Results tagged ‘ Cleveland Indians ’

2013 Predictions. The World Series Winner Is….

Anybody who tells you they can accurately forecast the World Series in April is lying to you.

Bob Costas once said he was coming around to the expanded (now re-expanded) post-1994 playoff formula. “Just so long as the World Series doesn’t become ‘The MLB Finals.'” Of course it has. Of course it has actually become something a little less exalted, because you could conceivably get there after playing the artificial and utterly unfair Wild Card Play-In Game.

The Play-In Game was hurriedly designed to try to force-replicate the drama of the inadvertent Play-In-Night that ended the 2011 regular season. What could not be replicated was the fact that the 2011 games were the results of weeks of what was left of the regular season pennant race while the 2012 games featured at least two teams that had all but secured the slots weeks earlier.

You remember Robert Andino and the Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria homers from 2011. What – unless one of them happens to be your team – do you remember of either 2012 Play-In Game?

Right. A vexing invoking of The Infield Fly Rule.

If that isn’t symbolic of those two games I don’t know what is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m at peace with the wild card, even with two wild cards. I’m at peace with pitting them against each other, Gladiator Style. But the randomness of one game just erases the remaining fairness of the thing. Make it three, but throw in a little torture. Make it best-of-three, and play a day/night doubleheader in one city. If one team wins both games, they go in. If not, everybody has to travel to the other city for a night game, the next night. You retain a little of the dice roll of the compressed time frame without the strong possibility that the better team will just happen to lose the only playoff game it gets after eight months of spring training and the 247-game regular season.

I mean, there are unfair weighted variables that you aren’t going to be able to control. To my knowledge nobody’s done the research but I would suggest an unusually high percentage of playoff teams since 1997 have been the ones with the softer inter-league schedule, and inter-league has gone from a set rotating division-versus-division plan to games assigned either for maximum tv ratings or for geographical convenience.

Worse yet is the advantage teams in divisions with extremely weak clubs have for home field advantage in the first round, and especially Wild Card eligibility. The American League East contenders used to have the doormat Devil Rays to fatten up against. Now (presumably) the National League East and American League West clubs will gain immeasurably by getting 19 opportunities to beat up the Marlins and Mets, and Astros respectively. There is no such dead wood in the A.L. East and N.L. Central, for example.

So those are the caveats – and the potential fixes – for anybody trying to forecast the playoffs (not that I’m saying they should be fixed to make forecasting easier; they should be fixed because theoretically you don’t want the true best team in the game wiped out by avoidable biases).

I’ve already picked the Rays, Indians, and Athletics to win the A.L. Divisions. I’m guessing Tampa Bay will still have the best record in the league and draw the wild card winner (which I’m thinking will come one each from the East and West, and the more I look at them the more I like Baltimore again – and L.A.). In lieu of flipping a coin I’m thinking the Orioles will be the better team by then and prevail again (I know; it’s a quaint notion that the ‘better team’ would win a one-game playoff). That would set up Tampa Bay-Baltimore and Cleveland-Oakland in the ALDS. An A’s pick is an easy one; I think the Rays-Orioles would be the full seven thriller and Tampa would finally prevail. So in the ALCS two great pitching staffs meet. Tampa’s is a little greater and they get a clutch home run from – who knows? Wil Myers? – to decide Game Seven. That puts them in the World Series.

In the National I already took the Nationals (waaay out on a limb there, I know), Cardinals, and Giants. The runners-up, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, will all be very good teams (although the Dodgers could easily have switched managers by mid-season). I’m forecasting kaboom-style disasters in Texas and for both L.A. teams so I might as well go whole-hog and say the Dodgers don’t even get the Card. So that’d be Braves-Reds and I’m assuming the Braves can survive their second such game in two years. That’d set up Washington-Atlanta and Cards-Giants and I’m afraid the obvious is true in both cases: Washington and San Francisco pretty easily. And as much as I like the Giants’ team I have already suggested the Nationals are going to have one of those triple-digit years so while I suspect San Francisco could give them a seven-game series I just can’t pick against this amazingly deep team from DC.

