Two on Two: 2008 AL Central Preview
We're bringing out the big guns for the American League Central. We hope you enjoyed the AL West and NL West previews and trust you will find today's roundtable discussion with two of our favorite writers informative and entertaining.
Rob Neyer, a senior writer at ESPN.com and the author of six books (including the soon-to-be-released Big Book of Baseball Legends), is on the very, very short list of parties most responsible for advancing statistical performance analysis into the mainstream. Often referred to as a "Bill James disciple" resulting from his time working for the so-called godfather of sabermetrics, Rob ascended to his current position of influence by championing a constant message and winning over a legion of loyal readers.
Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star and author of The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, stands out among his peers in that he uses his mainstream platform to advance analytical metrics that in too many circles are still considered to be the stuff of propeller-heads and Mom's basement dwellers. Posnanski's appealing writing style and broad audience make him a critical voice in furthering the understanding of fundamental tenets of what constitutes winning (and losing) baseball. Poz (as he is often called) was named best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors in April of 2007. You can also enjoy his "curiously long posts" and Pozterisks at his fun-to-read blog.
Go grab a cup of coffee. Heck, get two. You can sip both of them slowly and finish about the same time as our discussion. Enjoy!
Sully: What sticks out for me when I stand back and look at the AL Central is just how quickly this division got top-heavy. It's become a two-team show between Cleveland and Detroit as both Chicago and Minnesota have taken significant strides backwards from just a couple of years ago.
Rich: Cleveland may have been the second-best team in all of baseball last year. The Indians won the division by eight games, walloped the Yankees in the ALDS, and won three of the first four games against the Red Sox in the ALCS. The team that was one win away from the AL pennant and perhaps the World Series championship is basically one and the same in 2008 and would be favored to win the AL Central if not for the aggressive moves this winter on the part of Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski, who has added Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis to a solid nucleus that went to the World Series in 2006. It's no secret, this is a two-team race between the Indians and Tigers with Minnesota, Chicago, and Kansas City playing for third place.
Joe: Well, obviously, I'm excited about seeing just what the Detroit Tigers lineup will do. How about a Top 7 that could look like this via 2007 OPS+ – 136, 122, 150, 167, 120, 125, 123 – that's Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria and Carlos Guillen. You could put those seven in any order you like – Brian Bannister says he had nightmares all winter. Then you throw Marcus Thames, Jacque Jones and, oh yeah, Pudge v.2.0 in there – that's a 1,000 run lineup plus.
Sully: Bold call, Joe. Playing at Comerica and with some age and injury risk mixed in with all of that promise, I think they will be a whale of an offense but will come up well short of 1,000 runs. So I guess you see Detroit running away with this thing, Joe?
Joe: Not necessarily; I still think the Indians will make this a race. That Tigers rotation has holes, and their bullpen is shaky – if the Indians get the big years out of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona I think this thing could be fun.
Rob: I’m looking forward to a great pennant race, and as fans we all may wish the best for Francisco Liriano in his comeback. Personally, I’m most excited by the prospect of watching Billy Butler for a whole season.
Sully: OK, let's start with the defending Central champions. Sabathia is one of the very best pitchers in baseball. His 5.65 K/BB in 241 innings made him a most deserving Cy Young choice. Carmona will be hard pressed to repeat his sterling 2007 with such a low K rate but I think he has made it clear that he has the talent to pitch effectively for years to come. The back end of the rotation leaves a bit to be desired while the bullpen ex-Borowski is tremendous.
Joe: I think Sabathia has arrived as an ace – there's no going back for him now. And he's so much fun to watch. It's stunning to think he has 100 wins and won't turn 28 until late July. People talk about the 300 pitcher being dead but I think if Sabathia can keep plowing along, he gets there before his 39th birthday.
A lot of people think Carmona will have a come-down year after last season ... I don't know. To me, he had the best stuff in baseball when I saw him pitch. I've heard from fans and scouts that hitters will wait him out this year, make him throw strikes, force him to adjust. Maybe. His strikeout rate is remarkably blah for a power pitcher but he's the one guy I watch and think, "How the heck do you hit this guy?".
