Continuing what I started with the two East divisions on Friday, I've identified one nagging question I have about each team coming out of spring training, one loose thread that I can't resist tugging upon as the season nears. Today, it's the two Central divisions.
Tigers: The Heavyweight Infield
The half-ton gorilla in the middle of the diamond—you want to take the over?—that is the Tigers' infield defense is sure to be a point of discussion all season long, particularly as they'll be playing behind a rotation that even with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer forecasts to rank just 10th in the league in strikeout rate according to PECOTA. Cabrera, who was pushed off of first base by Prince Fielder’s surprise signing, hasn't played third base during the regular season since 2008, but he lost a good deal of weight over the winter and has worked overtime this spring to avoid embarrassing himself. The consensus of observers is that the facial injuries he sustained a couple weeks back were merely the result of a bad hop on a lousy infield.
Beyond the two big sluggers at the corners, Jhonny Peralta won't win any Gold Gloves at shortstop, and if Ryan Raburn is indeed the regular second baseman, the team could open a butcher shop at Comerica Park to generate additional profit. As I wrote a couple months back, the offense produced by this unit will ultimately matter more than their defense, but since the club hasn’t made any real commitment to a DH in the wake of Victor Martinez's season-ending injury, the question is how stubborn manager Jim Leyland will be in clinging to the Cabrera-at-third alignment if he and the pitching staff struggle.
Indians: Ubaldo's Rebound
Last July 30, when they were just 1 ½ games behind the Tigers, the Indians traded four former high draft picks, including first-rounders Drew Pomeranz, and Alex White, to the Rockies for Jimenez. The move didn't pay immediate dividends, as Jimenez, who had already struggled to match his stellar 2010 showing, pitched to a 5.10 ERA and couldn't recover his lost velocity; the team went 27-31 the rest of the way and wound up 15 games out.
A look at Jimenez's peripherals shows that his walk and strikeout rates (3.7 and 8.6 per nine, respectively) were essentially unchanged from 2010, while his home-run rate doubled from 0.4 to 0.8 per nine, and his BABIP spiked from .274 to .315 (.314 in Colorado, .318 in Cleveland). Both should regress at least somewhat given his track record (0.6 HR/9 and .290 BABIP), but even club president Mark Shapiro conceded publicly that the team's defense isn't particularly well-suited to his ground ball-heavy staff, with Asdrubal Cabrera's work at short the weakest link, and the eventual return of Lonnie Chisenhall displacing Jack Hannahan not helping matters, either. Jimenez once thrived under the difficult conditions of pitching half his games at Coors, but can he survive this?
Royals: Yuni OMGWTFBBQ?
With Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas now in the starting lineup, the Royals' youth movement is well underway, but plans for the team to show off more of its homegrown talent have already hit a snag, not only with Salvador Perez's knee injury, but also with Johnny Giavotella’s demotion. Giavotella didn't set the majors on fire when he arrived in early August (.247/.273/.376 in 187 PA), but the 24-year-old was expected to be the Opening Day second baseman. Instead, manager Ned Yost has opted for a cringe-worthy job share between last year's starter, Chris Getz (.255/.313/.287), and Yuniesky Betancourt (.252/.271/.381), who's back in town as a utilityman after a year in Milwaukee.
Giavotella already forecasts as the better hitter according to PECOTA, with a .258 True Average compared to .249 for Getz and .245 for Betancourt, but he's being sent down because the club wants him to work on his defense. While Giavotella has graded out as a few runs below average per year during his minor-league career, Betancourt is 40 runs to the bad as a shortstop during his major-league career according to FRAA (though +10 in the last two seasons), while Getz is six runs above average. Obviously, the Royals must walk a fine line between developing players and attempting to win, but can having Betancourt receiving regular playing time give anyone any benefit, particularly the pitchers in front of him?
White Sox: Dunn or Done?
In the first year of his four-year, $56 million deal, Adam Dunn tanked spectacularly; after hitting .253/.381/.533 and averaging 40 homers a year from 2004-2010, he sank to .159/.292/.277 with 11 homers. Explanations for his decline abound. He was out of shape and his swing wasn't right in spring training, he underwent an appendectomy in the season's first week and came back too soon, he didn't take to the DH role after playing the field regularly throughout his career, and he suddenly couldn't hit left-handed pitching to save his life (.064/235/.074—just 6-for-94 with a double and no homers). Dunn should improve at least somewhat; he came to camp in better shape, and for what little the small sample sizes of spring training are worth, he has hit .260/.413/.580 in 63 PA while striking out just nine times, compared to last year's .224/.333/.448 in 78 PA while striking out 27 times. Can he come close to living up to his contract, or will he again be a sinkhole in the middle of the White Sox’ lineup?
Twins: Still the M&M Boys?
With eight All-Star appearances and a pair of MVP awards, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were the heart of a Twins team that reached the playoffs three times from 2006-2010, but last year was a disaster. Morneau failed to bounce back from a mid-2010 concussion and hit just .227/.285/.333 in 69 games while dealing with additional wrist, knee, and foot injuries. Meanwhile, Mauer struggled to recover from off-season knee surgery, and after being rushed into the lineup to start the year, wound up missing two months due to bilateral leg weakness exacerbated by a viral infection; in 82 games, he hit a thin .287/.360/.368. The cost-conscious Twins have a ton of money invested in both—$161 million remaining on Mauer's deal through 2018, and $30 million to go on Morneau through 2013. Can they get anything close to star-caliber hitting from either? Can they get anywhere close to their money's worth if Morneau is limited to DHing and Mauer is playing a good deal of first base with (shudder) Ryan Doumit behind the plate?
