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February 28, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Potential Breakouts and Flops for 1999

by Rany Jazayerli

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

The Pale Hose have many concerns, but none greater than the performance of Frank Thomas. The difference between the 1990-97 version (the greatest offensive player in 40 years) and the 1998 version (roughly average production from a 1B/DH) is worth as much as six wins in the standings. I examined this issue for the White Sox Heater, and the evidence would suggest that Thomas will bounce back. He's not particularly old, he was going through a divorce last year, and he's healthy. The other main "veteran" to watch for is Paul Konerko, the most obvious candidate to mimic Todd Walker this year, as far as building off of a disappointing rookie season. Keep in mind that his 1997 season was not nearly as impressive as it looked once the hot air was taken out (an EqA of .275), but in fairness Konerko posted EqA's of .329 and .301 in his two minor league stops last year. Look for .275 with 25 homers and 50 walks, and you'll be satisfied; if you're expecting him to hit .310 with 35 homers in Comiskey Park, you're fooling yourself.

Mike Caruso has two gaping weaknesses: ye olde E-6, and his plate discipline. If he improves both, he'll be the fourth best shortstop in the league, which is a hell of a lot better than it sounds. If either Caruso or Magglio Ordonez takes a big step forward, Thomas bounces back, and Konerko lives up to his billing, the Sox offense may score as many runs as it did with Belle and Ventura in 1998.

The most important pitchers on the team are Jim Baldwin and Mike Sirotka, the only two starters with the experience and talent to reasonably hope for 200 innings and ERAs around 3.50. Jaime Navarro is important from a different standpoint: the White Sox' playoff hopes ride in large part on making sure Navarro never takes the mound when the outcome of the game is reasonably in doubt.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

The veteran squarely under the bullseye here is Roberto Alomar, of whom current opinion ranges from "Hall of Famer in his prime" to "worn down, lazy, and on the decline." As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between. It is true that Alomar had a shockingly disappointing season, and it might even be true that his work ethic dipped after the Orioles found themselves in fourth place early on. The flip side is that Cleveland is expected to win, Roberto is with his brother now, and the Hirschbeck incident is two years old now. He may be dead wood by the last year of his contract, but for 1999 he should be exactly what the Indians need.

The biggest concern for Cleveland up until last week was how Omar Vizquel's crybaby antics would affect not only his performance but the team's entire outlook. Fortunately for them, reality (in the form of his own teammates) dealt Vizquel a pretty good slap in the face, and he's in camp and keeping his mouth shut. This story ain't over, and don't be surprised if Vizquel plays at less than his usual level both at bat and in the field. The Indians deserve credit for not meekly giving in, but this could prove to be a season-long headache.

The Indians' cry of need for a #1 starter has been going on since Bert Blyleven left town. Unless Schilling or Appier heads their way, they'll have to make do with hoping that Bartolo Colon or Jaret Wright earns the role, which wouldn't be the end of the world. Bet on Wright if you have to pick; he's got a better assortment, a better health record, and unlike Colon, Mike Hargrove didn't forget to check his pitch counts last year.

DETROIT TIGERS

The Tigers are in denial. They deny that their team is not a contender, despite the fact that the only significant changes to last year's 97-loss squad are a 30-year-old third baseman and a 33-year-old soft-tossing starting pitcher. Do you really think swapping Paul Bako for Brad Ausmus really matters?

Dean Palmer is a nice acquisition, but he can't score 850 runs by himself. Either Bobby Higginson or Tony Clark has to step up with a monster year. Clark, who turns 27 in June and has almost imperceptibly moved his game forward over the last two years, may oblige with a .300/.380/.580 season, sort of a switch-hitting Carlos Delgado. Deivi Cruz is healthy, and when healthy plays some of the best defense in the game. But his bat (.260/.284/.355) is a serious problem, and even though he's just 24, I see him only taking baby steps forward, not the Godzilla leap that he needs. Brian Hunter is worth watching only to make sure he's on the bench as much as possible.

Justin Thompson has to be considered the division's best candidate to rebound. He went 11-15 with a 4.05 ERA, but his ERA was affected by bad bullpen support, and his record was affected by bad run support. He could pitch just as well and go 17-12 with a 3.60 ERA, and everyone will talk about his turnaround. If he really breaks out and gets good run support, he's got a shot at 20 wins.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

The main questions surrounding most of the veterans in camp start with "where will he be traded to?" Kevin Appier hasn't established that he's both healthy and pitching well, but he'll probably be traded as soon as he does. With the Royals' youth movement running faster than Moises Alou's treadmill, that might not be a bad thing, especially if the Royals could turn Appier into Russ Branyan. Herk Robinson against John Hart... why do visions of Leon Spinks come to mind?

Jeff King is also being actively shopped, and the unfortunate end to Andres Galarraga's season has Atlanta interested. If the Royals get anything at all for King, it's a great deal. If they get nothing at all, it's still a good deal. The only other veterans in the lineup should be Jeff Conine and Joe Randa. Conine is almost a lock to continue his slow, painful deterioration, and while Randa has some "upside" left, it would be to get back up to being a league-average third baseman.

The pitching staff is a bigger question mark than the contents of Alan Greenspan's secret folder, and almost as important from the Royals' standpoint. Either Jose Rosado or Glendon Rusch has to take a step forward. Rusch may be the better bet; he pitched extremely well after resting an arm injury last year, and Rosado's inconsistency last year may be the product of lasting damage from the Bob Boone era.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Veterans? I guess you have to look at Matt Lawton (27 years old) and Todd Walker (26). Lawton was at the top of his game last year; if he can duplicate last season, when he was one of the best rightfielders in the league, it will be a hell of an accomplishment. Walker, on the hand, probably still has some growing to do, especially in the power department. He hit 41 doubles in 143 games, which I take as a hint that he could double last year's 12-homer output this year. Terry Steinbach's tank reads empty; it's not a question of whether the engine will die, but when. Marty Cordova has been a disappointment the last two years; it only seems like twenty. He's actually a better bet to rebound than you might think; the main problem has been the plantar fasciitis of his heel, which is notoriously difficult to treat (see Mark McGwire, 1993-94). Don't expect miracles, just a .280 average with 15 homers.

The Twins' difficulties in developing pitchers during the Tom Kelly/Dick Such Era is well-documented, and it remains the biggest hurdle in their rebuilding lane. Frankie Rodriguez is a break-out candidate every year, but the real pitcher to watch for here is Eric Milton, who is entering just his 3rd professional year. Fifteen wins with a 4.00 ERA isn't unreasonable to expect.

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

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