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JetNation 2006 AL Central Preview

Mavrik here back for another round of division previews. A few days ago, I covered the AL East and today, I’ll give a preview of the AL Central. A division once considered the joke of baseball for many years, the AL Central now features some of the top teams and baseball and is considered one of the most competitive. Last season saw the Chicago White Sox shocked the world by taking home the World Series Trophy. This season should see an interesting power struggle unfold, as both the White Sox and Indians will battle mightily for the top spot.

Chicago White Sox (99-63, 1st in AL CENTRAL, WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS)
Projected Lineup
1. LF Scott Podsednik
2. SS Juan Uribe
3. DH Jim Thome
4. 1B Paul Konerko
5. RF Jermaine Dye
6. 2B Tadahitu Iguchi
7. C AJ Pierzynski
8. 3B Joe Crede
9. CF Brian Anderson
Starting Rotation: Mark Buehlre, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Javier Vasquez
The Chicago White Sox literally came out of nowhere last year. After a few lackluster seasons, a trade bringing Scott Podsednik to Chi-town for Carlos Lee and another bringing Freddy Garcia over from Seattle seemed to be the catalyst for a franchise looking to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1919. Podsednik stole 59 bases for the White Sox and the team got a nice 40 HR 100 RBI season out of Paul Konerko.   
Last season, the White Sox rotation also gelled together, as the White Sox got at least 14 wins from each of their current front 4 in the rotation. Jon Garland was also a surprise. The young righty was impressive last year, going 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA.
After most championships, teams usually get purged of their top talent in free agency, but this wasn’t the case this off season. The Sox traded Aaron Rowand to the Phillies for hard hitting but injury plagued Jim Thome. Thome will play the majority of the season at DH and see some time at first when Konerko needs a break. The teams 1-4 lineup is arguably more dangerous than last year and will continue to be productive this year. The Sox also acquired SP Javier Vasquez in a trade with Arizona in exchange for Orlando Hernandez. This strengthened the rotation even more and gives the Sox, 1 to 5, the best rotation in baseball today.
The one concern the team could face this year is over the closer role. Bobby Jenks filled the role nicely last postseason, albeit abruptly, but if he falters this season, it could be back and forth between him and Dustin Hermanson for the closer role. Either way, there is no reason to think the Sox can’t or won’t repeat this season as World Series Champs.

Prediction: 102-60, 1st Place – AL Central Cleveland Indians (93-69, 2nd in AL CENTRAL, no playoffs)
Projected Lineup
1. CF Grady Sizemore
2. LF Jason Michaels
3. SS Jhonny Peralta
4. C Victor Martinez
5. DH Travis Hafner
6. 1B Ben Broussard
7. 2B Ronnie Belliard
8. 3B Aaron Boone
9. RF Casey Blake
Starting Rotation: C.C. Sabathia, Paul Byrd, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook, Jason Johnson
Witness a team that was a breath away from overtaking Chicago to win the AL Central last season. The Indians had (and still do) the best young lineup last season, getting contributions from just about everyone in the lineup and getting breakout seasons from 1B Travis Hafner (.305, 33 HR, 108 RBI), SS Jhonny Peralta (.292, 24 HR, 78 RBI) and OF Grady Sizemore (.289, 22 HR 81 RBI).  The latter showing flashes of being all around offensive threat, both for average and power.  To consider the Indians started last season with him on the bench in favor of Juan “I turned down 108 million� Gonzalez, who subsequently made his traditional season long trip to the DL , after ONE AT-BAT, is ludicrous.
The Indians lost a few players during the off season. Their ace, Kevin Millwood left following the end of his 1-year contract with the Indians to sign a lucrative deal with the Texas Rangers. They tried to counter by adding former Tiger pitcher Jason Johnson to the backend of the rotation, who went winless in the ENTIRE SECOND HALF of last season. This will be the year the Indians return to the playoffs, continue to expect solid #s from the lineup, especially Hafner, and Sizemore.
The rotation, especially Jake Westbrook, will need to step up to replace Millwood, but shouldn’t have much trouble doing so. The bullpen will do a nice job of holding as it did last year. Look for the Indians to make a deal for a #5 pitcher at the deadline, and promote Andy Marte to 3B this season and trade Aaron Boone.
Prediction: 96-66, 2nd in AL CENTRAL, AL WILD CARD TEAM
Detroit Tigers (71-91, 4th in AL CENTRAL, no playoffs)
Projected Lineup:
1. CF Curtis Granderson
2. 2B Placido Polanco
3. C Ivan Rodriguez
4. RF Magglio Ordonez
5. DH Dmitri Young
6. LF Craig Monroe
7. 1B Chris Shelton
8. SS Carlos Guillen
9. 3B Brandon Inge
Starting Rotation: Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth, Justin Verlander
The Tigers are an interesting team to watch for this year. They either have the potential to surprise absolutely everyone or squander potential as they have in the past. Few people realize that at one point last season the Tigers were 61-62 and only 7 games out of the Wild Card spot. Alas, seasons do not end in August. The Tigers proceeded to bomb for the entire month of September and guaranteed themselves a 12th straight losing season.
The off season was generally quiet for the bunch. The Tigers added two veteran pitchers in Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones. The Tigers filled a need for an experienced starter in the rotation, but Rogers stamina in the second half of the season could be a concern. Todd Jones was also added to close after his impressive 40 save effort last season with the Marlins, but is an injury liability and could prove to be a fluke year. He is already on the DL with a pulled right hamstring.
Here’s where things get interesting for Detroit. The Tigers are currently in a renaissance of their minor league system, which has been barren for years and are finally starting to see some top talent come to the team. This year’s team will feature Justin Verlander who is considered by many the top pitching prospect in baseball as the #5 starter.  Flame-throwing right hander Joel Zumaya, who was clocked in at 99 last night, in the bullpen, along with CF Curtis Granderson, who has the speed, power, and ability to hit for average to be one of the top centerfielders in the game in the near future.
The lineup is above average in terms of potential for run production, and this lineup could be very dangerous this year if they click. 1B Chris Shelton mashed the ball last year, exploding to a .349 average after being called up in May last season before settling down to a .300 average by season’s end. Look for Shelton to be moved up to the three spot in the lineup, and Pudge moved to the eight spot. Pudge’s slowing bat speed will be a problem there, as was evident last season.
As far as the rotation is concerned, look for Zumaya to eventually take a spot in the rotation and for Nate Robertson to be moved into long relief. Bonderman is poised to have a breakout season after narrowly missing the All Star game last year (in favor of Kenny Rogers) and expect a decent 9-10 win effort out of Justin Verlander in his first year, who will be hit a lot this year but will turn out to be an exceptional pitcher in the near future. This team is still a long way from serious contention, but the 12-year losing streak will end this season.
Prediction: 84-78 3rd in AL CENTRAL
Minnesota Twins (83-79, 3rd in AL CENTRAL, NO PLAYOFFS)
Projected Lineup:
1. LF Shannon Stewart
2. 2B Luis Castillo
3. C Joe Mauer
4. CF Torii Hunter
5. DH Rondell White
6. 3B Justin Morneau
7. RF Tony Batista
8. RF Michael Cuddyer
9. SS Jason Bartlett
Starting Rotation: Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse, Scott Baker/Francisco LiranoThe Twins reign of dominance over the AL Central ended last year, as both Cleveland and Chicago overtook Minnesota in the standings. The team finished only 4 games over .500, their worst outing in 5 years. It wasn’t for a lack of trying from their ace pitcher. Johan Santana was perfection as usual, going 16-7 with a 2.87 ERA. Much of the rotation had trouble with run support last season, however, as the lineup often struggled to get runs to support quality outings from Twinkie starters.

