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AL Central Preview

Sorry for the late post this morning. Running a little behind schedule.

In continuing our series on the division previews, we're going to be moving on to the AL Central today. I'm thankful that the Twins were able to dispatch Santana (despite his new destination) before doing this so that it's somewhat timely.

Here are the important team numbers from last year:

W L Pythag W Off R/G Pit. R/G RZR
Cleveland 96 66 92 5.01 4.35 .800
Detroit 88 74 89 5.48 4.92 .829
Minnesota 79 83 80 4.43 4.48 .812
Chicago 72 90 66 4.28 5.18 .804
Kansas City 69 83 74 4.36 4.80 .843

There's little doubt that this is one of the best, if not the best, divisions in baseball. Cleveland and Detroit are clearly at the top of the heap and while the Twins are a notch or two beneath them, they have an exciting stockpile of young talent. (Is it possible the Twins will replace their ace w/ a pitcher who'll be even better over the next 7 years?) Probably the most amusing result from this division last year was the White Sox season. There was a huge uproar when PECOTA predicted 72 wins from the Pale Hose , who were just 1 season away from winning it all. And yet, guess what - they won exactly 72 games, thus providing some vindication for the PECOTA system that was lambasted by many in the media last March.

The Indians had a spectacular season last year. They won 96 games and defeated the Yankees 3-1 in the ALDS. They were up 3-1 in the ALCS before the Red Sox came back to win it. Like the '96 Cardinals, they were within just a hair of a big upset and a trip to the fall classic only to fall short at the end. They scored a lot of runs, led by Victor Martinez and the Colby Rasmus-like (hopefully) Grady Sizemore. Hafner's a big bat in the middle of the order. They have 2 aces at the top of the rotation and pretty good depth w/ Westbrook and Byrd. They have young pitchers like Adam Miller and Chuck Lofgren who are very close to being ready. They've got a very good bullpen led by the 2 Rafaels - Betancourt and Perez.

This offseason the Indians made very few moves, choosing instead to stick with their young guys. They probably could do better at 1B - w/ Ryan Garko and at 3B - w/ Casey Blake. Their OF corners aren't top-notch players but as long as they can pitch, they're going to be very good.

One other thing the Indians did last year was to, apparently, royally piss off Dave Dombrowski. He obviously didn't like losing the title they won the previous season and devoted this offseason to ensuring that they wouldn't lose it in '08. They bolstered their already potent offense by adding Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cabrera. They added an already young (Kenny Rogers excepted) and talented rotation by adding Dontrelle Willis. They got rid of the very nice yet very bad Sean Casey and moved Carlos Guillen to 1B. Gary Sheffield and MVP candidate Magglio Ordonez return. Curtis Granderson is turning into one of the best OF's in baseball. They added Jacque Jones to, I suppose, platoon w/ Marcus Thames in LF. Neither are very good but Jones can hit righties and Thames can hit lefties. As a platoon, Marque Thones will probably be a pretty good LF.

Like Cleveland, Detroit has young pitchers at the top of the rotation. Verlander is very good and Bonderman, though he wasn't very good last year, is projected by PECOTA to have a 30.5 VORP and an ERA of 4.00 for this year. Add Rogers, Robertson and Willis to the other two and you're looking at a pretty damned good rotation.

Their bullpen is very similar to Cleveland's in the sense that their best relievers are the setup guys and their closer really shouldn't be closing. Todd Jones and Joe Borowski aren't very good but they do manage to, fairly consistently, get 3 outs at the end of the game. If either fails, Zumaya or Betancourt are there to pick up the slack and there's little doubt that, if either of those ends up closing games, their respective teams will never turn back.

Most people believe the Twins didn't get enough for Santana but they did get two young, though middle to bottom of the rotation starters, and a raw but very talented CF in Carlos Gomez. They traded Matt Garza for the very talented and combustible Delmon Young. They already have young pitchers in their rotation and, presumably, Francisco Liriano returns to the rotation. I meant what I alluded to earlier - that it's conceivable that Liriano will be better over the next 7 years than Santana will. Santana, though still exceptional, isn't quite the pitcher he was 2 years ago. He's 29 now and will be very good for the next 7 years but, all in all, I'd rather have Liriano. It's likely that no one in their rotation will be older than 26 years old when the season begins.

The Twins still have one of the best closers in baseball - a guy who will be a free agent at the end of the season and will make an outstanding trade candidate any time until the end of July. He should fetch a pretty good bounty. They have good young hitters in Mauer and Morneau. Cuddyer's a pretty good hitter and adding Mike Lamb to play 3B, though he's awful defensively, was a pretty good addition this offseason. When the Astros decided to keep Ty Wigginton to play 3B when they added Miguel Tejada to play SS, they allowed the Twins to pick up Adam Everett as their SS. He's horrendous offensively but the best defensive SS in baseball and will help their young pitchers. This is a pretty good young team though their clearly about 2 notches below the top 2.

The White Sox, as we all know, were very bad last year. They still have Ozzie Guillen at manager and he plans to make some changes to his managing this year. It's doubtful that more bunting and hitting-and-running will propel the Sox to elite status in this division, however. They did add Carlos Quentin and Nick Swisher to their OF this offseason, finally ridding themselves of the awful Scott Podsednik. They traded Jon Garland to the Angels for Orlando Cabrera. They still have Paul Konerko and an aging Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome in their lineup. Josh Fields is ready to take over at 3B or LF and should be pretty good. This team had a lot of problems last year, and will again this year if Ozzie insists on taking the bat out of their best hitters' hands, but they do have some solid hitters. Their biggest problem is age and, while the Cards were able to extricate the aging Edmonds and Rolen from their lineup this offseason, the Sox still depend mightily on Thome and Dye.

Their pitching isn't what it was a couple of years ago. PECOTA doesn't think a lot of Buehrle (again!) or Contreras. Danks is a young and pretty good SP but Gavin Floyd is kind of their version of Anthony Reyes. Only Vazquez should be an above-average SP this year. He should have pretty good trade value should the Sox decide to go that route. They do have Bobby Jenks closing out games and added the oft-injured Octavio Dotel to their pen. They also inexplicably gave Scott Linebrink a 4 year, $19 M contract to turn leads into losses for the next 4 years.

Poor Kansas City. They are an improving team and have some good young players but play in such a tough division that no one is ever going to know it. Mark Teahan had a very good year last year and Alex Gordon is still an emerging star. David DeJesus is solid and Gil Meche surprised many with a solid season in his first in KC. They have young talent in their bullpen and replaced Emil Brown with Jose Guillen in the OF.

Brian Bannister surprised everyone with a good year last year but it'll be very difficult to repeat this year. They're just not there yet. Hopefully, Luke Hochevar, Billy Butler and Ryan Shealy will turn into good players. Hopefully, Zack Greinke will become the starting pitcher they've been hoping for the last several years.

Both Cleveland and Detroit have to be considered strong challengers for the AL title and a world championship. That said, I'd have to take the Tigers, with all their new additions and a turnaround season from Bonderman to win the division by about 3 games over the Indians. The Twins will only be able to hold off the Sox this year if their young pitching comes around. They've got talent but haven't put it all together yet and Liriano is coming off arm surgery. I'd like to see the Royals emerge from the cellar but I just don't see it happening unless age overwhelms the White Sox.