2008 preview: AL Central

DETROIT TIGERS

In general

This is probably the most-improved team in baseball; certainly in the American League. Not only did the Tigers add an ace-quality pitcher — and a left-handed one at that (Dontrelle Willis, of course) — but they also got one of the game’s top young third basemen in the deal (Miguel Cabrera, natch), all without giving up anyone who would’ve been a key part of the Opening Day lineup. Add in the acquisitions of a superb defensive shortstop (Edgar Renteria) and more-than-capable left fielder (Jacque Jones), and you’ve got upgrades at four spots, plus a lineup that will bat a former MVP eighth or ninth (Ivan Rodriguez). The trade that brought in D-Train and Miggy C. may have cemented the Twins’ decision to trade Johan Santana. Detroit won 88 games last year, though it was still eight games behind Cleveland. These moves could very well make up those eight games, but if not, they could surely secure a Wild Card spot, thereby potentially blocking the Yankees from the playoffs. Go Get ‘Em, Tigers!

What I look forward to seeing

Can the Tigers score 1,000 runs? That seems to be the over/under everyone is setting for this latest Murderers Row. (Are we still allowed to say that? The PC police haven’t come out against that yet, have they?) What will Justin Verlander do for an encore after his 18-6, 3.66 season? In a record seemingly created just for him, the young right-hander is the only pitcher in baseball history to throw a no-hitter, start a World Series game, be a Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in his first two seasons, according to The AP. Is Curtis Granderson the closest thing this generation has to Willie Mays? I mean, he did become the first player since Willie Mays to post 20 homers, 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 stolen bases in the same season in 2007. Does he reach 30-30? Can he set a post-Dead Ball Era record with 27 triples? Not since Kiki Cuyler’s 26 in 1925 has anyone hit that many, and all the higher figures came no later than 1912.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

In general

Ninety-six wins won the division last year, though 89 would’ve gotten it done. But it may take that 96 in 2008. The Indians lost little (Kenny Lofton and Trot Nixon), though they gained little (Masahide Kobayashi, Jamey Carroll and Jorge Julio). Provided everyone stays healthy, we should see more of the same from the Tribe in ’08. Having Travis Hafner and David Dellucci fully healthy will be a bonus, and a full season of Franklin Gutierrez will push the aging Casey Blake down to the ninth spot in the batting order. Grady Sizemore sets the table once again, but Asdrubal Cabrera will occupy the No. 2 spot from the outset.

On the mound, Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia will be pitching for a contract — as we’ll hear each and every time the Indians appear on national TV. Along with the contract Santana signed and what it could mean for C.C. But what will Fausto Carmona bring for an encore from his breakout season? Another 19-8 campaign would be a lot to ask for, so can he put up 14-15 wins? That would be a good mark to hit. But after those two, you have Jake Westbrook, who underwhelmed in 2007 with a 6-9 record; Paul Byrd, who somehow won 15 games without ever throwing a pitch faster than 78 mph; and young lefty Aaron Laffey, who made his debut last August. And therein I think lies the difference between the Tigers and Indians. Cleveland doesn’t have the offense to match Detroit, and the Tribe’s bottom three in the rotation don’t make up the difference — nor do they match up well with the Tigers’ bottom three, whatever the combination of Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Willis and Nate Robertson it turns out to be.

What I look forward to seeing

Sizemore. I drafted the guy on my fantasy team in ’06 and enjoyed the emergence, and I like what he brings to the game. He’s fun to watch. There’s Sabathia, too. How does he fare with the expectations and pressure of coming off a Cy Young Award and playing through the final year of his contract? That’s a pretty hefty duo with which to deal. I’ll also keep an eye out for the return of Shin-Soo Choo, who may have an even bigger assignment in his future. I’m also curious to see just how tight this AL Central race is, and whether the runner-up in the division has enough to beat out the AL East runner-up for the Wild Card. Last year, the Yankees beat out the Tigers for the extra spot — and then lost to the Indians in the Division Series. This year, the Yankees could be fighting the Indians for that last spot in the American League playoff bracket.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

In general

Getting through the middle of the White Sox lineup is going to be a chore this year, especially in Chicago. From Jim Thome at No. 3 to Paul Konerko to Jermaine Dye to Nick Swisher, you’ve got four likely 30-home run hitters (Thome and Konerko passed that mark last year, Dye hit 28 and Swisher hit 22 while playing half his games in power-sapping Oakland) who will make any at-bat with runners on base a scoring opportunity. And there’s balance between left-handed hitters and right, so playing the matchups won’t usually be an option. In front of Thome, you’ve got the still-developing Jerry Owens and the veteran Orlando Cabrera, who hit .301 and OPSed (is that a verb yet?) a decent .742 for a No. 2 hitter. In the potent Angels lineup, he scored 101 runs and drove in 86, which he could somewhat easily repeat here. The bottom third will snuff some rallies, though, with A.J. Pierzynski followed by either the back-from-injury Joe Crede or the up-and-coming Josh Fields and the yet-to-be-determined Danny Richar (or Jose Uribe, who will vie for the second-base gig now that Cabrera has subplanted him at shortstop).

