10 Questions about the 2009 AL Central
Friday, March 27 2009 @ 10:50 AM EDT
Contributed by: Anders
The AL Central promises to be one of the most balanced divisions in baseball in 2009. No team should win more than 90 or less than 70, and a bunch of 80 win teams would not be surprising. Heck, even Vegas agrees - they predict all the teams will fall into the 75-85 win range. Does that make the Central boring or exciting? Gwyn and I will try to give you a couple of reasons why it might be of interest. With that being said, we'll start our preview.
1 - Is anyone in this division really good? Is anyone really bad?
Gwyn: No and No. Cleveland are verging on being very good, and I expect them to be the best team in the division. The offence is pretty formidable. Victor Martinez should be back to top form after the injuries that plagued him last year, Pronk had surgery and can expect to be a useful hitter again - if nowhere near his 2006 levels, Choo is a very accomplished hitter and I like Peralta for a bit of a breakout year. The bullpen is looking very nice, the only thing holding them down is the rotation where it's all a bit bleak apart from Lee.
Anders: I am high on the Cleveland's - I think the division is there's to lose. Lee comes back to earth a bit, but there is a ton of talent here., and Cleveland closed out the year on a high note after trading C.C. last year. I am not quite as sold as everyone else on Kansas City, but I don't think that they'll lose more than 90 games this year.
Gwyn: Kansas City have been very bad recently, but they'll be better this year I think (see below). As for the rest - Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago will probably be a few games either side of .500.
Anders: I have trouble getting a read on the White Sox ever, but they may struggle. I do think Detroit is going to be bad though - worse than people think. They are aging and may have rotation problems. Every time I look at the Twins I either like them or hate them - let's put them down for 80 wins perhaps then.
2 - Who is the best player in the AL Central?
Anders - The AL Central has a couple of really good hitters and it
has a couple of even better players. Justin Morneau, Miguel Cabrera and
Carlos Quentin each put up big years last year, however they are all
play non-critical defensive positions. Meanwhile Grady Sizemore and Joe
Mauer have been putting up big numbers at difficult positions, and
even if their slash lines aren't quite as good as the aforementioned
sluggers, they outrank them in value - Mauer's a catcher whose career OBP is hovering
just below .400 and he probably could have won a couple of MVP awards
by now if he people properly valued how hard what he's doing is.
Gwyn - My first thought was Grady Sizemore after all he plays great defense, runs brilliantly and swings for power too. Thinking about it Joe Mauer has to be up there too, and might just be better, it probably all depends how important you think OBP is, because Mauer could easily have a 40 or 50 point lead over Sizemore there. Mauer led the AL in win shares last year and was ahead of Sizemore in WARP too. They're both amongst the top handful of players in the league. If we call the defense a standoff - theyboth have great defensive reputations and I don't think you can make a comparison by the numbers, as I'm just not convinced that defensive metrics measure catchers very
well. Then it's down to the offense, where they had a very similiar OPS
last year (and probably will this year), just in very different ways: Sizemore - .268/.366/.502 Mauer - .328/.419/.451. Mauer's great OBP number trumps Sizemore's lead in SLG.
Anders - I love
Sizemore as a player - as Gwyn mentioned, he hits for power, is a great
basestealer and plays (by most accounts) good defense. As long as Mauer
can still play catcher though, he'll be the pick over the (almost as)
3 - If Joe Mauer misses more than a few weeks are the Twin's doomed?
Gwyn - Yes. The Twins offense has two stars and one other solid hitter (Kubel), apart from that there's no one in their lineup I;d expect to put up an OPS over .800. There are very few teams in baseball who could survive the loss of their best player (especially one of of Mauer's ability) for a long period and not suffer significantly, the Twins just aren't one of those teams. Doomed is of course a relative term, for the Twins though I think it means they go from having a slim shot at contending to no shot.
Anders: Sort of. The Twins are going to be in tight all year - I think
it's going to be a race to about 87 wins and the division crown, with
none of the Central teams contending for the wild card. I don't think
the Twins quite have the horses - there are just too many question
marks, and they hit for a high average with RISP last year, something
they are unlikely to repeat. With that being said, I think the team
could keep afloat as long as Mauer's mysterious back ailments don't
flare up for too long, especially if they can keep him in the lineup as
a DH with Mike Redmond catching. If he can't hit for more than a month,
then they are in trouble - not doomed though.
Believe it or not, the Twins actually
finished 4th in the Majors in runs scored last year. Really. Morneau
and Mauer were a huge reason for that, as was the high RISP average.
However, Denard Span will (hopefully) take away playing time from
Carlos Gomez, who was a sinkhole in the leadoff spot last year, and
players such as Delmon Young could improve. I'm optmistic about Span -
he should play a good CF, walk and steal bases. Other parts, such as
Jason Kuebel and Michael Cuddyer, aren't bad, but a major injury to any
of these guys would essentially sink the Twins offense and their
4 - Will we see a full return to form for Francisco Liriano?
Anders: More Twins! Francisco Liriano will not be as fantastic as he has been
in the past - few players ever have seasons like his 2006, and even
fewer repeat them.
Gwyn: Full return as in posting an ERA+ north of 200 again ? No,
but the lets be fair Doc and Santana have never done that in a full
season. I can see Liriano being one of the the best starters in the
league again though this year, he looked very, very good in the second
half last year but he is giving up more flyballs than he used to and
not getting quite as many strikeouts.
Anders: Liriano was one of the best
pitchers in baseball last year when he was actually healthy - from
August onward his era was 2.74 in 65.2 innings. I do think he will be
the Twins best starter, and perhaps the best starter in the AL Central.
