March 22, 2005

Frinklin's Second Annual Baseball Preview: AL Central

1. Minnesota Twins
The Good
At times last year, the Twinkies were the only team of grownups in the division. Led by reigning Cy Young winner Johan Santana, Minnesota sports an excellent nucleus. There are some changes though, as several of the teams prospects are ready. Justin Morneau will man 1B. He isn’t the niftiest defender around, but he is a genuine power hitter who should give the team its first 30-HR man since Kent Hrbek. Joe Mauer returns from injury to be behind the plate. There are some concerns he may eventually have to move positions, but for now the sweet-swinging Mauer will catch. Michael Cuddyer, after several abortive attempts, will take over 3B full time this season. All three kids are possible All-Stars. They, plus a talented outfield of Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Shannon Stewart, will fuel an explosive lineup. The pitching is the best in the division as well, with Santana and Brad Radke leading the rotation, and an excellent bullpen. Closer Joe Nathan, after being dumped by San Francisco, emerged as a grade-A closer.

The Bad
The Twins have problems in the middle infield. Shortstop Cristian Guzman signed (an absurdly overpriced) contract with Washington, leaving prospect Jason Bartlett or utility man Juan Castro to replace him. Luis Rivas remains at 2B, though the Twins would love to replace him. There isn’t anyone available right now, unless they wish to shift Cuddyer to 2B and find someone for third. While Jones continues to hit for power, his OBP dropped to an untenable .315. He was resigned, but is still in danger to losing his job to prospect Jason Kubel or fourth OF Lew Ford. Ford will also get many of the DH at-bats. This team has taken some steps back defensively. Bartlett doesn’t have nearly the range or arm Guzman did, Rivas can still play out of control at times, and Morneau and Cuddyer are steps down from Doug Mientkiewicz and Corey Koskie.

The Bottom Line
This team has replaced Oakland as the prototype successful small-market team. There is All-Star caliber talent at many positions, and a deep pool of prospects to either use as trade bait or replacements for pricier players. The question is will they, unlike Oakland, be able to take that final step and make it to the World Series.

2. Cleveland Indians
The Good
This is a very young, very talented team. CC Sabathia and Jake Westbrook are a dynamic tandem atop the rotation, and veteran Kevin Millwood has been signed to serve as the third starter, in hopes he can return to his Atlanta form. Cliff Lee, while erratic, is a serviceable 4th man. Catcher Victor Martinez, off an excellent .283/359/.492 season gives the Tribe a quality bat at a premium position to build around. Travis Hafner shook off a mediocre 2003 to provide steady power at the DH spot, finishing with an OPS of .993. Cleveland features a plethora of young outfielders either early in their major league careers like Jody Gerut and Coco Crisp, or on the verge of making the show like Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez.

The Bad
This is a very young, very talented team. Like most such teams they will play out of control or make stupid mistakes. They were also prone to streakiness in 2004, lurching to a stop with a 9-32 record down the stretch. While Sabathia is a fine young pitcher, he has yet to become as dominant as the Indians believe he can be. Lee was excellent before the All-Star break last season, dreadful after. Millwood has been a thoroughly average pitcher since leaving Atlanta. The bullpen was a disaster in 04, and might not improve much this season. Bob Wickman returns from injury to act as closer, but the Indians could also turn to David Riske and Rafael Betancourt, neither of whom were effective last year. Martinez is an excellent hitter, but might not develop enough behind the plate to stay there. The outfield is unsettled, and the infield is a mess. Ben Broussard went at least partway to removing the “bust” label and starts the season at first. Ronnie Belliard mans second after reviving his career away from Coors Field, and prospects Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips will fight to replace Omar Vizquel at short. Aaron Boone, after as year lost to knee surgery, pushes Casey Blake off of third and into the outfield mix.

The Bottom Line
This is a young team on the way up. They aren’t there yet. Young talents like Lee, Sizemore and Gutierrez will need at least a year or two more seasoning before the Indians can really contend.

