We’re running through a three-week preview of the upcoming MLB season, team by team. Last week, we covered the AL East and NL East. This week, the AL Central and NL Central.
Projected order of finish
1.) Minnesota Twins
2.) Kansas City Royals
3.) Cleveland Indians
4.) Chicago White Sox
5.) Detroit Tigers
Last season this was the most competitive division in all of baseball. The distance from last to first was half the separation found in the AL East and almost a third of third of the difference found in the AL West. This was also the only division to experience a one game playoff to determine the division winner. Adding to the intrigue, these smaller market clubs rarely have the opportunity to compete for the Wild Card playoff entry in the AL, so most likely only one team will survive and get to play in October. On the whole, most of the teams in the division are experiencing a youth movement. More major league talent has left the division than has been brought in. There appears to be no dominant team as well as no miserable team in the division, so I would imagine it will again be close and competitive. Whoever gets hot in the end or experiences the most health may just steal the Central this year. The economic downturn has greatly affected all 5 combatants, as none could afford serious spending sprees to add to their rosters.
Minnesota Twins: Last season the Twins, in the eyes of many, overachieved and finished with 88 wins and a share of the division title. Alas, they lost a coin flip and had to play in Chicago for the one game playoff, which they lost. They bring back almost the same team they had last year. Last year was the first year after Johan Santana and Torii Hunter had been allowed to leave, and they shocked many by how great their young players performed. This year those performances will be expected. However, after surviving the trial by fire I can only guess they will perform even better.Projected rotation: 1.) Scott Baker 2.) Francisco Liriano 3.) Kevin Slowey 4.) Nick Blackburn 5.) Glen Perkins Projected lineup: 1B: Justin Morneau 2B: Alexi Casilla SS: Nick Punto 3B: Joe Crede C: Joe Mauer RF: Denard Span CF: Carlos Gomez LF: Michael Cuddyer DH: Jason Kubel
How they’ll do: The Twins on paper have the deepest starting rotation in the division. However, it is a very young rotation and how they perform will be the key. Liriano is probably the most talented starter in the division and is now in his second season after Tommy John’s surgery. The wild card to this team is Joe Mauer’s health. He has experienced back trouble this spring and is needed not only as the #3 hitter in the lineup but also as the trusted receiver for this young staff. If he is not himself, I would expect a regression for all the starters. The Twins also have the best closer in the division in Joe Nathan and a bright young talent to add to the outfield/DH rotation in Delmon Young–if his attitude is better this season. Finally, they have had great recent success in playing their aggressive style and have a manager in Ron Gardenhire who seems to know how to push the right buttons. Adding Joe Crede should help the lineup that was surprisingly the highest scoring lineup in the division. It will be interesting to see if the passing of owner Carl Pohlad affects the team any.
Projected Win Range: 85-90
Kansas City Royals: Last year was the first time in recent memory that the Royals had not finished last. They were competitive all year, and their 75 wins were the most they have had since their last winning season in 2003. General Manager Dayton Moore and manager Trey Hillman seemed to have changed the attitude and culture in Kansas City. The next step will be the hardest, as the losing culture can get ingrained in teams. However, the small moves they made this year to bring in talent from winning teams as well as the continued maturation of their young but Major League experienced players might just have Kansas City take another step forward this year after last year’s improvement.Projected rotation: 1.) Gil Meche 2.) Zack Grienke 3.) Brian Bannister 4.) Kyle Davies 5.) Luke Hochevar Projected lineup: 1B: Mike Jacobs 2B: Mark Teahan SS: Mike Aviles 3B: Alex Gordon C: Miguel Olivo RF: David DeJesus CF: Coco Crisp LF: Jose Guillen DH: Billy Butler
How they’ll do: This is a team that lacks a “superstar.” It would be really helpful if Alex Gordon were to step up and realize all the talent and success that was predicted for him 2 years ago. With the addition of Coco Crisp they become a much better defensive team. Having a young staff that does not rely on the strikeout places greater importance on defense, so this upgrade should have a positive impact. The back end of their bullpen is very talented as Juan Cruz and Joakim Soria should be an advantage over most teams. Mark Teahan is not a true second baseman but more a super utility man who they will try to get in the lineup most days whether at First, Second, Third, Left field or Right field. Willie Bloomquist will most likely fill in at second on days Teahan gives others a rest. With the Wal-Mart millions of David Glass backing this team, they may be able to withstand the economic downturn more than others and actually add pieces if deemed necessary.
