AL Central Preview (Featuring Joe Posnanski)
Joe Posnanski is the best and most prolific sports writer in the country. Quality and quantity. Rate stats and counting stats. He's No. 1 in both. A long-time, award-winning columnist for the Kansas City Star, Poz has branched out and now also writes for Sports Illustrated (including last week's cover story on Albert Pujols) and operates one of the must-read baseball blogs. He has a book, The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series-The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, that is scheduled to be released on August 18th. We are honored that Joe took the time out of his busy schedule to participate in our AL Central preview.
Jeremy Greenhouse, kicking ass and taking names here at Baseball Analysts since he started a few weeks back, joins Poz and me from Davis Square.
For hitters we take five available projection systems at Fangraphs. I know I have mentioned this before but Fangraphs is seriously awesome. Without it, you might think Carlos Gomez was a lousy player. Anyway, we average all five of these projection systems to give you a sense for how the number crunchers see the players performing this season.
For pitchers, pretty much the same thing. We go with the four projection systems readily available on the Fangraphs player pages. We go with depth charts from ESPN.com. Some of the players penciled in below will not be starting, and some might not even break camp. But we figured this was a pretty good way to keep things consistent.
OK, here goes....
AVG OBP SLG Pierzynski, A. .272 .311 .410 Mauer, J. .315 .401 .451 Shoppach, K. .250 .324 .462 Olivo, M. .247 .277 .418 Laird, G. .257 .312 .394
Poz: In my opinion, Joe Mauer was the MVP in 2006 and again in 2008, though he really didn't get much support either time. I suspect this is the year Victor Martinez makes the transition to first base; I do like Kelly Shoppach quite a lot. I didn't get why the Royals spent money on Miguel Olivo and John Buck, who are basically the same guy. I will say, though, that Olivo is faster than you would think: 7-for-7 in stolen bases last year.
Jeremy: Mauer really needs to get some MVP love. He logged the most innings behind the plate of his career last year and put up a .413 OBP. And color me skeptical on Shoppach. If he were to have become the player 2008 indicated he was, he probably would have before he was 28.
Sully: I've written about this before but someday writers will evaluate Mauer's Hall case and knock him because he didn't win an MVP (or maybe only won one).
AVG OBP SLG Konerko, P. .264 .353 .473 Morneau, J. .288 .357 .501 Martinez, V. .292 .365 .448 Jacobs, M. .263 .315 .489 Cabrera, M. .310 .380 .553
Poz: Justin Morneau seems to me the Jim Rice of our generation – good batting averages, lots of RBIs, big fear factor, an MVP candidate every year. I know Victor Martinez is not much of a catcher, but he just doesn't thrill me offensively as a first baseman. I've written at length about Mike Jacobs' weaknesses, but if he bangs 30 homers he would help the Royals. Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in the division, in my opinion.
Jeremy: Isn’t it weird that Miguel Cabrera led the AL in homers last year with 37? Jacobs doesn’t belong on the field against left-handed pitching, but using him in a platoon could make for a dangerous combination. The problem is that the right-handed hitting Ryan Shealy has shown a rather strong reverse platoon split in his career, and even if Billy Butler could handle playing the field, the Royals would be left without a DH. Still, anything ought to be better than Ross Gload.
Sully: Cabrera is a pretty crummy fielding first baseman but he makes Jacobs look like Keith Hernandez over there.
AVG OBP SLG Getz, C. .271 .334 .386 Casilla, A. .265 .326 .349 Cabrera, A. .270 .342 .395 Callaspo, A. .279 .336 .378 Polanco, P. .306 .352 .412
Poz: Been watching the Royals second-base “battle” closely, of course, and have been intrigued with the idea of Mark Teahen at second. Not as intrigued after watching him play the position. A scout tells me he thinks Placido Polanco wins the batting title this year.
Jeremy: Polanco’s ranked second in the league at making contact on pitches at which he swings each of the last two years, and has also been one of the couple hardest batters to strike out. If he continues to get a bit lucky in the BABIP department, he can definitely compete for a batting title. His .306 career average is top 15 among active players.
Sully: Asdrubal Cabrera is just 23 and already has demonstrated he can produce at the Big League level. Give me the over on his numbers.
