Two on Two: 2006 AL Central Preview
It's that time of the year again, folks. Time for us to dust off the ol' crystal ball and share our secrets of the upcoming baseball season with you. Our motto is that it's better to be early than late. Well, it's actually better to be right than early but anybody can pick 'em in October. I mean, why wait around when we've got the answers for you in February?
Like last year, we will discuss the divisions by starting in the Central, then moving to the West, and finishing with the East. In week number one, we break down the AL Central--home of the defending World Series champs, the Chicago White Sox.
Our Two on Two format consists of Rich and Bryan and two guests each week expert in that particular division. Today, we meet up with Aaron Gleeman and Chris aka The Cheat to discuss all things AL Central. Aaron writes about his hometown Minnesota Twins through Aaron Gleeman.com, while Chris covers the Chicago White Sox at South Side Sox.
Grab a Venti, pull up a chair, and enjoy.
Bryan: A year ago, we began our AL Central preview with a discussion about the division's weak reputation. A World Series championship and wild-card contender later, such criticism has disappeared. Do you guys think the AL Central has begun a climb up the rankings and, if so, how does it compare to the other divisions?
Aaron: I still think the AL East is usually a good bet to be the best division every year, but the AL Central is definitely in the conversation now. Given how horrible Kansas City is, the Central could have four teams seriously going for 80+ wins.
Cheat: The AL Central absolutely has climbed the rankings. They may have the best pitching of any division in baseball.
Rich: As much as I like the division, I like the league even more. The American League is much stronger than the National League. The team that finishes third in the AL Central could probably win the NL West and challenge for the senior circuit's wild-card berth.
Bryan: Yes, the White Sox, Indians, and Twins form the makings of a strong division.
Cheat: I think you need to include Detroit in the discussions also. They're no pushover.
Aaron: Yeah, I agree. I'm not sure Detroit has enough pitching, but their lineup could lead to 80-85 wins.
Cheat: You could even argue that because there are four solid teams, the Central may beat up on each other just enough to only get one team in the playoffs yet again.
Bryan: Frankly, I think the reasoning for this improvement are the front offices. Is there a better group -- besides KC -- of executives in baseball?
Aaron: It's an interesting mix. I think Terry Ryan and Kenny Williams each have their flaws, and I'm not sure Dave Dombrowski can really be considered good. Mark Shapiro is somewhat untested comparatively, but he's doing a nice job.
Cheat: I'm not sold on Dombrowski, but Williams has certainly improved. Ryan and Shapiro have proved that they can win with a small budget.
Rich: Ryan and Shapiro are well respected and deservingly so. But I've been impressed with Williams, too. Not because the Sox won the World Series so much, but in the fact that Kenny was bold enough to make changes this offseason after winning it all.
Aaron: The division is so dependent on money, in relation to the rest of the AL, it's hard to judge everything properly. I mean, Minnesota has done well on a small budget, but they're competing with KC, Cleveland, and Detroit, with somewhat small budgets. And Chicago did well on a medium-sized budget, but they are outspending everyone else in the division.
Bryan: What's interesting is how volatile a few of the ownerships seem to be with money. Both the ownership groups in Cleveland and Detroit are willing to spend money on winners, which puts their GMs in a weird situation: right in the gray area of the buyers/sellers market.
Aaron: Right. The advantage they have is that once a rebuilding effort is nearly complete, the checkbooks can open up. Whereas Minnesota never has that.
Cheat: The White Sox are in the process of making themselves into a large-market club, one that spends $100+M each year. And Detroit has vowed to spend money. I'll be interested to see how Minnesota continues to compete with Cleveland looking like they may be able to add payroll in the future, too.
Aaron: If a team in the Central consistently spends $100 million, I think they'll win it most years. That extra $25-30 mill is just tough to overcome long term.
Rich: I don't know about "most years," but, yes, the team that spends the most money should win it more often than any other club.
Bryan: It's tough to consistently have player development success stories like the Twins have had recently.
