I continue my 2009 American League predictions with predictions for the American League Central Division.
All the stats and standings (in parenthesis) for 2008 were pulled from Yahoo! Sports Major League Baseball page, http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb.
1)Chicago White Sox (89-74. Won a one game playoff against the Twins for the AL Central Title. Lost to the Rays in the American League Divisional Playoffs). The White Sox offense has the potential to be one of the most potent in baseball. With DH Jim Thome (.245, 34 HR, 90 RBI, 503 AB), Outfielders Jermaine Dye (.292, 34 HR, 96 RBI, 96 runs scored, 590 AB) and Carlos Quentin ( .288,36 HR, 100 RBI, 98 runs scored, 480 AB) all legitimate home run threats the White Sox could score 600-650 runs a game quite easily. A potential problem I see is that they are going to be a feast or famine club that has to rely mainly on the 3 run homer to win games. This feast or famine approach could cost the Sox some close games during the season. That being said, the Sox still have enough offensive punch to perhaps win 90-95 games to win this weak division quite handily. As long as the pitching staff stays healthy I look for them to win 95 games and have home field advantage for at least the American League divisional playoffs
Going into spring training the health of the pitching staff was a great concern. Last season the bullpen couldn’t stay healthy enough to survive the season without two of their key pitchers being on the disabled list for an appreciable length of time. Closer Bobby Jenks (3-1, 2.63 ERA 38 K/17 W, 30 saves/ 34 chances, 61 2/3 IP), and setup ace Scott Linebrink (2-2,3.69 ERA, 1 S/ 4 chances) were out for over a month at a time with arm or shoulder trouble. Right handed starter Jose Contreras missed the last month and a half of the season with a ruptured left Achilles. In addition, newly signed Bartolo Colon had shoulder problems that prevented him from staring more than 7 games for Boston. So far all spring training reports have indicated that these pitchers have been progressing very well through their rehab assignments and look ready to pitch in Cactus League games.
If that’s the case then the White Sox will have their starting rotation in place with Colon and Contreras being joined in the front of the rotation by righty Gavin Floyd (17-8, 3.84 ERA, 145 K/ 70 W, 206 1/3 IP) and lefty Mark Buehrle (15-12, 3.79 ERA, 140 K/ 52 W, 218 2/3 IP). I Look for Contreras and Colon (4-2, 3.92 ERA, 27 K/ 10 W, 39 IP) to come back strongly and win 10-13 games each and for the bullpen to stay healthy enough for the Sox to make it to the American League Championship Series.
2) Minnesota (88-75. Lost a one game playoff to the White Sox for the AL Central title in 2008). There is growing concern about all-star catcher Joe Mauer’s back. If he can’t return the Twins will loose a good signal caller behind the plate and a good hitter who is patient at the plate (.328 avg., 8 HR, 85 RBI, 84 walks). According to the Twins’ website (http://minnesota.twins.mlb.com/) it is not known when he will be able to return to the team. If that’s the case, one has to wonder who will now set the table for sluggers like Justin Morneau (.300, 23 HR, 129 RBI) and Jason Kubel (.272, 20 HR, 78 RBI). Loosing Mauer is critical because the Twins can’t win games by bashing the ball all over the place. His ability to draw walks and move run runners over is critical to the Twins’ small ball approach. If he doesn’t come back soon, it’s going to be a long year in Minneapolis because their pitching staff won’t have any run support at all.
Speaking of their pitching staff, The Twins’ starting rotation might be one of the best three in all of baseball. Right handed starters Scott Baker (11-4, 3.45 ERA, 141 K/ 42 W, 172 1/3 IP) and Kevin Slowey (12-11, 3.99 ERA, 123 K/ 24 W, 160 1/3 IP) are starting to blossom into very dependable and capable starters and left handed starter Glen Perkins (12-4, 4.41 ERA, 74 K/ 39 W, 151 IP) might become one of the best lefties in the game. In addition right handed starter Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.05 ERA, 96 K/ 39 W, 193 1/3 IP) is looking for some redemption. If the Twins had any offensive punch these guys could all win 15-20 games a season! They are that good.
The bullpen wants to do better than what they did last year. It was very horrible from August 4th onward. The bullpen blew 8 saves down the stretch and the usually dependable closer Joe Nathan (1-2, 1.33 ERA, 39 saves 74 K/ 18 W) got hit hard from late August till the end of the season while blowing 6 saves. It also ranked for the first time in 6 years outside the top five in bullpen ERA (3.91 good for 6th in the AL). A lot of this can be contributed to overuse and to injuries. This season they may be called on to pitch a lot in the 8th and 9th innings and it might be déjà vu for them. I see them running out of gas in August again and they might lead the majors in blown saves, too.
3) Kansas City (75-87, 4th place). Kansas City will be celebrating 40 years in the Missouri area and they might give their fans something to cheer about this season. This team is young, full of energy and on track for competing for the division title. This year will be a learning experience for this club as they try to learn what it takes to win. I expect them to win 80-82 games this season and be very close to competing for the division.
The offensive attack is led by 1B Mike Jacobs (.247, 32 HR, 93 RBI, 67 runs scored, 477 AB) and by Jose Guillen (.264, 20 HR, 97 RBI, 66 runs). As their biggest threats, many teams will look to pitch around them. As a result, the Royals must find 2-3 bats that can protect Jacobs so that other clubs will be forced to pitch to him more often. Look for Alex Gordon ( .260, 16 HR, 59 RBI, 72 runs, 493 AB) and newly acquired Coco Crisp (.283, 7 HR, 41 RBI, 20 SB) to possibly do that. Coco had some hard times up in Boston but I think now that he is in a more relaxed environment in Kansas City he might just have a career year with the Royals this year. This team needs 1-2 more home run threats to make a real run for the division but it will be interesting to see how the Royals will approach the game offensively this year. Will they send Coco early and often? Will they play small ball or will they try to single you to death? Or will they just try to hit 3 run home runs all the time and loose 95 games?