The World Series: two great pitching staffs, two great managers, two dynasties that were built quickly. But the Washington bats will overwhelm even the Rays’ rotation, and you-know-who will be the star. This will be Bryce Harper’s year (one assumes the first of many) as the star of …your World Champion Washington Nationals.

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.

What I Saw In Arizona. Part Two: Photo Album

I have a few more things gleaned among the cacti to report (besides the fact that Billy Hamilton is the fastest ballplayer I’ve ever seen, and seems to be going faster than freeway traffic).

But first, the photo album from a week in the incredibly convenient Cactus League:

IMG_4449No, this is not the world’s oldest, saddest boy band. Nor, despite the angles, are Manager Terry Francona of the Indians and President Theo Epstein of the Cubs actually resting their heads on my shoulder (they’d join me in saying ‘thank goodness’). I was privy to witness the reunion of the Men Who Made The Red Sox Great at HoHoKam Park, two weeks ago tomorrow. They’re both among my baseball friends and typically we spent almost no time talking baseball. Also got to see Billy Williams, Dale Sveum, and Brad Mills that day, too (“Nice to see you back with a Major League Team,” I said to Millsy. He smiled and was respectful enough to say nothing, but he looked 10 years younger – as did Tito).

IMG_4523

This is not Jackson Browne, though I’ve seen them both in the last 18 months and if the gentleman spotted at Peoria during a Brewers-Mariners game dyed his hair, they’d look like brothers.

That’s Ted Simmons, now an advisor in the Seattle front office, and simply put one of the smartest men in the sport. When Pirates fans harken back to the last winning Pittsburgh team they invoke the names of Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds (and occasionally even Stan Belinda), they don’t mention the last winning GM: Ted Simmons. He was just getting into the rebuilding of the post-Bonds Pirates when he suffered a heart attack during the 1993 season and retired. He’s been a coach and executive since – and that was after his 46.5 WAR (greater than Hall of Famers with careers of similar length like Nellie Fox, Kiki Cuyler, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Lombardi, and the just-elected Deacon White). Narrow that down to catchers (Bill Dickey 52.5, Gabby Hartnett 50.7, Simmons 46.5, White 44, Lombardi 43.6 – and you occasionally hear Jorge Posada’s name mentioned at 39) and it’s obvious that “Simba” is a Hall of Famer. Despite a career line of .285/.348/.437 and seven .300 seasons, his work was overshadowed by being Johnny Bench’s exact contemporary for 15 years, and then spending nearly all of his last five at DH or 1B.

IMG_4543Here’s another should-be Hall-of-Famer.

Dale Murphy returned to the game last season in the Braves’ tv booth, and returned to uniform this spring as the first base coach for the USA team in the WBC. One of the older arguments for the Hall was the “wozzy” test – “was he considered for any length of a time one of the top five players in the game?” After two MVPs and a decade as one of the most feared hitters/least feared people in the game, Murph kinda flatlined starting with his 13th season in the majors. But again, WAR puts him in historical context. Lou Brock’s a 42.8, Jim Rice a 44.3, Chuck Klein a 41.5. Murphy: 42.6 – and in this time when one element in the Cooperstown ballot has suddenly taken on added importance (“character”), his was and is impeccable – and generous.

IMG_4697Here’s another one of my favorite baseball people. This one unexpectedly showed up with the visiting Royals on a frigid night at the Rockies’ facility, Salt River Fields.

When I tweeted this photo I believe I said that I first interviewed George Brett in 1980. In fact, that was when we were first “introduced.” I actually interviewed him in 1976, 1977, and 1978 during the A.L. Playoffs – the “nice to meet yous” came during the 1980 World Series during a memorable and scatological interview about the hemorrhoids that plagued him during the post-season. This might have been the same day I met a mid-level Royals’ executive named Rush Limbaugh (how would you ever forget a name like that). He and Brett remain best friends, and George and I laughed our way through 15 minutes in the KC dugout, which no matter how you diagram it means baseball trumps politics every time. George remembered that ’80 interview of course, but also (to my surprise) recalled that I got to interview him – for Fox – after his election to Cooperstown in ’99.

