75 Days - Centering Our Focus
You can be sure that as Opening Day draws closer, Baseball Analysts will be covering each division soup to nuts. But as I write this we stand 75 days from the first pitch of the 2009 season, an occasion I notice that Buster Olney took to point out that the Cleveland Indians are poised for a bounce back (ok he wrote it 76 days ahead of Opening Day but I caught it on the 20th).
On the Tribe's off-season, in a piece called "Tribe Poised for a Turnaround" Olney writes:
And this winter, they seemingly have spent well, targeting their needs, making a couple of trades that have been deemed by rivals as nice deals. "As much as I don't believe in feeling good about winter accomplishments," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, "I do feel good about it."
Hey, Shapiro probably should feel good about it. He has an 85-win Pythag team coming back, and he has replaced Andy Marte with Mark DeRosa and added Kerry Wood. Those two moves should help. But also factoring into that 85-win calculus were quality contributions from partial seasons by C.C. Sabathia, Paul Byrd and Casey Blake. You can erase those from the 2009 edition of the Tribe.
Moreover, Cliff Lee will in all likelihood fall well short of his Cy Young campaign of 2008. Given the additions and subtractions that are able to reasonably be foreseen, Cleveland's season comes down to two injured players in 2008 returning to form. Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez have both enjoyed superstar seasons during their careers. Unfortunately, they are both on the wrong side of 30 and counting on these two amounts to a wild card, not any sort of output that can be counted upon. And even if you think Martinez will return to form, the guy he would replace at catcher from the 2008 club, Kelly Shoppach, was excellent last season. Sure, you can move Martinez to first to spell Ryan Garko sometimes when you want to give Shoppach innings, but suddenly Martinez's superstar output becomes ordinary. A lot of first basemen can hit.
All of this makes me wonder if the Minnesota Twins aren't the clear AL Central favorites heading into 2009. The Twins fell short of the White Sox last season but they won 88 games and the Pale Hose (sorry Mr. President) seem to have taken drastic steps backwards. There will be almost no turnover on the Minnesota roster. In fact, the most notable year-over-year change is one that took place in the middle of last season. The Twins will not have to suffer through 23 starts from Livan Hernandez (5.48 ERA) in 2009.
We all know that Minnesota features three superstar level players. Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball, and probably one of the five best players in the game. Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan are among the best at their respective positions as well. The next tier of Twins contributor features a group of players with a number of things in common. They have Big League experience, they're young and they're talented. Here are the pitchers, with their 2008 ERA+ figures listed.
Age ERA+ S. Baker 27 118 N. Blackburn 27 100 F. Liriano 25 104 K. Slowey 25 102 G. Perkins 26 92 B. Bonser 28 68
And the position players...
Age OPS+ D. Span 25 125 C. Gomez 23 79 D. Young 23 102 A. Casilla 24 94 J. Kubel 27 118
In fairness to Olney, he does not mention the Twins in his piece. For all we know, he too thinks the Twins are the team to beat. But from the tone of his article, it seems as though he believes this is a division there for the taking for Cleveland. I see it differently.
Cleveland's bull case amounts to "Hafner and Martinez are coming back" once you net out the additions and subtractions to their Big League roster. Meanwhile, Minnesota's young depth allows for more fluctuation, more margin of error, from the individual components. Minnesota is young and looking to protect a four-game Pythag record advantage from 2008 to 2009. Their core figures to improve on a net basis, a claim I am not so sure the Indians can make.
The Twins will be tough to beat in the AL Central in 2009.