March 26, 2003
AL Central Preview
I'm back from a slightly longer break than anticipated, following a weekend in Vegas with my best friend. Now, I'm not saying how I did, but if you ever see my name on College Basketball Prospectus feel free to leave it on the shelf.
(Damn you, Atlantic 10.)
Today, I'll resume my divisional previews with the AL Central, and continue with one a day through Sunday as part of BP's season-opening package.
In some ways, the AL Central is the easiest division to project. There are just two teams with a reasonable shot to finish over .500, much less contend. Choosing between those two teams, though, is difficult. Four days rooming with a Twins fans who wouldn't stop talking about the team's depth didn't change my mind, however.
Chicago White Sox
For the third consecutive season, I'll go with the best team on paper. The White Sox have an excellent offensive core, capable of scoring 850-900 runs with just a couple of breaks, like a Frank Thomas revival. That lineup is heavily unbalanced, with seven right-handed batters and two switch-hitters. That may not hurt them against most of the league, but could be a factor when facing the Twins and their four right-handed starters, including big-split guys Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse. I'm reminded of the 1996 Astros, who were similarly talented and similarly unbalanced, and who couldn't beat the Cardinals' right-handed staff, finishing second in the division.
For the chance at a great offense, the Sox pay a defensive price. Their up-the-middle trio of Jose Valentin, D'Angelo Jimenez and Aaron Rowand comes with significant questions: Valentin has always posted high error totals and his range is diminishing with age; Jimenez was a disappointment with the glove in San Diego; and Rowand is a corner outfielder playing out of position.
The defensive questions take on greater importance for a team that doesn't project to strike out many batters. As good a trade as Kenny Williams made for Bartolo Colon, Colon's strikeout rate dropped significantly last year in what was his best season otherwise. Co-ace Mark Buehrle isn't a high-strikeout guy. Other than Damaso Marte, the top strikeout pitchers from last year's staff--Antonio Osuna and Rocky Biddle--are gone, with only Billy Koch's decent strikeout rate added.
Key player: Colon. The Sox can get by if Thomas doesn't return to form, but they need 225 good innings from their new ace to hold off the Twins.
The opposite of White Sock is Twin. Discuss.
It's hard to compare these two teams because they have such disparate strengths and weaknesses. My picking the White Sox over the Twins primarily reflects two issues I have with the Twins. One--and you could apply this to the Angels, too--is that they're entering 2003 with largely the same team that was successful in 2002. That kind of stand-pat, we-won-last-year approach is usually death for a team, especially one (or two) whose approach was reliant on the getting hard-hit balls to land on the ground and not in gloves. Ron Gardenhire has shown no inclination to fix the Twins' problems, from Jacque Jones needing a platoon partner to the team needing a real #2 hitter to an overuse of one-run straegies.
The second reason is straight out of the Bill James handbook: teams that improve in one season tend to regress in the next, a concept known as "The Plexiglass Principle." The Twins were not subject to this last year, improving for a second straight season, but I don't think they can turn the trick again. They outperformed their Pythagorean projection last year by a fair amount, indicating that the true quality of the team wasn't 94-67, but more like 87-74. These indicators aren't damning, but they're enough for me to like the team that isn't coming off two seasons of improvement and one of some good luck.
Key player: Gardenhire. If he really is convinced that everything he was doing last year was right, the Twins won't have much chance in 2003.
The next three teams won't be playing in any big games this year, and have basically been listed in order of their chance to surprise people.
There's some progress being made here, and I like just about everything I've seen so far from Alan Trammell. It's going to take a while for the talent base to develop, but Trammell is doing what he can to move it along, going with a middle infield of Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante, Damion Easley be damned. Neither young player is a coming star, but they should be good enough defensively to justify the decision, and might help support a pitching staff that will need the help.
Clearing out the old is the big theme in Motown. Eric Munson is going to get playing time at third base, while Andres Torres could play a lot in center field with Eugene Kingsale playing left. Trammell has already put Easley on the bench, and has to be considered a threat to do the same with veteran dead weight like Dean Palmer, Shane Halter and Craig Paquette. If nothing else, playing the younger players might give the Tigers marketing department an angle for selling the team to a city that is no longer interested in just coming out to see the new ballpark.
While Trammell has done a good job so far, there's only so far he can take this sow's ear. The Tigers have no pitching and not much in the way of hitting. Jeremy Bonderman, with no experience above A ball, is pencilled in as the #4 starter. As Rob Neyer points out, there's little reason to expect this move to succeed, and that Trammell is making it reflects just how little talent he's seen this spring. He'll make do with stopgaps like Mike Maroth and hope that having lots of young, fast guys on the field can keep the scores respectable.
Key player: Dave Dombrowski. When Palmer or Bobby Higginson or Dmitri Young has a good week, it will be up to Double D to leverage that into a trade. How well he clears payroll and adds depth to the system will be a big factor in determining how long the Tigers linger in purgatory.
With the departure of Jim Thome, the Indians' sole remaning link to the glory years is a 35-year-old shortstop whose presence is a significant barrier to progress. Maybe the Tribe can be bad enough this year that even Omar Vizquel will want to leave, but until that happens, Brandon Phillips will play out of position, and $8 million will go down the drain.
The Indians may have the worst pitching in the AL this year. They'll be breaking in at least two young pitchers at a time at the back of the rotation--Ricardo Rodriguez and Jason Davis for now--and hoping proven mediocrities like Brian Anderson and Jason Bere can be the stable veterans of the group. It's an interim plan for a team that has no expectation of success in 2003, and I suppose it's to Mark Shapiro's credit that he's gone this route, after last winter's attempts to keep the Tribe atop the division.
The Indians may score a fair number of runs. While the loss of Thome leaves just Ellis Burks and Karim Garcia as power bats, Travis Hafner and a healthy Matt Lawton are good OBP guys, and only the third baseman (some combination of Casey Blake and Bill Selby) should be an offensive hole. It won't be enough to make up for the pitching staff, though.
Key player: Carl Willis. The Indians' new pitching coach has the job of developing Rodriguez, Davis, and the large collection of live arms that will come through Cleveland over the next two seasons. If he can mine three good starters from the group, he'll have done his job and set up the Tribe to win the division in 2005.
Kansas City Royals
It's hard to see anything to like here, especially with the team's best player on his way out of town and the second-best player likely to follow. It's time to declare the David Glass/Allard Baird Royals a failure and start over. They took a decent core of talent--not a great one, but a decent one--and turned it into nothing over five years, a period marked by two awful trades and Glass's incessant complaining about how his team's situation was everyone else's fault but his.
If there's any reason to watch Royals games this year, it's to see how the pitching staff develops. The vast majority of the team's innings will be thrown by team-developed young arms. Any hope the Royals have of being good in the future depends on some combination of Jeremy Affeldt, Runelvys Hernandez, Chris George, Jimmy Gobble, Mike MacDougal, Ryan Bukvich and Jeremy Hill making the jump from prospect to producer.
The team's offense is awful, and will be worse by the end of the year. Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney deserve better than to play on a team where Michael Tucker and Brent Mayne are among the good teammates. I'll be interested to see if Raul Ibanez is for real, following two of the more surprising seasons in recent memory. Angel Berroa will get one more season to show if he can actually hit. Overall, it's a lineup that will be lucky to score 700 runs, and that's in Kauffman Stadium, which has been a good hitters' park for a few years.
Key player: Sweeney. The sooner Sweeney realizes the situation is desperate and asks for a trade, the sooner the Royals can cash him in and reach David Glass' goal of a $7.5MM payroll.