Cheat: The one thing the White Sox have done, and I know Bryan has something to say about this, is deplete their farm system of top-level talent on their way to a big budget. That could hurt down the line.
Aaron: Right, but if you suddenly add $25 million to the payroll, prospects suddenly aren't as important.
Bryan: It certainly creates the risk of getting old, but the White Sox don't seem to be there--unlike maybe the Mets--quite yet. They can stay with this team for maybe two to three years before a huge decline sets in.
Aaron: Yeah, aside from Jim Thome they don't have a ton of really old guys.
Cheat: Agreed. The key will be letting go of the right guys each trading deadline and offseason.
Bryan: Well, Cheat, one real question entering the season is if they are letting the right guy into the rotation. Brandon McCarthy will likely start the year in the bullpen, despite the fact that he was probably the #2 starter in the second half. Mistake?
Cheat: The one thing I'm worried about with McCarthy is how he'll react to throwing from the 'pen. I don't know what the stress of throwing every day will do to his long and lean frame. I would rather he threw every five-to-six days.
Rich: The one thing I'm worried about with McCarthy is the number of home runs he allowed last year (13 in 67 IP).
Aaron: I was surprised that they added Javier Vazquez and then also kept Jon Garland and Jose Contreras. Vazquez doesn't seem like much of an upgrade, if any, over McCarthy.
Rich: It's a cliche, but you can never have too much pitching.
Bryan: Well, I guess it depends whether Ozzie can still have the Midas touch in regards to the pitching staff. There was no better manager at that trait in 2005 than Guillen.
Cheat: The Sox also seem to think that McCarthy will get anywhere between 10-20 starts. They seem abnormally worried about their pitchers' workload from the playoff run and the upcoming WBC.
Aaron: Well, the odds of making it through a whole year with five starters is pretty slim. So I bet he'll get more than a dozen starts.
Cheat: I think the Sox have done a good job of targeting workhorses who don't go on the DL. I think only Vazquez and Freddy Garcia have ever been on the DL, and both for very limited time.
Aaron: That's the strength, and then that makes the bullpen even stronger.
Cheat: Well, I'm not as confident about the bullpen.
Bryan: The bullpen lost a few arms last year, and again enters the year dependent on some volatile players, like Dustin Hermanson.
Aaron: I think Bobby Jenks will have some rough patches, but I like Jeff Bajenaru as a potential new guy.
Cheat: Cliff Politte and Hermanson are very unlikely to repeat their performances, and Neal Cotts and Jenks are still young guys who walk a lot of batters.
Aaron: Right, but Jenks, Politte, McCarthy, Hermanson, Cotts, and maybe Bajenaru is a strong group.
Cheat: The White Sox don't have as much faith in Bajenaru as you do, Aaron. He'll be lucky to be the 12th man in the pen.
Aaron: Really? He seems like he's earned a shot.
Bryan: Thinking Baj isn't as good as the horrendous group of LOOGYs they brought to camp is foolish. Although I agree the White Sox might be in that school of thought.
Cheat: I agree with that sentiment, but it appears that he'll be competing with Sean Tracey and Tim Redding for the 12th spot. He should earn that spot though.
Aaron: Also, on the pitching in general, it may look a little worse this year simply because the defense might not be as good.
Cheat: Paul Konerko had a great year (for him) defensively, and Brian Anderson replaces Aaron Rowand. But aside from that, they should be about equal there.
Bryan: You would have to think there would be regression to the mean in that regard. The difference between Rowand and Anderson might be a problem, too.
Aaron: Right, that's mostly what I'm thinking. And it'll be even bigger if Rob Mackowiak plays a lot out there. But they'll still be good defense, just maybe not insanely good like they were last year.
Bryan: With the Anderson-Rowand swap, and Thome replacing Carl Everett, the team seems to have been willing to sacrifice a bit of defense for offense. How much better is this group than the April 2005 offense?
Rich: Not much, if at all. Other than the likely improvement at DH, I wouldn't expect the Sox to get more production anywhere else.
Aaron: I think Thome will have a pretty big year, but I'm not sure their offense in center field will be any better.
