2013 Previews. AL Central: Royally Flushed

Having completed the National League East, Central, and West, we move to the American, and we’ll start in the middle.

Kansas City: Let me preface this by stating a few of my baseball loves.

I love Royals Stadium (original and remodeled). I love Ned Yost. I love George Brett. I love go-for-it risky trades. I love the Kansas City faithful who have suffered in the way Cubs fans have suffered or Red Sox fans had suffered – only without turning into professional victims about it.

Having said all that, they’re all going to get screwed in a new way this year, and good people are going to get fired. Because what Royals fans (and many of those handicapping the 2013 season) see as a renaissance forged by deft winter trading and a spectacular spring training, is in fact the disastrous sacrifice of very limited resources for a bunch of lousy pitchers.

The Royals will have to pay Wade Davis, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields a total of roughly $40,000,000 this year (and Guthrie’s salary goes up from $5 to $11 million next year). To get them they gave away some irrelevant parts like Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Sisk and Patrick Leonard, and, oh by the way, they also gave away the store in Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery (actually the last two are just icing at this point. If you traded Myers for Davis, Guthrie, Santana, and Shields in your fantasy league, they’d kick you out of your fantasy league).

I hear the cries of heresy even through the computer. Since arriving in the majors on Memorial Day, 2006, Shields basically hasn’t missed a start. He’s Big Game James and Complete Game James and if there’s a dependable pitcher in the American League, it’s him. And I look at him and see a guy who had five complete games in five years and then out of nowhere threw eleven of them in 2011 and then fell back to three last year and caused the phrase “arm fatigue warning” to start blinking on and off like a neon sign.

Shields has appeared in 218 major league games and started 217 of them. In the starts he’s averaged just slightly more than six-and-two-thirds inning. And he hasn’t had one serious injury even as he begins his eighth major league season at the age of 32. He is, in brief, four-months-on-the-DL waiting to happen.

Let’s say I’m completely wrong about Shields. How about the other 3/5ths of the rotation? Davis, Guthrie, and Santana have a combined lifetime record of 179 wins…and 179 losses. And it’s only that good because Santana is 96-80 lifetime. And even Santana has only had one winning season since 2008. Guthrie last had one in 2007.

There are some extraordinary parts in the Royals’ lineup: Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, a bullpen full of power arms, and a probably resurgent Eric Hosmer. And it won’t matter a lick, because the Royals wrote the right checks and made the right trades – to and for the wrong pitchers. The disaster that will ensue will leave the executives, and maybe my friend Ned, out of work.

All the mediocre pitchers, of course, will still be there.

Chicago: In the last 56 years, the White Sox have finished in second place 17 times. That’s been easier to do since the advent of divisional play in 1969, but it’s still a neat trick and it seems to represent the franchise. Second in Chicago’s hearts, second in Chicago’s history, second in the standings.

You look at this team and almost everybody in the line-up also looks like the second best in the division. Paul Konerko? Terrific – but no Prince Fielder. Chris Sale? Probably the runner-up to Verlander. Alexei Ramirez? Tremendous, but behind Asdrubal Cabrera in the divisional depth chart. You get the point.

All of which makes last year’s collapse all the more shocking: not that the Sox fell from first place, but that they maintained it so long. Was that the work of rookie manager Robin Ventura? Was it Don Cooper and Bobby Thigpen juggling a very young bullpen?

Is there a chance it happens again? Chicago’s only significant changes are Jeff Keppinger at third instead of a mixture of disappointing prospects, and Tyler Flowers replacing the departed A.J. Pierzynski. The latter is, literally, the decision to go with the (what else?) second choice.

Here’s hoping the White Sox at least retain Phantom Ball…

Cleveland: All the White Sox did not do, the Indians did. They got themselves the best available manager (“Boy did I need that year off,” Terry Francona told me – and everybody else he saw this spring), a very good first baseman who can become a very good rightfielder if things go wrong (Nick Swisher), a really good centerfielder (Michael Bourn), and an interesting haul for trading away their previous best outfielder Shin-Soo Choo (Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs).