AVG OBP SLG Fields, J. .249 .324 .441 Crede, J. .251 .304 .426 DeRosa, M. .274 .353 .422 Gordon, A. .264 .346 .446 Inge, B. .235 .311 .397
Poz: I do think this could be a breakthrough year for Alex Gordon, though I'm not sure what breakthrough year means for him. The Brett comparisons seemed absurd at the time; now they seem destructive. With Brandon Inge and Adam Everett, the Tigers should catch everything on the left side.
Jeremy: If Fields turns into nothing more than a Quad-A player, the Sox will surely regret letting Crede walk. Crede has an excellent glove, and has been solid every year other than 2007. I think we all expected Gordon to break out at some point, but to me it seems like he’s just following a smooth career progression and will hopefully hit his peak in a year or two. I don’t see him showing the same potential as Evan Longoria or Ryan Zimmerman.
Sully: Mark DeRosa has gotten better in each of his 30-33 seasons. I am not sure when it is going to end, but Cleveland's got themselves a nice player.
AVG OBP SLG Ramirez, A. .289 .322 .471 Punto, N. .251 .321 .333 Peralta, J. .270 .336 .446 Aviles, M. .289 .324 .440 Everett, A. .240 .282 .343
Poz: Alexei Ramirez has lots of obvious flaws, but in many ways he was my favorite player to watch in 2009. I have no idea how much different Everett makes the Tigers, but he's the best defensive shortstop in the game. I'm down on Jhonny Peralta, but I was telling someone that at spring and then watched him hit a 450-foot homer to center, so I could be wrong.
Jeremy: There’s no way Mike Aviles can top last year, right? Ramirez is essentially the polar opposite of Everett. Everett is only four years older, but he’s been in the league since 2001 and has established himself as a light hitter with bat control and as one of the best defensive players in the game. Ramirez stormed upon the scene as a rookie last year, endearing himself to White Sox fans as a free swinger, but not faring too well in the field. He faced the lowest percentage of fastballs of any hitter last year and still swung more often than anyone but Vlad. He’s not likely to handle the transition to short too well. Perhaps an obvious comparison, but I’d move him to the outfield a la Alfonso Soriano. I think Peralta might ultimately belong at third.
Sully: Will Inge and Everett combine for a .300 on-base? I say "no".
AVG OBP SLG Quentin, C. .268 .364 .494 Young, D. .294 .333 .429 Francisco, B. .269 .329 .430 Guillen, J. .268 .318 .440 Guillen, C. .290 .365 .457
Poz: David DeJesus moves from center to left, and he moves from first to third in the lineup. I wonder how he handles all that mentally. One baseball executive told me that Carlos Guillen is absolutely his favorite player in baseball because he will play anywhere, do anything you ask, and he's a pro. I like Guillen too – but that seems an odd “favorite player in baseball” choice.
Jeremy: The trade for Carlos Quentin was a great move last year, while Delmon Young and Jose Guillen were terrible acquisitions, and that’s not really hindsight. Most people’s verdicts on those moves were similar at the time those moves were made. Francisco might just be a place-holder for prospect Matt LaPorta. Once LaPorta comes up, Francisco could be relegated to being his caddy.
Sully: Carlos Guillen is my favorite converted shortstop playing left field in the AL Central.
AVG OBP SLG Wise, D. .252 .303 .424 Gomez, C. .279 .305 .368 Sizemore, G. .279 .376 .496 Crisp, C. .270 .331 .392 Granderson, C. .280 .354 .488
Poz: The Grady Sizemore vs. Curtis Granderson argument is probably the most compelling and fun question in the division. Sizemore hits lefties better and walks a touch more which gives him a slight lead, but Curtis Granderson is probably MY favorite player in baseball, and not just because he's my Facebook friend.
Jeremy: Ground will be covered. Coco Crisp and Gomez are all glove no bat, but what gloves they are. Sizemore’s and Granderson’s careers to date have practically mirrored each other. Granderson is coming off an uncharacteristically poor year in the field, according to the advanced metrics. Sizemore is somehow heading into just his age 26 season and is my choice for MVP.
Sully: Gomez is so darn good with the glove that he does not need to develop quite as much as one might think in order to push Sizemore and Granderson. I would love to see what a .300/.325/.400 Gomez looks like in terms of value.