Rob: It’s hard to imagine Sabathia and Carmona combining to go 38-15, right? Especially considering how many innings they threw last year? Including October? Cleveland’s No. 5 starters were generally horrible last season, but I suspect somebody – Aaron Laffey or Cliff Lee or Jeremy Sowers, as things stand now – will have to make a solid contribution to help offset the minor-but-likely decline of the guys at the front end of the rotation.
Joe: I look for Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd to switch roles – this time it will be Westbrook getting the 200 or so innings and 15 wins, Byrd battling all year with injuries and inconsistency. Anyway, as long as at least one of those guys serves the 200 innings, league-average ERA role, they'll be fine.
I can't figure out Lee. I had one scout tell me last year that his stuff has dropped two or three grades over the last two years. Injuries, wear-and-tear, whatever – the guy won't be 30 until late August and his future is hazy.
Rich: Cleveland was No. 1 in Rob's Beane Count, primarily because the pitching staff gave up the fewest number of walks in the majors and ranked second in the AL in home runs allowed. Led by Sabathia and Carmona, the club was second in the league in ERA+ and runs per game on the road. The rotation is deep and Rafael Betancourt ranks among the most effective set-up men in the league.
Rob: The bullpen was bizarre last season, with Joe Borowski and Tom Mastny pitching much worse than expected, and Betancourt and Perez pitching much better than expected. This season they’ll all regress to the mean and the Indians will again have a solid bullpen.
Joe: The Indians have a lot of great arms in the bullpen, but the guy who gets me is Borowski. The guy's gutsy and likable and if you take away his three or four blowup games every year, he's pretty effective. BUT ... you're just tempting fate with this guy as your closer, right? It's hard enough to win games without giving Joe Borowski a one-run lead in the ninth.
Rich: I believe the key to Cleveland's run prevention will be whether manager Eric Wedge can once again get 450 quality innings out of Sabathia and Carmona, both of whom were worked hard last season and faded in October. How about this offense?
Rob: The Indians are strong up the middle and weak on the corners (with the exception of first base, where Ryan Garko’s not far from stardom). This is unchanged from last year, as the Indians bring back essentially the same lineup they used from the middle of last August, with Asdrubal Cabrera taking over at second base. I do expect Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner to improve, which is probably the No. 1 reason to be optimistic about the Indians’ chances this season.
Sully: It's hard to envision a scenario in which the Tribe offensive attack fails to make considerable strides forward in 2008. Take away Josh Barfield's and Trot Nixon's plate appearances in 2007 and mix in some bounce-back from Hafner and all of a sudden the 100 OPS+ offense of last season looks well above average again.
Rich: While Sizemore and Victor Martinez may be the league's best offensive players at their respective positions, this is nothing more than a middle-of-the-road lineup unless Hafner (.266/.385/.451) can bounce back to his 2004-06 form (.308/.419/.611).
Joe: The whole key to the Indians, for me, is Hafner. If he's the Hafner of 2005 and 2006, when he might have been the best offensive player in the league, then I think the Tribe offense will score a bunch of runs and be competitive with Detroit. If he's the ever shrinking Hafner of 2007, then I think there's trouble. It would be hard to overstate how bad Hafner was last year. After a very Hafner-like first month, he hit .253/.364/.427 the last five months of the season. Awful. He can't play a position, his slugging percentage dropped more than 200 points, he can't run ... the hope here is that it was a mirage. The Indians need him to swat.
Sully: Joe, any thoughts on the Indians position players not named Hafner?
Joe: One of the fun arguments we had last year was who you would rather have right now, Sizemore or Granderson. Obviously that's a situation where you'd be happy to have second choice ... but when making the comparison:
Sizemore walks a lot more.
Granderson's slugging percentage was 90 points higher.
Sizemore will probably hit more home runs.
Granderson runs better.
Sizemore won the Gold Glove in 2007.
Granderson is a pretty darned good fielder too.
And so on. It's a good argument ... I've become convinced that Sizemore has the edge right now though because he hits lefties .(284/.384/.428) while Granderson does not (.160/.225/.269). There is no doubt in my mind that Granderson will make the adjustment – he's just too gifted and driven not to adjust. But for now, I think, it's Sizemore.