Cheat: Brian Anderson is Eric Byrnes long-lost twin. They look alike, play alike, and even have the same humor in interviews.
Bryan: Is playing like Eric Byrnes a compliment anymore, or no?
Cheat: It's not an indictment. It's passable for a rookie, I suppose. One who's not being counted on to carry the team.
Rich: If Anderson is Byrnes, it had better be the 2004 version or else the Sox are in trouble.
Aaron: Also, everyone seems to be talking up Mackowiak as a really good player, but he's not a good hitter. If Chicago loses a key guy for a while to an injury, their depth is somewhat thin.
Bryan: Definitely, though Williams has never been slow to make a trade in that regard.
Cheat: Mackowiak is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. So is Joe Crede, however, so it may be a good fit.
Rich: Or a bad fit. I hope Guillen doesn't try to play the so-called "hot hand" until it turns cold because that is a heckuva lot harder to do in practice than in theory. You end up "shooting behind the ducks" and the end result is usually worse than if you just left the cold guy in and play his way out of any slump.
Bryan: The key to the offense, for me at least, seems to be Joe Crede. Is this guy going to continue the step he made after some work in September, or will he continue to be as inconsistent as we all have seen in the past?
Cheat: Yeah, I agree. I think the key is the whole left side of the infield. Uribe will bat in the #2 hole in spring training, to see if it's something he can handle. I'm expecting big things from both Crede and Juan Uribe.
Aaron: I think he's more or less proven that he's a pretty mediocre hitter. I don't know that a good few weeks at the right time changes that.
Cheat: Crede did change his swing late last year. If he carries that over, he will be a different hitter.
Aaron: I'm curious to see if Tadahito Iguchi improves in his second year, but beyond that any offensive gains will probably come from Thome. A bigger key will be Konerko maintaining his production.
Bryan: Well, as much as this offense may have improved, it's pretty much a given that they will fall short of the group in Cleveland. If the Indians can avoid an offensive slump in April, they could outslug this division by a lot.
Aaron: Actually, I wouldn't bet on Cleveland's offense being much better than last year's. Where is an improvement coming from, aside from young guys potentially developing a little more?
Cheat: I might take a Chi vs. Cle HR vs. HR bet, but I'll concede that they have a better offense overall.
Aaron: The Indians are weak at the corners and very strong up the middle, which is an odd sort of arrangement. By the end of the year I could see Ryan Garko starting over Ben Broussard at first base, Andy Marte starting over Aaron Boone at third base, and Casey Blake and/or Jason Michaels being on the bench.
Rich: While it may be odd, it certainly is a lot easier to replace players on the left side of the defensive spectrum than the right.
Aaron: Yeah, having such strength up the middle, especially with young building blocks, will make it a lot easier for Cleveland to improve via trade during the year. It's not too difficult to find a solid first baseman or left fielder at midseason, but it's almost impossible to get your hands on a good-hitting shortstop or catcher.
Cheat: I will be really interested to see what they do with Marte.
Bryan: I guess I'm not the believer in Cleveland that some are, however. Aaron hit it on the head. They are just too weak at about three key positions to have an elite offense, and there is no elite part of the team.
Cheat: I think Grady Sizemore can continue to improve. I love the way that kid plays.
Bryan: Sizemore is fantastic. In two or three years, I could see him being one of the two or three best players in the division. And what's surprising is that it might not even be bold to say that anymore.
Aaron: I like Sizemore too, but it'd be asking a lot for him to do much better than he did last season. Same with Jhonny Peralta. It's dangerous to just assume young guys will be better every year.
Cheat: Yeah, I'm not that high on Peralta. He was amazing last year, but I just don't see him matching that output again.
Rich: I don't think the Indians need to improve their hitting or pitching. They just need to distribute their runs a bit better. To wit, Cleveland was 22-36 in one-run games and 34-14 in games that ended with a margin of victory or defeat of five runs or more.
Cheat: Yeah, they have that AL Central Pythagorean Championship banner to raise, right?