AVG OBP SLG Dye, J. .273 .334 .500 Span, D. .278 .350 .387 Choo, S. .283 .363 .457 DeJesus, D. .283 .355 .417 Ordonez, M. .310 .372 .494
Poz: I remain in awe of Magglio Ordonez's comeback. He and Mike Sweeney seemed to be virtually identical hitters for a while there; but Magglio has had a great second act. I'm no Jose Guillen fan, but I do admit to getting great enjoyment out of watching him uncork throws. His arm is preposterously strong and preposterously erratic which provides many fun moments.
Jeremy: Denard Span was phenomenal once he earned his starting job in July. Shin-Soo Choo has been receiving his share of hype, and rightfully so after a .309/.397/.549 campaign. I could see Span and Choo supplanting Jermaine Dye and Ordonez as the class of the division as age takes its appropriate course.
Sully: I was a year early on Choo last season but I am eager to see what he can do in 2009. He's under the radar, but the type of guy that could tip the balance of power in the division if he replicates his production from last season.
AVG OBP SLG Thome, J. .251 .373 .498 Kubel, J. .273 .335 .461 Hafner, T. .264 .376 .479 Butler, B. .287 .348 .443 Sheffield, G. .246 .345 .422
Poz: I look for Butler to have his breakthrough season, and I look for Travis Hafner to continue his struggles. But, like always, I could be wrong.
Jeremy: Jim Thome seems ageless for a player with “old-player skills.” I’d say he currently ranks behind only Ryan Howard in opposite-field power. I wonder if he makes his way into the Hall of Fame. Gary Sheffield and Hafner appear to be over the hill, but inversely Butler is the first up-and-coming DH we’ve seen in several years.
Sully: Whatever chances you think the Tigers might have this season, it's hard to imagine Sheffield won't sink them. He's terrible now, totally unacceptable as a DH and he can't play in the field. And when Jim Leyland goes to replace him, how do you think he will take that?
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Buehrle, M. 5.38 2.20 1.35 4.25 Danks, J. 7.58 3.05 1.34 4.15 Floyd, G. 6.32 3.40 1.42 4.63 Richard, C. 5.11 2.93 1.47 4.85 Colon, B. 5.99 2.59 1.43 4.85
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Baker, S. 6.95 2.15 1.28 4.08 Liriano, F. 8.32 3.23 1.30 3.87 Slowey, K. 6.84 1.67 1.20 3.87 Blackburn, N. 4.72 2.01 1.37 4.46 Perkins, G. 5.71 3.16 1.48 4.98
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Lee, C. 6.58 2.08 1.25 3.76 Carmona, F. 5.44 3.59 1.42 4.15 Sowers, J. 4.81 2.78 1.43 4.68 Pavano, C. 5.35 2.76 1.43 4.82 Reyes, A. 6.46 3.14 1.37 4.45
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Meche, G. 7.14 3.20 1.37 4.13 Greinke, Z. 7.66 2.60 1.30 4.01 Bannister, B. 5.35 2.86 1.42 4.79 Davies, K. 6.03 3.99 1.56 5.15 Hochevar, L. 5.67 3.27 1.47 5.00
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Verlander, J. 7.38 3.40 1.33 4.03 Bonderman, J. 7.25 3.09 1.37 4.27 Jackson, E. 6.03 3.89 1.53 4.94 Galarraga, A. 6.46 3.34 1.36 4.37 Miner, A. 5.66 3.70 1.45 4.30
Poz: Everyone seems to be looking for that third starter. I like Kyle Davies a lot to fill that role in Kansas City; dominant in September and has looked great all spring. If he's figured it out, I think Royals could have best 1-3 in the division. Twins have best 1-5. I don't know what to think about the Indians rotation. Cliff Lee figures to come down, and the league may have figured out Fausto Carmona.
Jeremy: I think each team has a solid ace in Lee, Zach Greinke, Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano, and John Danks. The Twins have the best No. 2 in Kevin Slowey. He boasted the lowest walk rate among starters, and probably has more upside than Gil Meche. Carmona is a wild card. The only differences I see in the pitch f/x data from his great 2007 to his ghastly 2008 were in his use of the change/splitter against righties in 2007, and lack thereof in 2008. But it looks like the velocity, movement, and release point were more or less consistent both years, though fangraphs' data shows his velocity has been on a bit of a downward trend.
