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2010 AL Central Preview

With their team’s epic collapse finally secured after a 12-inning 6-5 loss to the Minnesota twins in the AL Central tie-breaker game, Detroit Tigers fans found themselves with mouths full of poison.

Not too different from that which was found in mass quantities in slugger Miguel Cabrera’s blood just a few days prior.

No team in the history of MLB had ever lost a division which they led from May 10th until the final day of the regular season. No team had ever lost a lead of three games with only four to play. No team had ever (presumably) let a player play in a critical night-cap, after one of his own, leading to a Blood Alcohol Level of .26 as late as 5 a.m. on game-day.

The Detroit Tigers accomplished all of those feats. The question the rest of the AL Central is interested in, is whether or not that trave-sham-ockery will carry over into the 2010 season. Are the Tigers still favored to win the crown?

Let’s find out…

Cleveland Indians:

Pitching:

It’s been well documented that last October, the Indians found themselves watching as two of their former Cy Young winners squared off in Game 1 of the World Series. Both for teams not from Ohio. Well documented, but nonetheless harmful to Cleveland’s collective self-esteem.

The Tribe kicks of this season pinning hopes and dreams on the likes of Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook and newcomer from the Red Sox, Justin Masterson. Masterson is just happy to get out from under the Boston rubber-log-jam and actually spend some time on the mound for once.

(That sounded WAY dirtier than I meant it to.)

Outside of Kerry Wood (who is in the final year of a two-year, $20.5-million contract), who is a trade candidate to boot and former St. Louis future bullpen anchor Chris Perez, Cleveland doesn’t have a lot of upside in the pen.

Offense:

This club could potentially have an outfield of which they can be proud. Grady Sizemore (center) is looking to rebound from his first major incomplete season (due to injury) since becoming a full-time starter in 2005, Matt LaPorta (lost his rookie status last year, so don’t expect to see him on any ROTY ballots) has a history full of mashing things and Shin-Soo Choo. If only Cleveland can figure some way to keep Choo from fighting with the Korean military somewhere awful.

So if Grady comes back to form, LaPorta is for real, and Choo isn’t off fighting Charlie somewhere, this could be a very good outfield.

But the infield…

What? You expected a racy photo of Grady Sizemore's personal bat? We don't stoop that low here.

Oh, my oh my, that infield is HORRID.

When your best hitting infielder is Russell Branyon… you miiiiiiiiiiiight be in for trouble.

MIGHT.

Ok, you definitely are.

I feel legitimately bad for the city of Cleveland. They have to root for the Browns, Indians and watch as LeBron flees to the Los Angeles Clippers this summer.

(If I keep saying it outloud, it might actually happen. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.)

Minnesota Twins:

Pitching:

The Twins find themselves entering the season without a bona-fide No. 1 starter. Or a No. 2. They barely have a third banana in Scott Baker. Clearly, Minny fans finds themselves on their knees praying to God that Francisco Liriano can get his slide-piece back. We do all realize that Liriano hasn’t been good since 2006, don’t we? We’re all on that page? Good.

DON’T. BET. ON. HIM.

Joe Nathan? Do I even have to say anything?

(Cringing.)

Offense:

First baseman and former MVP, Justin Morneau (it’s still totally weird to type that sentence) is good but not great. Catcher and reigning MVP Joe Mauer is pretty darn good, but not so good that was was worth that gigantic contract he just signed. Third baseman Brendon Harris feels like he stole something by starting for this team, and Delmon Young has been an enormous let-down. I hate the word bust,as  it’s usually used without restraint. A buzz-word for blowhards who are too quick to the trigger of judgment.

But yeah, Delmon Young has been a bust. Sad but true.

Then again, in Triple-A, he was suspended 50 games for slinging his bat at an ump. Maybe it’s not so sad after all.

If I didn’t address Joe Mauer’s monster eight-year/$184-million contract, I wouldn’t be doing you justice. This is going to sound strange, but it’s a signing Minnesota HAD to have, and yet, they totally screwed it up.

From a fan standpoint after letting guys like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana go (or run out of town), extending Mauer sent the message that the Twins actually do care about keeping/ acquiring talent. It also shows that management has a pulse, knowing with a brand new, dome-less Target Field – paid for by the generous residents of Minnesota – in play, siphoning dollars in the typical Twinkie fashion just wasn’t a smart idea. So slap yourselves on the back Minny, that there is what you call a win.

That said, signing a catcher to an eight-year-deal is NOT exactly a bet-hedging strategy. Mauer is 27, great. By the end of the deal, he will be 35. Could he still be a studly-studerson behind the dish then? He could, but if you had to bet, one way or the other, if the mid-west’s newest $184-million-man WILL still be an elite defensive catcher at that age, which side would your money back?