Aaron: The White Sox had that one for a while, I think. A few years running.
Cheat: Those are hollow titles to hold. It sure does feel better with the real thing.
Bryan: Cleveland's pitching staff is questionable, especially the bullpen. I don't see a way in which Bob Wickman is the same pitcher as last year, and they lost key arms in David Riske, Bobby Howry and Arthur Rhodes.
Cheat: I did like what I saw of Fernando Cabrera at the end of last season.
Aaron: They still have Rafael Betancourt, who is underrated. And Guillermo Mota's health is probably a pretty big key. But yeah, I wouldn't bet on them giving up under 650 runs again, either, I guess.
Bryan: While we all might agree Kevin Millwood was overpaid this winter, we have to recognize they lost the AL leader in ERA. And as valuable as Jason Johnson and Paul Byrd might be on the dollar, they lost an ace.
Aaron: Yep. Although I like Jeremy Sowers as a midseason fill-in.
Cheat: As a White Sox fan, I'm upset that Byrd is in the division. They always seem befuddled by him. Johnson is another story, however. At least he didn't cost much, and may have some upside.
Aaron: I don't think Johnson will be very good, but I liked the Byrd signing.
Cheat: The only solid defense I've seen of the Johnson signing was his DIPS numbers stacked beside Garland's.
Bryan: As much as the White Sox and Indians did this winter, the Twins did very, very little. Rondell White and Tony Batista?
Aaron: Don't forget Luis Castillo. He's the big one. Or non-small one, I guess. They've had such horrible second basemen that Castillo represents a pretty huge improvement.
Cheat: Castillo was a great addition, especially for what they gave up.
Aaron: I liked that move a lot. White, I'm sort of lukewarm on, and I think the whole Batista thing is a disaster. They essentially promised him the third-base job, which later kept them from going after Corey Koskie at a discount price.
Bryan: Of the contenders in the majors, no one has a worse left side than the Twins. The lack of any attempt to improve this group is quite damning.
Cheat: Jason Bartlett looked like a young Cal Ripken when he played the White Sox last season. He must have been pretty bad when I wasn't watching, because I really liked what I saw.
Aaron: If they play any large part of the season with Batista at 3B and Juan Castro at SS, it's a pretty big mark against Terry Ryan's understanding of offense building. I like Bartlett, but he looked rough at times last year. But I think he's a good defender and can get on base.
Cheat: If only Jason Kubel could play infield, right?
Bryan: We talked about the Indians depending upon improvement from youngsters, which is also exactly what the Twins are doing. However, for as difficult as it will be for Peralta to improve on his numbers, Justin Morneau almost has to.
Rich: Justin needs to be More Yes this year than More No.
Aaron: Right. Morneau is a big key. But they also need comebacks from Shannon Stewart, and health from Torii Hunter and Kubel. The Twins have a ton of question marks throughout the lineup, so they could go either way.
Bryan: But what's the upside? Third in the division offensively?
Aaron: It'll never be a great offense, but they really only need it to be an average one.
Cheat: They probably have the fourth best offense, but even a passable offense can get by with their pitching.
Bryan: Pitching, pitching, pitching. Terry Ryan essentially put the pressure on the staff to be as good as the White Sox to succeed. But I think they could conceivably do it.
Aaron: Here's what bothered me. They are spending $4 mill on Kyle Lohse and giving Batista the third-base job. Why not spend $4 mill on a decent 3B and give Francisco Liriano Lohse's spot?
Rich: Free Francisco Liriano, huh?
Aaron: I might have to start one up, but I have some patience. If he's still at Triple-A in July I might have a new cause. I started complaining about them keeping Johan Santana in the bullpen after a few years.
Rich: Yes, we all remember your pleas, Aaron. You were right, of course, but maybe Ryan believes Johan benefited by not being rushed.
Aaron: There's a difference between not being rushed and what the Twins did. I'm not clamoring for every young pitcher to be given a rotation spot immediately. Santana was in the bullpen for the bulk of four seasons. I'm willing to wait three months for Liriano.