Projected Win Range: 80-85
Cleveland Indians: Last season the Indians came in with great expectations being placed on them. In 2007 they were one win away from going to the World Series. There was much excitement for the team as many expected continued success to come. Unfortunately, things went bad almost immediately. Key hitters Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez tried to play through injuries but were unproductive and both spent large amounts of the season on the DL. Ace CC Sabathia got off to a poor start, then blossomed after being traded. The bullpen continued its good year followed by bad year tradition. However, last year was the bad year turn, which did not help the team at all. Finally, in August they turned things around and had a winning second half of the season to finish at an even .500 and offer hope for this coming season.
Projected rotation: 1.) Cliff Lee 2.) Fausto Carmona 3.) Carl Pavano 4.) Anthony Reyes 5.) Aaron Laffey Projected lineup: 1B: Ryan Garko 2B: Asdrubal Cabrera SS: Jhonny Peralta 3B: Mark DeRosa C: Victor Martinez RF: Shin-Soo Choo CF: Grady Sizemore LF: Ben Francisco DH: Travis Hafner
How they’ll do: We now enter the part of the division where there are as many question marks in the starting rotations as answers. Cliff Lee cannot possibly duplicate his success from last year, can he? Will the Indians get closer to 5 or 30 starts from Carl Pavano? Will they be decent starts after essentially 4 years off in New York? Anthony Reyes looked great for the Indians last year, but elbow troubles have plagued him for the past 2 years. The #5 spot is still up in the air. Last year’s troubles mean the Indians have several candidates with major league experience but no one seems to want to step forward. Who wins the job and how they perform will affect the team greatly. By my calculation, the bullpen should be in the good year of the every other year trend. Bringing in Kerry Wood and Joe Smith should help in that department. The minor league OF is stocked to the brim with talent thanks to the Sabathia trade, but the Tribe will hope to not need any of that talent this year. Finding Kelly Shoppach at bats will be a challenge for Manager Eric Wedge, but after he filled in so well for Victor Martinez last year we may see more of Martinez at first than expected.
Projected Win Range: 80-85
Chicago White Sox: Last year the White Sox surprised most in baseball and won the division as everything seemed to break just right for them. To celebrate, the one team in the division in a major market surprisingly slashed payroll by $15 million. The White Sox have an aggressive pair of decision makers in GM Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen. They seem to frequently get the most out of what they have to work with. Last year and again this year they have an interesting combination of seasoned veterans and young players. The challenge will be for Ozzie to get the most of it the talent again before his antics wear off on the team.Projected rotation: 1.) Mark Buehrle 2.) John Danks 3.) Gavin Floyd 4.) Clayton Richards 5.) Bartolo Colon Projected lineup: 1B: Paul Konerko 2B: Wilson Betemit SS: Alexei Ramirez 3B: Josh Fields C: AJ Pierzynski RF: Jermaine Dye CF: Jerry Owens LF: Carlos Quentin DH: Jim Thome
How they’ll do: I guess after they managed to hold on to the division last year I should stop questioning the decision makers in Chicago. However, I do not see how trading Javier Vazquez and replacing him with either Bartolo Colon or Jose Conteras, who are both coming off injuries, will help. How much Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, and AJ Pierzynski can continue performing as they age will greatly impact the team’s success. Carlos Quentin was having an MVP season until he got hurt last year. Seeing as it was his first successful Major League season can he continue it? Second Base, Center Field, and the bullpen are all major question marks, and how they are filled will greatly affect the 2009 success of the Pale Hose. How Danks and Floyd respond after heavier workloads than ever before last year will be something else to keep an eye on.
