Young Guns: AL Central
Last week we took a look at the key rookies expected to make significant impacts at the major league level in 2008 in the American League East. This week, we continue with the AL Central where the young players are just as plentiful but, overall, lack the ceilings of their counterparts in the east.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Despite losing a good chunk of major league talent from 2007, the Twins do not have a lot of impact rookies ready to help the club battle for a playoff position in 2008. However, both Philip Humber and Carlos Gomez figure to get long looks in spring training. There are some interesting players at lower rungs in the system and a good number of sleepers who could take big steps forward in 2008.
Philip Humber RHP
Yes the Twins lost perhaps the best pitcher in baseball this past off-season in Johan Santana but they did receive some talented rookies who should be poised to contribute at the beginning of 2008. Humber is a former top college starting pitcher who has lost some of his luster due to injuries. No longer a projected No. 1 starter, Humber falls more comfortable in the No. 3 or 4 starter mold. The flyball pitcher should be aided by his home ballpark and his minor league numbers have always been solid. At Triple-A in 2007 Humber posted 7.77 K/9 innings and 2.85 BB/9, both of which are respectable… and that is the exact type of performance fans should expect in 2008: Respectable, albeit unspectacular. Nick Blackburn has a shot to beat out Humber for the fifth spot in the rotation but Minnesota might feel the need to show fans that they did in fact receive some value for Santana, so Humber has the edge.
Carlos Gomez CF
Oddly the Twins traded away one of the best pitchers in baseball but did not get back a proven major league regular OR an organization’s top prospect, which would have been the Mets’ Fernando Martinez. But Gomez is a close second and is loaded with potential. The problem is that he is still rather raw – but probably advanced enough to win one of the Twins’ starting outfield roles. The biggest problem with Gomez right now is that as someone who needs to use his speed to succeed, he strikes out too much (22.6 percent in Double-A in 2006, and 21.6 percent in the majors in 2007) and fails to walk enough for a top-of-the-order player (5.9 percent, 6.0 percent). On the plus side, during his MLB debut in 2007, Gomez hit the ball on the ground 45.5 percent of the time, which is good to see for a player who does not rely on power.
Chicago White Sox
According to numerous experts in minor league baseball, including Baseball America, the White Sox have one of the worst systems in baseball so it should come as no surprise that there is little help on the way from the farm system. General manager Kenny Williams certainly has his work cut out for him if and when injuries begin to crop up. Despite being a former first round pick, Lance Broadway is not a prospect you want to rely on too heavily.
Lance Broadway RHP
Labeled as a “safe first-round pick” in 2005, Broadway’s stuff has always been a little lacking to be an impact starter at the major league level, despite his gaudy major league numbers in September 2007. Regardless, he should comfortable slide in as the White Sox’ No. 5 starter in 2008 – or he could possibly be shifted to the role of long reliever. There are a number of warnings signs associated with Broadway though, which cloud his 2008 potential. Firstly, his minor league numbers are average and he has allowed more than a hit per inning in his career (9.44 H/9 to be exact). He has also averaged only 6.88 K/9 as a soft-tossing righty who rarely breaks 90 mph. That wouldn’t be so bad if he were a groundball pitcher, but that hasn’t been the case. During his September call-up, Broadway induced groundballs only 36.4 percent of the time, and gave up a disturbingly high number of line drives (27.3 percent) suggesting he wasn’t fooling a lot of batters. He also had a low BABIP at .248.
The Indians will see some youth among its pitching staff in 2008 as a number of youngsters look for a regular major league paycheck. The presence of pitchers such as C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook mean that the Indians can ease the rookies in without fear of overexposure. Pitching continues to be the Tribe's strength with Jensen Lewis, Adam Miller and Aaron Laffey likely playing large roles with the club in 2008.
Jensen Lewis RHP
A starter prior to 2007, Lewis found his niche in the bullpen last year. As a starter, Lewis was far more hittable and averaged more than a hit per inning in two minor league seasons. Then in 2007, at three different levels including the majors, Lewis averaged 6.43 hits per nine innings. Even with his success at the major league level in 2007, Lewis still allowed a BABIP of .339, which suggests there is still room for improvement on his numbers. He could evolve into an excellent set-up man, especially if he can induce a few more groundball outs (32.5 percent in 2007).
Adam Miller RHP
The former first round pick and perennially No. 1 prospect has had his ascent to the majors slowed by a variety of injuries. However, if he is deemed healthy in 2008, he is expected to win a major league bullpen role. In his last two minor league seasons (at Double-A in 2006 and Triple-A in 2007), Miller has averaged more than nine strikeouts per nine innings and walked fewer than three batters per nine innings. Batters also beat the ball into the ground against Miller, as he induced grounders 53 percent of the time in 2007 at Triple-A and 55 percent at Double-A in 2006. Strikeout pitchers who keep the ball on the ground are always a good bet for success.
Aaron Laffey LHP
Laffey could be the player keeping the No. 5 starter role warm for Miller in 2008. Long term, Laffey does not look like an impact starter, as he has only once averaged more than seven strikeouts per nine innings in a full minor league season. One very encouraging sign for the soft-tossing lefty, though, is that he induced groundballs 62.4 percent of the time during his 2007 major league trial. If he can continue that trend, as well as keep the walks down as he did in 2007 (2.19 BB/9) then Laffey could be laughin’ in 2008.
Kansas City Royals
No longer satisfied to save money and languish at the bottom of the division, the Royals have begun to infuse the roster with veteran talent such as Gil Meche, Ron Mahay and Jose Guillen. That is probably good for fans, although it means fewer opportunities for young players in the system, which has recently graduated studs such as Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
Luke Hochevar RHP
Hochevar’s minor league numbers have been good… but not quite what you’d expect from the No. 1 overall pick from 2006. It’s possible that he might be one of those rare players who plays better under constant scrutiny and glare of the spotlight (like Florida’s Hanley Ramirez) or perhaps he was just a little overrated. Hochevar’s Triple-A numbers in 2007 left a strange taste in many talent evaluators’ mouths. His K/9 ratio was only 6.83 and he allowed 11 homers in only 58 innings. His strikeout ratio continued to drop at the major league level and bottomed out at 3.55. However, his other numbers improved in The Show and he induced grounders at a rate of 63.4 percent. He also allowed line drives less than 10 percent of the time suggesting hitters were not squaring up the ball overly well. So basically, what does all this mean? Going into 2008, I’d suggest the nickname The Enigma. But Kansas City sorely needs Hochevar to rise to the occasion and seize a rotation spot.
One of the busiest teams this past off-season, the Tigers organization has transformed its roster into a veteran powerhouse club. No rookie projects to make a major impact on the team early on in the season, although there are ample opportunities in the bullpen.
Next up: The American League West