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AL Central Preview: Anybody's Guess

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by Mavrik
Contributing Columnist

twins

In the age of exploding payrolls and spending wars between a few select baseball teams, no division in major league baseball represents the ideas of parity and “small marketness” more than the American League Central division. The division features 5 teams whose payrolls not only are no larger than $70 million, but feature only one team in the TOP 15 in payroll in the Majors. (#15 Chicago, $68 million) While powerhouse divisions with teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees throw money at the biggest and brightest free agents, teams in the AL Central through their work into developing young talent through the minor league systems. The results have been emerging superstars such as Joe Mauer and Travis Hafner and teams like Minnesota which through sheer homegrown talent alone have the capacity to win the World Series.

The team probably best known for this philosophy is the Minnesota Twins, whose emphasis on player development and a “team first” attiude has led to three straight AL Central Championships and an appearance in the 2002. Making it a fourth straight division title this year, however, will not be easy, all teams with the exception of Kansas City have used Free Agency and Minor League call-ups to bolster already potential-filled teams. With this, it only makes it more likely that the 2005 AL Central title will not be a walk in the park for the Twins or any team.

A look at each team and predictions:

1. Minnesota Twins (2004: 92-70, 1st place, AL Central)
Playoffs: Lost to Yankees 3-1 in ALDS

Projected Lineup

LF-Shannon Stewart, SS-Jason Bartlett, C-Joe Mauer, 1B-Justin Morneau, CF-Torii Hunter, RF-Jacque Jones, DH-Lew Ford, 3B-Michael Cuddyer, 2B-Luis Rivas

The Twins have a collection of young hitters with the potential to be productive from top to bottom. Rookie Jason Bartlett will replace Christian Guzman in Short, while the Twins will also hope to get more production out of Stewart, who blew away opposing pitching in 03 with a .322 avg following his trade from Toronto, and managed to bat .304 last year despite being limited to 58 games due to injuries. This also marks the second year of “next great catcher-to-be” Joe Mauer, who’s promising 2004 season was marred by knee surgery which limited him to just 38 games. The usual production from Hunter, a perennial All Star and Gold Glove candidate, and the contributions of young players Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, and Mauer, should keep the team in most games.

Pitching

Rotation: Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Kyle Loshe, Carlos Silva, Joe Mays

The strength of the ballclub. This year features the return of 04’s Cy Young winner Johan Santana who went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA, including going 13-0 after the all star break. The rotation also features top of the rotation pitcher Brad Radke, who went 11-8 with a 3.48 ERA last season. The Twins also have 2 11+ game winners in Silva and Lohse, while Mays hopes to return from an 04 season lost to injury. The bullpen also is another strength, with the emergence of star Closer Joe Nathan, who filled in nicely for Eddie Guardado last year.

Twins win division if…
They get production out of their young guns (ie. Cuddyer, Morneau, and Mauer) Hunter maintains his speed in the outfield and his #s at the plate, Rotation stays healthy and Santana keeps in Cy Young form.

Twins lose division if…
Santana is either injured or shows us that 04′ was a fluke. Mauer gets injured and the young players do not live up to offensive potential

Prediction
89-73 1st Place

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2. Cleveland Indians (2004: 82-80, 3rd place, AL Central)
No Playoffs

Projected Lineup:

CF-Coco Crisp, 3B-Aaron Boone, DH-Travis Hafner, C-Victor Martinez, LF-Casey Blake, 1B-Ben Broussard, RF-Juan Gonzalez/Grady Sizemore, 2B-Ronnie Belliard, SS-Johnny Peralta

The Indians accumulation of propective talent through past trades finally showed just what kind of a foundation the Tribe laid for themselves for the future. The 2004 Indians lineup featured EIGHT players who hit 70 or more RBIs, with 2 reaching the 100 RBI plateau (Martinez 108, Hafner 109) 2004 saw the emergence of Catcher Victor Martinez, who literally came out of nowhere to bat .283 with 23 HRs and 108 RBIs, and Travis Hafner, who batted an impressive .311 with 28 HRs and 109 RBIs. The Tribe declined to re-sign both Matt Lawton and longtime SS Omar Vizquel, but made up for the lost production by moving Casey Blake from 3rd to right, bringing up highly touted prospect Johnny Peralta to replace Vizquel, and signing former Yankees 3rd baseman Aaron Boone. Juan Gonzalez also gets the starting nod in right, but when he gets placed on the DL, will be replaced by minor league prospect Grady Sizemore. Simply put, the production potential on this lineup is scary.

