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July 19, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Second-Half Prospectus

by Christina Kahrl

Second-Half Prospectus

The division of the Indians and the Four Papooses isn't exactly burgeoning with major changes in the standings, but there are things to look forward to.

Cleveland Indians (56-31, division leader)

John Hart's outfit can afford to tinker, because it isn't like anyone's going to sneak up on them. The offense is chugging along on a pace to score more than 950 runs, but shy of the '98 Yankees' total of 965. The major issue remains the same: are the Indians going to risk having another regular season victory parade marred by another playoff collapse?

Assume the Tribe finishes the year with the league's best record, and has a rematch against the Red Sox. Bartolo Colon hasn't turned into the rotation ace, so they're counting on Dave Burba or Charles Nagy against Pedro Martinez in Game One? That's a situation in which it doesn't matter that the Indians' offense is 150 runs better than Boston's. Even if they survive the Sox, having to face the Yankees in the second round wouldn't be any easier than it was last year.

So John Hart still has the same problem as in the previous four years: he needs a top-notch starter. The Indians' window of opportunity is beginning to close, and they won't be able to count on their continued dominance of the Central after this year. If they don't do go all the way now, Hart won't win any medals for careful guidance or a heroic retention of his prospects. He'll be remembered as the man who couldn't get the Indians over the top, a local hero who fell short, and the man who couldn't exorcise the ghosts of 1954 once and for all. The Indians need to identify who that top starter should be, then go out and get him. Chuck Finley, because of his career-long dominance over the Yankees? Kevin Appier? I go to the Dodgers and offer a package starting with Enrique Wilson, and whatever else it takes, to get Ismael Valdes.

Immortality aside, there are tactical problems that the Indians need to address. With Travis Fryman out, after some initial consideration they aren't going to get Jim Thome any action over at third base. This is a mistake. On the most optimistic level, letting Thome play a few games a week at third would at give the Tribe some flexibility by preparing him for a start at the hot corner in an NL park in the World Series. That's going to be much more to their advantage than any of the ugly rumored deals to paper over Fryman's absence, like reacquiring Carlos Baerga. Yes, Thome may be much heavier now than when he last played third, and he may have the lateral mobility of the Fridge. Even so, if you give me the choice during the World Series between a chance or two in the field at the hot corner, versus four at-bats for a better bat (probably Richie Sexson) than Wilson or some rented veteran mediocrity, I'll take the at-bats.

There have also been concerns that the weak rotation has led to overuse in the bullpen, particularly in the case of Steve Karsay. Considering that Karsay has essentially never had an injury-free season, that may be an overreaction to the rotation's problems. If anything, Mike Hargrove needs to let Ricky Rincon and Steve Reed work longer in the outings he uses them in (which also means fewer outings), and stop reserving them for situational roles where neither of them are pitching as well as they could. Ironing out both Mike Jackson and the infamously talented-yet-ineffective Paul Shuey should be an equally high priority.

Chicago White Sox (42-43, 2nd place, 13 games behind)

The White Sox remain in the same situation they entered the season with: upgrade with youth as it becomes ready and keep building for 2000. The Sox have already surprised several media types by not curling up and dying after losing Robin Ventura and Albert Belle. Still, the offense hasn't adjusted to their departures, leaving them 11th in the league in runs scored.

Several of the younger players need to make adjustments. Greg Norton has become too passive at the plate; he needs to remember how to plaster a fastball. Mike Caruso has regressed terribly in the last four weeks, and may get demoted. Carlos Lee needs to stop merely keeping his head above water, learn to wait on his pitch and drive it. The Sox also have to come to terms with Frank Thomas' preference to play first base over DHing. He's been more comfortable at the plate when he plays first, and if that means getting back the Frank Thomas of old, they'll have to re-learn to live with his shortcomings in the field.

Magglio Ordonez is turning into a new-and-improved George Bell who can field, Paul Konerko seems to be picking up steam and Chris Singleton has been a fun surprise in center field so far. The low-risk, low-cost, high-yield catching platoon of Brook Fordyce and Mark Johnson has been outstanding.

The big improvements have come on the mound. Having let Jim Parque and Mike Sirotka take their lumps last year, the Sox now have two of the best lefty starters in the league to show for it. The bullpen has been relatively solid, as Keith Foulke and Sean Lowe have been outstanding in middle relief, and Bill Simas is finally getting out of an early funk.

There have also been setbacks. James Baldwin's mesmerizing curve has been mesmerizing batters to the sound of "ball four" and bleacher creatures with souvenir showers. John Snyder couldn't adjust after the league caught up with him. Jaime Navarro is still terrible, but it doesn't get noticed as often now that some people have been doing even worse.

Basically, the Sox need to stay the course, evaluating and developing their players to see if they can mount that 2000 challenge to the Tribe. They're a work in progress. If Snyder bounces back and/or Pat Daneker or Kip Wells or Aaron Myette breaks through, they might mount a run at the wild card. They can peddle Navarro or Simas or Fordyce if the right deal comes along, but basically, the Sox should be happy in the knowledge that they're on the road to building a contender, and they'll be ahead of everyone else in the division when the Tribe comes back to the pack in the years to come.

Detroit Tigers (36-52, 3rd place, 20 1/2 games behind)

The Tigers have spent an awful lot of money to send Tiger Stadium out in grand fashion, and it has gotten them out of the basement. By a full game in the standings, no less!

For better or for worse, Randy Smith is going to have to finally take the heat for his misdeeds. The team has gone out of its way to scapegoat Bobby Higginson or Damion Easley, or even more implausibly, "team chemistry". At the end of the day, the problem is what it was last winter: Randy Smith likes certain things, and not all of them add up to putting a good ballclub on the field.

