Two on Two: AL Central Preview
Last week we kicked off the Two on Two Series with the AL East. This week it's the Central. Joining us are Seth Stohs of the popular Twins blog, Seth Speaks, and Brian Borawski, proprietor of Tiger Blog.
Sully: Thank you Seth and Brian for participating as we preview the ultra-competitive AL Central. We started the series last week with the AL East, a good division for sure but also a division whose reputation can be fueled by the northeast hype machine. Is the Central the best division in baseball?
Seth: The AL Central is head-and-shoulders the best division in baseball. Last year, the division had three teams over 90 wins. The Tigers were one of the feel-good stories of the year last year, and there is no reason that they can't duplicate it this year with the addition of Gary Sheffield. The White Sox had ups and downs but were still over 90 wins. They made a few moves which will likely pay off in the long run. And the Twins overcame so many obstacles to finally win the division on the final day of the season. They have the AL MVP, the AL Cy Young Award winner, the AL Batting Champ, the Minor League Player of the Year, the Executive of the Year, the best bullpen in baseball and a manager that, even with his faults, has the respect of all of his teammates. The Cleveland Indians offense and potentially improved bullpen should put them right in contention. Travis Hafner is as good a hitter as there is in the league. And although the Royals likely won't compete, the addition of Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to the lineup and the continued development of some other players, they could be a little better.
Brian: I think in 2006, you could definitely say that the AL Central was the best division in baseball but once again, I think the AL East may have surpassed the Central. I think the White Sox are probably the favorites in the Central but you could argue that both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are better with the Blue Jays being a solid team as well. I will agree that the AL Central is probably the most wide open. I think any of four teams (Sorry Royals fans) could walk away with the division and it may very well come down to which team stays the healthiest (which could concern White Sox fans).
Rich: The AL Central is undoubtedly tough. It goes four deep although I'm not sure I would take any of them over either the Yankees or Red Sox. Now I realize that the ALCS winner came from the Central in each of the past two seasons, but I'm not prepared to annoint this division as the best in baseball or even the American League. Strong, yes. The best? I'm not so sure about that.
Seth: The AL East is solid, no question. The Yankees lineup is devastating. The Red Sox made a couple of big moves in the free agent market. The Blue Jays finally passed the Red Sox a year ago and look to improve. Most people may not know it, because you generally will only hear about the Red Sox and Yankees on SportsCenter, but the AL Central is clearly the best division in baseball.
Sully: As I said last week, I am unprepared to call the better division for 2007. Let's talk about the Twins and their chances to repeat as Division Champs. For the first time in a number of years I think there are some real concerns about their starting rotation. Francisco Liriano is hurt and Brad Radke hung 'em up. Is the dominant bullpen and solid lineup enough to overcome spotty starting pitching?
Seth: Losing Liriano was a huge blow to the Twins last year. Statistically, he was performing even better than Johan Santana, the unanimous AL Cy Young Award winner. Bringing in retreads like Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz certainly does not breathe confidence into any Twins fan. The scary thing for Twins fans is that Carlos Silva and Boof Bonser are far from sure-things, as well. From a talent and 'stuff' standpoint, it probably would be better to go with a complete youth movement, but Terry Ryan will not let that happen. He wisely is more concerned with the psyches of the young pitchers and what is best for them so that the Twins can remain competitive for years to come. That said, Matt Garza, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey are very close. Scott Baker has nothing more to prove at Rochester. Don't be surprised if three or even four of these pitchers are in the Twins rotation by June. I think that the Twins 2007 success directly hinges on how quickly they are willing to pull the plug on underperforming veterans. That, and the health of Jason Kubel are, in my opinion, the two big keys to the Twins 2007 season.
Brian: I think the Twins need too many things to go right to be at the top of the AL Central in 2007. They're relying on too many prospects in the rotation and while I think Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be good this upcoming season, I also see them coming back down to earth a bit. Still Top 20 in the American League but not Top 10 like they were in 2006.
Sully: Yeah I have a couple of problems with Minnesota. Although Santana is the best in the biz, the rest of the starting pitching is awful. Too many not-there-yets, has-beens and even never-were's. I also question the offense a bit. While Mauer will be fantastic again and Morneau very good as well, the Twins will be awful at left field and third base. Rondell White is 35 and coming off a 66 OPS+ season while Nick Punto's career 77 OPS+ suggests he will be one of the very worst regulars in baseball.
