In Surprise news, the Royals still suck.
1.Who has the Division's best offence?
The Twins were the only team in the division to score 800 runs last year, and they should be comfortably ahead of the pack again this year.
Looking at the others, Detroit have 2/3 of a great offense, but they're also giving full time jobs to Laird, Everett and Inge. The White Sox have a few very nice players with Ramirez, Beckham and Quentin but there's also Juan Pierre, Mark Kotsay, Andruw Jones and Alex Rios all in key offensive positions. Cleveland will definitely score some runs, with Sizemore and Choo in the outfield and a great young offensive double play combination, but I think they're still a step back from Minnesota.
It's not unfair to expect that Mauer, Cuddyer and Kubel might well all take a step back this year. The difference for the Twins, that I think will offest that and even improve them as an offence is what they've added. Going out and buying free agents isn't normally a Twins thing to do, but with a new stadium has come a new approach. O'Dog and JJ Hardy have been brought in to form a new double play partnership, and they will be replacing a lot of at bats from lesser offensive players like Alexei Casilla, Orlando Cabrera and Nick Punto. On top of that there will be a full season of the excellent Denard Span in centrefield, and the arrival of Jim Thome means there's an option B if Young doesn't get it going. Assuming Hardy has a bounce back of some sort with the bat, the Twins will be at least decent offensively in every position except third.
2. Who has the best rotation?
The White Sox have a quality rotation 1 through 5 which gives them the strongest starting in the division. The Twins, Tigers and Royals are all strong at the top of the rotation, but do not have the same depth of quality. As for Cleveland, well, their opening day starter is likely to be Jake Westbrook, and it doesn't get any better after that.
The White Sox staff is led by Mark Buerhle, who is amongst the most consitently excellent starters in baseball, over the last nine years he's never failed to pitch 200 Innings and has had seven seasons with an ERA+ over 120 (twice reaching 140). Then there's Jake Peavy, the fomer NL Cy Young winner, who is coming off a couple of injuries and moving to a tougher environment. Peavy's Cy days might be behind him, and there are some little signs in his advanced stats that suggest he is not quite the guy he was - his flyball trend is increasing and his fastball has lost a couple of mph. There is nothing there though that I can see to suggest he's completely lost it, 200 Innings and an ERA under 3 may be a big challenge for him now, but if he stays injury free he should be a very strong #2 for the Sox. Also on the trail back from significant injury is Freddy Garcia, he hasn't pitched a full season since 2006, but he showed some good skills in his 56 IP last year, striking out 37 and walking just 12. If he can stay healthy for a full season, Garcia still looks like he has the goods. Rounding out the staff are Floyd and Danks. Floyd won 17 games in 2008 with an ERA under 4, last year his ERA went up a little but his FIP was down by a full run, fueled by an excellent second half, I wouldn't be surprised to see him beat his 2008 numbers this year. At just 24, John Danks is coming off two years where he's thrown just inder 400 Innings, this workload might have started to catch up with him late last year. His peripheral numbers started to slip in the second half, in particular his strikeout ability disappeared. Another 138 ERA+ season like 2008 is hard to predict, but he should be comfortably above the 120 level again.
3. Who has the best bullpen?
Kansas City have the incredible Joakim Soria but no one who can be trusted to get the ball to him. Chicago has a one-two punch of Jenks and Thornton (who's one of the best in the game), but very little worth talking about after that, and Detroit's middle relief is anchored by the ghost of Joel Zumaya. Those are not three 'pens that inspire a lot of confidence on paper. The two best bullpens are those which have just lost their closers in the last few weeks. The Indians now have Chris Perez closing to start the aeason with Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis and Jesse Todd from the right side and Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp from the left. That looks like a pretty solid pen to me, Perez might not be a great closer but he should have the skills to get the job done for a while. Jensen Lewis could be great if he can keep the ball in the yard a little more and Jesse Todd has very strong minor league numbers, though he struggled in his debut last year. In Minnesota there's four good solid experienced pro's in Guerrier, Rauch, Mijares and Neshek, but then we're into the rather more murky territory of Jesse Crain and Clay Condrey. For now I think the Indians edge it and they should be quite a bit stronger if Woods comes back and is effective. However, if the Twins trade for Heath Bell, as is being rumoured, then they'll have the division's best relief by a distance.