Bryan: The Twins seem hesitant to depend too much on young players, which is odd because it runs counter to the philosophy that won them division championships.
Cheat: There's definitely been some questionable decisions by the front office, but they still have the pitching that will keep them in the division until September.
Aaron: Right. I always say that the Twins are good at the big picture of team-building, like developing young talent, but then they are sub par at the little stuff, like utilizing it. Their track record of helping young hitters develop is also very questionable.
Bryan: Dave Dombrowski was brought to Detroit because he was supposedly good at "the big picture of team building." However, in his time with Detroit, we haven't seen that. Many point to this year as the season they begin to contend. Do you guys see it?
Aaron: Dombrowski confuses me, because he always seems to be halfway between two plans. But I do think they have a chance to be surprisingly decent this year. Their pitching still stinks though.
Cheat: They're a mirror image of the Twins. The offense will be good, but they have to hope for some improvement in the pitching staff.
Aaron: I don't see it unless Justin Verlander immediately becomes an ace. I mean, who are they counting on improvements from? Kenny Rogers? Mike Maroth? Nate Robertson?
Bryan: Well, it's that time of the year for the inevitable Jeremy Bonderman breakout talk. It's also the time of the year for me to believe it.
Cheat: If Bonderman was a stock, I'd be buying right about now.
Aaron: He's yet to post a league-average ERA in three seasons, but of course he's only 23. I really like Bonderman, Verlander, and Joel Zumaya long term, but I doubt they'll be ready this year.
Bryan: Yeah, it seems like Dombrowski needs to start planning for 2008. Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez won't be the guys to see good teams in Detroit.
Rich: I don't know what or even if Pudge was seeing last year. Did I mention that he struck out 93 times while drawing 11 walks? He had a .270 OBP in the second half. C'mon, the guy is D-O-N-E.
Bryan: I certainly wouldn't want an offense dependent upon Carlos Guillen, Pudge and Maggs. Talk about declines on the horizon?
Cheat: A full year of Maggs, Placido Polanco, and Curtis Granderson over Nook Logan, and they'll have a fine offense. Pudge was so much fun to watch last year when he got to two strikes. He swung at everything.
Bryan: My question is this: is Carlos Pena as bad as people think this year? Chris Shelton is certainly better, but Pena could give a good 300-400 ABs if he had the right platoon partner.
Aaron: I don't think Pena is bad at all. He's an average first baseman, all things considered. The expectations for Shelton might be a little high at this point.
Cheat: Pena would be a good fit for a team like the Royals. Shelton was a bit of a surprise to me last season. I wouldn't look for him to improve too much this season.
Bryan: I agree, and I'll throw Brandon Inge into that same fire. The two are solid players but have very little star power.
Aaron: Right. Detroit doesn't have any real stars, but I could see them being average or better at every position.
Bryan: Seems to me the Twins and Tigers will be battling for having the third and fourth offenses in the division, but the Twins strength in pitching puts them way ahead.
Cheat: I'd rate the Tigers offense ahead of the Twins, but your point still stands. The difference in pitching is too much to overcome.
Bryan: It seems funny to say that in the AL Central that a good offense and mediocre pitching staff doesn't have a ton of hope for third. That's new.
Aaron: Yeah. This Tigers team could have competed for the division title a couple years ago.
Bryan: One certainty has not changed in the AL Central: the Kansas City Royals will finish fifth. Again, we have to talk about them, so let me ask: is there value in a veteran movement like they've made?
Aaron: I don't really see much value. It always struck me that if you're going to stink like KC will and the fans are going to hate it anyway, why not bank some of that money for the future? You know, instead of spending it on guys who might help the team go from 65 to 70 wins.
Cheat: There might be some economic value in it. I mean if you can draw 2M fans because you might reach 70 wins, then I suppose it's worth it.
Rich: The Royals would need the Million-Man March to go through Kauffman Stadium to get their attendance that high.
Aaron: Adding someone like Reggie Sanders might be helpful in three or four years, but it does nothing now.
