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While all eyes were focused on the three-horse American League East race, last year’s AL Central provided the league’s best late-season drama. The White Sox wound up beating the Twins in a Game 163 play-in, but only after the Sox had squandered their 2½-game cushion by dropping three games in Minnesota during the season’s final week, winning on the last day of the season to force a rainout makeup with the Tigers, and then winning that contest to force the tiebreaker with the Twins. In all, the division finished as the majors’ second-strongest in Hit List Factor.

Top to bottom, it was also the game’s most tightly packed division, with just 14½ games separating the Sox from the basement-dwelling Tigers. PECOTA sees this year’s Central race as a similarly tight affair, with a separation of just 12 games. That’s enough to spread a little hope and faith around the Midwest, which may explain why the Royals spent more money than all but one team in the division in the free-agent market while also taking on considerable salary via trades. Still, only the AL West spent less per team on free agents, suggesting that the economy forced some belt-tightening.

Since tackling the AL West in this series, a new set of PECOTA forecasts has been released, one which makes the critical adjustment for a team’s projected defense, thus either shaving off or piling on additional runs allowed and shaking things up from where they stood a few weeks ago. Teams are listed in order of their 2008 finish; for each hitter, WARP and EqA are listed, while for each pitcher, the figures are WARP and EqERA.


Chicago White Sox


IN:
INF Wilson Betemit (0.5, .267), SP Ryan Braun (0.7, 4.90), 1B Ben Broussard (-0.5, .246), SP Bartolo Colon (1.4, 4.86), C Tyler Flowers (2.5, .266), RP Kelvin Jimenez (0.5, 5.40), OF Josh Kroeger (0.3, .245), MI Brent Lillibridge (1.5, .242), SP Jeffrey Marquez (-0.9, 6.79), 1B Brian Myrow (0.3, .265), SP Jhonny Nunez (-0.1, 6.31), 2B Jayson Nix (0.7, .222), INF Eider Torres (0.1, .226), SP John Van_Benschoten (-0.3, 6.58), 3B Dayan Vicidedo (0.2, .237)

OUT:
SS Orlando Cabrera (1.7, .252), 3B Joe Crede (0.6, .24), OF Ken Griffey Jr. (1.1, .272), C Toby Hall (0.0, .223), RP Boone Logan (1.2, 4.17), SP Horacio Ramirez (0.7, 5.28), 1B/OF Nick Swisher (1.9, .279), RP Kanekoa Texeira (0.8, 5.03), SS Juan Uribe (0.9, .242), SP Javier Vazquez (5.3, 3.76)

NET:
-7.0 WARP

The White Sox eked out a division title last year, but rather than keep that team’s core together, GM Kenny Williams chose to scatter much of it to the four winds and begin rebuilding, staying out of the free-agent market except for a mere $1 million flyer on Colon. Thus the Sox shed two regulars (Cabrera and Crede) and a stretch-drive pickup (Griffey) via free agency, while trading yet another regular (Swisher) and an enigmatic rotation filler (Vazquez), and getting some decent swag in return, including Oakland’s second-round draft pick for signing Cabrera, a Type-A free agent. Betemit was obtained from the Yankees in the Swisher swap, and is the most ready player acquired, but the perpetually frustrating utilityman is now on his fourth team in as many years, and is at best poised to help Josh Fields hold down the hot corner fort until Vicidedo-the organization’s second high-profile Cuban addition (after Alexei Ramirez) in as many years-is ready. Of more interest long term is whether Flowers is the heir apparent to catcher A.J. Pierzynski or to first baseman Paul Konerko, whether Lillibridge can regain some lost luster, and whether Marquez and/or Nunez pans out. Projected at 74 wins this year, the short-term picture doesn’t look pretty, though if the hind end of the rotation comes around, the distance to the top of this division isn’t insurmountable, and more importantly, Williams has already laid the groundwork for finishing the job of turning over the 2005 World Champions.