Projected Win Range: 76-81
Detroit Tigers: Heading into last season all the discussion was around the potential of the Tigers offense and how awesome it could be. Combine that with the fact that in 2006 Detroit had gone to the World Series and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the Tiger baseball team. Unfortunately for their fans, the Tigers slumped all the way to last place last year. The rotation was injured and underperformed. Defensive short comings hurt the team, as did a bullpen that struggled and also suffered injuries. This offseason, the Tigers held status quo as they did not make many changes. With the economic situation in Detroit so tenuous that only makes sense, but this is a team that could have used a stimulus package.
Projected rotation: 1.) Justin Verlander 2.) Jeremy Bonderman 3.) Edwin Jackson 4.) Armando Galarraga 5.) Zach Miner Projected lineup: 1B: Miguel Cabrera 2B: Placido Polanco SS: Adam Everett 3B: Brandon Inge C: Gerald Laird RF: Magglio Ordonez CF: Curtis Granderson LF: Carlos Guillen DH: Gary Sheffield
How they’ll do: The Tigers still have the potential to have slow pitch softball offense. Cabrera is one of the best hitters in baseball. Granderson adds great excitement, and Ordonez and Sheffield are not that far removed from their glory years. The defense should be improved with Cabrera at first for the full year, Inge back to third, and Everett brought in to shore up the hole at Shortstop. Their bullpen could be decent if Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya stay healthy and productive and Brandon Lyon makes a smooth transition to the American League. Their real problem is the starting pitching. Verlander and Bonderman took major steps backwards last year, and they are slated as the top 2 in the rotation still. Galarraga was a glimmer of hope last year. They brought in Edwin Jackson from the Rays this offseason, but teams have been waiting about 6 years for him to fulfill his potential. There is talk the team may rush top prospect Rick Porcello to the majors. He has the talent, but how that effects his development is anyone’s guess.
Projected Win Range: 72-77
Projected order of finish
1.) Chicago Cubs
2.) St. Louis Cardinals
3.) Cincinnati Reds
4.) Milwaukee Brewers
5.) Houston Astros
6.) Pittsburgh Pirates
The NL Central faces many of the same challenges that the AL Central faces, as few of the teams can compete for the superstar or keep their salaries in line with those of the major market teams. It is too bad, as this may be the best collection of stadiums in any division. All the stadiums are relatively new and well done except Wrigley Field which, of course, is a classic. Most teams in the NL Central had relatively quiet off-seasons and attempted to fill holes or address issues either in house through their minor league system or with cheap alternatives. Surprisingly, in 2008, 4 of the 6 teams in the Central finished with winning records, and all 4 were factors late in the season for playoff hopes. Perhaps 2009 with bring the same over achievement as on paper many of these teams still have holes to fill. The Cubs are getting a lot of respect as one of the best teams in the National League; after them, however, it is anyone’s guess in this division.
Chicago Cubs: The Cubs are one the most popular teams in all of baseball, and last year they rewarded their fans with a second straight postseason berth. Unfortunately it was also a 100th straight season without a World Series title as again they were easily dispatched in the post season. Manager Lou Pinella guided the Cubs to a near wire to wire lead in the Central as the Cubs got solid years from both surprising and predictable sources. Much of the team returns as they try to reverse the curse of the Billy Goat or whatever other superstition is conjured up.Projected rotation: 1.) Carlos Zambrano 2.) Rich Harden 3.) Ryan Dempster 4.) Ted Lilly 5.) Sean Marshall Projected lineup: 1B: Derek Lee 2B: Mike Fontenot SS: Ryan Theriot 3B: Aramis Rameriz C: Geovany Soto RF: Milton Bradley CF: Kosuke Fukudome LF: Alfonso Soriano
How they’ll do: While it appears that they Cubs should win the division easily, they are in a different situation than usual as they try to guard against complacency and only looking toward the postseason for validation. Adding Bradley adds another talented hitter to the National League’s most potent offense from a year ago. However, he brings his own questions, especially in terms of health. How Fukudome bounces back from a frustrating first year in the U.S. will determine how much they need to rely on backups like Reed Johnson. Rich Harden has a vast injury history as well but can be one of the most dominant pitchers when healthy. Getting Zambrano back to being a true ace and having Dempster perform as well as last year will be keys. The only other questions the Cubs seem to have is the back of the bullpen, as Kerry Wood was allowed to leave, and Kevin Gregg was brought in to compete for the closer job with standout reliever Carlos Marmol.