Sully I'm with you, Joe. Sizemore for me as well. Speaking of Granderson, I am of the belief that his excellent defensive play in center field masks some fundamental problems with Detroit's pitching. The staff's 1.85 team K/BB ratio was just 11th best in the American League in 2007. Fortunately for them they were excellent from a Defensive Efficiency standpoint.
Rob: Last season, six Tigers started at least a dozen games. Their ERAs (in descending order of innings pitched): 3.66, 4.76, 5.01, 4.72, 5.06, 5.63. Justin Verlander’s responsible for that 3.66, so he was Detroit’s only starter who might reasonably have been categorized as “good.” With that in mind it’s surprising that the Tigers managed to win 88 games.
Have they addressed this obvious problem? The Tigers bring back their top three starters: Verlander, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman. They hope Kenny Rogers, who posted a 4.43 ERA in 11 starts, will pitch more (if not necessarily better). And they’ve added Dontrelle Willis, who has allowed more hits than innings pitched in each of his last two seasons while pitching in a pitcher’s ballpark in a pitcher’s league. In the rotation, the Tigers’ best hopes are that Verlander takes yet another step forward and Bonderman’s ERA finally matches his other, generally impressive stats.
Joe: It is no fun being a fan of Bonderman. Every time you think he's about to turn the corner and become one of the elite pitchers in the AL ... he doesn't. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back – his last 18 starts last year he was 6-9 with a 6.06 ERA and he gave up 18 homers in 108 innings.
I guess everyone's watching Dontrelle closely. Its almost impossible to believe, but the guy is only 26 years old ‐ he won't turn 27 until 2009. I think there's reason to hope even after the tough year he had in 2007. For one thing, his batting average on balls-in-play was very high (.326) and that should come down. Also, even last year he was about as unhittable as you could be against left-handed batters, and in a division with Sizemore, Hafner, Thome, Morneau, Mauer and most of the Royals, that could come in handy. Maybe it's because I like the guy so much, but I'm thinking a big rebound year for him.
Rich: The Tigers are thin everywhere, including the bullpen and depth in the starting rotation. An injury here and there could derail Detroit's chances of gaining a postseason berth. While Verlander is poised to win a Cy Young Award one of these years, the other four starters bring as many questions as answers to the rotation. Age, health, and inconsistencies surround Bonderman, Robertson, Rogers, and Willis with little or no help waiting in the wings. A bullpen headed by Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney and bereft of Joel Zumaya's services for most of the first half is a weakness that can't be ignored.
Rob: The bullpen wasn’t particularly good last season and could be a true disaster this season, especially if Jones shows his age and Rodney’s not healthy. The Tigers do have some young arms who might fill the breach, but you know what usually happens to teams that rely on young arms.
Joe: I agree with Rich and Rob. That bullpen is big-time shaky, I think, and I think Detroit fans will want to be up 8-3 going into the seventh a lot. But with that lineup, it should happen a lot.
Sully: Let's talk about Detroit's offense. I touched on it above but I will say it again. There is no doubt they can hit but I have been hearing some awfully high praise. I have some doubts as to whether they will be the game's best offense this season, much less one of historical significance.
Joe: Well, it's the best lineup in the game, and depending on how things work out it could be a 1,000-run offense this year. There have been seven teams since 1900 to score 1,000 runs in a season – only one in the last 50 years. Rob, you want to take a shot at this? Yep, the 1999 Cleveland Indians scored 1009 runs. A quick comparison:
Catcher: Einar Diaz vs. Ivan Rodriguez.
Thought: Diaz and Sandy Alomar probably provide more run production than Pudge v2.0 at this stage of his career – hard to believe that Rodriguez has not had a 100 OPS+ in three seasons.
First base: Jim Thome vs. Carlos Guillen
Thought: Edge to Thome, who had a .426 on-base percentage and a 141 OPS+. But Guillen is not chopped liver. I have not idea what that expression means, by the way.
Second base: Roberto Alomar vs. Placido Polanco
Thought: Alomar could have been MVP in 1999 – .323/.422/.533 with 24 homers, 138 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. Again, though, Polanco ain't bad, coming off a .341/.388/.451 year.
Shortstop: Omar Vizquel vs. Edgar Renteria
Thought: Vizquel had a career year offensively – he hit .333 with a .397 OBP and 112 runs scored. Renteria, though, is coming off an even better year.