The problems begin with a lineup that, as expected, doesn't get on base. It isn't just Randy Smith's free agents that don't do it; the Tigers young players--Juan Encarnacion, Gabe Kapler and Frank Catalanotto--don't get on base. Tony Clark has already hit his ceiling, and it's low. Even though the team has poked 104 home runs, good for seventh in the league, it has only scored 404 runs (12th). The lineup is older than those of the White Sox or the Royals, but it's also much weaker (a paltry .249 Equivalent Average). Most of the guys the Tigers would like to trade (Gregg Jefferies, Higginson) won't bring much in return, and some players in their lineup (Deivi Cruz, in particular) will never be offensive threats.

Where the Tigers have options is working with their pitching staff. With Jeff Weaver, they have a starter to build around. The bullpen has been weak despite Doug Brocail's continued success as one of the league's better middle men. Some of the problems are self-inflicted: Bryce Florie is wasted as a reliever, and C.J. Nitkowski would be better off as a middle reliever, not a situational guy.

There's a question about whether the Tigers should keep both Justin Thompson and Scuffy Moehler, and several teams have already asked after Thompson. Given the lack of offensive talent the Tigers have to peddle or play, turning Thompson into the best package of talent they can get may be the best Randy Smith can do. A young power hitter would be a good start. Flipping as many of their veterans (Todd Jones, Air Blair, Dave Mlicki) makes sense, because there are several good young pitchers on the horizon, including reliever Francisco Cordero and starters Dave Borkowski, Alan Webb and potentially Adam Pettyjohn.

Trading Thompson for the best offensive prospect(s) they can get, putting Florie into the rotation and bringing up the kids for middle relief by the end of August is the most the Tigers should hope for. If they get caught up in a lame Herk-style campaign for second or third place, they'll fall short while aiming for a booby prize. The Tigers have to accept the risk that if they do nothing, they may be the worst team in the division by season's end. Because of that, they have to do what they can to build a real future for themselves, not one built on misguided free agent pickups and overconfidence in a weak lineup.

Kansas City Royals (35-52, 4th place, 21 games behind)

Like the Sox, the Royals are doing what they need to do, and simply need to stick with it. There's nothing to win this year, so they can focus on how to field a team that can flirt with .500 or better next year.

There isn't much to be done about their very public and very ugly bullpen situation, at least not with the clay Tony Muser has to work with now. They're already on the right path by calling up Dan Reichert and inserting him into the rotation; led by Jeff Suppan and Jose Rosado, the Royals have what could be the division's best rotation for the next few years.

Their offense has been a major reason for their success so far: surprisingly enough, they're fourth in the league in runs scored. Add los dos Carlitos to the breakthroughs of Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney--and the callup of Jeremy Giambi--and there's reason to believe they can sustain this.

As well as things have worked out so far, the Royals need to go shopping. Rey Sanchez is baseball's answer to the Little Dutch Boy as far as shortstops go, so Herk Robinson has to see if he can turn Kevin Appier into a good young shortstop prospect. The Royals can also see what they can get for Johnny Damon; they may want to avoid another arbitration battle with him, and he could return to center field playing for somebody else. Dee Brown is on the way up, so the Royals will have a decision to make about who'll be playing left field, anyway.

On a lesser scale, the Royals should dangle Chad Kreuter and Joe Randa, Most of the contenders could use a veteran catcher, and if Sal Bando could turn Kevin Seitzer into Jeromy Burnitz, in an ideal world, the Royals could get something for their future out of Randa. If everything breaks their way, the Royals have the opportunity to stalk the Indians next year, perhaps even a better one than the White Sox.

Minnesota Twins (34-52, 5th place, 21 1/2 games behind)

Will they trade Mike Trombley or won't they? The suspense is as almost as gripping as the inner turmoil Joe Sheehan feels when he wonders if Buffy's going to be wearing hot pants in tonight's episode.

It's been a long, ugly year, and about the nicest thing you can say is that Tom Kelly has been able to keep his temper long enough to make sure everyone gets to play a little. What is there to look forward to? More of Jacque Jones, less of Torii Hunter and Marty Cordova's waning days as a Twin. They're showcasing Cordova in the outfield, but other than the happiness to all concerned parties that a trade would create, the fish aren't hungry enough to nibble on this bait. Other than peddling Trombley, the only other player who might have some value in trade is Ron Coomer.

There are a few ideas to kick around. First, it's time to make a choice between pitching coach Dick Such and perpetual flop LaTroy Hawkins. Hell, fire both of them, and make room in the rotation for Mark Redman. Second, ditch the punitive attitude towards David Ortiz, or ditch Ortiz. Leaving him in the PCL to make him feel guilty or humble is a waste of time: you're the Twins. Sending Chad Allen away may be necessary: his brain cramps in the field and on the bases are already becoming the stuff of legend, and it isn't like he hits like Babe Herman. Or even Dan Gladden.

Offensively, several things are very wrong: both Matt Lawton and Todd Walker have taken really ugly step backwards at the plate, exemplifying the weakest offensive team in the league, with a MLB-low .231 team EqA.

The Twins could sneak into fourth place past the Tigers, which would be a nice public relations coup. Otherwise, they have to live with the fact that their pitching isn't up to snuff in the division, and won't be for another couple of years. The wait is on for the arrivals of third baseman Mike Cuddyer, catcher Matt LeCroy, and outfielder Mike Restovich. In the meantime, the organization's highest priority is working on the proposal to get a stadium in St. Paul.

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

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