Projected Win Range: 88-93
St. Louis Cardinals: Despite piecing together a pitching staff from spare parts and losing a closer, the Cardinals last year finished 10 games over .500. This to me is another huge success story for manager Tony Larussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. The offense scored the fourth most runs in the National League and found positive surprises all around. Can they work their magic again or will the luck run out now?
Projected rotation: 1.) Chris Carpenter 2.) Adam Wainwright 3.) Joel Pineiro 4.) Kyle Lohse 5.) Todd Wellemeyer Projected lineup: 1B: Albert Pujols 2B: Skip Schumaker SS: Khalil Greene 3B: Troy Glaus C: Yadier Molina RF: Rick Ankiel CF: Chris Duncan LF: Ryan Ludwick
How they’ll do: Albert Pujols is perhaps the most talented player in all of baseball and a great place to start any team. The outfield was so productive last year, they moved one member to second base this year to make sure everyone gets at bats. On top of that, their top prospect is another outfielder in Colby Rasmus. How Schumaker hits and adjusts to second will go a long way in determining how this team should do. The rest of their defense should be great with one of the best defensive catchers in the game anchoring them. The pitching staff is again a question mark. It will be a major bonus if Carpenter is back and healthy after missing almost all of 2008. Somehow, pitching coach Duncan always seems to make it work, so I will stop questioning the pitching staff until proven otherwise. The Red Birds have questions in the back of the bullpen but seem to have enough talented young arms that they will make it work.
Projected Win Range: 80-85
Cincinnati Reds: 2008 showed signs of promise for the Reds, but ultimately they could not avoid another difficult season. Rookie pitchers Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez burst onto the scene with great initial successes. Unfortunately, while there were other individual successes, there were also too many short comings. The bullpen to get to Francisco Cordero was suspect. On paper the offense looked great; in reality it was the lowest scoring team in the division.
Projected rotation: 1.) Aaron Harang 2.) Edinson Volquez 3.) Bronson Arroyo 4.) Johnny Cueto 5.) Micah Owings Projected lineup: 1B: Joey Votto 2B: Brandon Phillips SS: Alex Gonzalez 3B: Edwin Encarnacion C: Ramon Hernandez RF: Jay Bruce CF: Willy Taveras LF: Chris Dickerson
How they’ll do: Predicting the Reds to jump from fifth to third is a major jump and perhaps too much of a leap. However, they have great talent all around the diamond. Most of the talent is young and raw and will hopefully make the leap forward. By getting Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey off the payroll, the Reds have clearly turned the team over to their young stars in Phillips, Votto, and Bruce and hope they will have their first winning season since 2000. The starting rotation offers arguably the most talent. Manager Dusty Baker has a reputation of leaning heavily on his starters. If they stay healthy this could actually work out for the Reds as the bullpen again is full of question marks. The Reds best prospect continues to be Homer Bailey, who could step in for any starter if they were to suffer an injury. There are enough positive pieces that the offense should improve. The biggest question seems to be whether Ramon Hernandez can turn back the clock and deliver a helpful season both at the plate and handling the pitching staff.
Projected Win Range: 78-83
Milwaukee Brewers: The Brew Crew participated in the postseason for the first time since 1982 last year. They rode an impressive offense, a great home field advantage, and CC Sabathia to their first 90 win season since 1992. Unfortunately, despite an aggressive owner in Mark Attanasio (who is clearly dedicated to having a winning baseball team in Wisconsin), they were unable to return their 2 best starting pitchers in CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. After making great steps forward as a team recently, it will be interesting to see how new manager Ken Macha does in trying to keep the momentum rolling.
Projected rotation: 1.) Yovani Gallardo 2.) Dave Bush 3.) Jeff Suppan 4.) Braden Looper 5.) Manny Parra Projected lineup: 1B: Prince Fielder 2B: Rickie Weeks SS: JJ Hardy 3B: Bill Hall C: Jason Kendall RF: Corey Hart CF: Mike Cameron LF: Ryan Braun
How they’ll do: The loss of Sabathia will really hurt in that he was the most dominant pitcher in baseball during the second half of last season. He also saved their bullpen many times last season as he posted 10 complete games. With the bullpen a question mark again this year, the team could really use a starter to save them some innings; alas, none of the current candidates appear ready to step into that role. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder form a great 3-4 hitter combination, but the rest of the lineup does not scare anyone unless Bill Hall, Corey Hart, or Rickie Weeks bounce back. After stealing the wild card in the last week of the season last year, I fear that the Brewer fans could have a long and frustrating summer. Oh well, baseball is still just a diversion in Wisconsin until Packers training camp starts.