The Bourn move alone worries me. As noted here previously he batted .238 after the 1st of July last year. On the other hand, his stolen bases and On Base Percentage stayed relatively constant in both halves (or at least the OBP variability was relatively constant). Bourn can hit .238 all season as long as the OBP stays around .350 and he pilfers bags. Cleveland has a potentially punishing line-up to bring him, and others, home.

The most intriguing of the others is Lonnie Chisenhall. Say that name out loud and you might think he’s been an Indians’ prospect since Jim Thome was a rookie. In point of fact he was their first round draft choice in 2008 and has only 109 big league games under his belt. The season begins with him in a nominal platoon and batting deep in Francona’s order, but this is a protection against his primary enemy, self-induced pressure. Chisenhall absolutely stung the ball all spring and his emotional pendulum seemed to have swung all the way to unflappable from constantly flappable.

Thus the Indians’ hopes are pinned on what is still something of a patchwork pitching staff. Francona might be a tonic for the inconsistent Justin Masterson; they maintained a mutual admiration society before the Red Sox dealt Masterson to Cleveland. But can anybody fix Ubaldo Jimenez? Can anybody imagine the story if anybody could fix Scott Kazmir? Is Trevor Bauer’s idiosyncratic style the kind of thing that drove Kirk Gibson nuts in Arizona but wouldn’t get more than a shrug and a spit from Francona?

And is the bullpen ordered correctly? Besides Chisenhall the other lights-out Cleveland figure in the Cactus League was reliever Cody Allen. Allen struck out 80 in 72 innings last year as he rocketed from the Class-A Carolina League through Akron and Columbus to the Indians’ bullpen. He has the earmarks of a closer-in-the-making, especially if Chris Perez finally loses his balance on the pitching and public relations tightrope he’s been walking ever since Cleveland got him from St. Louis.

In a division in which every team has a flaw there’s a lot to be said for the one that brought in a guy who got booed out of Philadelphia and in his next year managing won Boston’s first World Series in 86 seasons. Francona brought Brad Mills and Kevin Cash with him as coaches (Cash will be the next Francona protege to manage somewhere), and the three of them might be the most significant free agent signings in the division.

Minnesota: This is a bad baseball team. This is not a Florida-level bad baseball team, but it’s bad. And it went bad because no matter how tempting it is, if you are a small market franchise, you cannot tie up all your resources in either a) a hitter at a high-risk defensive position (Joe Mauer, Catcher) or b) a first baseman (Justin Morneau), let alone c) both.

There’s no way around this. What you are left with is a line-up in which four of the guys should be in AAA because they’re not good enough to be in the majors, and a fifth (Aaron Hicks) should be in AAA because he hasn’t played in a baseball town bigger than New Britain, Connecticut. The same is probably true of two of the team’s starting pitchers and two or more of its relievers. The trades of Ben Revere and Denard Span were probably necessary but yielded nothing of immediate value, and unfortunately one of the assets it yielded (Vance Worley) is supposedly the ace of the team.

Worst of all, general manager Terry Ryan – who retired and stayed retired just long enough for the entire game to change while he was away and render his vast knowledge outdated – seems to be hinting that this mess is somehow the fault of people like Ron Gardenhire. Gardy deserves better than that, and better than this godawful lineup Ryan has put together.

Detroit: “Closer By Committee” does not work. Does not work. Does not work. Does not work.

Any questions about this? I’ll answer them by asking you one: when was the last time a World Series winning team has had a save from more than one guy in the same Series? (Answer below).

