Central's fate...in 2004
After a day when the Twins won the division and the Cubs gained ground on the Astros, I decided it was time to analyze the Central. But on this site, I won't give you my 2003 predictions (Twins and Cubs obviously), but rather a look into next year. Six teams...
There are three free agents I want to mention in conjunction with the Twins: closer Eddie Guardado, set-up man LaTroy Hawkins, and outfielder Shannon Stewart.
The latter has been the poster child for the resurgent Twins, as he's hit .331/.390/.483 in Minnesota. But the more important number is 37, the win total the team has since his arrival (against only 20 losses). Stewart has been a catalyst atop the lineup, and has missed only one game since the July 16 trade.
Yesterday on ESPN, Doug Mientkiewicz mentioned the team thought Stewart should be considered for the MVP! Granted, some wild names are being thrown out in the AL race, but I think it speaks volumes for what the team thinks of Stewart. And with his hitting leadoff, Christian Guzman can drop down in the lineup. The team will likely make re-signing Stewart its top priority, and tell Jacque Jones to start learning right.
Minnesota bullpen ARP leaders (from Baseball Prospectus):
LaTroy Hawkins: 18.7
Eddie Guardado: 9.8
Juan Rincon: 8.0
Johan Santana: 7.6
As you can see, Hawkins and Guardado have been the two key elements of the Minnesota bullpen. But both sounded off earlier in the season about not being re-signed, and thus dropped in the favor of Terry Ryan. While J.C. Romero is having a disappointing season, he and Rincon could make for a solid finishing combo. And throw in the #1 relief prospect in all of baseball, Jesse Crain. A look at Crain's numbers:
High-A: 2-1 2.84 10H/19IP 25K/5BB
AA: 1-1 9Sv 0.69 13H/39IP 56K/10BB
AAA: 3-1 10Sv 3.12 24H/26IP 33K/10BB
Overall, he saved 19 games, and allowed only 47 hits in 84 innings. During that span, he struck out 114 people, walking only 25. Crain is ready for the Majors, and should be able to close games as well. The team has used Grant Balfour out of the bullpen, and he'll likely be a middle reliever next season. Rounding out the bullpen will be a mixture of people from Carlos Pulido to Mike Nakamura to Mike Fetters.
Another area of worry is the starting rotation. The team holds an expensive option on Rick Reed, one that they will surely decline. Kenny Rogers is also a free agent at season end, and will doubtfully be pursued. Joe Mays recently went under the knife, although Eric Milton has returned. So, the team has four starters locked next year: Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Kyle Lohse. Look for the team to add another pitcher via free agency, like a Jeff D'Amico, or through a trade.
What may change the most next season is the infield. Justin Morneau will be ready to play 1B everyday next year, meaning Doug Mientkiewicz will be non-tendered. There have been rumors that Luis Rivas will suffer the same fate, although thats doubtful. Corey Koskie has a team option for next season, and the team will probably pick it up. But they could opt for trying Cuddyer everyday, and to look for a 2B, and give Rivas the boot. Behind the dish, A.J. Pierzynski has one more year before super-prospect Joe Mauer strips his starting spot from him.
My 2004 Twins lineup:
1. Shannon Stewart- LF
2. Luis Rivas- 2B
3. Jacque Jones- DH/RF
4. Corey Koskie- 3B
5. Torii Hunter- CF
6. Justin Morneau- 1B
7. LeCroy/Restovich/Ford- RF/DH
8. A.J. Pierzynski- C
9. Christian Guzman- SS
Ken Williams did all he could to put a winning team on the field this season, yet it still failed. Jerry Manuel won't be coaching Chicago next season, and I have my bets on Francone or Willie Randolph. This team has talent, but this may have been their best chance.
Reports say the team is close to signing Roberto Alomar to a two-year extension. This would be a mistake, as signing Adam Kennedy and platooning him with Tony Graffanino or Aaron Miles would be a better idea. Jose Valentin will be back next season, as will Graff, one of Williams' favorites. And since Alomar is being retained, chances are Sandy Alomar will return for a final hurrah.
After that, we know Magglio and Frank will be back...little else. There's speculation that Everett won't be brought back, and that either Lee or Konerko will be dealt. I don't think its a bad idea to trade Konerko, but Carlos is one of the prized jewels of this team. Plus...I have his jersey. The team may also bring back Everett, and try to keep a very similar team offensively.
But what must change, is the pithcing. Loaiza, Buerhle, and Garland are all guaranteed jobs next year. I worry that Colon will opt to leave Chicago, choosing the likes of Boston instead. But Williams will get a starter, and he has long been enfatuated with Sidney Ponson. The fifth spot will be a battle between Scott Scheonweis, Josh Stewart, Dan Wright, and anyone the club may bring in (Lidle?).
With all these signings, its the bullpen that will suffer. Billy Koch needs to bounce back next season, and Damaso Marte must continue his success. Kelly Wunsch will maintain his great LOOGY skills next year as well. After a good 16 innings in relief, Dan Wright may be back there next season. I've long said his knuckle-curve is suited for relief, where it would give hitters a different look.
So, what do you trade Konerko for? Prospects. This team could compete next year, but also must be thinking about the future. Bringing back Brian Daubach, and finding a platoon mate for the DH role isn't a bad idea. Then, get a solid pitcher for Konerko, who will replace Buerhle after he leaves in 2004.
There's just no more money left for Drayton McLane. The number one goal is keeping the team it has now, while putting more talented youngsters around them. You would think that means letting Brad Ausmus walk and substituting John Buck in, but the team has said that won't happen.
So, Buck will be re-signed, and offensively, the team may try to trade Richard Hidalgo. The team made a bad move giving him an extension, but his 2003 makes him tradeable. The Atlanta Braves, after they lose Gary Sheffield, or the Dodgers, are good teams to target. In return, land the fifth starter that you so badly need. Then, start Jason Lane (long overdue) in right.
Roy Oswalt will probably have offseason groin surgery, and hopefully put that injury behind him. Wade Miller is doing his annual 2nd half tear, teasing fantasy owners that he'll breakout one day. Jeriome Robertson has won 15 games as an NL rookie, good enough to put him fourth on my ballot. And Tim Redding has done a lot of good things as well. The team has enough candidates to fill a spot (Carlos Hernandez, Rodrigo Rosario), but should go after another top-notch arm instead.
Don't look for any change in the bullpen dominance. Next year the team will be going with Stone and Saarlos full-time, but will probably add a leftie to the mix.
This team won't be very different in 2004, but Gerry Hunsicker must use Hidalgo's big season as reasoning to land another starting pitcher (Odalis Perez?).
Mark my words: there will be no better chance for the Cubs to win the World Series then in 2004. Why?
C- Damian Miller, Benito Santiago
1B- Randall Simon
2B- Fernando Vina
SS- Miguel Tejada
3B- Aramis Ramirez
LF- Moises Alou
CF- Corey Patterson
RF- Sammy Sosa
1. Mark Prior
2. Carlos Zambrano
3. Kerry Wood
4. Matt Clement
5. Juan Cruz
In conclusion, my 2004 AL Central picks are the Twins and Cubs, same as 2003. I didn't mention the Royals and Cardinals, who both have chances next season. The Brewers may very well finish fourth in the division, and are eyeing a playoff berth in 2006. More on that when I publish my organizational reports, the second week after the regular season ends.
Have a good day, and watch some baseball!