This off season also saw the Twins bring in two players with questionable health. The team acquired second baseman Luis Castillo from the Marlins, who is still hampered by a knee injury, but when healthy can be expected to put up .300 avg, 30 SB. The team also acquired Rondell White in the DH spot, who’s declining range and ability at the plate was becoming evident. The bullpen is still solid, and will strengthen if young pitcher Francisco Liriano is put into the relief role. Joe Nathan also returns to close, as he has the past few seasons. The Twins will get another solid year from their top 3 pitchers, but will need the lineup to produce early and often for the Twins to have any chance in the division. Joe Mauer must prove he is over his knee injury and able to produce immediately and the Twins need continued solid production from CF Torii Hunter and 1B Justin Morneau.  Many expected break out seasons for them last year but they fell short of expectations. The Twins, offensively, are on a decline, and despite the best efforts of Santana and Radke, will not be in the race for the AL Central crown.
Prediction: 80-82, 4th in AL Central
Kansas City Royals (56-106, 5th in AL CENTRAL, NO PLAYOFFS
Projected Lineup:
1. CF David Dejesus
2. 2B Mark Grudzielanek
3. RF Reggie Sanders
4. DH Mike Sweeney
5. 1B Doug Mienkiewicz
6. LF Emil Brown
7. 3B Mark Teahen
8. SS Angel Berroa
9. C John Buck
Starting Rotation: Scott Elarton, Joe Mays, Jeremy Affledt, Denny Batista, Runlevys Hernandez
Well Royal fans, all I can really say is. Enjoy opening day. That’s about it. The Royals returned to futility last year, finishing with 106 losses after surprising just about everyone two years ago with an 83-79 effort and a run at the playoffs. Last year’s team featured a plethora of young and inexperienced players, both in the rotation and in the lineup.
The Royals responded, puzzlingly, this offseason, by adding a few second, or dare I say, third-tier free agents to the starting lineup. The team added Mark Grudzielanek, who despite a good glove, and a decent pop in the bat, is not the second baseman the team is looking to rebuild with. Grudzielanek will be 36 this season. The Royals also added 38 year old Reggie Sanders to play right field, and Doug Mienkiewicz, who struggled heavily during his short stint with the New York Mets last season.
The rotation isn’t much to look at either. Scott Elarton is the team’s ace. The fifth different opening day starting pitcher for the Royals in as many seasons. Runlevys Hernandez, who had a surprising rookie season two years ago, will be in the 5 spot, after going 8-14 with a 5.52 ERA last season. Zack Greinke, who was at one time the “Ace of the future� for the Royals franchise, is currently no with the team due to personal issues. The bullpen also figures to struggle, with Elmer Dessens and Mike MacDougal splitting time in the closer position, both of which have shown that the have struggled heavily in that role. As I said before, be prepared, Royals, fans, it’s going to be a looooong season.
Prediction: 55-107, 5th in AL CENTRAL
In a few days, I will be back with a preview of the AL West. 

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