Division Preview: AL Central

The AL Central is the best division in baseball. I am not basing this solely on my Tigers being in this division, but it is definitely a reason. I won’t be too much of a Dickie V homer though. The last few years in the AL Central have been the most exciting since its inception in 1994. Cleveland won the division last season but the Tigers made a blockbuster deal this off season in hopes of ruining Cleveland’s attempt at defending the AL Central throne. The White Sox, Twins, and Royals are still around, but most likely will not play a huge role in the playoff picture this season because Detroit and Cleveland will be too dominant. The AL Central is as strong as ever and the wild card winner will be come from this division. Here is a preview of what lies ahead this season.

1. Detroit Tigers (2007 Record: 88-74 2nd)

Detroit made a huge trade with Florida to acquire 3B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis. By selling out their future giving up young studs Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, the Tigers have declared that their intention is to win now. The most obvious upgrade they have made is replacing out-machine Brandon Inge at third base with Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera is the second-best third baseman in the league and tore it up last year in Florida with 34 home runs, 119 RBI, a .320 batting average, and a .401 on-base percentage. This was a career year for Miguel and most likely, a sign of things to come. GM Dave Dombrowski did not stop with this trade, he also acquired Edgar Renteria from the Braves for young pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. This move allows the Tigers to move an increasingly immobile Carlos Guillen to first base. Jacque Jones was also added to the Tigers outfield corps and will most likely be starting in left field over my boy Marcus Thames. I have never been a big fan of Jacque Jones, but I am most likely basing this on the fact that he has played on two teams I hate (Twins and Cubs). Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco return to the Tigers following outstanding 2007 seasons that garnered Magglio some MVP votes and Polanco a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. Curtis Granderson is a premier outfielder and writes a great blog.

Detroit’s starting pitching raises some eyebrows because quite frankly, it is less than stellar. Ace Justin Verlander (2007: 3.66 ERA, 18-6) is the only guarantee this season as he proved that the sophomore slump did not apply him. The Tigers offense needs to put up a lot of runs this season to support the other four pitchers this year. Projecting the Tigers as division winners this season was actually very hard for me to write based on the pitching staff. Jeremy Bonderman had an awful second half of the year and ended the season on the DL. Nate Robertson fills the role of an innings-eater, but had an inflated 2007 ERA of 4.76 and finished the season 9-13. Kenny Rogers is 43 and appears to be in his final season. His 2007 was limited but he showed flashes that he still has it. The last piece of the rotation is Dontrelle Willis. Willis had a frustrating season in Florida in 2007 with an ERA over 5.50. Hopefully the leg kick novelty isn’t wearing off, but if it is, he should have at least one season in the AL where hitters are still adjusting to his unorthodox delivery.

The last part of the Tigers that will make the AL Central very close is the bullpen. Todd Jones is still getting the job done as Detroit’s closer and is now the all-time Tigers saves leader, surpassing Mike Henneman. However, the problem for the Tigers has been getting to Jones in the late innings. With Joel Zumaya getting hurt in the most strangest of ways, there is now increased pressure on relievers Fernando Rodney and Jason Grilli. Zumaya is out until at least mid-season so the middle relief and setup men must pull their weight if they want an AL Central title. My players to watch this season were just named, Fernando Rodney and Jason Grilli (don’t laugh Tiger fans). Rodney, when pitching healthy is almost untouchable. When he returned from injury last season, he gave 13 scoreless innings with 16 Ks. Jim Leyland needs Rodney to get Detroit to the 9th so Jones can close it out. Also, Jason Grilli, often booed and overlooked needs to be solid like he was at the end of last season in getting the Tigers to Rodney and Jones, usually after slightly shortened starts by the starting pitchers.