Photography by Jon SooHoo/©Los Angeles Dodgers,LLC 2013

This, of course, is Wash.

All the other guys on the photo tour are Hall of Famers, or should be, or might very will be (Terry Francona needs one more measurable success in his managerial career to cinch a spot – and he’s only 54 – while if Theo Epstein also turns the Cubs around, he’s a lock).

The first person to tell you he’s not getting to Cooperstown – surely not as a player – is the ever-affable skipper of the Rangers, Ron (.261/.292/.368, ten years, one as a starting player) Washington. But few figures in the sport are greeted with greater affection, by his players and rivals alike. Just to amp this shot up a little bit, check out the copyright. That’s Jon SooHoo, who I’ve known ever since I was a local sportscaster in LA and who has shot 30 years of incredible images on behalf of the Dodgers.

There were many other men I’m proud to call friends who I didn’t trouble for photos: Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, Bruce Bochy, Bob Melvin – the average was about three a day, and it emphasized that while we get swamped by scandal and controversy and stats and new-age stats and boasting and showboating, the game is about good people whom you get to know and cheer for, for a very long time.

But occasionally, even in middle age, you make new acquaintances. While I summarize my thoughts for a future post, take a look at this, which might be – pound-for-pound – the best baseball stadium built in this country at least since 1962:IMG_4547

 

2012 Previews: A.L. Central

It will be one of those freaks of baseball nature, not unlike the year the St. Louis Browns won the pennant because all their players were just physically bad enough to not be drafted for World War 2, or the year the Reds won the most games in the National League yet did not make the playoffs. The Detroit Tigers, with probably the worst defensive starting line-up in the majors today – and one of the worst of all-time among serious contenders – will likely blow through the American League Central and could easily start the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win the ALCS and even The Series.

Consider them, and leave your images of them at bat, back in your mental dugout:

– Prince Fielder at first base: Decent forward motion for a man of his size, and unexpected ups, too. But going after a liner to either side should be accompanied by a public address system announcement of “timber.”

– Ryan Rayburn at second: You need to see the video again of him doing the Jai-Alai bit in left field to send Miguel Olivo’s fly ball over the fence? Here’s the link.

– Jhonny Peralta at short: This is an ex-shortstop turned third baseman and reconverted to short. And he’s the infield stalwart.

– Miguel Cabrera at third: No.

– Delmon Young in left: This will make you hanker for Raburn.

– Brennan Boesch in right: Immobile.

– Alex Avila catching: He’s a gifted receiver but, without Victor Martinez to help him out, the temptation for Jim Leyland to play him 133 more times behind the plate will be huge. His exhaustion down the stretch last year was ultimately disastrous.

You’ll notice I left out Austin Jackson. Obviously he is one of the best centerfielders in the game, not just fast but instinctive on balls off the bat, and in his throwing. But between Young and Boesch (or any of the alternatives) in that of all ballparks, they are asking him to cover a lot of ground.

But of course this is academic. When Salvador Perez and Joakim Soria went down, they postponed any chance of a KANSAS CITY uprising until next season. The Royals needed everything to break their way to offer a serious challenge, and we already know it won’t. They can live without Soria but pulling either Greg Holland or Jonathan Broxton out of their set-up pool will wind up overburdening the rotation. I still think the Royals could manage a second-place finish, but it’ll be distant behind a Tiger offense and pitching staff that are each 50% better than anything else in the division.

