had down years in 2009, and Thames only played about half the season, those were probably the team’s three best hitters behind Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Raburn, and rookies Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson may not be able to make up for that production. Magglio Ordonez, meanwhile, gets another year older.

What about Johnny Damon? Oh, you mean my third-favorite still-active left-handed hitting former Yankees corner outfielder? Well, after trading Granderson to the Yankees, the Tigers went out and signed the Yankees star to add another veteran bat. Damon looks like an upgrade over Granderson, but he really isn’t. For one, he’s a terrible defender, and he’ll likely be asked to play the outfield a lot, since the Tigers have Carlos Guillen and Ordonez who each like to DH. In addition to being forced to cover more ground at Comerica Park, Damon will not be able to rely on the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium for home runs. Although Damon had the highest OPS+ of his career last year, a LOT of that was inflated by that porch: He matched his career high in home runs (at the age of 35, mind you), but actually saw his batting average and OBP go down.

Will you stop bashing Damon now that he’s left the Yankees? Hey, I’ll always remember Johnny Damon for his steal of two bases in last year’s World Series. I would have even been happy to see him return to the Yankees. But he’s not going to be much else to another team. Just look at his home and away splits from last season.

What about the rotation? They still have Verlander. Verlander had the kind of year that would have won a Cy Young Award most years, but there was a guy named Zack Greinke in this same division who happened to have a pretty good year himself. If I were a Tigers fan, I’d have to be a little nervous about Verlander, though. He threw almost 40 more innings than he’s ever thrown before, and he’s still pretty young; he may take a slight step back this season. Even if he doesn’t, though, this rotation doesn’t go that deep beyond him. Edwin Jackson, the team’s second best pitcher in 2009, was traded to Arizona in the off-season, leaving Rick Porcello, Jeremy Bonderman, and Dontrelle Willis. Those three don’t exactly inspire confidence at this stage in their careers.

Cleveland Indians

Last Season: 65-97, 4th AL Central

This Season: 72-90, 4th AL Central

It’s too bad for National League contenders that the Indians don’t have any more defending Cy Young winners to trade them this season, huh? Yeah, it sucks for them.

Hey, remember when the Indians were almost in the World Series two years ago! In retrospect, the J.D. Drew grand slam in that series looks like a franchise-altering moment on the scale of Fracisco Cabrera’s pinch-hit in 1992. Remember the situation: Fausto Carmona was one out away from pinching out of a bases loaded nobody out jam in the first inning. If he gets out of it and settles in—he had thrown a complete game, 3-hitter against Yankees in those same playoffs—then Cleveland makes it to the World Series, and maybe the nucleus of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner stays together for a few more years. It wasn’t a given, after all, that Cleveland wouldn’t be able to keep Sabathia in the same way it was clear that Minnesota couldn’t keep Santana. Instead, Carmona has regressed, Hafner hasn’t been able to stay healthy, Jhonny Peralta hasn’t developed as some people thought, and, to top it all off, Indians fans had to watch Lee and Sabathia start Game One of the ’09 World Series for other teams.

Man, way to depress all of NPI’s loyal Cleveland readership. Is there any chance that the Grady Sizemore Era isn’t totally lost? Well, yes, but it probably won’t start this year. This year will be a chance for guys like Matt LaPorta, Lou Marson, Michael Brantley, Luis Valbuena, Justin Masterson, and even Carmona to prove themselves as part of a younger core, in addition to Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, and Peralta.

Is Choo really a part of that core? Choo may be one of the most underrated players in the game right now. I’m sure most casual fans have never heard of him. Even most good fans probably don’t think much of him, but over the last year and a half he’s but up some great offensive numbers on a pretty bad offensive team. He’s not a guy you can build a lineup around, but if he’s your second or third best hitter, you’re in pretty good shape. Plus, I have his bobblehead.

You have somebody’s bobblehead? Yeah, they gave them away to all of NPI when we went to Progressive Field. We run that town!

Kansas City Royals

Last Season: 65-97, 5th AL Central

This Season: 62-100, 5th AL Central

The Royals didn’t lose 100 games last year? I could’ve sworn they did… Yeah, it sure felt like it, but they actually underachieved according to the Pythagorean: They were only supposed to lose 96 games! Most of that, though, probably has to do with Zack Greinke.

How good is that guy? Pretty fucking good. I can’t wait until he’s a free agent so the Yankees can sign him (because if there is one place that someone who has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder belongs, it’s in New York playing for the Yankees). But, at this point, so much has been written—most of it by Joe Posnanski—about how great Greinke’s last season was (1.07 WHIP, 2.16 ERA, 205 ERA+), that I’ll just say “Wow,” and leave it at that.

So why do you have a team with Zack Greinke losing 100 games? Because nobody can do that two years in a row. Well, maybe Pedro Martinez, but pretty much nobody else. You also have to factor in the mental strain of pitching that well on a team as bad as the Royals. At least Pedro was pitching in a pennant race, and could honestly tell himself that his games mattered, but the Royals will be mathematically eliminated by, probably, Tuesday. I just don’t think you can bring yourself to dominate in those circumstances two years in a row. Greinke is still great, and he’ll still be good, but he won’t be enough to keep this team from hitting the century mark.

Do you see the Royals ever competing again in your lifetime? Not if their idea of a big off-season of addition continues to be adding Jason Kendall, who may be the worst hitter of all everyday Major Leaguers. They also added Rick Ankiel, which indicates that the Royals are just collecting hitters who OPS below .700. Of the nine players in Kansas City’s Opening Day lineup, six couldn’t crack the .700 mark last season, and that doesn’t even count Scott Podsednik (another new addition) who did top .700 last season, but for only the second time in his career. Now, Alberto Callaspo, their second-best hitter (that’s right, Alberto Callaspo is a team’s second best hitter) didn’t play on Opening Day, but come on.

Can they at least pitch? Aside from Greinke, no. Luke Hochevar, their No. 2 starter, had a 6.55 ERA last season. That is probably the first time in MLB history that there was a gap of 4.39 between the ERAs of a team’s first two starters. The Royals are just really good at being bad at baseball.

Can you name a bright spot besides Greinke? Well, Kauffman Stadium is pretty nice. And they still have Joakim Soria, although I don’t know how valuable a good closer is if you’re hardly ever going to have a lead.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on April 10, 2010 at 11:36 PM

    So the readers of NPI know now, I am predicting that the Minnesota Twins win a playoff game this season–11 of them, in fact, en route to the World Series title.

    And John, I am appalled by your lack of coverage of the major uniform news in this division, from Minnesota’s new, pinstripe-free roads (http://twinsmvb.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/pMLB2-6887856dt.jpg) to the Royals’ new light blue hats (http://www.strictlyfitteds.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/newera-mlb-kcroyals-alternate-59fifty-fitted001.jpg).

    Reply

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