Bryan: And blocks Chip Ambres from showing that he can be a pretty decent player.
Aaron: Right. I think they rushed quite a few guys too quickly last year, and now they're going to block quite a few other guys in 2006. It makes no sense. Why is Justin Huber at Triple-A? And what does having Doug Mientkiewicz instead of him accomplish, exactly?
Bryan: Well, we all know how important the Royals defense is to their success this year. C'mon, Aaron.
Cheat: The Royals off-season is emblematic of a larger problem that's facing baseball. The small market teams don't have much incentive to win when they can make a hefty profit via revenue sharing. It seems like MLB clamped down and made them spend the money this year, but all that did was drive up the market for middling veteran talent.
Rich: It's pretty sad when a team goes out and signs Elmer Dessens, Scott Elarton, Joe Mays, and thinks they are doing something to improve their pitching. I mean, these guys were found on the rack at Filene's Basement this winter.
Aaron: They have a nice bullpen, though. Sort of like having "a nice personality," but still.
Bryan: That's definitely the strength. Andy Sisco, Ambiorix Burgos, Leo Nunez even, these are the guys the Royals should be marketing rather than a bunch of meaningless vowels.
Rich: Well, with their rotation, the relievers might throw more innings than the starters this year.
Bryan: Zack Greinke, Andrew Miller, J.P. Howell, Denny Bautista. This is the future of the KC rotation.
Cheat: It doesn't look intimidating by any means. They need to be in full rebuilding mode, like the Marlins. Though at least the Marlins have a few top guys to build around.
Rich: I heard you, Bryan. Andrew Miller. Nice.
Aaron: They really need to see some big strides from young guys like Greinke, and then decide who to keep around when the next wave (Huber, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, etc.) arrive, but I don't have confidence in Baird making the right choices.
Cheat: If Greinke was a stock, I wouldn't be buying, but I'd probably miss the boat. They've got a few young guys with potential. I think the season should just be about finding out who can play and who can't.
Aaron: They could have four good hitters in a year or so, with David DeJesus being #4, but the pitching looks brutal.
Rich: Patience, my friends. So they've lost 100 or more games in three of the last four years and have had only one winning season since the strike in 1994. These things take tiiiiiiiiiiiiime.
Bryan: Not trading Mike Sweeney this winter was just such an odd choice. Fine, if the Angels won't trade Howie Kendrick, take Erick Aybar. They aren't in the position to hold out for blue chippers.
Cheat: Again that comes down to economics. Trading Sweeney would have been a terrible PR move by the Royals. They would have trouble drawing 10K on the weekends without Sweeney.
Aaron: Nah, I don't buy that for a second. How much worse can their PR get? A diehard fan like Rob Neyer has basically disowned the franchise.
Cheat: It's not because of Mike Sweeney. It's because Sweeney is the one good player who the common fan can identify. If they trade him, after a 56 win season, it's interpreted as giving up before the next season even starts.
Aaron: Right, but I don't think Royals fans are even optimistic enough to care about that.
Bryan: Alright guys, enough Royals before I get sick. Let's close this out. What is your projected order of the division in 2006?
Aaron: It's a tough division to predict. I'd say probably Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City, but I'd give the first three at least a 25% chance of each winning.
Cheat: Chicago: 92 wins. Cleveland: 91. Minnesota: 87. Detroit: 82. KC: 63.
Rich: I'm not sure the division is good enough to average 83 wins. That seems a bit much to me. No way the Tigers and Royals combine for 18 more victories.
Cheat: Like you, Rich, I think the AL is clearly superior to the NL once again. The AL Central plays the NL Central in interleague this year. They'd have to beat up on the NL Central the way they did the NL West to post those records, but I don't think it's impossible.
Bryan: I agree with the same order as Aaron and Cheat, but I say Chicago wins the division by five games, at least.
Cheat: I'd like to agree, Bryan, but the Sox fan in me has trouble being that optimistic.
Rich: Well, I hate to be the party pooper here, but I'm going with Cleveland, followed by Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, and Kansas City.