Minnesota Twins


IN:
RP Luis Ayala (0.9, 4.56), 3B Joe Crede (0.6, .240), SP Jason Jones (-0.3, 6.49)

OUT:
SS Adam Everett (0.5, .216), RP Eddie Guardado (0.8, 4.31), RP Dennys Reyes (1.4, 3.33)

NET:
-1.5 WARP

Testing, testing… is this thing on? The Twins may have had the quietest winter of any team in the majors in terms of departures and arrivals, particularly considering that one of the three players they’ve brought in was a Rule 5 pick (Jones) who may or may not stick. Then again, given the way Ayala was run out of Queens by a pitchfork-toting mob, it makes a certain type of sense that he wound up with a team that itself seems to be laying low. While the Twins lost relatively little this winter-a pair of lefty relievers and a light-hitting shortstop-it’s not at all clear that when they spent, they spent wisely. Crede’s last two years have been marred by back woes, and he’ll likely have to surpass his 75th-percentile PECOTA performance (.258/.316/.436) in order to outdo the impact of the .283/.330/.399 combined showing the Twins got from last year’s third basemen, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, and Mike Lamb; the first two would have handled the job this year, while the latter is still on the payroll (although playing for Milwaukee) after being cut less than halfway through a two-year deal. As a one-year gamble, at least it’s not a horribly expensive one. What cost far more while making less sense was the need to spend $8.5 million to replace Everett with two years of Juan Castro Nick Punto, who will have to surpass last year’s 90th-percentile PECOTA to approach his 2.8 WARP; as ever, nobody gives themselves a leg down (as opposed to a leg up) in competing for a division title like this franchise. The drop from 88 wins last year to a projected 77 suggests a lot of regression, particularly in the rotation, not to mention the possible limitations of Joe Mauer due to back woes.


Cleveland Indians


IN:
OF Michael Brantley (1.3, .243), SP Jack Cassel (1.2, 5.40), RP Vinnie Chulk (0.6, 4.54), UT Mark DeRosa (2.4, .275), INF Tony Graffanino (0.2, .233), RP Matt Herges (0.6, 4.99), SP Tomo Ohka (0.4, 5.82), SP Carl Pavano (0.6, 5.51), SP Kirk Saarloos (0.5, 5.69), RP Juan Salas (1.1, 4.49), RP Joe Smith (1.7, 3.79), 2B Luis Valbuena (1.4, .242), RP Kerry Wood (3.0, 3.54)

OUT:
RP Brendan Donnelly (0.6, 4.51), RP Scott Elarton (0.2, 5.75), C Sal Fasano (0.1, .196), OF Franklin Gutierrez (1.4, .263), RP Juan Rincon (0.7, 4.90), RP Jeff Stevens (0.8, 5.09)

NET:
+11.2 WARP

Now that’s a makeover. Strong returns in last summer’s CC Sabathia and Casey Blake deals, plus a 34-21 finishing kick over the final two months, helped to take some of the sting out of the Tribe’s second stumble out of the blocks in three years. They spent large ($20 million over two years) on Wood to help offset one of the biggest year-to-year bullpen collapses ever, dabbled in a three-way with the Mets and Mariners to augment that with Smith, snagged a versatile veteran from the Cubs in DeRosa, and wound up improving themselves enough to emerge as the favorite in a competitive if not exactly crackerjack division. They’ll be banking on plenty of comebacks-starting with Fausto Carmona, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner-but with moving parts and plenty of depth, they can cover for a variety of contingencies.


Kansas City Royals


IN:
UT Willie Bloomquist (0.1, .234), CF Coco Crisp (1.8, .257), RP Juan Cruz (1.3, 4.03), SP Lenny DiNardo (0.4, 5.75), RP Kyle Farnsworth (1.3, 3.97), 1B J.R. House (0.7, .244), INF Tug Hulett (0.9, .249), 1B Mike Jacobs (0.2, .268), RP Franquelis Osoria (0.6, 4.76), SP Heath Phillips (0.2, 5.91), SP Sidney Ponson (1.0, 5.45), SP Horacio Ramirez (0.7, 5.28), RP Oscar Villarreal (0.8, 4.73), RP Doug Waechter (0.7, 4.54), RP Jamey Wright (1.0, 4.85)

OUT:
SP Ryan Braun (0.7, 4.90), OF Joey Gathright (0.6, .242), UT Esteban German (0.1, .247), 2B Mark Grudzielanek (0.4, .246), SP Neal Musser (0.6, 5.36), RP Leo Nuñez (1.2, 3.98), RP Ramon Ramirez (1.9, 3.59), INF Jason Smith (0.7, .222), SP Kip Wells (0.3, 5.87)