2. Cleveland Indians (2007 Record: 96-66 1st)

Cleveland is back this year with basically the same team and a new stadium name (The Prog?). They really did not have to make any moves this off season because their team last year was quite stacked. The Tribe has possibly the best 1-2 punch in their starting rotation with Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia (3.21 ERA 19-7) and converted closer Fausto Carmona (3.06 ERA 19-8). These two pitchers are young and among the best in the league. In 2006, they did not have much of a bullpen which adversely affected their numbers, but in 2007, the bullpen showed up to play. Closer Joe Borowski led the league in saves in 2007 with 45, but he had an unacceptable ERA of 5.07, making me question why they even keep track of saves anymore. Setup man Rafael Betancourt has emerged as a premier reliever, setting up a mediocre Borowski to look great in the stat columns. Also, as a fan of the lefty-specialist, Rafael Perez held lefties to a .107 batting average last season. Sick numbers from a pitcher who Peter Gammons calls, “arguably the best left hander on the planet.” Gammons said it; it is true.

Star center fielder Grady Sizemore is amazing, and AL Central fans are privileged to get to see Sizemore and Tigers CF Curtis Granderson play in the same game. Sizemore is certainly a Hall of Famer when he is done playing. Also, he wears his socks high like they were meant to be worn. Thank you Grady for being classy. Now I sound like one of Grady’s ladies. Sorry about that. Speaking of rising stars, Asdrubal Cabrera was a late season call up who made his time in the majors worth the bus ticket. He batted .283 in 45 games and flashed a great glove. I forgot to mention, he is only 22 and will only get better. Victor Martinez is improving behind the dish, but his main contribution remains with his bat. Perhaps the biggest question mark this season for the Tribe is their player to watch, Travis Hafner. Hafner had an uncharacteristically weak 2007 season batting only .266 with 24 homers. This is a decent season, however that is not what Tribe fans are accustomed to seeing out of “Pronk.” The Indians won a division title with a low-key Hafner, so if Hafner returns to 2006 form where he crushed 42 homers, the Tribe has a legitimate chance at surpassing Detroit and taking the division.

3. Minnesota Twins (2007 Record: 79-83 3rd)

Minnesota gets Francisco Liriano back this season following a washed out 2007 season due to Tommy John surgery. Minnesota finished 3rd last year and it was obvious that they missed their number two starter, and now ace. Of course, Johan Santana packed his bags for the Big Apple leaving a glaring hole in the rotation. Minnesota is in for a tough adjustment playing their first season without Johan. Boof Bonser looks to be the number two this year. His 5.10 ERA will not suffice this season so he needs to pull it together and help carry this weakened rotation. On a brighter note, the Twins have one of the best young closers in the game in Joe Nathan. Nathan was lights out last season with a 1.88 ERA and was 37 for 41 in save opportunities. Assuming the Twins can get consistently good outings from their starters, they will win most games after the 7th inning. This is also contingent upon relievers Jesse Crain and Juan Rincon getting back to their old ways of earned run averages back to acceptable levels when they were high end stopgaps to get to the 9th.

Another huge blow for the Twins was losing Torii Hunter to the Angels. Hunter was a star in Minnesota and was a fan favorite for his outstanding defensive play in center field. To attempt to stop the bleeding, the Twins acquired Delmon Young, brother of Dmitri, to play in left field, and also got Craig Monroe to backup all of the outfield positions. Returning from last year’s team is C Joe Mauer who struggled through some injuries last season. It is still safe to say that he is the team’s MVP, providing good defense behind the plate and a great contact bat. Keep in mind he won a batting title as a catcher. 1B Justin Morneau won the 2006 MVP and hit 31 homers last season while keeping his strikeouts (91) to a reasonable number for a power hitter. The player to watch this year is Francisco Liriano. I mentioned that he is coming back following Tommy John surgery and the Twins success will greatly depend on his performance this year. I am hoping he will return to dominance because watching him pitch is always a treat. His 2006 season was outstanding and assuming he rehabbed correctly, he could be throwing harder than ever this season, which makes him frightening to AL bats.

4. Chicago White Sox (2007 Record: 72-90 4th)

Third and fourth in the AL Central will be a craps shoot this season. The Sox were down last year but their pitching, especially Mark Buehrle showed that they can pitch. Buehrle is a excellent lefty starter who went 10-9 last season with a 3.63 ERA in 2007. He is the team’s ace and Chicago fans should be thankful he got another contract with the team. Also worth mentioning is Javier Vasquez who showed flashes of his past success in 2007. Bobby Jenks closes games for the Sox and is an imposing figure who gets people out.