I’d most certainly gravitate towards the “no” side.

I’d pick the same if I had to even guess whether or not Mauer would still BE a catcher.

Britton had a great point that Minnesota could mirror something the Colorado Rockies recently did with aging franchise hero, Todd Helton. In a nutshell they took the outrageous sum ($19.1-million due in 2011 and a $4.5-million buyout in ’12) extended him through 2013 and stretched his money out so they only have to pay him tid-bits through the year 2023.

So yeah, the Twins could go down a similar path with Mauer, but where you lose me is by telling me to make him a lifetime Twin, they had to sign their catcher to an eight-year deal. Five seems like plenty, with $18-million-per getting it done as well. Could the Yankees or Red Sox dwarfed that amount with a 10-year/$250-million offer on the market? Sure. But Mauer didn’t want to touch the market. He wants to stay in his hometown.

An opening offer of $90-million isn’t exactly chump change and it would still give Mauer a chance for a second big pay-day at age 33, if he is still performing at an elite level then. Think he needs $100-million? Fine, give him ten more, so $20-million per. I just don’t think Mauer could have stomached turning down that kind of life-changing contract, to STAY in his hometown.

Mauer is a good player. A very good player. but in spite of winning two batting titles and an MVP, he’s not a GREAT player. His lifetime 162-game averages are: .327-BA; 17-HR; .892-OPS; 92-RBI and 97-R. Like I said, he’s a really good player. Those numbers are good, but not worth just south of a third of a team’s payroll. And if you wouldn’t bet on him catching, or at least being an elite catcher, for another five or six years; why give him a mega-deal for so many years?

Joe Mauer just got PAID. Waaaaaaaaaaaay too much money.

To lock him up as a Minny lifer? You don’t think that if Mauer was willing to take at least $60-million less (or more if he’d accepted my deal) just entering his prime, than he wouldn’t be willing to re-sign with the Twins for a reasonable discount at the tail-end of his prime?

Because I sure do.

Mauer wasn’t leaving town so long as his club made it clear they still wanted him around.

But they didn’t have to pay him like a sultan to prove their point.

A new ballpark for a mid-market team, will only pay for an elite player or two for so long. Just ask the San Diego Padres.

Detroit Tigers:

Pitching:

Slept late on Justin Verlander last year? Sucks to be you, ’cause you missed out on a terrific value pick for your fantasy team. The Land Rover seems once again refueled and ready to roll over AL Central hitters. Expect a big year out of him.

The Tigers may have lost Edwin Jackson, who caught lightning-in-a-bottle last year, but gained young ace-in-the-waiting Max Scherzer from the Diamondbacks. He’s added to a mix containing Rick Porcello, Armando Galarraga and Jeremy Bonderman. A lot of upside to like in the group.

Funny, I didn’t see Dontrelle Willis anywhere in there. The death of the leg-kick has been a legendary tale of despair.

The real problem is the pen. Closer Jose Valverde is O-K, but Detroit is NOT thrilled with what they’ve been seeing out of Joel Zumuya in camp thus far. Remember when that guy was a can’t miss?

Well, he did. Many, many times.

Offense:

This is the part of the story where our hero faces his adversity head-on… isn’t it? Miguel Cabrera is possibly the best hitter in baseball never to win an MVP. In fact, he has yet to finish in the top-three in voting. But boy is he GOOD.

Cabby spent three months this offseason in alcohol rehab, attempting to repair a part of himself which has so obviously been fatally flawed. Did it work? Only Cabrera himself knows that, but he claims he hasn’t taken a drink since taken into custody by police that fateful morning. But he has taken swings, GOOD ones. His late summer woes haven’t seemed to affect his spring, as the slugger has hit .343 through 12 games.

The signing of Johnny Damon may not have been a popular decision, but it may end up being an effective one. Sure he may not hit 24 home runs again (tied a career high by the way) but his OBP was a solid .365 and his batting average (.282) wasn’t too far below his career mark of .288.

Let’s go ahead and fry our baloney right now; center fielder Austin Jackson is no Curtis Granderson (who he was traded by the Yankees for), yet. He’s drawn Granderson comparisons, but to expect Granderson-like numbers from the rookie, would be foolish.

I have no idea what to make of right fielder Magglio Ordonez. We were led to believe that after hitting a pathetic .260 for the first three months of the season, the Tigers were ready to move on from their former star. He was benched, presumably to prevent him from reaching a games-played clause in his contract, guaranteeing his 2010 salary. So what happened? Detroit stuck Ordonez right back in the lineup and he hit .375 the rest of the way.

