LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL Central
LiveBall’s Previews of the 2011 MLB Season begins right in it’s own backyard with a look at the American League’s most tightly packed division, a worst to first description of all the contenders. And, yes, the Indians and the Royals as well.
5) Cleveland Indians (projected finish: 66-96)
The Indians’ second rebuilding project since their appearance in the 2007 ALCS began much earlier than expected, and was officially brought in by the seemingly natural front office progression of the promotion of hotshot candidate Chris Antonetti to the role of General Manger, with former GM Mark Shapiro taking on the title of “President of Baseball Operations.” That doesn’t make it immediately clear who will be doing what, but the Indians message for their fans is clear: it’s Antonetti’s show now.
Cleveland’s best asset is its deep farm system, although they lack the bevy of top prospects of the next team on this list. They have two proven major league regulars in OF Chin-Soo Chu, and OF Grady Sizemore, another to-be regular in second year C Carlos Santana, and then will rely on whatever contributions slow-to-develop OF/1B Matt LaPorta and longtime DH Travis Hafner can give them.
That’s a decent core to build a team around, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Chu, Sizemore, or Hafner will be around for the next AL Central-contending Indians team. LaPorta is increasingly less likely to develop as a power hitter as the weeks pass, and while Hafner rebounded in 2010 for his best season since 2007, he’s 34 now.
The Indians don’t have much by way of pitching, with the erratic Fausto Carmona at the top of their rotation, and the bullpen unsettled, to put it kindly. This is a problem when you consider the lacking quality of the Indians’ team defense, notably at the hard to fill positions of centerfield, and shortstop. Former Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson still has some potential to help the rotation, but the rest of the help may still be a year away. The race for worst pitching staff in the AL Central between the Indians and Royals could be as fascinating as the farm-arms race that will occur between the two clubs in years to come.
4) Kansas City Royals (projected finish: 71-91)
Its going to be just one more year of bad baseball in Kansas City, although the real question is whether or not the product that follows 17 years of bad baseball was worth waiting for. That’s hard to say.
The Royals could have competed in 2011, but would have needed to hold onto RF David DeJesus, and RHP Zack Greinke to do so, and probably would have needed to add a pricy bat or arm in free agency, and even then, the Royals would only have been a fringe contender for the AL Central. That would have been more costly when you factor in the additional cost of keeping Greinke happy: holding on to veterans signed last year instead of shedding salary at the trading deadline of a non-competitive team. Instead the team made the wise “money” move, and traded DeJesus and Greinke for whatever they could get, essentially ending the team’s hopes of competing this year before spring training started. On the bright side, payroll is down under $35 million this year (thanks to the unexpected retirement of Gil Meche and his $12 million), and only Billy Butler has a guaranteed contract beyond this season.
The teams best player is closer Joakim Soria, but the real reason to expect the Royals to be better than last year despite losing their top position player and best pitcher is the quality of the teams defense. The Royals were horrid last year at preventing runs in games not started by Greinke or Bruce Chen, and they were horrid despite some defense-independent pitching improvement from third starter Kyle Davies. Brian Bannister has been jettisoned to Japan, Chen has been resigned, and the Royals added former Rockie left-hander Jeff Francis to replace Greinke.
The team defense will be the reason for improvement in the run prevention unit. Going from Yuni Betancourt to Alcides Escobar at short is a two or three win upgrade, essentially the difference between Greinke and Francis. Third base will be a defensive strength, at least until Mike Moustakas arrives in the majors (a day which no Royals fan is dreading), as will second with a continuation of a Chris Getz/Mike Aviles platoon. First base will be average at best, but an Alex Gordon, Mitch Maier/Melky Cabrera/Lorenzo Cain, Jeff Francouer outfield has the potential to be the best defensive outfield in years for KC. And that’s without stalwart defender DeJesus.
No matter what, an offense with Francouer, Jason Kendall, Melky Cabrera, Getz, Escobar, and possibly even Pedro Feliz is going to struggle to simply not be the lowest run producing offense in the AL (but thanks for trying, Seattle), and the bats the Royals will rely on this year don’t have a particularly impressive MLB track record (exception: Butler). That’s why its a minority prediction to suggest the Royals will actually be closer to .500 than to 100 losses. But improved team defense will make the rotation look better, and as long as Joakim Soria is healthy, the Royals will win a disproportional amount of close games, making this a justifiable prediction.
3) Detroit Tigers (projected finish: 79-83)
There’s plenty of optimism coming out of Lakeland this spring, if for a moment, we can ignore the fact that the team’s best player Miguel Cabrera has a serious issue with alcohol. The latest bout isn’t career threatening, necessarily, but while similarity scores view him as a player who will be a star into his late thirties, that’s the kind of projection that could be cut short by alcohol abuse. Cabrera was named the best hitter in baseball by LiveBall Sports last July, in the midst of Albert Pujols’ one seemingly human season in the last eight. Cabrera hit better than Pujols in 2010, though not quite better than AL MVP Josh Hamilton, although their batting runs above average were practically identical.
