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September 15, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Pitching around the division

by Christina Kahrl

Okay, so the Indians have clinched the division title, and nobody was surprised by this since it was a foregone conclusion that they'd win it this year since, what, 1997? The question is we need to keep in mind is whether or not the other teams in the AL Central have spent their time wisely--in particular, have they managed to grow or develop a rotation?

Building a good major league rotation usually takes time: not everyone can trade for one as Oakland recently did when Billy Beane added Kevin Appier and Omar Olivares. Given their individual circumstances, the Little Four of the AL Central have had a few years to retool and try to build major league rotations to fuel a drive to contend in 2000 or 2001. How have they done?

Entering the year, here's what each team thought was a good idea as far as their rotations were concerned, along with the number of major league starts for each pitcher through 1998:

Chicago:

  • Jaime Navarro (275)
  • James Baldwin (88)
  • Mike Sirotka (47)
  • Jim Parque (21)
  • John Snyder (14)

Detroit:

  • Willie Blair (102)
  • Justin Thompson (77)
  • Brian Moehler (66)
  • Bryce Florie (24)
  • and very briefly Beiker Graterol (0)

Kansas City:

  • Kevin Appier (247)
  • Jose Rosado (74)
  • Jeff Suppan (43)
  • Jim Pittsley (24)
  • Brian Barber (13)

Minnesota:

  • Brad Radke (130)
  • LaTroy Hawkins (65)
  • Eric Milton (32)
  • Benj Sampson (2)
  • Mike Lincoln (0)

There are certain similarities within the group. Each team had an relative ace with 100 or more starts under their belts. Each team had a talented but frustrating young pitcher for whom expectations had outpaced results (Baldwin, Hawkins, Suppan and, to a lesser extent, Thompson). All of these teams ended up having to replace at least two starters, although some of them did it more quickly than the others.

The Tigers traded for Dave Mlicki two weeks into the season, and called up Jeff Weaver to replace an injured Florie. The Royals snagged Jay Witasick on waivers at the season's start, and subsequently cycled through Chris Fussell and Dan Reichert before acquiring Mac Suzuki, and later Blake Stein in the Appier deal.

The Sox finally realized that Snyder hadn't adjusted to the fact that the league had adjusted to him, while missing their golden opportunity to deal Navarro at the end of July. The Twins bumped first Sampson (for Dan Perkins and later Joe Mays), then Lincoln (for Perkins and now Specs Ryan).

The Sox, Tigers and Royals all have had to or will have to give up on their putative veteran starters: Navarro, Blair and Appier won't be parts of their respective futures. Baldwin, Hawkins and Thompson continue to frustrate their managers. So which teams made the most progress in building a competitive rotation?

The Royals can rightly boast of Rosado's comeback and Suppan's success. Witasick may eventually be the team's closer, so it isn't hard to envision an end-of-2000 rotation of Rosado, Suppan, Stein, Stanford great Jeff Austin and one of Fussell or Reichert. Whatever Tony Muser's strengths as a manager, his problems in putting together a stable bullpen have hurt the Royals badly this year.

Even with Reichert's and Fussell's grisly trials, the Royals have had more quality starts than any other team in the division. But they've also seen more quality starts blown by tiring starters and an awful bullpen than any other team in the division. If Fussell and Reichert had been given the opportunity to cut their teeth in middle relief, instead of watching retreads like Terry Mathews or Don Wengert blow leads, Muser could have reaped the benefit of giving future rotation starters valuable major league experience so that they'd be better prepared to step into the rotation next spring.

The White Sox are still stuck with Navarro, and it looks like Snyder won't straighten out his problems at the major league level. Jim Parque has struggled ever since suffering a thumb injury, but he and Mike Sirotka look like the start of a decent rotation. Kip Wells is already expected to be a rotation starter from here on out, and Aaron Myette will get a couple of starts in the closing weeks to serve as a springboard to claiming a rotation spot. The real dilemma is whether or not the Sox finally give up on Baldwin.

Going into next year, the Sox will have a talented rotation, and if Wells is as ready as he appears to be, they can expect considerable improvement on this year.

The Tigers made their face-saving trade for Mlicki, but while he's been solid, I'd put his year in the same class as Mike Morgan's nice little '98 season for the Twins, or Ray Burris' nice-but-irrelevant '84 with the A's. He's benefitted tremendously from having Deivi Cruz as his shortstop, and is hardly the foundation for future success. Thompson's hurt again, Scuffy Moehler hasn't been quite the same since earning his name, Weaver is struggling terribly, and neither Dave Borkowski or C.J. Nitkowski have done much to inspire confidence.

Hope on the horizon has to come from either David Darwin or Victor Santos, and possibly Adam Pettyjohn or Al Webb, but basically, the Tigers are behind everyone else in the division as far as sorting out what pitchers are going to endure crummy run support.

Surprisingly, it's the Twins who may have the most to brag about. Given how long pitching coach Dick Such has been attacked as the root of all evil, they can take a healthy bit of pride in their progress. Radke is the closest thing in the division to an ace starter other than Bartolo Colon, and Eric Milton is turning into another outstanding starter. Hawkins has been adequate over the last few months, and God only knows what to expect from Specs Ryan now that he can see his catcher. Joe Mays almost certainly won't be as good as he was in July and August, but again, his progress should give the Twins reason to hope that they could end up with the best rotation in the division in 2000.

Now if only they could score runs better than the Tribe can...

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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