Change-UpJanuary 21, 2009
75 Days - Centering Our Focus
By Patrick Sullivan

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.


Nice article, I actually argued that the Twins will regress in 09 with a friend who is a huge Twin fan, and he agreed with my premise.

Twins 2007: Team ERA- 4.15 & 718 Runs Scored (12th AL)

Twins 2008: Team ERA- 4.16 & 829 Runs Scored (3rd in AL).

The reason the twins rebounded so well in 08 was (IMO) the amt of runs they scored increased dramatically. That in itself wouldn't be discouraging, but the way they did it was. Their 08 team batting average was .279, 3rd in AL. But they hit .305 with RISP, first by over .020 pts, which is not something I'd expect them to repeat.

I like alot of their young players, I just don't think they'll develop enough in 09 to rise above .500

The Twins were tough to beat in '08, so I think you're right that they'll be tough again in '09. Really their only weakness is in the bullpen, as far as getting to Nathan. They are young and built for that carpet.
The White Sox are a SP away from being the favorite to repeat, I just dont think they'll go get one. I do believe they can give the Twins a run for their money though. They lost a lot of players, but what are we talking about here? They lost Vazquez's 200 IP of mediocrity, they lost Crede's 20 errors in 100 games. Nick Swisher will have to watch 135 called strike threes breeze by somewhere else. They lost Uribe's .247 average(I will miss his cannon arm though). Floyd may not win 17 again, but is 14 or 15 that big of a stretch? No, of course not. The Sox bullpen is $20 million dollars worth of solid relief pitching. They should still get 200 HR out of that line up pretty easily. They did pace all of MLB with 235 HR last year, and a healthy Konerko should make up for the age related decline of Thome or Dye. Fields should be able to match Swishers production, hopefully with an average above the .100s.
As it stands I see Minnesota as a slight favorite, but the Sox are better than the ancient greek is telling us they are.
Go Sox.

As an Indians fan, I have to disagree with Sully a bit. The offense will score runs regardless of how Hafner and Martinez play (though obviously, the better they play, the more runs will be scored). The big concern is the starting rotation. A rotation of Lee, Carmona, Pavano, Laffey, Lewis, Reyes, and Westbrook (when he returns) could be very good. Or it could be very, very bad.

I have to disagree with the part of losing Sabathia, Byrd and Blake because of the fact that we won more games without them then we did with them.

"I have to disagree with the part of losing Sabathia, Byrd and Blake because of the fact that we won more games without them then we did with them."


Full disclosure, I'm a Twins fan.

I'm not picking favorites, remember last year when the Tigers were the team to beat? I do think the young Twins team is likely to take a step forward this year. Offensively I think you should expect more out of Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez, and Michael Cuddyer, and the Busher/Harris platoon at third won't suffer from Mike Lamb's .598 OPS in 261 PA. Interesting side note, Harris posted a .899 OPS when playing third in '08 (113 PA). Kubel and Casilla could improve. Mauer and Morneau aren't likely to regress anytime soon. Any offense Punto provides is pure bonus. And if Denard Span can reproduce his .387 OBP they need to sign him to an 8 year deal now while he's still cheap. Overall, I don't look for any regression in offense despite a more realistic BA with RISP.

As far as pitching goes, if you discount Liriano's 3 April starts when he clearly wasn't ready, his 2.74 ERA was exactly half of Livan Hernandez' 5.48 and that's with a 90mph fastball. I think Baker has finally established himself, Slowey has the talent to improve, Blackburn really impressed me in the one game play-off with the White Sox (1 ER in 6.1 innings) And while Perkins was the only starter to post a sub-100 ERA+ I might note that STARTERS in the AL posted a league average ERA of 4.50 making the worst starter on the team in possession of a 102 STARTERS ERA+.

In the bullpen, Nathan is the best closer in baseball. Guerrier was overused and imploded, Gardy won't let that happen again. Jessie Crain has a full year under his belt since his shoulder surgery. Breslow and Mijares compensate for the loss of Reyes. I still wouldn't turn down a solid 8th inning guy, but the bullpen should be pretty strong.

All in all I would look at the Twins as slight favorites, but Cleveland is certainly in a position to compete, if Detroit could get some semblance of a pitching staff they have the offense to do it, I wouldn't be totally shocked if KC turned out to be '09's Rays and well Chicago wasn't supposed to be a factor last year either...