Third base: Travis Fryman and Co. vs. Miggy Cabrera
Thought: A blowout. Cabrera has had a 150 OPS+ or better each of the last three seasons.
Left field: David Justice vs. Jacque Jones/Marcus Thames
Thought: Justice had a nice 21 homer, 123 OPS+ year – I suspect Jones and Thames together won't quite match that (certainly not Justice's .413 OBP) but they'll be plenty good.
Center field: Kenny Lofton vs. Curtis Granderson
Thought: Lofton had a .405 OBP (one of FIVE Indians regulars with an OBP better than .400) and scored 110 runs. Granderson, though, is coming off of one of the more sensational number stews in memory – 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homers, 26 steals, whew.
Right field: MannyBeingManny vs. Magglio Ordonez
Thought: MBM drove in 165 runs in 147 games (173 OPS+), so it will be tough to beat that. Can't downplay Magglio's 167 OPS+ season a year ago.
DH: Richie Sexson/Wil Cordero vs. Gary Sheffield
Thought: Sexson/Cordero combined for 39 homers and 148 RBIs in about 190 games combined. And Sheffield is 39 years old. But Sheffield's career OPS+ is 143 ... he's an incredible hitter when healthy.
So, all in all, I could see this Tigers team scoring more than those Indians, or at least coming awfully close.
Rich: I have no doubt that Detroit will score more runs than this year's Indians, but I'm not sure about those Indians. At a minimum, I think we can all agree that the Tigers have the best offense in the division. However, I see it a little bit differently than Joe. By my way of thinking, there are a number of question marks here. Can Granderson hit southpaws? Can a 39-year-old Sheffield bounce back from minor shoulder surgery in October and leg cramps this spring? Will Magglio, Polanco, and Renteria hit .363, .341, and .332, respectively, again? Can Pudge ever draw a base on balls (46 BB in his last three seasons, covering 1620 PA)? Oh well, maybe the difference between Cabrera and Brandon Inge is enough to make up for any and all of these potential shortfalls.
Rob: As late as August 1 last season, the Tigers actually led the American League in scoring, which was quite a shock. Granted, Comerica Park is now a decent park for hitters. Also granted, the Yankees passed the Tigers and wound up leading the league (as usual). Still, Detroit’s offense was truly impressive.
But, as Rich asked, can they do it again? I don’t see how. The Tigers were carried by five hitters: Magglio Ordonez (167 OPS+), Curtis Granderson (136), Carlos Guillen (123), Placido Polanco (122), and Gary Sheffield (120). They’re all good players, but I suspect four or even five of them will fall off this season. They’ll be a lot better at third base, with Miguel Cabrera instead of Brandon Inge. They should be better in left field, simply because Craig Monroe’s gone. But while the Tigers figure to have a good attack, they won’t be great again. And I should mention somewhere that much of what they’ll gain with Cabrera’s bat they’ll lose with his glove.
Rich: Other than the Indians, are there any teams capable of stopping this potent offense?
Rob: Well, let’s see … the Twins gave up the best pitcher in the known universe and replaced him with … Livan Hernandez? Well, not exactly. Ideally, Johan Santana’s replacement, at least statistically, will be Francisco Liriano; for a 10-week stretch in 2006, Liriano was actually the best pitcher in the universe, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. Liriano has spent the last 16 months rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, and if he’s league-average this season the Twins should be thrilled. In addition to Liriano, there’s plenty of other young talent on hand, but of course young talent in the rotation and three bucks will get you a fancy coffee at Starbucks.
Rich: Like Rob said, Santana is gone but Liriano is back. Hmmm. Well, we know Minnesota's pitching won't be as strong as it was in 2006 when Santana and Liriano were both in the rotation, but it may not drop off year-over-year as much as some people expect.
Joe: How good will Liriano be coming off the injury? It's easy to forget that for 16 starts in 2006, he went 11-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 98 innings. It's also easy to forget that he has not pitched a Major League game in 18 months, so who knows? With Santana, Silva and Matt Garza gone, Liriano isn't just the key to this team's pitching. He's pretty much the whole show.
