Monday, March 3, 2008

MLB Preview '08: AL Central

by Christopher Reardon

In recent years it seems as if the balance of power in the American League has shifted a bit from the eastern division to the central, and with some of the moves that were made this off-season the East will be hard pressed to prove that wrong.

1. Detroit Tigers, 97-65
Simply put, the Tigers will feature perhaps the most fearsome offense in all of baseball, from top to bottom. Last season Detroit has some weak links at first and third with Sean Casey and Brandon Inge, respectively. So they go out early in the off-season and acquire Edgar Renteria to play shortstop, which frees up incumbent shortstop Carlos Guillen to play first base (and also frees up Casey to move on to the Red Sox to back up Kevin Youkilis). And if that wasn't enough to improve the lineup, the Tigers go out during the winter meetings and pull of the second biggest trade of the off-season by acquiring Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins for a package of prospects. Now Cabrera, one of the most talented and feared hitters in the majors, will man third base and Inge will become one of the more talented back ups in the bigs. Then there's a few guys like Magglio Ordonez (who came in second in MVP voting last season behind the monstrous A-Rod), Curtis Granderson (a superstar center-fielder with a very high ceiling still), Ivan Rodriguez (consistently one of the best catchers in the league even at 37), and Gary Sheffield (still one of the most feared hitters around, though he's the oldest member of this team's offense). Meanwhile, the pitching staff remains one of the most talented around with names like Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, and Willis if he can find his velocity and regain his 2005 form. Essentially, the entire team is stocked with talent and enough veteran presence to help everyone click. If I weren't such a fan of the defending World Series Champions, I'd say the Tigers are the team to beat in the American League in 2008. As it stands I wouldn't be surprised to see Detroit make its second appearance in the Fall Classic in the last three seasons.

2. Cleveland Indians, 95-67
Two years ago, experts said that 2008 would be the season of the Indians. Then came 2007, which saw the tribe tie the Red Sox for the best record in the American League, despite a lack of production from their usual heavy hitter Travis Hafner. So now comes 2008, which should see a return to form of Cleveland's formidable offense (also featuring guys like Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, and Ryan Garko) and a scary rotation anchored by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia and by the man who came in fourth for the award, Fausto Carmona. Put all of that together, and no one would be surprised if the lofty 2008 predictions for the Indians came true... that is, if the tigers hadn't acquired Miguel Cabrera. So now it looks like Cleveland will be back in the number two slot in the their division, fighting it out for the wild card with New York and Seattle. In that battle, with some of the names on their roster, I'd take the Indians to make the playoffs despite not winning the division.

3. Chicago White Sox, 80-82
Last year was a bit of an enigma. Some of the biggest names in baseball experienced relative down years (like Manny Ramirez and the aforementioned Hafner) while some guys that were previously unheard of dominated (like Carlos Pena and Ryan Braun). Into the former category fell Chicago's Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye. Konerko, the captain of the Sox, saw a drop off of 54 points from his 2006 batting average and lost 23 in the RBI category. Dye, an MVP contender in 2006, dropped 61 points from his batting average, sixteen homers, and 42 RBI. That was a severe enough decrease in production to see the White Sox fall completely out of contention last season, and it wasn't helped by some poor performances by veteran pitchers Jose Contreras and Jon Garland. For 2008 Garland has been shipped off to the Angels and Konerko and Dye will be joined by Orlando Cabrera and Nick Swisher. This (coupled with the likelihood of the two incumbent big bats improving on last season's performance) indicates an upgrade on offense, but the pitching staff will be run by a lot of young prospects who don't have much major league experience, leaving some questions there. On paper this team is not good enough to overcome the fearsome Tigers and Indians, but crazier things have happened in baseball. Still, a betting man would find it hard to put the Sox above third in this intense division.

4. Minnesota Twins, 77-85
Well, Johan Santana is a New York Met now. That's quite enough to spell disaster for a small market team such as the Twins. True, Minnesota has always had a strong minor league development system, meaning that most of their players are ready and quite able to play at the major league level. This, however, will not be enough in 2008 to help them move forward in their division. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are quality players, to be sure, but the loss of Torii Hunter to the Angels stings and there simply isn't enough talent in the lineup to allow Minnesota to compete in this division. The addition of Delmon Young from Tampa Bay helps, and Francisco Liriano could return at some point in the year, but it will only stave off the inevitable fall from grace of the once great Twins.

5. Kansas City Royals, 70-92
Poor Kansas City fans. There hasn't been very much to get excited for in recent years. And now former captain Mike Sweeney has signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A's. That's not an indication of bad things to come... right? In this division, in this league even, Kansas City will never be able to compete. Alex Gordon and Mark Teahan perhaps have bright futures ahead of them, but they haven't proven very much at the major league level yet and still they will be depended upon to anchor an offense that won't score very many runs against American League pitchers. As for the pitching staff? When Gil Meche is your ace, you know you've got problems. He did OK last season by posting a 3.67 ERA, but still only managed a sad 9-13 record with that offense behind him. Joakim Soaria might do good things at the back end of the bullpen, though save oppurtunities in Kansas City may be at a premium.

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