2011 Previews: AL Central
With the fans of the 0-2 Red Sox and 2-0 Yankees having all taken the wrong instructions from these starts, let’s move into the Central:
Chicago: There are a lot of good players on this team. In fact, in a remarkable evenness ranging all the way from the bullpen to the outfield, the average White Sox player is above-average or better. Just – with the exception of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko – not very much better. There are two men, coincidentally the team’s doubleplay combination of Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez, who are on the verge of stardom. If they achieve it, if they take the cliched next step, the White Sox can compete in the division. If not, this is a team that is indeed just above-average, and bound for nothing better than second place.
Cleveland: Three unheralded stars (Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez), the very good Asdrubal Cabrera, and filler. Quite awhile ago the Indians stopped taking competing seriously. The ’90s saw the Kenny Loftons et al locked up early and often (in the model since successfully copied in Tampa), but the ’00s saw ownership refuse to spend the money early enough to keep the Cliff Lees and CC Sabathias, and to have clearly also not spent it on careful study of the prospect yields when that talent had to be moved (quick: who besides Matt LaPorta did they get for Sabathia? Who did they get for Lee? And it’s not enough to say, ‘yeah but they got Santana, Choo, and Perez for almost nothing’ – Lee and Sabathia should have produced at least two blossoming stars each). And this decade seems to be the time of refusing to promote prospects when the season was still fresh and up for grabs. Even when placeholder Jason Donald went down with injury, the Tribe refused to promote third base stud Lonnie Chisenhall. And an approach like that gets you not just mediocrity now, but mediocrity later – when Chisenhall leaves anyway, by trade or free agency.
The answers, by the way? Sabathia produced LaPorta, Matt Jackson, Rob Bryson, and Michael Brantley. For Lee it was Donald, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, and Lou Marson. Not acceptable.
Detroit: The Tigers should have as much pitching as they have confidence. Brad Penny is the Number Two Starter? Brad Penny, who had a 5.61 ERA in his 24 starts in the AL in 2009? One also has to doubt Phil Coke’s ability to return to starting (the Yankees traded him because lefty hitters – especially those who saw him more than once – seemed to solve him), and there is the continuing non-afterglow of Rick Porcello. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are studs, but Penny’s placement at #2 implies some lack of confidence in Scherzer, who might still be one of baseball’s best starters. There is also a certain creakiness here: Carlos Guillen is hurt, Magglio Ordonez is a question mark, and the major investment in the off-season was in a catcher who cannot catch: Victor Martinez. I am not excited by the Tigers and in the first two games in New York there was a certain sloppiness to their play in the field – particularly by shortstop Jhonny Peralta and sub second baseman Will Rhymes – that must have Jim Leyland ready to break up the furniture.
Kansas City: If lightning were to strike and present the Royals with some kind of Cup-A-Soup Five-Pack of instant starters, they might actually be competitive. There is a decent infield with improvements coming up at the corners by mid-season, and the all ex-prospect outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur. But there are no Cup-A-Soup Five-Packs of instant starters (even if Aaron Crow and Mike Montgomery were to step into the rotation tomorrow).
Minnesota: The Twins’ main competition in this division is their own health. If Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan do not fully relapse (and a Nathan partial relapse would be neatly covered by Matt Capps) and no other star comes acropper, I don’t see Minnesota being severely tested. The infield is stronger with Danny Valencia at third and the guy I’d bet on as of tonight for ROTY (Tsuyoshi Nishioka) at second, and the rotation deep enough to move the aptly named Kevin Slowey to the bullpen. There is much more of a gap between the Twins and the rest of the division than conventional wisdom suggests.
OVERVIEW: 1. Minnesota (in a comparative romp); I’ll go for the Beckham-Ramirez growth spurt to make it 2. Chicago and 3. Detroit. The Royals will put up a valiant fight, but it’s got to be 4. Cleveland and 5. Kansas City.