Liriano really is a special talent. However, through his 4 year career he's
thrown 220 innings - not quite a full Halladay season, meaning that his
value will probably be limited by injuries again this year.
I could see him putting up a 3.60 ERA, 170 K, 65 BB season if he gets over 180 Innings Pitched. Interestingly I don't think he'll be the Twins best starter, I'm expecting big things from Slowey this year.
5 - Are the Tigers going to be good or terrible?
Gwyn: Somewhere in between. I think they'll be a game or two either side of 82. There are too many question marks about their pitching for me to be confident that they'll be any better than that, there are just many if's about that staff. The top of their lineup though is as good as any in the league though.
Anders: I do not think the Tigers are going to be a good team. The top
of their lineup - Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen,
Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera - is very good, but not unbelievably
so. Granderson suffered a power outage last year in comparison to 2007,
and Polanco and Guillen are both well on the wrong side of 30. After
that there's the 40 year old Gary Sheffield, who had his worst season
since 1991 last year, Adam Everett, who's glove might make up for his
bat (worse than John MacDonald) after he missed almost all of last
year with injuries, Brandon Inge, and Gerald Laird. They scored 821
runs this year, something I don't think they can repeat. The rotation of Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Edwin Jackson, Armanda Galarraga and one of Nate Robertson or Rick Porcello could go either way, but I think their bats will underperform.
6 Will Alex Gordon breakout this year?
Gwyn: Yes, there's a good chance, though maybe this is a year or two early for him. At 24 last year he took some nice steps forward. He walked more - over 10% of the time - and struck out less. He hit a lot fewer groundballs and his hr/fb percentage edged a little higher too. If those trends continue he should turn into the hitter he was projected back in his prospect days, and he's young enough that more progress is easy to foresee.
Anders: Well anything can happen I suppose. I wouldn't say it's particularly likely though. Gordon's had almost 1200 ML plate appearances so far and has hit .253, a far cry from his impressive minor league averages. He strikes out too much, walks a decent amount and has some pop, but unless he improves in these areas he is destined to be a decent but not great player. Raising his batting average by 15 points would be a good start. We'll see.
7 - Who is the Division's best closer?
Gwyn: It's an elite group, the Central's closers. I'd rank them in order - Nathan, Soria, Jenks, Wood and Lyon. I'm a bit of a Soria fanboy, but Joe Nathan is, you know, Joe Freakin' Nathan! and that's about as good as it gets closer-wise.
Anders: Joe Nathan has been fantastic since arriving in Minnesota, and
if the Twins would actually use him in more than strict
slave-to-the-save situations they would be much better for it (a pet
peeve of Aaron Gleeman's to be sure.) After that Joakim Soria has had
success in KC, and Bobby Jenks will somehow convert 34/40 chances
despite some poor peripherals and a massive frame. It's hard to figure
what Kerry Wood will bring the Indians, but he can't be worse than some
previous options in the Cleve. Brandon Lyon... well, he's not a
particular memorable ex-Jay. Let's leave it at that.
8 - Is Cliff Lee going to be a Cy Young contender again?
Anders: No. Well, maybe. Lee cut his walk rate in half last year, and if he can keep that up he'll have a good year. However unless he can keep stranding runners at an unusually high rate and making sure that fly balls hardly ever leave the park then Lee will regress. That may be a nice year, but he isn't going to take home any hardware.
Gwyn: If he keeps doing whatever he was doing to get all those groundballs that he'd never got before last year than possibly. I'm think a little bit of that regression to the mean stuff might kick in for him though and he will regress from Halladay territory to being a merely very good starter. I'm never sure how to judge if a guy who had a sudden surge forward like he did last year was having a true breakout season to new consistent highs or a career year. For Lee I'm betting more on the latter than the former.
9 - Is this the year Kansas City move out of the cellar?
Gwyn: They should be a lot better, and they certainly have a shot to move past Detroit or Chicago if either of them has a bad year. They Royals smell like a team that's going to spend all year tilting at .500 and just miss. I think Gordon will be very good, Butler will improve markedly and I'm always very high on Meche, Grienke and Buck (Buck for no reason I can explain except he just looks good every time I see him play). The other thing to like about Kansas City this year, as Rany Jazayerli has pointed out, is that they should be giving very little time to really bad players. Jacobs, Aviles and Crisp aren't superstars, but they are a very significant upgrade over Gload, Pena and Gathright.
Anders: I don't know if I'm quite drinking the kool aid on this one, but I do think the Royals will make it out of the cellar, if only because the Tigers will occupy it. I could see Kansas City exciting for a couple of months as everyone rakes and Brian Bannister dazzles the league (well, maybe not on that count, but we're rooting for him.) I don't think they are the new Rays, as everyone seems to want to find, but I do think they could win 80 games if things go well, and imrpove further for 2010.
10 - Give me a relatively unknown player to watch out for in 2009?
Gwyn: I like the look of Clayton Richard in Chicago. He didn't impress much on his debut last year, with an ERA just over 6 in 47 Innings, and prior to 2008 his minor league career wasn't much to write home about either. He's a big (6' 6" 240 lb) lefty with a truly nasty sinker and he looks as though he has the skills to be a useful starter. He get's a lot of groundballs off his sinker, he had a very nice 29/13 K/BB ratio and he keeps the ball in the park. He'll probably start the year in AAA, but should get to the Show at some point during the year, and when he does I expect him to stick around.
Anders: I've already mentioned that I thnk Denard Span will have a good year, though I don't know if he counts. After that Jeff Larish is a big masher for Detroit - he's 27, hits for power and posted big walk rates in the minors that haven't translated in the show yet. I'll be interested to see what develops.
So those are the pressing questions we saw in the AL Central. It should be an interesting division. Watch the White Sox come out of nowhere to win it now...