Sully: There is a frightening lack of depth in this starting rotation. Given the uncertainty surrounding Liriano's injury, Livan Hernandez's general ineffectiveness and the reality that just one, maybe two of Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey or Scott Baker emerge this season, I just don't see how the Twins are going to be able to consistently hold opposing offenses down.
Rich: Adam Everett, who handles the leather as well as any middle infielder, should prevent numerous runs at shortstop but only to the extent that the pitchers do a better job at inducing groundballs than last year when the staff was second-to-last in home runs allowed. The bullpen should be first rate, provided that Joe Nathan, who has yet to sign a contract extension, isn't traded.
Joe: How about that Nathan? His ERAs the last four years have been 1.88, 1.58, 2.60 and 1.62. I bring this up because his career ERA, even after that, is 3.00 – mainly because of one bad season as a reliever in 2000. I think what this tells you is this: Nathan is a fabulous pitcher. But man, he hardly throws ANY innings. Do you know how many saves he had last year where he pitched more than one inning? Three. All three he threw 1 1/3 innings. Hey this is the game now, and that's OK, but man how can you compare his value to, say, Dan Quisenberry, who routinely threw twice as many innings?
Rich: Removing Nick Punto from Minnesota's lineup will do more for this offense than adding Delmon Young – and that's not meant to be a dig on the 22-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick. After signing multi-year contracts, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau will be richer if not better this year. The club was second from the bottom in home runs in 2007 and will probably wind up at or near the basement again in 2008.
Rob: The Twins were 12th in the league in scoring last year. That stinks. Statistically, their biggest problem was an utter lack of power: 13th in doubles, 13th in home runs. Morneau hit 31 homers; every other infielder on the club combined for 11 homers. Torii Hunter hit 28 homers, and now he’s an Angel. Could things get better this year? Sure. Joe Mauer might play 140 games rather than 109. Morneau might bat .301 rather than .271. Fellow infielders Mike Lamb and Everet and Brendan Harris might … actually, they might be out of jobs by the end of the season. Bad example. The Twins’ only real hope of significant improvement is that Young and Carlos Gomez develop quicker than we think. Realistically, though, the Twins don’t figure to be even AL-average, hitting-wise, until 2009 or ’10.
Joe: I'm curious to see what Young will do in Minnesota. I thought that trade really didn't get as much hype as it might have – who trades 22-year-old, No. 1 overall picks who are already up in the big leagues? I'm not saying it was a bad trade for Tampa – hell, it might have been a great trade – but I'm saying this is more or less unheard of. The Rays REALLY must have soured on him. Isn't it possible that this guy will be a monster superstar, and everyone will wake up one day and go, "Did Tampa REALLY trade that guy?"
Sully: I just want to echo Rich's point about the impact alone of getting Punto the hell out of that lineup. There can be no overstating the devastating impact of handing 536 plate appearances over to someone who delivers at a .210/.291/.271 clip.
Joe: I'm like the world's biggest Mauer fan. I really thought he deserved to be MVP in 2006. But I just don't hear much good about him around baseball. Maybe it's because he doesn't hit with much power. Maybe it's because he's had injuries. I don't know. But I talk to a lot of scouts, a lot of people in the game, and Mauer just isn't high on their list. Everybody thinks he's good, but when scouts start raving about people in this division, it's always Sizemore and Verlander and even guys like Alex Gordon. I don't get it. He must send out a bad vibe or something.
Rich: Go figure, the White Sox were 16-26 in one-run games last season, yet won five more contests than expected based on the club's run differential. Although I'm not a fan of Jon Garland, his likely replacement in the rotation, Gavin Floyd, gave up 17 home runs in 70 innings last season. While Kenny Williams may think he has improved his bullpen with a couple of acquisitions, Octavio Dotel's health is always a question mark and Scott End of the Linebrink appears as if he has very little life left in his right arm.
Joe: I don't like that White Sox team at all – I mean AT ALL – but you have to give them a puncher's chance to be OK with Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras as their top three starters, no? Well, Contreras might be toast. The White Sox were 35-28 last year when Buehrle and Vazquez started games – 37-68 when they did not. Yikes.