CLEVELAND is beginning to understand that if Ubaldo Jimenez did not hit his high water mark at the 2010 All-Star Game, he did so in the “Zander?” commercial with Jorge De La Ros about the bicycle license plates. How they could not see that he had lost command and speed suggests the Indians need to sign up for cable or a dish. That he cost them Drew Pomeranz and Alex White may come to haunt the Indians the way the Mike Napoli deal haunts the Angels. Manny Acta will get everything out of this team, but exactly who is going to make the decision to pull Jimenez out of the rotation?

Sometimes rebuilds can be fun. Consider the rookies and sophomores in CHICAGO: closer-in-waiting Addison Reed, relievers Hector Santiago and Nate Jones, third baseamn Brent Morel, rightfielder (well, hitter in right field) Dayan Viciedo, and, the most intriguing prospect of them all, Manager Robin Ventura. The White Sox will struggle to see .500 but Ventura’s extraordinary equanimity, devious humor, and quiet command will set a tone for quick recovery. Whether the White Sox have enough coming up through the pipeline to make them contenders in the near term is another thing all together.

Before you cast stones at MINNESOTA – be honest. Did you cry “no” when they gave then-recent-MVP Justin Morneau the big money? Did you say it was ludicrous when they gave Joe Mauer his $184,000,000 or did you extol the virtues of the small market team that could somehow afford to keep its hometown hero? You didn’t warn, I didn’t, the fans didn’t, and Twins ownership didn’t. And now we’re all on a possibly-irreversible trip to an AL Central version of the current events in Houston or Pittsburgh: exquisite new ballpark, faithful fans, and a team that can’t even afford to retain a Delmon Young during a season or a rehabbed Joe Nathan following it. It’s grim and it’s a reminder that Cincinnati is one blown-out kneecap away from having to give 51% of the franchise ownership to a suddenly-retired Joey Votto in lieu of paying a suddenly-retired Joey Votto.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL FORECAST:

Tigers, with or without a Statuary Defense, should win this division by double digits. The Royals and Indians will fight for second (and fight to stay over .500) and the White Sox will likely come in a few notches under. The Twins may be bad enough for the team to have to put up twelve-foot high fences to keep their most loyal fans from throwing themselves into the Fire Pits at Target Field.

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.




 

2010 Forecasts: AL Central

Having picked Tampa Bay to upend the Yankees in the East, we move to the AL Central.

I’m less
confident about assessing CHICAGO than I am about any other team in the majors.
Here is a team with the terrific burgeoning talent of Gordon Beckham and Carlos
Quentin – yet its success will depend much more on virtual castoffs like Andruw
Jones, Juan Pierre, Alex Rios, and Mark Teahen. Here, if Jake Peavy rebounds,
is a four-man rotation as good as any in the game, but a bullpen where only one
guy (Matt Thornton)
does not
start
the season as a question mark (how could you possibly get as many ex-studs in
one place as Kenny Williams has in Scott Linebrink, J.J. Putz, and
Tony Pena?). The White Sox could
easily win the division, but I would hesitate to bet on it.

Everybody
scratches their head at the quick demise in CLEVELAND – except I appear to be
the only one who’s doing the scratching in surprise that everybody else is so
confused. What do you suppose happens
to a team that is just one game from going to the World
Series, and then fire-sales Cy Young Award winners in consecutive season – and also
gets rid of their
catcher (who just happens to be the second-best offensive weapon at his
position in the game)? While the Indians may see some pay-off from these deals
this year (LaPorta at first, Masterson pitching, and, at least for the moment,
Marson catching), there is no reason to assume that the Indians have simply
corrected a temporary two-year blip. It is plausible that returns to form from
Fausto Carmona, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner could propel this team to the
flag, but it is just as plausible that the bullpen will again be its undoing.
Remember, this is a team that has not had a reliable closer since Joe Borowski
in ’07 (and this requires you to believe that Joe Borowski was a reliable
closer). There is the one wildest of wild cards: the chance that the Kerry Wood
injury is the ultimate blessing in disguise – that it shelves Wood and his
not-so-awe-inspiring 20 saves of a year ago and forces Chris Perez to live up
to his talent. Of course as Winston Churchill answered that clich 65 years ago,
“if it is a blessing in disguise, it’s very effectively
disguised.”