Sully: As a whole, I like Minnesota's staff more than most. It's like they have five solid 2-3 guys to run out there with some pretty decent depth in Philip Humber and Craig Breslow to boot. Slowey, Baker and Liriano all have the potential to exceed "solid 2-3" expectations, too.
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Jenks, B. 7.60 2.80 1.21 3.30 Dotel, O. 10.77 3.79 1.31 4.09 Thornton, M. 9.05 3.57 1.29 3.63
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Nathan, J. 9.86 2.61 1.07 2.51 Crain, J. 6.71 3.08 1.34 4.00 Mijares, J. 7.08 4.86 1.54 5.08
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Wood, K. 9.62 3.45 1.23 3.39 Lewis, J. 7.92 3.60 1.36 3.99 Betancourt, R. 8.16 2.48 1.21 3.64
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Soria, J. 9.16 2.61 1.07 2.57 Farnsworth, K. 8.46 3.82 1.44 4.60 Cruz, J. 10.52 4.59 1.33 3.51
K/9 BB/9 WHIP ERA Zumaya, J. 8.91 5.13 1.42 3.72 Rodney, F. 9.05 4.92 1.44 4.11 Lyon, B. 5.86 2.52 1.35 3.99
Jeremy: Zumaya still has the fastest pitch on record at 104 miles per hour, and has averaged between 97 and 99 each season. It would be a shame if his arm were to fall off before he managed another full season. Juan Cruz to Joakim Soria might be the best finishing duo today. The Indians look like they have the best overall bullpen.
Sully: Kansas City and Minnesota feature top-heavy bullpens but give me Cleveland's top to bottom.
Poz: Does bench even matter anymore with teams consistently going with 12 pitchers? Royals have Willie Bloomquist, who will either be a big help off the bench or a huge liability in the lineup. I'm an unabashed Gardy fan, and I love the way he uses the Twins bench.
Sully: With Delluci and Ryan Garko in the mix, I like the Tribe's depth.
Who are the awards candidates from the AL Central?
Poz: MVP: Sizemore, Granderson, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau.
Morneau is always a candidate. I have two Tigers here though I think the Tigers will be lousy. It's a defense mechanism: If the Tigers do surprise, they will be the MVP reasons why.
I have a feeling about Greinke. I don't think Lee will have anything close to the same year, but he deserves to be on the list just for last season. Does Verlander bounce back?
Jeremy: MVP: Sizemore, Mauer
CYA: Lee, Greinke
ROY: Beckham, LaPorta
Sully: You guys covered them right there, I would say.
Any surprises this year?
Poz: I'm torn. Every year I pick the Royals to be my biggest surprise. But it could be the Detroit Tigers. Maybe this is the year that offense unloads.
Jeremy: I don’t think the White Sox will contend again unless Kenny Williams pulls off a few more trades. Maybe this is the year Ozzie Guillen gets the ax. I think Lee repeats as a top starter in the AL, which might go against the grain. He’s really good.
Sully: I think Paul Konerko will have a big bounce-back year. He's only 33 and remember, he hit .291/.372/.540 from 2004-2006. His batting average fell off a cliff in 2007 and in 2008 he battled injuries. This spring he is hitting .378/.417/.689 with four home runs.
1. Cleveland Indians
I don't think there's much gap at all between 1-5. The Indians, the more I look at them, seem like a very flawed team. The Twins are just the Twins and with Mauer/Morneau/Gardy and a pitching staff that doesn't walk anybody they will probably be there. I have to pick the Royals as a contender – it's part of the job. I think the White Sox and Tigers are both very flawed, but the Sox won the division last year and the Tigers could score a lot of runs. Frankly, I have no idea.
Cleveland Indians: 87-75
But I'll be pulling for the Royals for Joe's sake.
1. Minnesota Twins
Mauer, Morneau and a consistent run prevention unit lead Minnesota to the division crown.
Thank you, Jeremy and thanks especially to Joe Posnanski. We will wrap the next two Fridays with the NL and AL West.