Pitching:

Rotation: C.C. Sabathia, Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee TBA,

The Indians pitching staff was also a pleasant surprise. Jake Westbrook pitched well, going 14-9 with a 3.38 ERA and 116 K’s. Both Sabathia and Lee struggled with control problems and high ERAs, but the signing of Kevin Milwood to a 1 year contract should stablize the rotation and ease some pressure off of the two. The bullpen continues to be the weak link, where the Tribe do not have a dominant, reliable closer to depend on. 5 different players received at least 1 save or more from the bullpen last season. Much of last season saw the closer role switch between Jose Jimenez and Bob Wickman, with neither getting more than 15 saves. The pen could be the catalyst in whether the Tribe can challenge the Twins for the division.

Indians win division if…
The lineup simply continues to bat the way it did last season. Westbrook and Lee continue to improve and the Tribe receives solid seasons from Millwood and Sabathia. The closer role is finally settled upon and the bullpen gets consistent.

Indians lose division if…
The Tribe continues to play merry-go-round with the closer role. Millwood continues a downward spiral in his career and Hafner or Martinez get injured for a significant amount of time.

Prediction:
87-75 2nd place

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3. Detroit Tigers (2004: 72-90, 4th place AL Central)
No Playoffs

Projected Lineup

2B-Omar Infante, SS-Carlos Guillen, C-Ivan Rodriguez, RF-Magglio Ordonez, DH-Dmitri Young, LF-Rondell White, 1B-Carlos Pena, CF-Craig Monroe, C-Brandon Inge

The Tigers rebounded from their nightmare 03 season and improved in 04 by jumping from 43 wins in 03 to 72 wins in 04, the biggest improvement in wins in one year in major league history. The signing last year of Ivan Rodriguez was the catalyst for improvements from both the lineup and the pitching staff as well. Rodriguez was, hands down, the Tigers MVP, batting .334 and knocking in 80+ RBIs while earning himself an all-star apperance and his 11th Gold Glove award. The Tigers also got plesant surprises from Omar Infante, who knocked in 60 RBIs after replaced Fernando Vina early in the season, and Carlos Guillen, who went from Shortstop chump in Seattle to All-Star in Detroit, knocking in 20 HRs and 97 RBIs. Carlos Pena also managed to knock in 28 HRs and Super-utility man Brandon Inge finally improved upon his career .198 avg. The addition of Magglio Ordonez gives the Tigers power and RBIs through the middle of the lineup, but the health of Young and Ordonez, and the lack of speed at the top of the lineup with the release of Alex Sanchez are a concern.

Pitching

The Tigers staff features several young players who turned the corner in 04. Ace-in-the-hole Jeremy Bonderman pitched spectacularly towards the end of last year, putting up a 2.53 ERA and going 5-3. Bonderman has the potential to be an Ace for the Tigers for years to come and will get the opening day nod. The Tigers also have promoise in #5 starter Wil Ledezma, and usually get quality outings from Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth. Jason Johnson will be the weak link for the rotation, after going 8-15 last season and pitching horribly this spring. The rotation, which was the weakness of the team last year, is now the team’s strength. The Tigers blew 28 saves last year, and considering they were 20 games out of first, improvement was needed. The Tigers signed Troy Percival to be their closer and moved Ugueth Urbina to set up, while trading for fireballer Kyle Farnsworth for their set up man duties.

Tigers win division if…
Ordonez proves his knee is fine and returns to form. Rodriguez bats like last year. Increased production from Pena, Guillen, Infante, and Inge. Bonderman becomes the pitcher everyone thinks he will be. The rest of the rotation surprises and the phrase Farnsworth-to-Urbina-to-Percival becomes a common term. The Tigers will also win the division if God answers all my prayers for the last 10 years.

Tigers lose division if…
Lineup, which is on thin ice health wise, becomes injury plagued. Bonderman gets ruffed up, and rest of rotation struggles to grab the slack. Percival’s noticable declining K ratio becomes obvious and he struggles, and Farnsworth continues to not live up to expectations.