Projected Win Range: 70-75
Houston Astros: In 2008 the Astros got off to a rough start but got hot in the second half of the season. They stood in contention into September to challenge for the Wild Card playoff spot. Unfortunately, in many ways more than just how it affected Houston’s baseball team, Hurricane Ike roared through and devastated much of the city. After having several games cancelled and home dates made up in Milwaukee on short notice, the team slid out of contention and never recovered. Hopefully the 2009 Houston and the Astros will have much better luck and not have to experience tragedy again.
Projected rotation: 1.) Roy Oswalt 2.) Wandy Rodriguez 3.) Mike Hampton 4.) Brian Moehler 5.) Brandon Backe Projected lineup: 1B: Lance Berkman 2B: Kazou Matsui SS: Miguel Tejada 3B: Geoff Blum C: Humberto Quintero RF: Hunter Pence CF: Michael Bourn LF: Carlos Lee
How they’ll do: I never thought I would type this, but this team will greatly miss the contributions of Ty Wigginton, who in August seemed to be involved prominently in the Astros hot streak. Houston still has some premier individual performers in starting Pitcher Roy Oswalt, first baseman Lance Berkman, Left Fielder Carlos Lee, and closer Jose Valverde. Unfortunately, behind those four the rest of the squad is quite weak. Whatever they can positively get out of the rotation behind Oswalt will be a miracle in my eyes. The offense will be asked to carry this team, but speedster Michael Bourn appeared overmatched at times in the big leagues, Hunter Pence took a step back in 2008, and Miguel Tejada has just plead guilty to federal charges stemming from steroid allegations. All of these issues combined with gaping holes on the pitching staff would spell last in most divisions. Lucky for the Astros, they have the historically inept Pirates to challenge them for the basement.
Projected Win Range: 64-70
Pittsburgh Pirates: From the outside it appears the Pirates are trying to do anything to kill the last few baseball fans of the city. I know football rules western PA, but the Pirates ineptitude is starting to border on pathetic. Last year was their 16th straight losing season. They have not finished closer than 13 games out of first since 1997. Despite these incredibly negative facts, in July, during another losing season, the team traded away 2 of its best players for more minor leaguers that may never perform as well as Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were last year. It is looking like another rough season in Pittsburgh, but at least they have a beautiful stadium and are still celebrating another Super Bowl victory for the Steelers (who will always be more important in the ‘Burgh anyway).
Projected rotation: 1.) Paul Maholm 2.) Zach Duke 3.) Ian Snell 4.) Jeff Karstens 5.) Tom Gorzelanny Projected lineup: 1B: Adam LaRoche 2B: Freddy Sanchez SS: Jack Wilson 3B: Andy LaRoche C: Ryan Doumit RF: Brandon Moss CF: Nate McLouth LF: Nyjer Morgan
How they’ll do: I try to teach my children to say nice things about others. With that being my reminder, this preview may be short. Nate McLouth last year emerged as a potential star. General Manager Neal Huntington came on board 2 years ago with accolades that he will return the Pirates to relevancy. So far it appears he is still trying to stock pile the farm system and not wasting money of fringe major leaguers. Now that they finally signed draftee Pedro Alvarez, he is drawing rave reviews and should be in the majors before the All Star break. Closer Matt Capps has proven to be reliable when healthy and given the opportunity. Catcher Ryan Doumit has shown to be a good hitter when healthy, but his receiving skills are still lacking. Did I mention PNC is one of the true gems in the majors, and the Steelers won their 6th Super Bowl?
Projected Win Range: 59-64
Image by: Chris Collins, SXC
Ben Loux is father of two and husband of one (it works well that way). He makes his home in the Rochester, NY, area.