4. Who has the best gloves?
Using the UZR team numbers at fangraphs* the Tigers had a great defense last year and everyone else sucked, I mean they were really awful. The bottom five teams in UZR last year were the four other AL Central teams and the Mets. Lets have a look at last years UZR numbers
and see how they might translate to this year:
Tigers: 2009 UZR 43.6. There were some excellent fielders in Detroit last year: Polanco, Clete Thomas, Adam Everett and Brandon Inge but just as critically no one was awful, the worst was Carlos Guillen at -3.1. This year 3 of those defensive specialists are back, but there will be rookies in two crucial defensive positions. For that reasons the jury is out on exactly how good they'll be, but they're still likely to be the divisions best defensive unit.
Indians: 2009 UZR -33.5. No one in Cleveland had a UZR over 5, whilst quite a number of regulars were in the negatives. A return for health for Sizemore will help here, but the big worry for Cleveland is that both the young DP combination had poor returns last year.
Twins: 2009 UZR -37.3. Outfield defensive was clearly a problem for Minnesota in 2009. Young and Cuddyer both had scores of worse than -16 and Span was a negative in centre as well. Only Crede had great 2009 numbers and he's gone. Of the new guys. JJ Hardy will help, UZR seems to like him a lot. O-Dog, well not so much, he hasn't posted a good UZR number since he left Brian Butterfield's tutelege.
White Sox: 2009 UZR -35.6. Should be better than last year just by not having Jermaine Dye and his -20 UZR around, although Carlos Quentin is still there and he was not much better. Apart from those two, again no one's really good or bad. At the key positions Ramirez scores well at short, Rios not so well in center, Teahan hasn't done well the last couple of years and Beckham's known for his bat more than his glove. There's no reason to expect any sudden leaps forward from the White Sox this year.
* Caveats about using one year UZR numbers obviously apply.
5. What's the skinny on Target Field ?
It's new, they didn't pay much for it, it's really rather nice and good luck getting a ticket - they're basically sold out for the season.
Quite a few Twins bloggers have been in for a look and have been quite impressed. If you're wondering how it might play there are three incredibly detailed articles at katron.org that will tell everything you'll want to know.
6. Are you going to say anything nice about Kansas City?
No. Well ok, they've still got Greinke and Soria and Gibby's still there - I like Gibby.
7. What's up with Grady Sizemore?
A year ago in this space Anders and I ranked Sizemore as a close second to Mauer as the best poition player in the Central. Then he suffered that injury decimated season, with elbow and abdomen problems leading to an OPS of .784, just 13 stolen bases and his first ever negative UZR. His season eventually ended early with a pair of surgeries. He claims to be in good shape this spring and without any lingering effects from his problems last year, the only difference for him will be a move into the second slot in the order. If he is fully healthy I can't see why a full bounce back shouldn't be expected - a 270/.370/.500 season is on the cards.
8. Who's a good bet for a breakout season?
How about Kevin Slowey. 2009 was not a good year for him admittedly, bone chips in his wrist forced the Twins to shut him down after just 90 Innings, and at that point he sported a less than impressive 4.86 ERA. Other metrics though show a nicer picture. His xfip was 4.23, his strikeout rate improved, again, to an impressive 7.45 per 9 Innings, he continued to keep his walk totals very low (just 50 now in his 317 big league innings) and he was victim of a rather high .352 BABIP. All that I can see keeping Slowey from being a legitimate ace is his high flyball perecentage (48% last year) if he finds a way to induce a few more groundballs, look out. At just 25 and reportedly completely free from injury, this could be the year he makes the leap.
9. Who is the division's best young player?
With apologies to Asdrubal Cabrera and Rick Porcello, for me it's Gordon Beckham. A first round pick in 2008, the White Sox had him up in the bigs before his minor league career was sixty games old. He adapted very nicely to major league pitching putting up a .270/.343/.460 line in 425 Plate appearances. He can play all over the infield too, a shortstop at the University of Georgia, he manned the hot corner last year and this year's moving to second. Beckham was actually undrafted out of High School and it wasn't until he put up amazing numbers in his junior year in College that he began to be thought of as a first round pick. Since then, he hasn't looked back. He's a guy who simply does everything at a high level, without being absolutely outstanding in any one area. He's charecterized as a line drive hitter with a little pop but not really a home run hitter, he doesn't have great speed but will steal bases thank's to great instincts. Scouting reports out of college suggested he would have trouble sticking at short, but he seems very well suited to his new position.
Reminds me a lot of Aaron Hill.
10. So who's going to win?
The Twins, no wait The Sox, no no - it's the Twins, probably by a game again.
Twins 86 wins
Sox 85 wins
Tigers 80 wins
Indians 75 wins
Royals Hardly any wins.