The Royals are looking to improve their pitching this season. Here are some questions that could determine if the Royals’ pitching staff is any better in 2009. Can Kyle Farnsworth (2-3, 4.48 ERA, 1 save, 60 1/3 IP) or Juan Cruz (4-0, 2.61 ERA 71 K/ 31 W) be effective setup pitchers for the Royals? If they can, then the Royals will win more close games. Last season they had a hard time getting to closer Joakim Soria (2-3 1.60 ERA, 42 saves/ 45 tries) to close out games. Soria is one of the best closers in the game right now and could have had 50-55 saves if the bullpen held some extra leads for him. Can starter Gil Meche (14-11, 3.98 ERA, 183 K/73 W, 210 1/3 IP) stay healthy? If he can, he could become the ace of the staff and make the starting staff more consistent. Finally, can Brian Bannister (9-16, 5.76 ERA, 113 K/ 58 W, 182 2/3 IP) improve over his mediocre 2008 season? He is capable of winning 13-15 games in a season with an ERA around 3.80-4.00. If he can get back to his 2007 form, then the Royals are one step away from seriously competing for the AL Central crown every year.
4) Cleveland (81-81, 3rd place). The Indians were a few players shy last season of seriously competing for the AL Central crown. This year it looks like things are going to be worse as the Indians have lots of questions about who will win spots in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Add to that some injuries that have already flared up in some key spots and it looks like it will be another long year for Eric Wedge and company in Lake Erie. Look for the Indians to loose 85-90 games this year.
There are two injuries that have the Indians worried right now. While playing for Team Korea in the World Baseball Classic, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has developed some discomfort in his left elbow. Choo was the guy pegged to start in right field this season. If he isn’t able to play right away Yahoo! Sports reports that David Dellucci, Ben Franscisco or perhaps even Mark DeRosa could play in right field untill Choo gets back. The problem is they don’t have the offensive pop that Choo (.309, 14 HR 66 RBI, 68 runs in just 318 AB) could provide. The Indians were excited to have a full season with the Korean after the tremendous 2nd half of 2008 he put up after coming back from Tommy John surgery rehab. His injury could be big trouble for a team that needs some pop in their lineup. The other injury that has the Indians worried right now is that of reliever Adam Miller. He is suffering some soreness in his right middle finger that is keeping him from pitching. If he can’t come back then the bullpen become an even more wide open race between lots of pitchers with very little experience in the majors.
On offense the Indians have few bright spots. Besides outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, CF Grady Sizmore (.268, 33 HR, 90 RBI, 33 steals, 101 runs scored) is their biggest offensive weapon who could join the 30-30 club again this year. Let’s hope the Indians don’t trade him away for pitching.
The infield is pretty much set although there are some people who think 2B Asdrubal Cabrera should not be the starter, It’s not going to matter much as there isn’t enough pop in the infield or behind the plate to give the Indians much of a chance this season.
5) Detroit (74-88, 5th place). Beyond Miguel Cabrera (.292, 37 HR, 127 RBI) what is there about Detroit this season that will give fans in the Motor City much hope this year? Okay maybe Curtis Granderson(.280, 22 HR, 66 RBI), Okay maybe you can add Magglio Ordonez (.317, 21 HR, 103 RBI) and if you think Gary Sheffield ( .225, 19 HR 57 RBI) has one more good season in him then maybe, just maybe you can add him to the mix. Beyond these four the Tigers don’t have much pop in their lineup and their starting pitching staff has a big question mark over their heads. If the Tigers aren’t careful they might loose 100 games this year.
The Tigers could quite possibly loose 100 games this season because they don’t have enough consistently good starting pitching. Starters Nate Robinson (7-11, 6.35 ERA, 108 K/ 62 W,168 2/3 IP ), Justin Verlander (11-17, 4.84 163 K/ 87 W, 201 IP and injured Jeremy Bonderman ( 3-4, 4.29, 44 K/ 36 W, 71 1/3 IP ) had really bad 2008 seasons. Dontrelle Willis (0-2, 9.38 ERA, 18 K/ 35 W, 24 IP) is really close to being a washed up pitcher and is under pressure to turn things around in a hurry this season. And to top it off, the back end of rotation doesn’t seem settled right now. I feel sorry for manager Jim Leyland. He deserves better than this.
He also deserves a better bullpen. Closer Brandon Lyon (3-5, 4.70 ERA, 26 Saves/ 31 chances) isn’t the greatest closer in the world and the guys who get to Lyon aren’t that much better either. For example, If Fernando Rodney (0-6, 4.91 ERA, 49 K/ 30 W, 13 saves/ 19 tries, 40 1/3 IP) is their main candidate for the 8th inning set up role, the Tigers are in big, big trouble. Let’s hope the Tigers are better than what they appear to be right now. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long season in the Motor City!
Web sites used that were not mentioned above:
Major League Baseball. “Cleveland Indians Depth Chart”. Downloaded 3-12-09 from http://cleveland.indians.mlb.com/
Yahoo! Sports. “Cleveland Indian’s Team Report 3-12-09”. Downloaded 3-12-09 from http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/teams/cle