Seth: I can't really argue with you on the concerns at 3B and LF. Nick Punto surprised a lot of people last year with how well he actually played once he became the regular 3B. Yet, it resulted in an OPS+ of just 90. He played terrific defense at the hot corner, but he has almost zero power. I can't see him even performing to his 2006 level again. Fortunately, the Twins make up for the deficiency at 3B with above average performance at Catcher and CF. Bringing in Jeff Cirillo, who mashed lefties last year, could get plenty of action at 3B too. As for White, he got off to such a horrific start last year. Maybe it was the shoulder, but it was so far below what White has been throughout his career. What gets lost is that after the All-Star break, White actually hit .321/.354/.538. He had 19 extra base hits in 156 at bats. He really just needs to find a way to walk more this year. Defensively, injuries have definitely made him a subpar outfielder. I expect to see plenty of Jason Kubel in left field as well this year.
Rich: Although the starting rotation has a few holes this year, the bullpen figures to be one of the best in the biz once again. Joe Nathan is an elite closer and Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes, and Juan Rincon arguably form the top quartet of middle relievers and set-up men in the game. As a whole, Minnesota's relievers led the majors in ERA ( 2.91), OBP (.301), SLG (.359), K/9 (8.13), K/BB (3.28), and SV/OPP (80%). This bullpen is cheap and deep, which is a prerequisite for a middle market team in hopes of playing in October.
Sully: Without a doubt, baseball is back in the Motor City. Still, the Tigers limped to the finish line before heating up again in the post-season and I think that has some people questioning if they ought to be considered legitimate contenders in 2007. Can the Tigers get back to the World Series?
Brian: They can but it's going to be a tough road. They had a lot of things go right last year and they stayed relatively healthy. The Sheffield pickup will be a huge boost in the lineup because he provides a patient, yet great, hitter at the plate that the Tigers lacked last year. They also have a deep rotation and even if a guy like Mike Maroth (the exptect fifth starter) goes down, they have plenty of guys waiting in the wings like Wil Ledezma, Zach Miner and even Andrew Miller who can fill in.
Sully: I am not sure I would characterize Sheffield as a "great" hitter. He hit .284/.355/.502 the second half of 2005 and .298/.355/.450 this past season. He is now 38 and has been bothered by shoulder problems. Other concerns I have for the Tigers offense are at first base and left field. Sean Casey just won't cut it and as long as Craig Monroe is taking playing time from Marcus Thames, Detroit will suffer for offense out of the left field position.
Rich: I believe the Tigers are more likely to pull a Chicago White Sox on us and slip into third than work their way into first. In fact, I'm not even sure Detroit can win 90 games the way the South Siders did last year. This is a solid team with a decent offense and a bunch of good, young arms. However, despite the addition of Sheffield, I see the Tigers hitting fewer home runs and scoring less often than last year.
Seth: Count me in the Justin Verlander-is-the-real-thing camp. I think that he is right up there talent-wise with Jeremy Bonderman and Mark Prior. Let's just hope that he stays healthy. Brian, any concern that the 2007 Tigers pitching staff will return to reality the way the 2006 White Sox staff did? Any concern for a let down?
Brian: Absolutely. I think Kenny Rogers and Verlander will be hard pressed to match their 2006 numbers. Then again, I think this is the year Bonderman finally breaks out and possibly makes a run at Johan Santana and a Cy Young. If anything, it'll be Nate Robertson that's the wild card. If he can put together a good season, that could really help the Tigers to the playoffs again.
Seth: The White Sox scored 127 more runs in 2006 than in 2005. However, their team ERA fell from 3.61 in 2005 to 4.61 in 2006. So, what do we expect from the Ozzie-led White Sox in 2007?
Brian: I see the White Sox bouncing back. I'm still convinced that they were the best team in the Central last year (and probably second best in the American League to the New York Yankees) despite the third place finish. That middle of the lineup (Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Joe Crede) is just plain wicked. They could use some bullpen help, but that's always something they can pick up at the trade deadline. I know I'll take some heat from my Tiger brethren, but the White Sox are my favorite to walk away with the Central in 2007.