Vazquez is one of those pitchers – Carmona is like this, Verlander, Felix Hernandez sometimes – where, when he's on, I have no idea how ANYBODY hits him. He pitched a game in Kansas City, I guess it was in 2006, where in the first inning I said, "Oh man, he's throwing a no-hitter today." And he took a no-hitter into like the seventh inning, when Doug Mientkiewicz beat out a goofy little infield ground ball off the end of his bat. That guy on that day was about as dominant looking as a pitcher can be. One year, he's bound to put together a Cy Young type of season.
Sully: This is nothing more than a top-heavy, middle of the road pitching staff that once again figures to feature two good starting pitchers and three crummy ones. Chicago's off-season baffled me a bit in that they clearly have no identity. Garland for Orlando Cabrera is mere wheel-spinning , while trading youngsters for proven talent seems like a tough way to address the long-term health of a franchise coming off of a 72-win campaign.
Rob: The White Sox improved their defense and their offense when they traded Garland for Cabrera, and hurt their pitching at the same time. On balance? A wash, roughly speaking. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, but a rotation that includes Contreras, Jon Danks and Floyd looks to me like three-fifths of a disaster.
Joe: How old do we think Contreras really is? I guess they're listing him at 36, but I have this suspicion that he grew up with the Castros.
Rich: By the way, as much as I like Jon Dewan's plus/minus defensive work, I'm not buying his fielding assessment of Nick Swisher in center field.
Joe: I like Swisher – maybe not in centerfield as Rich says, but I like the bat. I like Carlos Quentin a little – I thought that was a really good gamble for them. I think Jermaine Dye has something left, I think when Jim Thome's healthy he will hit, I think Paul Konerko is probably good for his usual 35 homers, 100 RBIs. And yet I don't like this offense at all. I guess it's because they just don't get on base.
Rich: Here's a weird one for you... while the White Sox were second in the league in home runs, the team ranked dead last in runs.
Rob: Sure, part of that’s their ballpark – they hit 110 homers at home, only 80 on the road – but the real problem was their .246 batting average that led to a .318 on-base percentage (both figures were AL-worsts). Getting Cabrera into the lineup (and Juan Uribe out) will help some, as will Swisher’s presence. I like Quentin, too. But considering the ages of Thome and Dye, any improvement this season should be modest.
Rich: It looks as if Ozzie won't be playing small ball again this year with the likes of Dye (28 HR, 107 SO), Josh Fields (23 HR in 100 games along with a 30% SO rate), Konerko (31 HR, 102 SO), Swisher (22 HR, 131 SO), and Thome (35 HR, 134 SO) in the lineup. Heck, even Uribe (20, 112), who just may win the second base job this spring, fits right in there.
Sully: I want to make sure Joe and Rob get most of the floor for their Royals but I will transition over to them by simply saying that, coming off of a season in which they notched an ERA+ over 100 for the first time since 1996, this has to be Kansas City's most promising pitching staff in a long time.
Joe: Finally, we're to the team. I think, for me, I think it's exciting that the Royals have three starters who could potentially have double-digit victories – Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke. Do you know when the last time the Royals had three starters with double digit wins? It was not 2004 or 2005 when combined they had, let me see here, carry the one, um oh yeah, zero. It was 1996, when my old UNC Charlotte classmate Chris Haney had 10 wins to complete the trilogy (along with Kevin Appier and Tim Belcher).
Rob: Last year the Royals’ 4.48 team ERA was seventh best in the league. This might not seem like a big thing until you find that the Royals had finished 14th (last) in the league in ERA in each of the previous three seasons, and that they hadn’t finished in the top 10 in the league since 1997 (when they finished eighth, thanks to Appier), and that their seventh-place finish last year was their best since 1996.
What does it mean? Ask me in six months. In ’96 the Royals’ 4.55 ERA was third in the league, in ’97 their 4.71 ERA was eighth, and in ’98 their 5.16 ERA was 13th. The Royals’ top three starters could be quite good, and their bottom two (or three or four, as it’s not likely that they’ll need only five starters) could be quite bad. It’s a matter of degree, and there’s really not much separating fifth in the league from 12th.
Rich: As Joe and Rob have pointed out, Kansas City's team ERA last season wasn't too bad and, as Sully mentioned, the ERA+ (104) was better than average. However, it looks as if they did it with smoke and mirrors as the peripherals were iffy at best. For the most part, the pitchers are young and should be no worse this year than last. Nobody is laughing about Meche's contract anymore, Bannister is studious if not the real deal, and Greinke is only 24 and occasionally flashing the stardom scouts projected when he was the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft.