The Tigers, of course, are not really planning to use five different guys to finish games. They will do what the Giants did after Brian Wilson got hurt last year: Keep trying new closers until you get one who sticks. Now, of course, if Joaquin Benoit doesn’t stick, and Phil Coke doesn’t stick, and Octavio Dotel doesn’t stick, and Al Alburquerque doesn’t stick, and Brayan Villareal doesn’t stick, and a Bruce Rondon reprise doesn’t stick – if all this auditioning isn’t over with in a hurry, the Tigers could find themselves in a mess long before they make a trade for an established closer.

The Tiger window to make the Central theirs is a lot smaller than people think. Since the game began, forecasters have proved themselves almost always incapable of seeing anything besides what happened the year before. The annual tables in The Sporting News used to show 50% or more of writers taking the incumbent Champions to repeat, year after year. Apart from the substitution of hindsight for foresight, this also sometimes masks any holes in those defending champs.

This is a long-winded way of saying that the Tigers weren’t nearly as good as they looked last year. They entombed the Yankees in the ALCS, which completely obliterated the fact that the week before the Orioles came thisclose to beating the Yankees in five or maybe even four. Detroit’s World Series woes had nothing to do with the layoff; they executed poorly on the basepaths and in the field and their pitching had been scouted perfectly.

Flatly, the Tigers are an old and defensively-challenged team. Miguel Cabrera might be their second best infielder, and while Torii Hunter will do wonders in right, Andy Dirks will give that advantage back in left. There is simply nothing special about the double-play combination, I’m not buying the bullpen even with a good closer emerging or on order, and beyond Justin Verlander the rotation could produce any result from superb to sub-.500.

By the way, the last World Series winner to get saves out of two guys was the 2005 White Sox and one of those, the one from Mark Buehrle in Game Three, spanned exactly one at bat in the bottom of the 14th inning, and happened only because Real Closer Bobby Jenks had pitched the 11th and 12th.

The Division: I think this is the only one in which I’ll go out onto the crazy limb and take my chances that a recent also-ran will jell in a hurry. I think the Indians can and will do just that, in what might be a crazy race with the Tigers and White Sox. I have no faith in the Royals’ acquisitions and see nothing but carnage ahead there when they finish fourth. The Twins will be last and will have no one to blame but themselves.


  1. LB (@ReasonVsFear)

    This makes me think of the Seattle Mariners, back in the 1990’s. They had Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, and so on… a powerful lineup of hitters. They also had Randy Johnson. But the relief pitching… well, let’s just say that “relief pitcher” was an oxymoron. That was always the scariest part of the game. Someone would step up for a few games, and then….boom, down they’d go. I still remember Bobby Ayala going through a long dry spell. Fans love the hitting, but if the defense isn’t there, you can’t win. It’s the same in football, isn’t it? Score all you want, but if you can’t play defense, you’re screwed.

    I’m hoping the Mariners will do better this year. I haven’t kept track of them as much, since I’m here in Florida (and it’s more fun to go to an actual game) but I’m really looking forward to seeing them reach the playoffs again someday – hopefully before I’m 90. 🙂 Thanks, Keith!

    • Jim Eggers

      was in the Kingdome when Ayala walked down to the pen, and a nearby fan yelled that Ayala was Spanish for bad pitching… still makes me laugh!

      • LB (@ReasonVsFear)

        I felt sorry for him, but man, did he have a bad run there for a while. When he was on, he was terrific – but he spent far too much time being “off”. I do remember once going on “Family Photo Day” I think it was… you were allowed to go out on the field to take photos of the players and shake hands with them. All I remember from that is that Jay Buhner and Tino Martinez had STRONG arms (no, they didn’t hurt me), and that I got to talk to Randy Johnson briefly. He was supposed to pitch that day, but they changed the lineup. I wasn’t happy about that.