Sully: I think the White Sox are on really shaky ground as a club. The starting pitching features four durable, unremarkable types and a complete black hole in the 5th starter slot. And while the middle of the lineup may be formidable, the rest of the lineup is hugely problematic. Dye, who is 33, coming off of a career year and almost sure to regress, is really the only offensive asset in the outfield. Any combination of Brian Anderson (.290 2006 OBP), Scott Podsednik (.330) and Darin Erstad (.279) alone might kill the team's hopes. All the while, they will play 57 games against Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit, three teams of genuine quality. An aging core and a dud off-season will cost Chicago in 2007.
Rich: The White Sox had a strange off season. I give Kenny Williams credit for stockpiling young arms, but I'm not sure the team made any strides in improving the rotation this year. Mark Buehrle got rocked last season. His strikeout rate ( 4.32 K/9) fell off the cliff n 2006 and is such that I wouldn't look for him to bounce back in a big way. Maybe he can become another Kenny Rogers. I don't know. But I'd like to see evidence of it first. Jon Garland is another starter who is living on the edge. And what makes anyone think Gavin Floyd is ready to step up?
Brian: I guess I like the pitching staff a bit better than you guys do. Mark Buehrle is playing for a contract so I think we'll see him revert to at least his 2004 form. Jon Garland will ride his solid second half in 2006 into another solid season in 2007 and I've always been a big Javier Vazquez fan. I do agree that trading Brandon McCarthy after dealing Freddy Garcia to the Phillies was a bit odd but he would have been almost as much of a question mark as anyone else the White Sox throw out there. And I'd hardly say that the rest of the lineup is problematic. Tad Iguchi provides a nice table setter for the big bats in the middle and A.J. Pierzynski is a solid hitting catcher. You might also see some more Rob Mackowiak (.365 OBP) if Ryan Anderson can't get it done in centerfield and Darin Erstad has lost a step.
Rich: I don't think it matters at all that Buehrle is in a contract year. I mean, let's be real now. The Cubs will give him a 5 x 11 contract no matter what he does this year.
Seth: I definitely think that the Sox took a step backwards this offseason, although I do think that the moves Ken Williams made will make them strong again in 2008. Getting Gio Gonzalez and John Danks was good, but I agree that the Sox rotation in 2006 takes another step backwards. The offense will be fine though, particularly if they can get Josh Fields and Ryan Sweeney in the lineup quickly. I think that the shortstop situation is another big question mark.
Sully: I think you bring up a great point, Seth. The sooner Fields and Sweeney cut into Erstad's, Anderson's and Podsednik's playing time, the better for the Pale Hose and their fans. Transitioning from a team I am really down on to one I think could turn some heads this year, let's talk about the Cleveland Indians. With a punishing offense, some nice off-season tinkering and better health and development from the starting staff, this could be the Tribe's year in the AL Central.
Brian: The Indians are one of those teams that are hard to get your hands around. I've already shown my hand and said I like the White Sox to win the Central but I keep flip flopping between the Indians and Tigers as to who is better between the two. I like the bullpen moves the Indians made and they should help but the question is, can they help enough. They also lack some depth in the rotation. Once you get past those front three (C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee), it gets pretty spotty. There's no doubt this team should score some runs though. You've got a nice mix of seasoned talent with some younger players anchoring some key spots (Andy Marte at third and Josh Barfield at second).
Seth: The Indians had one of the league's most potent offenses last year and the additions of David Dellucci, Josh Barfield and Andy Marte should make them even stronger. I believe Sabathia is ready to take that next step. Jake Westbrook is solid. Cliff Lee still has upside. I think that Jeremy Sowers could be an All-Star. Where the Indians had struggles last year was in their bullpen. So this offseason, the Tribe went out and signed Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz and some other veterans to minor league contracts. The thought being that, even though these guys may not be great anymore, they also will also get over poor outings right away. They won't have the meltdowns like Fausto Carmona had last year. Even with the retirement of Foulke, the bullpen will be stronger which should mean about five more wins. Combined with an even stronger offense and solid starting pitching, the Indians definitely should be competing all season long.