Make of that what you will.

Catcher Gerald Laird is pretty much a terrible baseball player, but hey, at least he lights fool’s spikes on fire in the dugout.

The moral of the story? Detroit will only be as good as their clean-up hitter. If Cabrera bounces back from his liquid-devil woes, the Tigers will be fine. If not, they’ll be like Ferris Bueler actually IN SCHOOL. Crushed.

Kansas City Royals:

Pitching:

Zach Greinke. Is there anything more to say? He may not be the best young arm in baseball, but it’s a pretty short list.

1.) Tim Lincecum: A no-brainer.

2.) Felix Hernandez: Quickly becoming the best arm in the AL.

3.) Zach Greinke: We do still realize this guy missed all of 2006 for anxiety issues right? Out-of-this-world.

4.) Clayton Kershaw: Filthy live arm. Could be one of the all-timers.

5.) Stephen Strasburg: Hasn’t thrown a professional pitch? Doesn’t matter. Still belongs on this list. He’s that talented.

So in some shape or form, that’s the list right there. And Greinke’s smack-dab-in the center of it.

Is Strasburg the real deal? Survey says... VERY LIKELY.

The rest of the Royals’ rotation is without much bang, but it does have potential. Gil Meche is decent and Luke Hochevar is slooooooooowly rounding into form as a somewhat useful big league starter. On the other hand, Kyle Davies does make me gag at least a little bit.

The bullpen is much of the same, with a lot to love in Joakim Soria and Juan Cruz, but really nothing else at all.

Offense:

That sound you just heard?

Tens of thousands of fantasy owners everywhere talking themselves into Alex Gordon as their cheap breakout player of the year, ONE MORE TIME. Go ahead, put another quarter in the slot, still won’t make the ride any better.

First baseman Billy Butler on the other hand showed spunk last year. Feel free to believe in him at your own risk.

Wait… Jason Kendall is still alive?

AND PLAYING BASEBALL?

Hardly. He’s hit about .260 each of the past three years. There is dried mustard on my living room carpet worth more to me than Kendall.

All-in-all, you have to like the concept of what the Royals are hinting at. They just haven’t quite figured out the entire equation.

A few more variables might do the trick.

Chicago White Sox

Pitching:

Do you love Jake Peavy? I know an awful lot of San Diego fans who still do – for some weird reason – but do you?

I was really just goofing. There’s no reason not to think Peavy can’t return to ’08 form. He wasn’t even THAT bad last year, when on the diamond. In fact Peavy was lights out in his three starts with Chicago after returning from injury.

Deal me in. He’s got some of my chips already.

Mark Buehrle may not be a sexy name and he may not be lights out, but he is dependable. The only season he has ever pitched less than 200 innings, was 2001, the first year he broke into the league.

I’m not a huge fan of Gavin Floyd but I do kind of dig what John Danks brings to the table. And there certainly are worse fifth starters in the league than Freddie Garcia.

The bullpen? Lets just say that super-sub Matt Thornton should be closing NOW. The Sox also have J.J. Putz and former Padre, Scott Linebrink. Both who were useless in ’09, but still have juice left in the tank.

Closer Bobby Jenks? Ugggh. Let’s just move on.

Offense:

Sadly, though Chicago has several arms worth a scare or two, the bats aren’t so reliable.

Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham both have promise, but are still risks.

When Andruw Jones is close enough to winning your starting centerfield job, that we have to have the conversation, things aren’t going as well as they probably should be.

Juan Pierre has been picked by a baseball mind I trust, as the value break-out player of the year. Pierre hit .308 with 30 stolen bases last year in only 380 at-bats, and for once doesn’t really have any competition for his starting spot. Unless of course you count Mark Kotsay, who has had a pretty terrific spring against right-handers and figures to be an impact during the regular season in some form. I would expect Pierre to net around 450 at-bats.

Speaking of Pierre and Sir Fats-a-lot Jones, remember when the Dodgers signed Pierre to start in center and then signed Jones a year later? Then Chicago signed them both this winter? Those two just can’t get rid of each other.

Time to rank our candidates. Worst to first, as always…

5.) Cleveland Indians

4.) Kansas City Royals

3.) Minnesota Twins

2.) Chicago  White Sox

1.) Detroit Tigers

Consider this my way of telling you to expect a monster year out of Miguel Cabrera, completely bouncing back and then some, from his late season troubles last year.

There won’t be a late-season Detroit collapse this time. It’s go-time.

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