Brewers: Post-Prince Plan
When Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, he left behind a huge hole in the Brewers' lineup; the slugging first baseman averaged 38 homers and a .282/.391/.541 line in five full seasons as the team's first baseman, helping them to two playoff berths in the process. The job of filling his shoes now belongs to Mat Gamel, who has hit just .222/.309/.374 with five homers in 194 big-league plate appearances, the bulk of that in 2009. The 26-year-old lefty has mashed in the minors, including .310/.372/.540 with 28 homers in 545 PA at Triple-A Nashville last year, but he struggled mightily against lefties (.213/.280/.375 last year), so he'll likely need a platoon-mate. Corey Hart has been working out at first base during the spring, but he hasn't played the position in a regular-season game since 2006, and he's working his way back from surgery to repair a torn meniscus to boot. Can that duo—or any other combo of players—provide enough production for the team to contend?
Reds: Aroldis' Role
Since hitting 105 mph on the radar gun late in 2010, expectations for Aroldis Chapman have been sky-high, but he struggled out of the bullpen last year, walking 41 batters in 50 innings—including the first hitter he faced an MLB-high 13 times; fortunately, he struck out 71 (12.8 per nine), and gave up just two homers. Manager Dusty Baker said recently that a preoccupation with family issues back in Cuba may have compromised Chapman's focus. This spring, the 24-year-old southpaw came to camp set up to battle for a rotation job, and to the extent that one can divine anything from spring stats, he's held up his end of the bargain, posting an 18/2 K/BB ratio in 17 spring innings while allowing just four runs. Meanwhile, fellow fifth-starter candidates Homer Bailey and Jeff Francis have ERAs befitting Boeing models, with the former even walking more hitters than he's struck out.
When closer Ryan Madson went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament last week, early indications were that Chapman would switch back to the bullpen, and with top set-up man Nick Masset also injured, he may yet, but he has continued to impress as a starter. Will Chapman secure a starting job, and if he does, will he be safe in the hands of Baker, who's not exactly known for having a deft touch with young pitchers?
Cardinals: Pain in the Neck
Albert Pujols' departure is the bigger story, and without him, the Cardinals won't be the same team, but with Lance Berkman shifting to first base and Carlos Beltran in right, it's not as though they have a gaping hole in the lineup. The bigger question is Chris Carpenter, who initially missed time this spring with a bulging disc in his neck, and has now been sidelined indefinitely due to a nerve condition causing weakness and discomfort in his throwing shoulder. It’s the same condition ended his 2008 season. The 37-year-old workhorse—who has pitched at least 235 innings in each of the last two seasons—won't even resume throwing until he completes a strengthening program and could be sidelined at least two months. In the meantime, Lance Lynn will begin the year in the rotation, and of course, Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery after missing all of last year. Will Carpenter be able to recover enough to help the Cardinals, and can a rotation that's no longer under the watchful eye of pitching coach Dave Duncan thrive in his absence?
Pirates: Pray for Pedro
The second pick of the 2008 draft, Pedro Alvarez reached the majors just two years later and put together an impressive rookie season as a 23-year-old, hitting .256/.326/.461 with 16 homers thanks to a strong finish. But since the best-laid plans of mice and Pirates GMs often go awry, Alvarez turned in a clunker of a sophomore season, reporting to camp in the roundest shape of his life, hitting just .191/.272/.289 with four homers in 262 PA, and battling a right quad strain that sidelined him for two months. His numbers this spring have been gruesome (8-for-49, with a 22/1 K/BB ratio), yet the Pirates have insisted he'll start the season in the majors if healthy; he has been dealing with knee inflammation. Assuming he does, can he learn to hit left-handed pitching (.211/.291/.329 in 172 career PA) or give any kind of sign that he can still become the player the Pirates envisioned?
Cubs: Garza Going?
The Cubs poached Theo Epstein away from the Red Sox and Jed Hoyer away from the Padres in order to undertake a rebuilding effort, but they inherited a roster with three players earning eight-figure annual salaries. They've purged Carlos Zambrano and can hope for some amount of financial relief when they trade pending free agent Ryan Dempster, but Alfonso Soriano still has three years and $54 million coming to him, and he isn't going anywhere.
No, the biggest trade chip the Cubs have to further their rebuilding effort remains Matt Garza, who's 28 years old, making $9.5 million, and under club control for one more year. Garza is coming off career bests in ERA (3.32), strikeout rate (9.0 per nine), and homer rate (0.6 per nine), and while he generated plenty of interest over the winter, the Cubs resisted all offers. Now Hoyer has suggested that the team might want to sign him to a long-term extension and build around him, but the roster certainly doesn't suggest the Cubs are that close to contending. Is there such a thing as an eight-figure annual deal that makes sense for a non-contender, or are the Cubs just trying to create additional cost certainty before renewing their efforts to market the righty?
Astros: Catch as Castro Can
It's no secret the Astros are in their long-overdue rebuilding phase, projected to lose 100 games and be the worst team in baseball. As they turn the corner on the Drayton McLane era, they're unsettled at virtually every position, but there's at least one where they have hopes of a homegrown talent maturing into a useful cog. Twenty-four-year-old Jason Castro, the team's first-round pick back in 2008 and a four-star prospect as recently as two years ago, has claimed the starting catching job after missing all of last season with a torn ACL, and then undergoing foot surgery in the offseason. Castro faceplanted when given a shot at playing time back in mid-2010, hitting .205/.286/.287 in 217 PA; he hardly looked out of place then, given that the Astros haven't employed a league-average hitter as their backstop since 2000, when both Mitch Meluskey (.285 True Average) and Tony Eusebio (.260) chipped in with some solid batwork. With light-hitting Humberto Quintero traded to the Royals, Castro will get another chance to prove his big-league readiness, with Chris Snyder on hand as backup. Can he become a cornerstone in the team's turnaround?
I'll be back with the two West divisions later this week.