Rich: I like the Indians. Most sabermetric types know they underperformed their Pythagorean record by 11 games last year. But I also like the fact that the Tribe finished #1 in the majors in Rob Neyer's BeaneCount. As an example of its relevancy, the Yankees, Tigers, and Red Sox placed second, third, and fourth in the AL. This is a good team. Cleveland just needs to learn to play better on the road and win more than its fair share of one-run games. The latter has now been a bugaboo for a couple of years. Despite the changes, I'm not sure if that bullpen is ready for prime time yet. I'm also concerned that the pitchers don't miss more bats. The Indians finished second from the bottom in Ks in 2006. I don't see where this issue was addressed at all, which means the defense needs to come up big this year if Cleveland is going to reach its potential.
Sully: I think it will be interesting to see if Eric Wedge takes advantage of his outfield depth. As it looks now, the Tribe could have two very potent platoons flanking Grady Sizemore in center field. Against right handers, it would be David Dellucci in left and Trot Nixon in right. Here is how they have fared against righties over their career:
AVG OBP SLG
Dellucci: .271 .359 .468
Nixon: .292 .379 .513
And here is what Jason Michaels and Casey Blake have managed against southpaws:
AVG OBP SLG
Michaels: .303 .387 .464
Blake: .253 .335 .487
All four hit significantly better with the platoon advantage. Wedge's resourcefulness will go a long way in determining Cleveland's hopes this season.
Seth: Sully, that makes a lot of sense to you and I, but Casey Blake is slotted in as the team's 1B. Could he play 1B against righties and RF against lefties? Ryan Garko really deserves an opportunity to get some at bats as well. And, will we see more of Victor Martinez at 1B with Kelly Shoppach behind the plate?
Rich: Garko had a boatload of RBI last year (45 in 50 games) so my sense is that the casual fan may overrate him a bit this year. He's already 26. I don't really know what to make of him, but I would be surprised if he is special as a first baseman. Shoppach rusted away a bit on the bench last year, but he didn't really earn more playing time either. I mean, 8 walks and 45 strikeouts in 110 at-bats makes me wonder if he can make the proper adjustments and hit big-league pitchers.
Sully: OK guys, it's that time. What do you got on Kansas City?
Seth: I think Dayton Moore taking over the GM role is a positive for the Royals. I think that they have been very smart with Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. No need to start their arbitration clocks any earlier than necessary. It may not show in record, but I do believe that this team is getting better. Offensively, the addition of those two and the emergence of Mark Teahen as legitimate offensive players is huge. David DeJesus needs to finally step it up though. John Buck is solid. Mark Grudzielanek's injury hurts a little. If only Joey Gathright could steal 1B. The concern is the pitching staff, and they are bad. Seriously, #s 2-5 in that staff make Gil Meche look good! The Royals are trying. They are getting better, but it will take a complete overhaul to get them back to respectability.
Brian: In a weird sort of way, this could be an important year for the Royals. You won't see it in the boxscores, because they'll probably still come close to touching 100 losses, but how guys like Alex Gordon develop could go a long way towards them finally getting out of the cellar. I think we could see a reemergence of David DeJesus in kind of a Freddy Sanchez like way where he finally contends for a batting title and remains healthy. We'll also see how bad (or good if you're an extreme optimist) of a signing Gil Meche was, at least for the money. The team needs to see what it has and they'll find that out in 2007.
Sully: Gordon, Butler and Luke Hochevar are definite up and coming bright spots but this team is still just so far away. As you mentioned, Seth, nothing short of an overhaul will do for Kansas City. I can't see any way this pitching staff gives up less than 900 runs and even though Gordon, DeJesus, Teahen and even Ryan Shealy may produce some, the offense is still only mediocre. I know it sounds like old hat but there really is not a lot of good to say about these guys.
Rich: Look, the Royals have been awful for three years and have only posted one winning record in the last dozen seasons. Although Dayton Moore has a lot of work ahead of him, Kansas City is just a few players short of where Tampa Bay was a couple of years ago. The franchise has the second pick in the amateur draft and should be in a position to land another star player, whether it be Vanderbilt lefthander David Price or Georgia Tech catcher Matt Weiters. It's going to take awhile to turn things around, but the organization appears to be on the right track for the first time since the days of George Brett.
Sully: What do you guys see as being the biggest potential surprise in this division? Could be an individual, a team, anything really. I will go back to my earlier sentiments and say the Chicago White Sox. I think their starting pitching is suspect, their lineup contains too many holes and where they are good on offense, they are old. I have them in fourth place this season and think they will have a hard time eclipsing the .500 mark.