Mark Buehrle leads the staff, but other than his no-hitter last year, he turned in a pedestrian 10-9 campaign with a respectable 3.63 ERA and parlayed that into a $50-million contract. It remains to be seen just whether that was a bargain or overpayment. Javier Vazquez rebounded a bit with a 15-8, 3.74 season, including 213 strikeouts in 216 innings. But then they’re looking at John Danks, Jose Contreras and Gavin Floyd, who combined to go 17-35 in 2007, with each pitcher’s ERA above 5.00. I’ll always have a soft spot for Floyd, the former top pick of the Phillies who spent the 2002 season at Class A Lakewood, but this is the season in which he has to emerge as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, or he could be cemented as a bust. And to think that he was once looked at as a No. 1 or 2 starter, at worst.

What I look forward to seeing

Continuing with a theme, I do want to see what Floyd can do. This is the turning point for his career. We’ll know what kind of pitcher he’s going to be before 2008 is out. I want to see how Swisher does in a new environment, one that plays more to his strengths — gap power, for one — and puts him closer to his Ohio roots (with at least nine trips to his home state each season). He’s also one of the remaining “stars” of Moneyball, along with Joe Blanton, whom the A’s drafted that year. One of the signature draftees, catcher Jeremy Brown, announced his retirement recently, citing family reasons as much as his progress — or lack thereof, save for five games in the bigs — through the Oakland organization.

MINNESOTA TWINS

In general

With Johan gone, anyone want to guess Minnesota’s Opening Day starter? No, they’re not pushing Francisco Lirano back from Tommy John surgery to take the assignment. Scott Baker anyone? Yeah, it’s him. Considering what the Tigers did to improve and what the Indians didn’t do (take any significant steps backward) — and that Minnesota finished 17 games behind Cleveland and nine behind Detroit in 2007 — the Twins had to trade Santana. They weren’t going to win with him this year, so they might as well set themselves up for the future. Outfielder Carlos Gomez is the most Major League ready, though right-hander Phil Humber could be close. Minor league pitchers Kevin Mulvey and Delois Guerra are tougher to peg. But then, when the Twins dealt Pierzynski to the Giants and got minor leaguers Lirano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in return, everyone thought they were crazy for dealing an All-Star catcher for three unknown bush leaguers.

So the Twins enter 2008 with Gomez in a starting role for the first time, leading off with his career OBP — albeit truncated, still-getting-started career — a measley .288. But he’s got plenty of speed (with the Mets, it was said he was faster than Jose Reyes) and can make contact. He’ll run down everything in center field — though whether he’ll make Twins fans forget Torii Hunter is a longshot, because he won’t be the run-producer at the plate that Hunter was — and has a good arm. Once he makes consistent contact and finds the gaps with regularity, he could be a threat at the top of the order. Beyond Gomez, it’s a formidible stretch of Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, plus Jason Kubel another year removed from knee surgery. The bottom third, however, leaves us with Brendan Harris, Mike Lamb and Adam Everett, then a return to Gomez. So Mauer may have to be a bit of a table-setter at times this year.

Beyond Baker, the Twins are looking at Bonser, Liriano, Livan Hernandez and Kevin Slowey, though he may have to win the fifth spot. I can’t say there’s anyone in that rotation that scares me, though I was hoping the Mets would sign Hernandez through much of the offseason — until they landed Santana. He’ll eat up innings, but he gives up a lot of hits, so he needs a good defense behind him. I’m not sure the Twins have that anymore, not without Hunter.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Liriano is the big question. Is he back? Or when will he be? Though it probably won’t happen this year, can he make Twins fans forget — at least a little — about Santana? Morneau and Cuddyer are secured with long-term contracts now, so their relationship in the lineup will be interesting to watch. They, along with Mauer, could be anchoring the Twins’ lineup for the next decade. And then there’s Delmon Young, a former overall No. 1 pick who gets a fresh start in Minnesota. He played well last year, but he may never have put his minor league transgressions behind him had he stayed in Tampa Bay.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

In general

The Royals have a good young trio in Mark Teahen (a product of the three-way trade that sent Carlos Beltran to the Astros), Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. New Jersey-bred David DeJesus leads things off, but he’ll never replace Beltran’s production. He’s just not that kind of player. Mark Grudzielanek bats second and provides the veteran leadership, because the other veteran in the lineup is Jose Guillen, and while he’ll bat cleanup (after his 15-day suspension to start the season), provide power and be an anchor in the lineup, I’m not sure what kind of clubhouse leader or example he’ll be for the young core.

On the mound, Gil Meche was signed last year for $55 million, and everybody laughed. But his 3.67 ERA should have been good for a 13-9 record, not the 9-13 he turned in. After one season, at least, it doesn’t look like such a bad deal. We’ll see what the next four bring. He’s followed by 2007 Rookie of the Year contender Brian Bannister (who may have been the difference between an NL East title and The Collapse for the Mets last year had they not traded him) and former prospect Zack Greinke, who has returned to the rotation and seems to be realizing his potential after dealing with some personal issues. Brett Tomko and Jorge De La Rosa top off the rotation, but their 12-24 combined record in ’07 gives you an idea of what to expect this year.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

I’m always watching the Jersey guys (and the Notre Dame guys), so I’ll watch DeJesus closely. He’s solid, Brett Butler type of player, I think. Gordon had a rough rookie campaign, hitting just .247 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs after many expected him to make it a close AL ROY race with Daisuke Matsuzaka, if not run away with it. And Teahen needs to bounce back after following his 2006 season of 18 homers and 69 RBIs with just seven and 60 in ’07. And of course there’s Guillen, who has made things interesting in several of his previous stops and who opened his Royals tenure with a wig earlier this week.

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