What if
Dontrelle Willis really is back? What if Miguel Cabrera’s career flashed before
his eyes over the winter? What if Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson are actual
major leaguers? If Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski come up trumps with those
four names, DETROIT should walk away with the division, because the rotation
seems outstanding, and the Tigers may have created its best bullpen (mostly by
default, and even though they’re about to find out what the Yankees did late
last year: Phil Coke can’t really get good lefties out). There are reasons to
suspect Johnny Damon will not be the kind of all-purpose threat he’d developed
into in the Bronx; 17 of his 24 homers in 2009 were hit at Yankee Stadium. It’s
possible Ryan Raburn or Wilkin Ramirez might have to be rushed into the
line-up. Then again it’s possible Alex Avila may force himself into it, behind
the plate.

When the
A’s still played there KANSAS CITY was the club on whom the Yankees palmed off
the guys they didn’t want any more. Funny that this year’s Royals start Chris
Getz and Scott Podsednik, and have Josh Fields on the
bench and Brian Anderson in the convert-to-pitching Skinner Box. The excuse that the Royals are the quintessential victim of the small market/big
market divide is nonsense: according to the Forbes figure filberts, the Royals
profit about ten million a year, gain at least thirty million more from revenue
sharing, and the franchise is worth three times what David Glass paid for it a
decade ago. So the free agents brought in to surround the American League’s
best starter, second or third best closer, fifth or sixth best first baseman,
and third or fourth best DH – are Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall? It’s pitiable:
with a little investment from management the Royals could contend in this
division.

Manager
Ron Gardenhire of MINNESOTA knows 447 times more about baseball than I do. But
there is one fact that has been irrefutable since Tony LaRussa began to use
relievers on schedule, rather than when needed: Bullpen By Committee Does Not
Work. Gardy steered out of the skid just in time last night, designating Jon Rauch as his closer after weeks of saying he’d try the committee route. 
Do not be fooled by
reminiscences of the “Nasty Boys” – the 1990 Reds had 50 saves, 31 by Randy
Myers, 11 by Rob Dibble, 4 by Rick Mahler, 2 by Tim Layana, and 2 by Norm
Charlton. The Reds would trade Myers within a year and Charlton within two.
Minnesota’s committee could have been Jeff Reardon, Rick Aguilera, Eddie Guardado, and
Al Worthington, and it still wouldn’t have worked. There are reasons to fear this team might not be competitive -
the tremendous home field advantage that was the Metrodome is gone (although
depending on how the wind current works – see “Yankee Stadium, 2009″ – it could
turn Joe Mauer into a 50-homer man). The new double-play combo is also symbolic
of some serious problems. It is made up of two very nice men named J.J. Hardy
(who was run out of Milwaukee even before the ascent of Alcides Escobar), and
Orlando Hudson (who has been run out of Arizona and Los Angeles and who somehow
lost his job to Ronnie Belliard in the middle of the pennant race last
year).
It is also
the direct result of what must be viewed as two disastrous trades (Jason
Bartlett and Matt Garza to Tampa for Delmon Young, and Johan Santana to the
Mets for Carlos Gomez – now swapped for Hardy – and nothing of even impending
value). Nothing would please me more than to see the Team They Tried To
Contract rear up and fulfill its potential. I don’t think they have the front
office personnel to pull it off.

PREDICTIONS:
I like Detroit to get more lemons out of the slot machine of chance that is
this division, than I do Chicago. Thus, the Tigers, close, over the White Sox.
Minnesota and Cleveland will spar for third place and whether the Twins get it
will largely depend on how Target Field “plays” as a new home. Kansas City is
last again, which offends me, because there is as little excuse for this
perpetual state of suspended animation as there would be in Cincinnati or
Milwaukee or maybe even Denver and Tampa.

 

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