The White Sox offense has some good players who get on base. Power hitters Jim Thome who hit his 500th homer last season and Paul Konerko are always threats to go yard. Jermaine Dye in the outfield has a solid bat and though he fell off a bit from his 2006 season, is still a very serviceable player. New addition Nick Swisher should offer some help in the outfield along with a sweet haircut. My main beef with the White Sox is a lack of contact hitting which needs to change this season in order for the team to climb in the standings. I am also hoping for some more entertaining behavior from manager Ozzie Guillen who never fails to disappoint in the insane department.

5. Kansas City Royals (2007 Record: 69-93 5th)

The lowly Royals are back this season. Does anyone care? The Royals have not been fun to watch in a very long time and it doesn’t seem that this is going to change any time soon. On the bright side, Gil Meche is a good number one for this team. He put up a 3.67 ERA last season and pitched a large amount of innings. Other bright spots include Mark Grudzielanek at second base who batted over .300 last season and is a veteran amongst many young players like SS Tony Pena Jr. and 3B Alex Gordon who showed some flashes of being a potential good player. Zach Greinke is turning it around after suffering through the mental anguish that was Brad Pitt’s divorce. A key loss for the team was losing Mike Sweeney. Sweeney was a staple on this Kansas City team and was well liked for his good bat and loyalty to a sub par team. My player to watch this season is Tony Pena Jr. who is still a young player and the Royals desperately want things to work out with him. But all in all, there is not a whole lot for the Royals to look forward to this season. They will be non factors in the division until they make some big moves to shift the balance of power.

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2 Comments on “Division Preview: AL Central”

  1. Ben Gardner Says:

    I’m going to focus primarily on my beloved Indians and the Tigers, but I would just like to say that I think you should give Kansas City at least a little bit of credit. Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen give them a potential middle of the order duo to build around. If Zack Greinke can stop fantasizing about Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, he has lights out ability, either as a starter or a reliever. As a fan of the game, I hope the Royals stick to the original plan of keeping him as a starter, because he could be fun to watch.

    Now, onto more important matters.

    I must say, I get the impression from talking to you and reading this post that your gut has the Indians winning the division, but your heart is with the Tigers. That’s fine. That’s understandable. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis of the Tigers bullpen. Every time I hear a Tigers fan complain about Todd Jones, a part of me dies inside. When fans complain about a guy who saved 86% of his opportunities a year ago more than they complain about the rest of the pen, which was, in fact, responsible for them missing out on post season play, I think about throwing a puppy off a cliff (apologies to that one U.S. Marine). All kidding aside, the Tigers bullpen is terrible. Fernando Rodney has fantastic stuff, but can’t seem to avoid the shoulder tendanitis bug. Jason Grilli will likely always be Jason Grilli. If the Tigers can get surprise production out of newly acquired Denny Bautista from Colorado, the bullpen may improve. Underappreciated Zach Miner must also continue to improve and provide stability for this bullpen to have any hope of getting this team to the post season.

    There’s not much point in me saying much about the offense, because they are undeniably great, at least on paper. They replaced one of the worst every day 3B in the game, in Brandon Inge, with Miguel Cabrera. Enough said. I don’t exactly expect Edgar Renteria to repeat his performance from last year though, as he struggled in his one year in the American League with Boston in 2005, as his OPS+ was 36 points last year’s.