Joe: The Royals are really hopeful that Meche will take the steps he made last year and step forward again, become an upper-echelon American League pitcher. He has the stuff to do it. He seems to have his head on straight now. Who knows?
The guy I'm rooting for harder than anyone else in baseball is Brian Bannister ... people in the SABR community have gotten to know him this offseason and the one pitcher in baseball who not only knows his BABIP but really wants to figure out how to keep his BABIP low. This is obscure, but I tend to think of him as the Tom Cruise character in "Minority Report" who was able to change his future only because he knew of it in advance. Anyway, Bannister is an all-time great guy, as smart as they come, as determined as they come – we will find out if he can be a good Major League pitcher without a big fastball.
Rich: Well, Joe, Bannister is about "as smart as they come" because he went to ... ahem, USC.
Sully: OJ Simpson too, Rich!
Joe: Zack Greinke? I'm tired of guessing. He has all the pitches – he can be a dominant starter. And he's been getting lit up all spring. The Royals are excited about Luke Hochevar, which is good to hear because I thought that he was a mistake No. 1 overall pick.
Rich: He was. Evan Longoria was in that draft. Oh, you want a pitcher? How about Tim Lincecum? Hochevar is good but should have never been a No. 1 overall pick, so help me
Matt Sosnick Scott Boras.
Joe: Joakim Soria is the closer – and he's fun to watch. I was messaging with Rob about this: I cannot remember a young pitcher who started out his career as a closer and then became a good major league starter. I bring this up because the Royals keep talking about making him a starter down the road ... I don't think so. Seems to me the decision is made.
Rich: Jonathan Papelbon? Oh, that's right. That only last a couple of starts in spring training last year. Hmmm... I can think of some pretty good pitchers who started as relievers (Orel Hershiser, Fergie Jenkins, Pedro Martinez, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and David Wells to name an Antonio Alfonseca handful), but I guess it would be unfair to call them "closers." I don't know, Joe, you might be on to something here. The closest one that I can think of would be Charlie Hough. As a knuckleballer, maybe he doesn't qualify. Or maybe you don't think he was a "good major league pitcher?"
Joe: Well, Charlie Hough doesn't qualify in my mind because he wasn't especially young when he came up as a closer (he was 28 in his first full season) and while he did become a good starter at 34, I'm suspecting that's probably not the career arc the Royals are hoping for with Soria. Knuckleballers are indeed a whole other thing. And yes, the Cardinals are trying to do it with Braden Looper, but you couldn't call that a success story yet. ... The closest I've been able to find is actually Scott Garrelts, who wasn't exactly the closer with the Giants -- he was sort of a co-closer with Craig Lefferts -- and then he had one really good year as a starter, another so-so year, and then he got hurt and was done. Again, not exactly the model I think anyone is hoping for.
Sully: Offensively, this looks to be another tough year for KC. Gordon and Butler will be fun to monitor and David DeJesus is a decent all-around player but after that there is not a whole lot that excites about this KC offense.
Rich: While the offense should be better in 2008 than 2007, it's still nothing to write home about. The Royals were last in the majors in home runs and second-to-last in walks. Hey Joe, where's Carlos Beltran when you need him?
Joe: It breaks my heart every time I see Beltran in a Mets uniform. Just breaks my heart.
Rob: As usual, the Royals didn’t score any runs last season, mostly because (as usual) they didn’t hit any home runs (14th in AL) or draw any walks (13th). They’ll do better this season, thanks to a bit of experience for Gordon and a full season for Butler. Elsewhere, though, there’s little upside. They probably won’t finish last in scoring again – that honor will fall to the Orioles or the Twins – but it’s going to be another long year for the poorly supported starting pitchers.
Joe: I sure like Billy Butler. In the late 1990s, even though the Royals were terrible, they were developing good young hitters. Johnny Damon could hit, Mike Sweeney could hit, Carlos Beltran could hit, even Michael Tucker and Mark Quinn showed some flashes. Then, it got BAD. The Royals started taking pitchers in the first round every year, and until last year the Royals had a LONG drought of every day players. I think DeJesus was the only player in the 2005 or 2006 every day lineup developed by the Royals. Last year, though, Gordon and Butler were called up, and I think they are huge keys to this team's future. Everybody likes Gordon – I include myself in that – but the guy I really like is Butler, who I think can put huge, Miggy Cabrera type numbers in the next two or three years. We'll see.