Seth: I don't disagree with you at all on the White Sox. I don't want to sound like a homer, but I think that the Twins will be wise and go with the young pitchers earlier than we think. I think Jason Kubel will become a star. And although I think most will predict that the Tigers, the White Sox or even the Indians to win the division, I think that the Twins will find a way to win their fifth division title in six years. Secondly, despite the fact that Daisuke Matsuzaka has already been given the AL Rookie of the Year, I think that Kevin Slowey will actually win it.
Sully: Just so we have this on the record - and please, no homer apologies. I am a Red Sox fan for crissakes. We have a Kevin Slowey for AL Rookie of the Year call - right here, and on the record.
Seth: You read it here first!! Kevin Slowey, AL Rookie of the Year!
Rich: You gotta love Seth going out on a limb like that. No pedestrian predictions here.
Brian: My biggest surprise isn't much of a surprise but it's the Indians. I have them in third place but I could easily see them vaulting over everyone and winning the division if some of their pitchers catch fire. I also think the key to the team isn't Travis Hafner(although he's a huge part of the offense), but Victor Martinez. I think if the Indians win the division, Martinez will be the guy who ends up as the MVP.
Sully: I don't know if I would call Cleveland challenging for the division a real surprise but Martinez outshining Hafner sure would be.
Rich: Mine is a bit of a stretch, but I'm going to say that Ozzie Guillen gets canned before the All-Star break. His style works great when you're winning, but it wears mighty thin when you're losing. I know it's a longshot, but I think it's within the realm of possibility.
Sully: Guys, do we see any of the major award winners coming from the Central this season? I know Seth is on the record with his Slowey for AL ROY call but what else? Does Santana cruise to another Cy Young? Will Joe Mauer or Travis Hafner get their due? Let's hear your ROY, MVP and Cy Young candidates from the Central.
Brian: While I think it will take an injury from Johan Santana, I really think Jeremy Bonderman is going to put it together this year and could compete for the Cy Young. If the White Sox win the division like I predict, I can also see Jim Thome winning the AL MVP. Alex Gordon could also walk away with the AL ROY if he's as good as the hype.
Rich: Ho hum, Santana for Cy Young. This will be the year of the DH. If Big Papi doesn't win the MVP, I can see Hafner winning the honors with a .310-45-125 type year. Heck, he was close to those numbers last year in just 129 games. But those stats will go a long ways with voters if Hafner leads the Indians into the playoffs. As far as the Rookie of the Year goes, I believe it will be tough to beat out a certain pitcher in Boston but, if not him, then Gordon is one of the next two or three logical choices.
Seth: I am going to stand by my Kevin Slowey pick for AL Rookie of the year despite so many great choices in the AL Central alone. I think that Mauer and Hafner are definitely top MVP choices, but I don't think that the reigning AL MVP should be lost in the discussion either. I would say the darkhorse is Carlos Guillen. And yes, Johan Santana should win his third Cy Young Award this year!
Rich: Before we let you go, we need your predictions as to the standings in the AL Central. Who will take first, second, third, fourth, and fifth place? Bring it on.
Seth: My head says: I'll keep it simple with this answer. I will say: Twins, Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals.
Brian: This might be the toughest division to call outside of the Royals finishing in last place. I have White Sox/Tigers/Indians/Twins/Royals in that order. I kept flipping back and forth between the Tigers and Indians at second and third but I think the Gary Sheffield trade and the return of that rotation puts them slightly over the top. Last I picked the White Sox and Indians one and two and they finished three and four so this is really anyone's division if they go out and grab it.
Sully: I will go with Cleveland edging out Minnesota in a tight one, and then Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.
Rich: I agree with Brian. This is a tough division to call. No one team stands heads and shoulders above the rest. I like the Indians the most, followed by the Tigers, Twins, White Sox, and Royals.
Brian: It could well come down to who's willing to sell their future at the trade deadline. It'd be interesting to see a team like the White Sox turn around and trade John Danks for a guy like Adam Dunn in July. All four teams have some guys in their farm system that could net them a short term gain if they feel they're on the cusp.
Sully: Thanks guys.