3. Chicago White Sox
The Good
Lefty Mark Buerhle and former Mariner Freddy Garcia are a nice right/left tandem at the head of the rotation.
Behind them are Yankee refugees Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, plus Mr. Mediocre Jon (46-51, 4.68 lifetime) Garland. If everything breaks right, this is a fine staff. Outfielder Aaron Rowand broke through with a 20/20 year in center, though he’ll move to left this season. Paul Konerko continues to provide righthanded power, with an OPS just a tick under .900 in 2004. Frank Thomas will do the same, assuming he stays healthy. New centerfielder Scott Podsednik led the majors with 70 stolen bases with the Brewers last year. Juan Uribe, of all people, had a terrific season at 2B, hitting .283/.327/.506 away from Coors Field. Why Uribe and Ron Belliard didn’t play like this in Colorado is beyond me. The Sox have several people (Shingo Takatsu, Damaso Marte, Luis Vizcaino, Dustin Hermanson) who have been and could be closers for many teams.

The Bad
To get Podsednik and Vizcaino Chicago gave up Carlos Lee. Podsednik did steal 70 bases. He did so on a team in free-fall, with an OBP of barely over .300. Flanking him will be Rowand in left and free agent pickup Jermaine Dye in right. Dye, who replaces the departed Magglio Ordonez, hasn’t been a healthy and effective player for 3 seasons now. The infield is in flux, with Uribe moving to his natural shortstop position. Willie Harris, a utility player last season, will be the full-time 2B. Harris is a bit of an Eric Young/Tony Womack type; Low OBP, lots of steals, erratic defense. Konerko remains at first, despite his awful defense. He is better than Thomas, who is a born DH. Joe Crede is at third, and he seems to be settling into low-average version of Joe Randa. That will not do. The rotation could go south quickly if Hernandez gets hurt, or Contreras continues to be… well, Jose Contreras. While the pen does include several former closers, only Takatsu was any good at it last season, a sort of poor-man’s Trevor Hoffman.

The Bottom Line
This team is not going in the right direction. GM Kenny Williams and Manager Ozzie Guillen have stated very clearly they want a faster, more aggressive team than the collection of right-handed sluggers they’ve featured recently. Hence the move for Podsednik. The direction isn’t necessarily a bad idea. The Sox have been slow, lumbering and bad in the field for several years now. The problem is they seem to be going after Ozzie Guillen-type players: free swinging, no-power types with no patience at the plate. This is a team on the verge of collapse.

4. Detroit Tigers
The Good
This team is a heckuva lot better than it used to be. Ivan Rodriguez joined the team as a last-minute free agent signing and spearheaded an overall team improvement that took the team up 29 wins over the disaster of 2003. I-Rod hit .334/.383/.510 and won a Gold Glove. The other big addition was SS Carlos Guillen, who finally fulfilled his promise and turned in a sparkling .318-20-97 before getting hurt in September. Those two, plus new RF Magglio Ordonez will power the offense. The Tigers also improved at a couple unexpected positions. Omar Infante, freeswining middle infielder, took over for the injured Fernado Vina and hit 16 HR, though his OBP was an awful .317. The pitching started to come around, led by Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth. Bonderman is close to breaking through, and Maroth went from 20 losses to 11-13. They will be joined by youngsters Will Ledezma (who dominated AA ball at 10-3 with a 2.42 ERA) and Nate Robertson, who was solid in his first full year in the majors.

The Bad
This team is still just 2 years removed from a historically bad season. With the dismissal of CF Alex Sanchez, the Tigers are looking at an outfield of Rondell White (who can’t walk), Craig Monroe (who can’t catch) and Ordonez (who was a fair outfielder before the injuries last season). Who plays center in this mess is unknown, but once White goes down with his injury of the year, rookie Curtis Granderson should take over in CF. Beyond Guillen and Infante the infield is set with Carlos Pena at 1B, who still isn’t as good as he thinks he is, and Brandon Inge at third. Inge who caught, played 3B, 1B, and all three OF positions last season, has settled in at the plate. The pitching is still young, and thin. Troy Percival was signed from the Angels to anchor the bullpen.

