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November 17, 2008

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AL Central

by Nate Silver

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What Do They Need? The White Sox head into next season with essentially replacement-level alternatives at two positions, center field and second base, though there is room to debate that characterization at the keystone, depending on what you think of rookie Chris Getz. They could also use a fifth starter, since Jose Contreras can't be counted on for much, and since the organization seems a bit overly optimistic about the speed with which someone like Aaron Poreda will be ready to become a big-league regular.

What Do They Have? After dumping Nick Swisher and letting Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera walk out the door, the White Sox have become fairly streamlined, particularly as their minor league system-while improved-does not really contain any Must! Play! Now! guys. This is not necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary, it's indicative of a team that is getting better and better about understanding marginal value. But it does mean that wheeler-dealer Kenny Williams has somewhat fewer assets than he's used to working with. The one exception is probably relief pitching, where the Sox are fairly stacked, to the point that Bobby Jenks could potentially be moved.

What Are They Likely To Do? The hottest target for the South Siders appears to be free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, a terrific overall player who could potentially double as the club's leadoff hitter. He's a good fit for the club and a good fit for Williams, though I can't help escape the feeling that O-Dog has probably peaked. It's less clear what the White Sox may do about center field, where the free-agent pickings are pretty slim. The hole there will probably need to be filled by trade, which likely means flipping Jenks or perhaps Javier Vazquez, also rumored to be on the trading block.

What Should They Do? The improvements made by the likes of Carlos Quentin, John Danks, and Alexei Ramirez last season were very real and will tend to pay dividends for a long time, and the White Sox can be in the 87- to 90-win range again without doing anything too radical. If the basic game plan is paying slightly too much money to someone like Hudson and trading Jenks for a decent center fielder (which might be harder than it looks, because it's something of a buyer's market for relief pitching), I think I'm on board, though I'd complement that plan by adding a veteran starter, which the White Sox seem disinclined to do. The worries I'd have are that Williams will either decide that either DeWayne Wise or Brian N. Anderson is an adequate alternative in center field, or that he'll move Vazquez, who is undervalued right now.

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What Do They Need? Minnesota is in a bit of an odd situation in which they have at least marginally adequate solutions most everywhere on the diamond, but also enough below-average ones that the offense, if uncultivated, is probably going to struggle to score 829 runs again. The Twins might need to upgrade at shortstop, where Brendan Harris has a decent bat but a marginal glove (though his metrics were much improved from his disastrous defensive season in 2007 with Tampa Bay). There is also an argument to be made that Carlos Gomez, while having a terrific future, would be better served by spending 2008 in Rochester (I'll be very curious to see what PECOTA has to say about that). The Twins could also contemplate an upgrade between the right field and DH positions.

What Do They Have? There is enough pitching depth that the Twins can probably consider trading a Kevin Mulvey or a Phil Humber-or trading one of their higher-profile starters to open up a slot for them.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Twins are arguably the most conservative organization in baseball, rarely making a big move unless the circumstances really compel them to. Coming off an unexpectedly good year and without facing any manifestly obvious holes, I'd expect Bill Smith to spend a lot of time at the craps table at the Winter Meetings in Vegas and little time at the bargaining table.

What Should They Do? I think there's a bit of danger here of being lulled into a false sense of security. The Twins have some bright young talent, but they overachieved last year, particularly on the offensive side of the ledger (they scored 829 runs, but their peripherals pointed to only 764 equivalent runs). Moreover, the AL Central is liable to be tougher this time around after a down year across the board. In other words, this looks like an 80-85 win team to me, rather than a 85-90 win team if no further upgrades are made, albeit one with substantial upside. Corner outfield is usually among the easier places to acquire talent, and I'd package Jason Kubel together with a young starter to acquire a premium outfielder, or perhaps even open my wallet and pay for one.

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What Do They Need? The Tribe has a glaring need at third base, where it's well past time to wave the white flag on Andy Marte. It's not been Mark Shapiro's style to invest heavily in his bullpens, but he's had problems there as a result. There are a lot of starting pitchers on the 40-man, but beyond Cliff Lee, they are mostly of the glass-half-empty variety.

What Do They Have? If the Indians decide that Matt LaPorta is ready-and there's no reason to think that he isn't-then they ought to be able to move both Ben Francisco and Franklin Gutierrez, the latter of whom might have inflated trade value in a weak market for center-field talent. Beyond that, there isn't a whole lot of excess talent, as most of the farm system has either graduated or come into contact with the Peter Principle.

What Are They Likely To Do? It's hard to say, because Shapiro and assistant GM Chris Antonetti can be creative, and because some decisions are liable to be dictated by what the team thinks about the health of Travis Hafner (and to a lesser extent that of Victor Martinez), information that we aren't privy to. It would be surprising if the Indians didn't make at least one move that involved dealing an outfielder; what's harder to know is whether Larry Dolan will be inclined to open his wallet.

