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February 15, 2011

Prospectus Preview

AL Central 2011 Preseason Preview

by R.J. Anderson

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The American League Central has not produced a World Series champion since the White Sox in 2005 and is responsible for only two pennant winners in the 13 seasons since the last expansion. A Central team has not won a playoff series since the Indians took the Red Sox to the limit in 2007. The most post-season success the Central has witnessed lately is in divisional tiebreakers.

Using PECOTA—Baseball Prospectus’ proprietary projections system—gives us a feel for how teams will perform after playing time expectations are added to the equation. Using such information gives us projected records and standings, and while PECOTA sometimes disagrees with the conventional notion about a player’s upcoming season, it seems to agree with the Central standings.

 

Minnesota Twins 84-78 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Despite losing more big-league players than they added this offseason, the Twins still appear to be the most well-rounded club in the division, with a solid rotation and lineup, and possibly its bullpen as well.

Why They Might Not Win: All rotations are susceptible to injury, but the Twins might be in particular because their includes Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey, each of whom have been limited by injuries to varying degrees over the past several seasons.

Player Would Could Surprise: Anthony Slama appeared in five games last season and did not see his minor-league success carry over. PECOTA is not allowing the struggle in a small sample size dissuade it from placing Slama as the Twins’ best reliever outside of Joe Nathan by expecting a 3.40 ERA and more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Given the exodus of Twins relievers this winter, Slama could be tested early and often in high-leverage situations.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Former top prospect and first overall draft pick Delmon Young experienced his first 20-plus homer season in 2010 while hitting .298/.333/.493. Is he back on the road to superstardom? PECOTA says not so fast, and expects a relapse into the world of ineffectiveness with a projected slash line of .283/.319/.420. Making matters worse for the Twins are the comparisons to Josh Barfield, Jorge Cantu, and Jeff Francoeur—a collection of formerly hyped prospects who have since fallen flat.

 

Detroit Tigers: 82-80 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: When everyone's healthy, the lineup is high in name value, with Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Victor Martinez. The rotation features the best one-two punch in the division, and a hard-throwing bullpen could be stellar.

Why They Might Not Win: A bullpen with Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, and Joel Zumaya could boost the Tigers’ chances in close games, but the latter two could miss significant time without anyone blinking. Despite the addition of Brad Penny, the back end of the rotation is also a question mark.

Player Who Could Surprise: Disappointment and injury—and occasionally both—have plagued Penny over the last three seasons, leaving him with an ERA over 5.00 and an average annual workload under 110 innings. PECOTA foresees nearly 150 innings with a 4.44 ERA for the 33-year-old. Health is a skill, which means sometimes it is plagued with good or bad luck. Whether Penny will experience snake eyes or a snakebite is anyone’s guess.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Outfielder Brennan Boesch is a given; his rookie season included a half where he looked like a future Hall of Famer (.342/.397/.593) followed by one where he looked like a future minor leaguer (.163/.237/.222). Fans hoping for a bounce back to the first half are out of luck, as Boesch is projected to hit .249/.297/.407.

 

Chicago White Sox: 80-82 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Their lineup could be bonkers—in a good way. The addition of Adam Dunn to go with Paul Konerko, Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez, and Alex Rios is something to look forward to, even if the resulting defensive hit is nothing to overlook. If things break right, the rotation could be the best in the division.

Why They Might Not Win: Jake Peavy could miss the start of the season and seems like a lock for at least one trip to the DL during the season. The offense also has some question marks, with the catcher position looking weak, and the youth of Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel come into play.

Player Who Could Surprise: Peavy pitched better last season than his 4.63 ERA gives him credit for. Over his last 12 starts, he struck out 71 batters, walked 13, and had a 3.45 ERA before missing the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury. PECOTA is unaware of the health issues, but suggests he could throw for a 3.24 ERA if his talent level remains unchanged. A Jason Schmidt comparison is both appropriate and downright terrifying.

Player Who Could Disappoint: While PECOTA likes Peavy, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd, it dislikes the other vets in the rotation. Mark Buehrle has a projected ERA of 4.51 (a career worst) while it remains nonplussed by Edwin Jackson’s rise to acceptability (4.63 ERA).

 

Cleveland Indians: 72-90 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: The Indians are built with a few stars surrounded by league-average players. If Grady Sizemore and Carlos Santana stay healthy, the team should break the 70-win barrier for the first time since 2008.

Why They Might Not Win: The rotation is full of question marks. PECOTA expects Justin Masterson’s ERA to resemble his stellar peripherals more this season (4.26) than last (4.70). The problem, though, is the rest of the rotation, with just two other starters (Fausto Carmona and Josh Tomlin) profjected for ERAs under 4.50.

Player Who Could Surprise: Michael Brantley came over in the CC Sabathia trade. An athletic center fielder, Brantley features the offensive profile of a leadoff hitter (a career minor-league OBP of .388) and while PECOTA does not envision a breakout year from the soon-to-be 24-year-old (.266/.329/.346), he should provide excitement in the field and on the basepaths.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Another piece of the Sabathia return, Matt LaPorta seems like a lock for this designation. Now 26, the former top prospect is closing in on 700 plate appearances with an OPS below 700. PECOTA provides the best- and worst-case scenarios by comparing him to Ryan Garko and Jeff Clement, while also projecting a line of .246/.331/.432 and 19 homers.

 

Kansas City Royals: 70-92 projected 2011 record

Why They Might Win: Taking liberties with the definition of win, the Royals should consider this season a success should their top prospects remain healthy and contribute this season.

Why They Might Not Win: Billy Butler and Joakim Soria are good players, but any team is in trouble when those are its two best talents. The rotation is full of band-aids, and the outfield might start three former top prospects now considered busts. The infusion of talented youth throughout the summer and fall should help, but immediate success is not guaranteed.

Player Who Could Surprise: Kila Ka’aihue turns 27 at the end of March and has hit .224/.314/.398 in 230 big-league plate appearances. Nevertheless, PECOTA loves Ka’aihue’s minor-league track record and pegs him for .262/.351/.528 and 25 home runs. His comparables include Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez, two of the best left-handed first basemen in the majors. The projection proving optimistic and Ka’aihue impressing are not mutually exclusive happenings.

Player Who Could Disappoint: Wilson Betemit surprised everyone when he hit .297/.378/.511 in a little over 300 plate appearances last season. Expecting a drop-off is no surprise, but forecasting a fall below his career line is, which is why PECOTA’s projected line of .247/.317/.416 is worth watching.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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