The Bottom Line
Detroit is looking better, but still pretty lousy. Rodriguez and Guillen should produce close to their 2004 numbers, but Infante should return to Earth unless he improves his patience. Ordonez, if he stays healthy, should provide a big lift. If Bonderman has his breakthrough, this team could contend for .500.

5.Kansas City Royals
The Good
Zack Grienke came up as a 20-year old and quickly established himself as the best pitcher on the staff. GM Allard Baird managed to parlay Carlos Beltran into a starting catcher John Buck and 3B Mark Teahen might not be superstars, but both have the potential to be quality major leaguers. Jeremy Affeldt, if he stays healthy, could be either a good closer or starter. Mike Sweeney is a great hitter. David DeJesus did well replacing Beltran in center.

The Bad
When a 20-year old pitcher is your best thing, you’re in trouble. Right now, the Royals will roll out a starting lineup that includes Tony Graffanino at second, Chris Truby at third, Terrence Long in left, and either Matt Stairs or Eli Marrero in right. That’s just ugly. The pitching isn’t much better, as the Royals have to hope Runelvys Hernandez can come back from injury, and one of their many #5 starter-types like Brian Anderson, Chris George or whomever to pitch effectively. Sweeney is recovering from injury, and is very much on the trading block. After a ROTY season from Angel Berroa, he regressed, and was sent to the minors twice.

The Bottom Line
This is a bad team. Contending in 2003 now seems like some sort of bad fever dream. The moves they made, such as picking up Juan Gonzalez, backfired horribly, and now they start again from scratch. It will be several seasons before this team recovers.

Posted by Frinklin at March 22, 2005 06:45 PM

Isn't Jason Kubel out for the year?

In fact, I believe 2006 is even unsure for him at this point.

Posted by: Brian Cronin at March 22, 2005 07:08 PM

You would be correct, Kubel is out for 2005 and maybe longer.

Tough luck for both he and the Twins. Kubel can hit.

Posted by: frinklin at March 22, 2005 08:45 PM

Frinklin, Frinklin, Frinklin, love your blog but you're breaking my heart with your lack of research into the Sox organization.

1) The Sox signed Tadahito Iguchi in the offseason, and he'll be starting over Wee Wilie Harris at 2nd base. Iguchi is a solid contact hitter with decent OBP who can steal bases too.

2) Carl Everett is having a monster spring and will be a servicable fill in for Large Francis until his rehab is complete.

Re: The Indians--Sabathia is going to start the season on the DL, and Millwood's ERA had ballooned to almost 5 the past two years. Moving to the AL and pitching in hitter's parks like The Jake and US Cellular is going to hurt. All their outfielders are young and strikeout-prone, and AAron Boone is an unknown quantity coming off his knee-shredding.

Aside from this--your blog is top notch...keep up the good work.


Posted by: Ilk at March 23, 2005 10:15 AM

Who is Aaron Rowland?

Also I believe you are wrong about the free-swinging crack about our Sox. The 2B we acquired (who doesn't show up in your preview) has shown he can take a walk, and we got rid of a strikeout machine in Jose Valentin. Kenny Williams has made several public statements about increasing team OBP. I don't believe you follow the Sox very closely and are basing this preview on a cursory review of the offseason moves.

Posted by: Moose at March 23, 2005 10:16 AM

Ilk-Yeah, Iguchi was an oversight on my part, and if he plays like he did in Japan he's certainly a upgrade over Harris. As for the Indians, I don't think Millwood will be anything more than a 5th guy in the rotation. I think they're expecting Lee and Westbrook to continue to improve more than they expect any rebound from Millwood.

Moose-You're right, I don't pay much attention to the Chisox, and I never claimed I did. I do wonder about a GM that claims improving OBP is key, then turns around and picks up Scott Podsednik.

As for Rowand... as God as my witness I never even realized I was getting his name wrong. Thanks for the tip.

If I really wanted to pick up readers, I'd just beat up on the White Sox more often.

Posted by: frinklin at March 23, 2005 10:12 PM
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