AL Central SWOT
2008 was supposed to be a two-team battle between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. Cleveland had been to the 2007 ALCS and Detroit, already a strong club, added Miguel Cabrera, one of the most productive young hitters in baseball history. It was a two-team race all right, but it ended up being the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins dueling it out. Let's see how everyone is looking at this point.
Chicago White Sox
Strengths: The Sox have a trio of both starters and relievers who anchored their excellent pitching staff in 2008 and will be counted upon to do so once again in 2009. Here is how these six pitchers performed last year.
IP H BB SO ERA+
Buehrle 218.7 240 52 140 121
Danks 195.0 182 57 159 138
Floyd 206.3 190 70 145 119
Jenks 61.7 51 17 38 174
Thornton 67.3 48 19 77 171
Dotel 67.0 52 29 92 122
A 7.18 K/9 would be acceptable as a team figure but when it is the top six pitchers on a staff that post that number, it gives me a little pause. Still, these six are a clear strength for Chicago.
Weaknesses: It's hard to see how this offense will muster a passable attack in 2009 barring a free agent pick-up or two. Paul Konerko and Jim Thome are not getting any younger and Jermaine Dye, the one other good hitter on the team not named Carlos Quentin, has been the subject of trade rumors (Dye himself is 35). Outside of these four names, it is hard to see where the productivity will come from.
Opportunities: With the core of his team aging, Kenny Williams would be wise to consider trading some of these pieces to get younger. Having already dealt Nick Swisher and Javier Vazquez, there are indications he is thinking this way.
Threats: Age and drop-off from the pitching staff could hamper Chicago's chances this season. It's a fascinating roster, one that might be able to compete for the division if all goes well this year. It is also a roster with a very small window. Either they win with this team this season, lose with this team this season (and thus their assets lose value) or they take what they have now and get younger. It will be fun to watch.
Strengths: For the first time since 1997, Minnesota had a better OPS+ than ERA+. Joe Mauer's .399 OBP ranks third in the history of baseball among catchers with 2,000 career plate appearances. He's 26 and seems to be coming into his own after a hiccup 2007 campaign.
Weaknesses: Minnesota's biggest weakness is uncertainty in the starting rotation. The range of potential performance outcomes with this staff is probably wider than any other in baseball. They are all young and well regarded, but some combo of inconsistency and injuries have slowed them all down so far in each of their careers.
Opportunities: Man, if Francisco Liriano could ever return to his 2006 form (207 ERA+ at the age of 22!), Minnesota starts to look more like a front-runner than a team that could win the AL Central if things go right.
Threats: The Twins gave Nick Punto a 2-year, $8.5 million contract. This indicates to me that he will be playing everyday for them over the next two years. Punto had a nice season in 2008, but he is also one year removed from a 52 OPS+ year in 2007.
Strengths: You want to see the list of center fielders with a career OPS+ at 125 or better through their age-25 season (min 2,500 plate appearances)?
Cesar Cedeno aside, that's some baseball royalty right there. So yeah, Grady Sizemore is a strength for the Indians.
Weaknesses: Outside of Cliff Lee, a most deserving Cy Young candidate, Cleveland's starting pitching was terrible last season. Trading C.C. Sabathia did not help, of course.
Opportunities: If Ryan Garko, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner can perform anything like they did at their peaks, then man, this team will be right back in the thick of things. On the pitching side, Scott Lewis will be a compelling addition to the rotation.
Threats: Garko, Martinez and Hafner may not bounce back. Martinez and Hafner are battling injuries and Garko's sub-.400 slugging percentage is a real red flag.
Kansas City Royals
Strengths: The lineup was bad in 2008, with a couple of holes and inadequate production from some of their stars. They have addressed the holes; not necessarily with stars but they will no longer have a 79 OPS+ guy at first base or a 59 OPS+ guy in center field. Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp are not superstars but they are both perfectly adequate performers on an aspirant club.
Also, check out the year Joakim Soria had last season.
Weaknesses: Oh, let's just pick a few. Jose Guillen, his bloated salary, his .300 OBP and his bad attitude would all be good places to start. Brian Bannister unfortunately coming back down to earth would be another. That the organization lacked the good sense to steer clear of handing Brett Tomko the baseball was a weakness.
Opportunities: Gil Meche, Zack Greinke and Luke Hochevar have the ability to anchor a capable staff. If the three can perform consistently in 2009, the Royals may have a chance at pushing for .500.
Threats: Kyle Davies and Bannister probably don't belong in a Major League rotation. Shortstop Mike Aviles had a terrific season in 2008 but will be hard-pressed to bat .325 again.
Strengths: Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen combine to constitute a dependable outfield. Ordonez is a prolific slugger, Guillen consistent and Granderson has emerged as one of the game's best all around players.
Weaknesses: Somehow this pitching staff just won't come together. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman were both great disappointments in 2008 and finally, Kenny Rogers just sucked. Nate Robertson's 6.38 ERA (70 ERA+) didn't help.
Opportunities: Verlander and Bonderman still have terrific stuff and could just as easily turn in terrific seasons in 2009 as they did disappointing ones last year. I think getting Zach Miner a season's worth of starts and Edwin Jackson should provide an upgrade over Rogers and some of the other starters they tried to cobble together last year.
Threats: While the lineup looks solid and it's not difficult to come up with a scenario in which Detroit's starters are once again good, the bullpen looks terrible. Losing Todd Jones may amount to addition by subtraction but the two anchors of their relief staff, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya, have battled too many injuries to be considered dependable. Still, the off-season is young and the Tigers may yet address this issue.