I thought I should throw a few predictions out there before Opening Day, which has really sneaked up on me. I blame the Kansas City weather, which as featured several cold mornings, plus several inches of snow a week ago today. It's been hard to get into a baseball frame of mind. At least today was nice and basebally, even though tomorrow brings another cold front. Grrr.
Anyway, as I've said before, I think the AL Central will be the most balanced division in baseball this season. I really believe anyone could finish first, even your Kansas City Royals. Also, I believe anyone can finish last (yes, even your Kansas City Royals). But here's my best guess at what will happen:
1. Minnesota, 87-75
2. Cleveland, 85-77
3. Kansas City, 79-83
4. Detroit, 76-86
5. Chicago, 75-87
Last year: 88-75, 2nd place, lost one-game playoff for division title
Key losses: 3B Mike Lamb, SP Livan Hernandez, RP Dennys Reyes
Key additions: 3B Joe Crede
The Twins, God love 'em, just keep putting a solid team on the field and hoping for the best. Starting in 2001, they've been above .500 every year except a 79-83 hiccup in 2007. A presumably full season from Francisco Liriano (he had 14 starts last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery) should help the Twins stay near the top of the Central this year, too. Signing Joe Crede to play third should help out the big guns in the lineup, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. As always, Joe Nathan is around to finish off every save situation. As a Royals fan, I watch the Twins with a mixture of admiration and envy, and I hope the Royals will be in the Twins' situation someday: a good team every year.
Last year: 81-81, 3rd place
Key losses: 3B Casey Blake, SP CC Sabathia, SP Paul Byrd
Key additions: SP Carl Pavano, SP Joe Smith, 3B Mark DeRosa
The Indians seem to be the trendy pick to win the division, and I think they will certainly be good. I might even agree that on paper, they look like the best team in the division. But for some reason, I just can't pull the trigger on them. Wait, there is a reason: a rotation that, after 2008 AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and 2007 sensation Fausto Carmona, is not very impressive. Even Carmona is a question mark after he struggled in 2008. And who knows if Lee can duplicate what he did last year (22-3, 2.54 ERA, 175 ERA+)? After that, it's Carl Pavano (ask any Yankee fan about this oft-injured pitcher) and Anthony Reyes (still waiting for him to show he can live up to the potential he showed in 2006). On the other hand, the offense should be good, with the division's best player in CF Grady Sizemore, a slugging 1B in Victor Martinez, and underrated RF Shin-Soo Choo. I just don't think they can do enough to overcome that rotation.
Kansas City Royals
Last year: 75-87, 4th place
Key losses: RP Ramon Ramirez, RP Leo Nunez, 2B Mark Grudzielanek
Key additions: CF Coco Crisp, 1B Mike Jacobs, RP Juan Cruz, RP Kyle Farnsworth, IF Willie Bloomquist
Progress continues. We hope. I fully admit that picking this team for third may be an optimistic homer move. It certainly looks like the offense has improved, at least as far as power goes. On-base percentage will still be a question mark. The pitching staff will need at least one starter to step up, and the bullpen will need some sorting out after it was shuffled in the offseason. I don't want to get too in-depth here, as I plan a post tomorrow with a more detailed look at the Royals' hopes this season. But I will say that I still believe the Royals are improving and at least I can say (with a straight face) they have a shot to contend this year.
Last year: 74-88, 5th place
Key losses: C Ivan Rodriguez, DH Gary Sheffield, SS Edgar Renteria, RP Todd Jones
Key additions: C Gerald Laird, SS Adam Everett, RP Brandon Lyon
Remember about a year ago, when everyone thought the Tigers would score 1,000 runs in the 2008 season? Yeah. Didn't happen, although they did score plenty (821, 4th in the AL). So the Tigers decided to emphasize defense, picking up no-hit, all-glove shortstop Adam Everett and moving Carlos Guillen (Detroit's version of Mark Teahen, as he has gone from SS to 1B to 3B in his time with the Tigers) to left field. I guess the latter is a defensive move, since Guillen has played 2 whole games in the outfield in his 11-year career and Comerica Park is known for its spacious outfield. The defense needs to improve to help out the rotation, which is full of question marks. The biggest is, what the hell happened to Justin Verlander last year? His strikeouts dropped by 20 from 2007, while his walks went up by 20. His ERA went up by more than a full run. Any hope the Tigers have of winning the division rests on his return to form. After him, the Tigers will have Edwin Jackson, who won 14 games for Tampa last year, and promising youngsters Armando Galarraga and Rick Porcello (2007's top draft pick). But can they become big league pitchers fast enough to help Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman, if he is ever healthy again?
Chicago White Sox
Last year: 89-74, 1st place, won one-game playoff for division title
Key losses: SS Orlando Cabrera, 3B Joe Crede, OF Nick Swisher, SP Javier Vazquez
Key additions: IF Brent Lillibridge, SP Bartolo Colon
This may be a biased, anti-homer pick, as the White Sox are always the AL Central team I love to hate. But I'm putting them here because they are replacing 3/4 of their infield. Rookie Chris Getz takes over at second for Alexei Ramirez, who moves to shortstop to replace Orlando Cabrera, while Josh Fields gets to show us if he really can be a star at third base. I'm also leery of an offense depending on a 33-year-old Paul Konerko, a 35-year-old Jermaine Dye, and a 38-year-old Jim Thome. How long can they keep going? I'm also leery of a rotation depending on Bartolo Colon, who hasn't been good since 2005, and 38-year-old Jose Contreras. Besides, the White Sox went from 72 wins in 2007 to 89 last year; you would expect them to fall off some under any circumstances.