The argument is not that Cabrera is the best player in baseball, as he’s a well below average defender at a non-premium position. Pujols is a great defender, and a far superior baserunner as well. Cabrera is the most dangerous player in baseball with a bat in his hands. And alcohol threatens to shorten his run of dominance with the bat.
The Tigers will enter 2010 with the division’s best rotation, including Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Brad Penny, and Max Scherzer, and they will have plenty of firearms in the bullpen as well. Whether they actually finish the year with the best rotation in the division depends on the quality of work of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and the health of all these flamethrowers the Tigers employ.
The team’s biggest offseason acquisition was Catcher Victor Martinez, a legitimate middle of the order bat, if not the best defensive catcher on the team (that would be second year man, Alex Avila). Both figure to see more than 350 PAs this year. CF Austin Jackson and RF Magglio Ordonez will make up two thirds of the Tigers starting outfield, and Brandon Inge returns as the regular third baseman, but the rest of the lineup will be a series of unimpressive platoons and week-to-week sketch ups by manager Jim Leyland. Inge and Jackson are both excellent defenders, and supersub Don Kelly’s glove will play at any position, but this is not a great defensive team, and Martinez won’t do anything to solve those issues. Put simply, the bats must rank near the top of the AL for Detroit to win the AL Central.
2) Chicago White Sox (projected finish: 86- 78)
The White Sox should be better than last year for the same reason the Royals should be better than last year. They made one huge improvement at the weakest position on the team. Some of the plate appearances that were engulfed by Juan Pierre this year will belong to Adam Dunn, who should make his home nicely in the bandbox that is US Cellular Field. A second improvement should come from rookie 3B Brent Morel, who if not an offensive improvement, will certainly provide defensive improvement to Mark Teahen and Dayan Viciedo.
The rotation of John Danks, Mark Buerhle, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, and Edwin Jackson offers the deepest rotation in the AL, with the most potential upside of any rotation west of Tampa/east of Oakland. Peavy, Floyd, and Jackson all offer value that is more speculative than the established contributions of Buerhle and Danks.
Unquestionably, however, the strength of the White Sox in the infield gives way to one of the thinnest outfields in the majors. Left to right, the starters are Pierre, Alex Rios, and Carlos Quentin. Quentin can’t play the field very well, but the Dunn acqusition makes him a full timer out there. Rios was above average in center last year, but is still stretched kind of thin in center. He’d offer more defensive value in a corner. Pierre at least won’t be playing any DH this year, and played a good left field last season, but it’s not a position his bat can handle. Teahen should see playing time in both left and right field.
If the staff and bullpen goes through the expected development and has the Sox competing near the top of the league in most pitching candidates, the Sox could be big-name buyers at the deadline on an outfielder. They should be in this race longer than the Tigers, but without additional help in the lineup, the White Sox are destined to come up short, and in a worst case scenario, could find themselves selling at the deadline.
1) Minnesota Twins (projected finish: 90-72)
The Twins remain one of the best teams in baseball. They were able to retain key contributors Jim Thome and Carl Pavano from their free agent class. There are only two troubling things about this Twins team: first, that Justin Morneau still isn’t asymptomatic from a concussion suffered last July. Secondly, that without Morneau, the Twins will play a very, very watered down group of infielders, one that will be tough to win with.
The Twins have had a long standing issue with outfield defense. Last year, the trio of Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young combined to produce -29 UZR (runs), a staggering figure for guys playing in three positions. The trio is back this year.
Minnesota was able to mitigate that a bit with excellent infield defense from JJ Hardy, Danny Valencia, Nick Punto, Orlando Hudson, and a great first half with the glove from Morneau. Of the five names, only Valencia is likely to be good to go on opening day. Gone are Hardy, Punto, and Hudson. Japanese signee Tsuyoshi Nishioka will take over at the keystone. Alexi Casilla is sliding over to shortstop, the only position on the diamond where his bat profiles. His glove may project there after all, but the Twins ask so much out of their infield defenders to make up for that outfield defense. They also must rely on Denard Span to have another strong year with the glove in center.
The Twins might have jettisoned their role contributors while holding onto dead weight, such as Cuddyer. That’s the concern with them. But an offense that produced enough runs to be at the top of the AL last year — led by all-world catcher Joe Mauer — should pull off the same feat again with even greater ease this year. The Minnesota pitching staff is unimpressive on paper, but very underrated as a group. Joe Nathan returns in the closer role this year, strengthening the entire bullpen.
My Twins projection is depressed a bit not because the team won’t be improved at all, but because the White Sox, Royals, and Indians are all improving, and part of the effect of 94 wins by the Twins last year were simply poor in-division competition from teams that weren’t the Detroit Tigers. The four game margin of victory in the AL Central probably understates how the Twins won’t have to make a deadline trade to win this division comfortably.