MLB Season Preview: A.L. Central
by Robert Ferringo - 03/26/2008
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will get all of the hype as Major League Baseball's biggest and best rivalries. But for my money, for one season, I think the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians will be staging the league's best 19-part drama.
The Indians are the reigning champions of the American League Central. But no team made more noise in the offseason than the Detroit Tigers. Now we get to watch as two young, exciting, talented teams take it to one another for the right to the only guaranteed playoff spot coming out of that division.
The rest of the A.L. Central? Well, here's a direct quote from my 2006 preview. You tell me if anything has changed:
"The AL Central remains a hodgepodge of teams and talent. There are journeymen starters, unproven outfielders, and long-forgotten middle relievers. This division is a wasteland of low-budget teams from small-market cities. It's a sad commentary on the State of Baseball, but the only way a team can rise up from this situation and compete is through outstanding fundamentals and some great pitching."
It always works out that the division crown may not be determined by the head-to-head tussling between the Tigers and Indians. Instead, one of the other mighty-mites will likely end up playing spoiler.
Here's one man's look at the American League Central:
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
2005 Record: 72-90 (fourth)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 28/1
Odds to win World Series: 7/2
Wins Over/Under: 77.0
Strengths: Bobby Jenks gives them a hammer at the end of games. Now the trouble is just getting the ball to him with a lead. Mark Buehrle remains one of the least-heralded aces in the league. They did bolster their club with moves to get Orlando Cabrera and Nick Swisher, but those are more complementary parts than frontline studs.
Weaknesses: Last season, Murphy's Law was the operative dynamic in the Sox's clubhouse. Should we have karmic concerns about a crew with a racist GM and a homophobic manager? These guys just couldn't hit last year, and they scored the fewest runs in the league. They really didn't do much to overhaul the lineup so it appears they are just banking on bounce back seasons from their mainstays.
Player to Watch: Nick Swisher, OF. If you don't know by now, he's a versatile hitter and fielder with a great attitude. He folded under the pressure of trying to carry an A's lineup last year but we'll see how he handles himself in Chicago.
Outlook: The White Sox were as much fun as a broken condom in 2007. Their lineup still appears jagged and uncomfortable, and if they can't score runs then management may lose its top. There are just too many past-their-prime guys on this roster for the Sox to be a threat for 162.
2005 Record: 93-69 (second)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 4.5/1
Odds to win World Series: 14/1
Wins Over/Under: 89.5
Strengths: Cleveland is a physically young team with a core of players entering its prime. But they also are a very experienced bunch. Their backbone is up the middle, as any good team should be built, and the two-headed monster of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona give them the best one-two punch in the game.
Weaknesses: Their fielding went from pathetic to adequate last year, but it's still an issue. And, interestingly enough, they have the same bullpen issues that plague the Tigers: a weak closer and not enough quality setup men.
Player to Watch: Asdrubal Cabrera, 2B. He came out of nowhere to stabilize the infield last year. Now we're going to see how much talent this kid possesses.
Outlook: I'm actually looking for a little step back from the Indians this year. I don't think that C.C. and Fausto will replicate last year's success after throwing so many postseason innings. We also don't know how this crew will handle success or handle the pressure that Detroit is already putting on them. Cleveland will be in the mix. But I look for them to come up just short.
2005 Record: 79-83 (third)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 30/1
Odds to win World Series: 60/1
Wins Over/Under: 75.5
Strengths: Minnesota just keeps on keeping on. Their system is in place and, much like Oakland, they will win games based solely on fundamentals and playing the game the right way. This team does have a backbone in its lineup, with Morneau and Mauer providing the pop. They also brought in some solid veterans like Adam Everett and Mike Lamb, while adding "upside" guys like Craig Monroe and Delmon Young.
Weaknesses: The Twins have some nice arms. But their staff is unsettled. Francisco Liriano is a huge question mark, and Scott Baker may start the season on the D.L. There is also a lingering chemistry issue developing from the fact that the players have to sit back and watch the team's best players get traded or leave in free agency each season.
Player to Watch: Delmon Young, OF. As long as they can keep Young from developing a Nicholson-in-The-Shining psychosis he could be an X-Factor. He's a $1 mil. talent with a 10-cent head.
Outlook: From a betting perspective, this team is going to be a shaky bet. They should score a bit more than last year and you know they will be one of the better fielding teams in the league. But the unpredictability of their starters - lights out one night, lit up the next - will make this team tough to get a grasp of. However, back-to-back losing seasons are a certainty.
2005 Record: 88-74 (second)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 3.5/1
Odds to win World Series: 7/1
Wins Over/Under: 93.0
Strengths: It helps when your lineup is likely the best in baseball. But tired and/or injured arms in the rotation last year submarined the Tigers. With Dontrelle Willis and a healthy Kenny Rogers holding it down, on top of Verlander, Bodnerman, and Robertson, Detroit's starters are among the most accomplished in the A.L. They have also added enough pop in the lineup with Miguel Cabrera that if Sheff gets injured again the lineup shouldn't drop off.
Weaknesses: For as loaded as this team is in its lineup and starting rotation, they still have some glaring weaknesses in the bullpen. Todd Jones doesn't strike me as a championship closer, and they are a little light in the middle relief. Nothing can sabotage a season quicker than shaky setup men.
Player to Watch: Curtis Granderson, OF. He's starting the year on the D.L. But once the stylish leadoff man gets going he can be one of the most exciting players in the game.
Outlook: With their marquee offseason acquisitions the Tigers have to be considered a World Series frontrunner. If their pitching stays healthy and the bullpen produces then this team will be playing in October. Injuries were really all that slowed them last year. If they avoid them they will be fine.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
2005 Record: 69-93 (fifth)
Odds to win AL Pennant: 75/1
Odds to win World Series: 150/1
Wins Over/Under: 71.0
Strengths: They have the best announcers in the game and their promotional team is one of the most creative in the business. On the field? I guess they have some "good, young talent". But we'll see.
Weaknesses: Stop me if you've heard this one: the Royals have a shaky starting rotation. It's an epidemic in the Central and K.C. is not immune. They lack pop in the middle of the order and Jose Guillen is as reliable as an Iraqi infantryman as far as clubhouse chemistry goes.
Player to Watch: Zach Grienke, P. He is a head case, but Grienke has nasty stuff. He was awful as a starter, and then was fantastic in the bullpen last year. I thought they should have kept in as their No. 1 setup man, but he may be the key to the rotation.
Outlook: Unbelievably, the Royals are my nemesis. I joked that if I had simply bet against the Royals every game last year they would have won the pennant. This team is improving. They have some ripe young talent and are building a respectable staff. Unfortunately, the rest of the division is still a step ahead. But don't dismiss this club as a solid value play.