What Should They Do? While the Indians should be better almost by default next year, from my vantage point they will need to add a third baseman, a starting pitcher, and a decent closer if they hope to re-join baseball's elite. With a shrewd management team, they should be able to fill two of those three holes by moving the likes of Francisco and Gutierrez. The third one will probably require an increase in payroll, and it wouldn't be the worst thing for Dolan to spend a little and show Cleveland that he cares, because attendance has remained sluggish in the Forest City, which has never really gotten over the dismantling of the John Hart clubs.

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What Do They Need? The Royals have made progress toward having at least adequate alternatives at more and more positions, though there's arguably an exception at second base depending on what you think of Alberto Callaspo, and clearly an exception in the outfield, which is a complete mess behind David DeJesus (and a Chernobyl-like wasteland if the Royals decide that Joey Gathright should be an everyday player again). The starting pitching is a little deeper than it used to be, but adding another arm wouldn't hurt.

What Do They Have? The Royals are now at that stage of their rebuilding process where they have shed most of their superfluous assets, though their bullpen is unusually good for a second-division club. The other exception is at first base, where Mike Jacobs was an unnecessary acquisition for a team that really needed to give the job to Kila Ka'aihue. Uber-prospect Mike Moustakas could also fetch quite a bit in trade if the Royals decided they needed a premium big-league talent at another position.

What Are They Likely To Do? The plan seems to be to shuffle the deck chairs somewhat in the outfield, moving DeJesus to a corner to make room for a better defensive center fielder. I'm not sure how much this helps, although Jose Guillen is part of the problem rather than part of the solution, and the disappointing Mark Teahen may be as well; DeJesus in a corner pushes one of those two aside, but will it be to make space for a merely offensively-adequate center fielder? It also looks like the Royals may trade for a second baseman. This too I'd consider a mistake; while Callaspo is no great shakes, the club has bigger problems to worry about.

What Should They Do? There are two somewhat radical moves that the Royals could consider:

  1. Recognize that most closers have short lifespans, that the bullpen is fairly deep behind him, and that his trade value will never be higher, and move Joakim Soria for a premium corner outfield talent.
  2. Decide that they're actually fairly close to contention, and increase payroll by $20 million, hopefully using more discernment in the free-agent market than the sort that brought them Jose Guillen.
Absent doing one of those two things, the Royals are going to be in a holding pattern of some kind or another, with an outside chance of contention if things break just perfectly, but more likely to finish once again with a win total somewhere in the seventies. Sometimes there are no magic bullets and a holding pattern is the best that a team can do, particularly if they have limited financial resources-Kansas City may well be one of those cases. However, Dayton Moore ought to at least be contemplating these sorts of alternatives.

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What Do They Need? There's arguably a fair amount of work to do, though there are quite a few positions in which the team will need to rely heavily on its trainers and external scouts to determine the adequacy of in-house solutions. The one place where the Tigers unambiguously need to add talent is at shortstop, where Edgar Renteria has mercifully departed and Ramon Santiago is the current suggested incumbent. Although the Tigers are making noise about dumping a veteran starting pitcher for Julio Lugo, more realistically they should be looking to add one instead. They probably need a closer, and perhaps some bullpen depth as well. The team will also have to decide if they trust Dusty Ryan as an everyday catcher.

What Do They Have? There is a seeming abundance of talent in the outfield, particularly with the news that Carlos Guillen will move out to left, which would make both Marcus Thames and Matt Joyce expendable. They also have a bit of positional flexibility, as Brandon Inge, now slated to start the season at third base, could potentially be moved back to catcher if they find someone they like at the hot corner. Beyond that, there aren't too many excess assets.

What Are They Likely To Do? Although the Tigers haven't yet been linked to any of the megastars on the market, I suspect they will eventually find a way to throw a fair amount of money at their problems, as the team drew 3.2 million fans last season, but will face pressure after such a disappointing season. The problem is that the free-agent shortstops aren't very attractive, so the Tigers will either have to get into a bidding war for Rafael Furcal, overpay for an Orlando Cabrera type, or make a problem-for-problem swap for someone like Julio Lugo. It shouldn't be surprising if the Tigers are in on the bidding for any number of the premium starters and relievers on the market. Dave Dombrowski tends not to place a ton of value on the closer position, so I'm not sure that the club will end up with someone like Francisco Rodriguez, but it wouldn't surprise me to see a Ben Sheets in a Tiger uniform.

What Should They Do? It's a little unconventional, but I might market Carlos Guillen around, who may be looked at as a trustworthy solution at any of several different positions. Why trade Guillen instead of Marcus Thames or Matt Joyce? Because the Tigers have run into a bit of a Jim Hendry/Matt Murton problem with the latter two, in that their trade value is depressed because it's clear the club doesn't think all that highly of them. Beyond that, I think this is one of those rare situations that really does call for adding a premium closer; the club has waited too long on Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney to develop into something that they are not. On the other hand, I would resist the temptation to upgrade at catcher, where Ryan could very easily be league-average or better.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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