Prediction
83-78 3rd Place

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4. Chicago White Sox (2004: 83-79, 2nd place, AL Central)
No Playoffs

Projected Lineup

LF-Scott Podsednik, 2B- Tadahito Iguchi, DH Carl Everett/Frank Thomas, 1B-Paul Konerko, RF-Jermain Dye, CF-Aaron Rowand, C-A.J. Pierzynski, 3B-Joe Crede, SS-Juan Uribe

The White Sox made several changes in the offseason following their second place finish last year. The Sox lost a valuable level of production through the middle with the loss of Magglio Ordonez. Paul Konerko, who had a great 04′ with 41 bombs and 118 RBIs, will take over the 4 hole. Two negatives arising from this are that a) Konerko is in a contract year, and although generally players perform better in contract years than in non, it is less and less likely that the Sox will be able to afford Konerko should he have another productive year, and b) with the loss of Ordonez, Konerko will no longer receive the kind of great hittable pitches that come with batting in front of the clean up hitter. The Sox also lost Carlos Lee, who added 99 RBIs and 31 HRs last year before leaving for Milwaukee in the offseason. The Sox must hope improvements are made with Rowand and Joe Crede and the walking oxymoron Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas has at least one more productive year in him.

Pitching

Rotation: Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle, Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland

The rotation was another weakness for the Sox last year, with the exception of Buehrle, (16-10, 3.89 ERA) the Sox got scattered results from Garland, Scot Schoenweis, and former 20 game winner Esteban Loiaza. The addition of Freddy Garcia midseason improved the rotation, but it was not enough to make them in serious contention for the divison. The additions of Hernandez and Contreras will improve the rotation somewhat, but either Hernandez or Contreras would be better suited for a long relief role. One will be moved if and when prospect Sandy McCarthy, who had a great spring, is called up to the parent squad. The bullpen also got help from Japanese import Shingto Takatsu, who saved 19 games for the ballclub last year. Schoenweis, Cliff Politte, and Damaso Marte will all be important parts of the bullpen this year.

White Sox win division if…
The absence of Ordonez disappears with Konerko and increased production from Crede and Rowand. Garcia pitches back to fine form from Seattle and Buehlre and Contreras improve.

White Sox lose division if…
Sox cannot make up for loss of Ordonez’s bat, Konerko struggles, Thomas stays the “big hurt” and is on the DL for a lengthy period. Hernandez and Contreras show us why the Yanks dumped them.

Prediction
75-87 4th place

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5. Kansas City Royals (2004: 58-104, 5th place , AL Central)
No Playoffs

Projected Lineup

CF-David DeJesus, 2B-Ruben Gotay, 1B-Mike Sweeney, DH-Calvin Pickering/Kevin Harvey, RF-Matt Stairs, SS-Angel Berroa, LF-Terrence Long, C-John Buck, 3B-Mark Teahen.

2004 was nothing short of awful for the Royals. A year after contending for the division, KC was back to being the “same ol’ Royals, losing 104 games and having the American League’s worst record. Not much will improve in 2005. The team features a young nucleus of talent including highly regarded Catcher John Buck and 3rd baseman Mark Teahen. But like fine wine, things only get better with age, and with the youth on this lineup, it’ll be a couple years before the Royals become competitive again. The team lost its one superstar player, Carlos Beltran, last year in a trade and Mike Sweeney, the lone offensive force on the team this year, will most likely be traded either at the beginning of the season or by the July 31st trade deadline. Former rookie of the year Angel Berroa struggled mightily last year, enduring a sophomore slump which saw him bat .262 with only 14 steals and an OPS of just .693, not the production you want from your leadoff batter.

Pitching

Rotation: Jose Lima, Zack Greinke, Brian Anderson, Darrell May, Jimmy Gobble/Runlevys Hernandez

Lima will return to the Royals for the 2nd time to lead the rotation, but saying Lima is leading your pitching staff is automatically leaving your team open to a Jay Leno punch-line. Lima pitched decent for the Dodgers last year, but was more known as the “pitcher who gave a woman herpes” in a lawsuit filed against him last year. Again, not exactly great publicity. Greinke is young and full of potential. The lone bright spot in the rotation. Greinke went 8-11, but put up a decent 3.98 ERA including 100 K’s last season. The Royals Ace to be should improve on his 2004 season. The bullpen is in just as big a shambles as the rotation, as Jeremy Affledt fulfilled the closing duties for KC last season, with a paltry 13 saves. Mike MacDougle, closer 2 years ago, will hope to reclaim the title role.

Royals win division if…
A vast Communist conspiracy abducts the other 4 teams in the divisions, leaving KC to be the first team ever to lose 100 games and still win their division. In other words, not a chance in hell, folks.

Royals lose division if…
They play up to expectations, which aren’t that high to begin with.

Prediction
52-110

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