Rich: Butler reminds me of Greg Luzinski. Big body, thick legs, slow as molasses, can't field, but, boy, they can both hit for average and power. Well, I'm not sure if the Bull can still do those things at the age of 57 although he was one heckuva hitter back in the 1970s. I wonder if Butler's career will have a similar shape – oops, poor choice of words – to it?
Rob: It's funny, the Luzinski comparison keeps popping up (or out, to continue your theme). It must be true; BP's top four comps for Butler are Marc Newfield, Luzinski, Gary Carter, and Paul Konerko. But from the very first time I saw Butler, I thought of Edgar Martinez. Statistically that comparison doesn't work, at least not yet, but I think Butler will wind up hitting 25 homers and 40 doubles in his good seasons, and as perhaps the first great hitter to serve as a DH from (practically speaking) the beginning, he may finish his career No. 2 among DH's in a bunch of categories, behind only Harold Baines.
Joe: Obviously, the Royals don't have much power – a weakness that will be made even more apparent by their large ballpark. It will be interesting to see how new manager Trey Hillman plays things. He says a lot of the right things – he preaches OBP, says that he has no intention to give up too many outs – but he also has been very plain in saying that if you can't score runs conventionally, then you have to 'do some things to help the offense along." I think he likes the bunt, the hit and run, the running game, and I expect him to play that game often. How often? How early? We shall see.
Sully: What do you think will be the major surprise in the AL Central in 2008? I will put myself out there and call a third-place finish for Kansas City. This call is probably more of an indictment of Minnesota and Chicago than it is a reflection on any great feelings I have about KC but nonetheless there it is, KC in third.
Joe: Well, obviously when the Royals win the division, that will be the big surprise. But beyond that, I think the Twins have a chance to surprise a little if Liriano's healthy. The Twins have been winning games against logic for quite a while now – every year they won the division this decade they outperformed their Pythag by five games at least, once by eight games. I like Gardy, I like Mauer-Morneau, I don't know. I'm picking them last with the expectation that they could surprise.
Rob: The Tigers, a popular choice this spring as the best team in the American League, won’t qualify for the playoffs.
Rich: I believe the surprise will be that the White Sox, a 10/1 bet at The Mirage to win the World Series, will finish at least 10 games out of second place. Who do you guys see as the main MVP, CYA and ROY candidates in the AL Central?
Sully: Give me Miggy for MVP, Sabathia again for the Cy, and I don't think I see a ROY candidate coming out of the Central.
Rob: MVP: Grady Sizemore and Miguel Cabrera.
Cy Young: Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia.
Rookie of the Year: It’s not a good year for rookies in the Central. There literally aren’t any hitters to get excited about, and while Detroit’s Rick Porcello and Cleveland’s Adam Miller both are supposedly future No. 1 starters, neither is on track for much action in the majors this year.
Joe: Detroit has three or four MVP candidates, I think – Granderson, Miggy, Magglio for sure. Cleveland has Grady. That's probably it, unless you're with me on the Billy Butler bandwagon.
Cy Young, I'm with the usual suspects: C.C., Verlander. I think Carmona has another good year, though a lot of people seem to think he will step back. You never know when Vazquez will blow up and have a great year. A healthy Liriano had Pedro-like numbers. And you can't ever count out my guy Banny.
Rich: Turning to how it will all shake out, I feel safe in saying that Cleveland and Detroit will finish 1-2 or 2-1 (okay, okay, 1-2) and that Chicago, while overrated, will finish third, Minnesota fourth, and Kansas City fifth.
Joe: I think it's Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City (I have to people), Chicago, Minnesota. I only feel any confidence at all about Detroit and Cleveland duking it out.
Rob: Indians, Tigers, Royals, Twins, White Sox. But there’s not much separating the top two from one another, or the bottom three from one another.
Sully: Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota, Chicago. Thanks a lot, guys. That was a lot of fun.