        Weirdest game I ever saw – don’t know the year, but it was April 15th. I was supposed to get a ride from a friend. I bought the tickets. Last minute, he backed out, and I had to find someone else. Long story short: We met him there, bus broke down on the freeway on the way there, it was almost time for the last bus home and my replacement ride still hadn’t shown up because he was still at the library filling out his taxes. Mariners were down by about eight runs…. then suddenly he showed up, the M’s came back and made up a huge deficit and won by 2 or so. And we walked out to the car in a pouring, drenching rain. Wild night. 🙂

  2. Turk

    “… the disaster that will ensue will leave the executives, and maybe my friend Ned, out of work”.
    I understand your, shall we call it “allegiance” to your friends, particularly to both Tito Francona and Theo “boy genius” Epstein (I LOVED your ‘special comment’ on Countdown two years ago about the Red Sox front office decision to fire, and consequently smear them, and was glad someone had the stones to say what needed to be said about it), however I do think your brand of loyalty tends to blind your critical thinking from time to time: yes Francona DID win it all in Boston on only his second year and that is in fact great, but can we please stop perpetuating the myth he did so on his managerial strengths alone WITHOUT inheriting (previously let-go GM) Dan Duquette’s team? I mean if you think Nick Swisher is a “very good first baseman who can become a very good right fielder” OUTSIDE of the bright (night life) lights of New York City may I echo the words of his previous manager Ozzie Guillen: “I’m happy that he’s playing good, he stunk while he was here”… “that’s the way Swisher is… that (stuff) doesn’t work out for him, it’s someone else’s fault”.
    Tito is great, yes, but you’re nuts if you think any rotation consisting/relying on a Jimenez/Kazmir (bounce-back) bookend tandem will thrive or flourish within the span of one season, specially one where the biggest moves are those their organization did to rid themselves of pretty much the last remaining vestiges of its identity as we’ve known it (voir: Sizemore; Hafner… in other words, the team is yours, boys, and so is the pressure; although at least they did right by shedding the exercise in how to be an melting, prissy underachiever that is Dice-K with plenty notice).
    Apart from that, yes: someone tell me what the deal is with the “big game” in front of (James) Shields? Boston wouldn’t ship their at-the-time-apparently-declining dominant lfp to Kansas for Myers on account of a-good-Lester-is-at-least-equally-as-valuable, so the Royals settle for a hovering-on-.500 starter finding his way back out of bullpen assignment?

  3. Mary Caruso

    I am inclined towards the Indians in this league (maybe). I think Terry Francona knows a little something about baseball and will get this roster in line. You can probably agree that a year off does make a difference. I, on the other hand, disagree emphatically with that. A year off has done nothing for me or my nerves, not to mention my bankbook. I bet Nick Swisher can now breathe a sigh of relief that he is out from under that terminal weight of the Yankees. I always thought of Swisher as somewhat of a ‘hot-dog’ though. I didn’t think he took the game seriously enough when he was in NY. That’s why the decline. He started out ok but ended up deflated. I think this kick in the teeth will do him some good but then again I bet he feels more at home in the Central league. Going home always works wonders for the soul.
    I like the Tigers when they came on gang-busters but that momentum cannot be maintained year after year. I guess they have to give someone else a chance to beat the Yankees. Hint: anyone can do that now. It will be interesting to see which of these teams floats to the top of their division. Cream will always float but sometimes it dissolves rather quickly when put in a heated combination.
    So I wonder where you are going to spend opening day, at what field? Excited or merely amused? 😉

  4. Sandy M.M.

    After reading your critique of the Indians prospects this year, I have only one thing to say: “From your lips to God’s ears!” I’m hoping that the decision to hire Terry Francona will make a huge difference this year. Your reference to the fact that he was instrumental in leading Boston to its first World Series title in 86 seasons (after being booed out of Philly, which I did not know), gives me much hope. I’m praying he can make that “miracle” happen with my Indians as well. I also liked your use of the word “significant” in referring to Cleveland’s free agent signings of Francona, Mills, & Cash. Very encouraging. Plus I’m hopeful that the addition of people such as Swisher & Bourn will be helpful too. I agree with you about our pitching staff. Can be very iffy. I was excited to hear about Cody Allen as a possible “closer-in-waiting” after some of Chris Perez’s problems last year. We shall see. May I join you on that “crazy limb” & say that I believe that the Indians actually do have a shot at doing well this year, even if it may be a 3-way race with the White Sox & Tigers. My fingers are crossed. As always, Keith, very well written. You’re the best!