    The important thing to consider is that the Indians won the division last year with 3/5 of their Opening Day Starting Rotation – Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, and Jeremy Sowers – missing several weeks each due to injury and, in the case of Sowers, overall ineffectivity. Of course, this opened the door to beastly, 96 mph sinker baller Fausto Carmona. Still, the fact remains that Jake Westbrook did not find his groove after coming off the DL until late in the season. Going back the last few years, Westbrook has been one of the more reliable Righthanders in Baseball. Add the stellar defense of Asdrubal Cabrera for a full season and the always improving Jhonny Peralta, and you have solid defense up the middle to go with thirdbaseman Casey Blake, or as I like to call him, “The GOOD Brandon Inge”, and the Indians have solid infield defense to support two guys in Carmona and Westbrook that induce more groundballs than just about anybody. C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona are, in my opinion, the best 1-2 punch in baseball. Sabathia is as good as any left hander in the game right now, and posted an absolutely sick K/BB ratio of 209/37 last year. That’s why he won the Cy Young, and that’s why he could repeat as Cy Young Winner this year. But Fausto Carmona has arguably the most ability of any pitcher on the roster. Opponent Torii Hunter described facing Carmona last year as comparable to the feeling of a hang over. Others described his 96 mph sinking fast ball as “scary”. With any run support at all in the months of July and August last year, Carmona and Sabathia would’ve easily won 25 games each. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination untrue. Just go back and look at the game logs if you don’t believe me.

    Last year, what separated the Indians from the Tigers most was the Indians’ superior starting pitching and bullpen. Well, how quickly we forget that last year’s Indians suffered from atrocious contributions by stalwarts like Fernando Cabrera, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz for the first several weeks of the season. Yes, Fultz came back to the team in the 2nd half, but at the time, all three of these clowns were counted on in key 7th and 8th inning roles. Now, the Indians will have Jensen Lewis, who was stellar throughout the regular season and postseason, and Rafael Perez to go with the best set up man in the game last year, Rafael Betancourt. The addition of Kobayashi is also promising. I see no reason why this bullpen can’t repeat or top what it did last year, even if Joe Borowski kills me (I don’t think i’m physically or emotionally ready for another year with JoeBo as the closer, but prayer got me through it in the ALDS).

    Finally, the key to the race could quite possibly be Travis Hafner. I’ve already outlined what the team did without some of its key contributors down the stretch last season (i’m not forgetting Franklin Gutierrez and Asdrubal Cabrera – I hold these two in high regard both offensively and defensively), but the scary thing for Tigers fans – or at least intelligent, rational Tigers fans – to consider is that the Cleveland Indians just won the division by 8 games last year with, frankly, by his standards, an awful year from Travis Hafner. In 2005 and 2006, he was the best slugger in the American League. Period. Better than everybody’s boy Big Papi. Yes, I said it. From 2004 through 2006, Hafner averaged an OPS over 1.000. So if Hafner can, let’s say, put up an OPS over .950, the Indians are still heavy favorites, in my opinion, to repeat as division champs. Mike, you’re absolutely correct about Grady Sizemore. It is an honor and privilege for me, as a baseball fan, to watch these two guys every day. I don’t want to delve into comparisons because honestly, we can’t know who’s got the “upper hand” until 5 or 10 years down the line. I will say this though: Grady Sizemore was very solid last year, but he knows better than anybody that he can do better. Now, Travis Hafner has the ability to impact this offense more than any other guy on the team. If Hafner returns to his MVP-like status, the lineup is absolutely deadly in its own right. Victor Martinez is the best hitting catcher in all of baseball. Him and Hafner can be as potent a 1-2 punch as anybody in the league. Also, look for Ryan Garko to improve on a promising first full year in 2007.

    The Tigers can mash. However, I don’t see Magglio Ordonez, let’s say, winning the batting title again. I can’t see Placido Polanco hitting .340 again. I think the lineup has the potential to score 1,000 runs, but as we have learned from some of the Yankees teams in the past (2004, for instance), all star talent does not always come together like we expect it to right away. After Verlander, there are a bunch of question marks in the rotation. Frankly, Dontrelle Willis was awful last year. That was the National League. I’ll repeat that for you: The NATIONAL LEAGUE. What can D-Train do against the Big Boys? My prediction: not much. Ultimately, I simply do not believe they have the pitching to keep up with the Tribe’s well rounded roster, which is only going to get better.

  2. Ben Gardner Says:

    just an edit: in the comment about Grady, I meant to mention Granderson before saying it is a “privilege to watch these two guys”

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