  5. patriciaellynpowell

    I’ll go with Mr. Francona & The Indians! I think
    a lot of folks fell in love with him when The Red Sox did him wrong. And I believe in the
    Tito factor! Genes + karma = win! Play ball!

  6. Truly S. (@hotincleveland)

    Oh boy, the kiss of death has now been delivered (just kidding)…KO has picked the Indians to take the Central. All I can do is pray that this time his prognostications turn out to be sound ones (you wanna talk about suffering…). It sure does seem as if there’s a new spirit with the club since Francona came on board…and for the record, Mary Caruso, Swisher’s not acting like he feels kicked in the teeth, he’s acting like he’s happy to be home. I just hope all the good vibes last past May (assuming they’re in place by then to begin with) because I’m tired of the June Swoon, the July Goodbye and the August Bust, not to mention the September to Dismember. (whispering) Go Tribe…

  7. CRL

    Bobby Thigpen was not a member of the 2012 White Sox coaching staff. He was the pitching coach for the White Sox AA Birmingham. 2013 will be his first season as Sox bullpen coach.

  8. Emerson Burkett

    A lot of nice reads here, am enjoying. Have to agree with all the good vibes expressed for Francona and Epstein; real class. I think the Indians have a good shot.

  9. Comminsk Andy

    As a Tribe fan, I am stunned by your prediction. Here’s one question: if one of the OFs does fail and Swisher is moved back to Right, is Giambi the answer at DH?? I don’t see anyone else at AAA level who is a serious 2013 1B or OF prospect.
    Aviles at 1b/Reynolds DH?

    If Shields does become injured, I doubt I’ll be very sympathetic. Tribe Year 2000 is still fresh in my memory.

  10. Jason D.

    Ah, Kansas City, where the Curse of Denkinger continues. I’m a little shocked that baseball fandom, in its never-ending need to call every playoff drought a “curse” (Babe Ruth Curse, Black Sox Curse, Billy Goat Curse, even the Barry Bonds Curse in Pittsburgh…hell, even St. Louis had the so-called Keith Hernandez Curse before 2006) hasn’t latched on to that one and run with it.

  11. ChiTigers

    Great breakdown, and I’ll be interested to track your analysis throughout the year. But, not to be a homer too much, how do you break the Tigers down to age/defense/lack of a closer? I agree with you that the 2-5 starters are unpredictable, but does any other team in the division have 4 more talented/skilled starters, including their ace? Mostly, though, how can you not even mention the 3-4-5 that is Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez? I don’t know of a stronger middle of the lineup anywhere in baseball, and would wager that they will win far more games than a closer-by-committee will lose.

    Also, the 2011 Cardinals had 4 guys with more than 4 saves in the regular season, and they did well enough to win the WS. Motte solidified into their postseason closer, but that sounds pretty successfully “by-committee” for the regular season. If the Tigers bullpen can convert >2/3 of their save chances, I think that will be enough to take the division.

  12. HeavyHitter

    Love ya, KO, but the biggest risk factor for pitcher injuries is previous injuries. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, an iron man like Shields, who’s thrown lots of innings without injury, is the least likely to break down physically.

  13. Pingback: Keith at the MLB Opening Day and his AL predictions | Countdown with Keith Olbermann - Unofficial Fanblog
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  17. tim wag

    But, not to be a homer too much, how do you break the Tigers down to age/defense/lack of a closer? biggest risk factor for pitcher injuries is previous injuries. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, an iron man like Shields, who’s thrown lots of innings without injury.
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