NET:
+5.2 WARP

Like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, the Royals brought together the good, the bad, and the ugly in their dealings this winter. Their best move by far was the trade of Ramon Ramirez for Crisp, spinning a fungible reliever into a starting center fielder, though they took on considerable salary ($13.75 million if they pick up his 2010 option, $6.25 if they don’t) in the process. At the other end of the spectrum was the acquisition of Jacobs for Nuñez; OBP-challenged, defensively inept first basemen don’t just grow on trees, they grow like weeds in Triple-A-sized ditches across the land, and at least when you pluck those weeds, they’re not arbitration eligible. Somewhere toward ugly lies the reality that snagging Cruz at a rather economical price did cost a draft pick while also calling attention to the fact that they had already snagged Farnsworth-hardly more reliable or effective-at a less economical price. And then there’s Bloomquist; we’ve made an off-color joke at his expense before, but at least the Mariners weren’t paying free-agent prices for the privilege of catching the disease, whereas the Royals are: $3.1 million over two years for a guy whose contribution can be equaled by just about anyone in the phone book. So yes, the Royals have shown some improvement, but their 76-win forecast looks a lot like last year’s 75-win campaign, except with a heftier price tag.


Detroit Tigers


IN:
SS Adam Everett (0.5, .216), SP Edwin Jackson (1.7, 5.20), C Gerald Laird (1.8, .249), RP Brandon Lyon (2.1, 4.04), RP Juan Rincon (0.7, 4.90), C Matt Treanor (0.7, .237), RP Scott Williamson (0.3, 5.62)

OUT:
RP Kyle Farnsworth (1.3, 3.97), RP Casey Fossum (0.7, 5.14), SP Freddy Garcia (1.9, 4.42), RF Matthew Joyce (0.9, .254), RP Aquilino Lopez (0.9, 4.67), SP Guillermo Moscoso (1.1, 5.28), SS Edgar Renteria (1.9, .262)

NET:
-1.1 WARP

Joe Sheehan invoked the troubled auto industry when describing the Tigers’ payroll issues earlier this week, and while from the longer-term standpoint the outlook isn’t pretty, there’s more reason for optimism on the 2009 front than previously thought. With the exception of the Dodgers-whose addition of Manny Ramirez understandably rocketed them up the projected standings-no team has seen its PECOTA projection improve more since the beginning of the spring than the Tigers. A month ago, when Clay Davenport first ran the Playoff Odds report, the Tigers were at 78 wins, while today they’re at 84, just two behind the Indians. That has much to do with the aforementioned defensive adjustments; last year’s club finished 11th in the league in Defensive Efficiency, but they’ve knocked about 60 runs allowed off of their initial projection, thanks mainly to turning over the left side of the infield from Rent-A-Wreck and Carlos Guillen to “Quality .216” Everett and Brandon Inge. The calculus of the comings and goings doesn’t reflect the retirements of Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones, whose departures aid their payroll and their overall projections given last year’s craptacularity. Nonetheless, there’s still a whole lot that needs to go right in the pitching department for this team to live up to the forecast, starting with rebounds from Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, and the incoming Lyon-and yes, that’s a lot of ifs.

In all, this tightly packed division should make for another exciting race. While a few players acquired over the winter-Wood, Colon, and Everett in particular-could influence the race considerably, the current order of things could easily be upended by any of these team’s holdovers exceeding their PECOTA projections.

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llewdor
3/20
Ahh, the Bloomquist-Syphilis comparison. That was the best player comment ever.
buffum
3/20
Cleveland's +11.2 WARP looks mighty impressive ... until you realize that 6.7 of it (Brantley, Cassel, Graffy, Herges, Ohka, Saarloos, Salas, Valbuena) isn't actually going to make the roster. And I'm being generous to include Chulk. Now, you could point out that Brantley and Valbuena SHOULD make the roster at the expense of Dellucci and Barfield ... but this is the Cleveland Indians. (As an aside, from what I've seen this spring, there is no way on God's green Earth that Cassel, Ohka, and Herges are positive-WARP players. It actually hurts my pancreas to watch them.)
tradeatape
3/20
Everything else being equal, it looks like the race to win the division boils down to whether Verlander or Carmona has the better comeback season.
wonkothesane1
3/20
Isn't Crede a defensive upgrade on Harris/Buscher? If he is, then technically he doesn't have to quite get to his 75th percentile PECOTA forecast to represent an overall upgrade of the position.
jjaffe
3/21
True, he is an upgrade with the leather; his forecast calls for +2 in a 325 PA season, while Buscher's -1 in about the same playing time, and Harris is a bad shortstop (-12) who's probably about a -4 or so at third. The advantage is diluted unless Crede can play a reasonably full slate of games, something he hasn't managed since 2006.
rawagman
3/21
I didn't realize that Kenny Rogers officially retired.
Oleoay
3/21
Out of curiosity, has BP looked at the breakout/collapse rate for each player on a team and combined them to see which team had the highest chance for a breakout or a collapse? Granted, a lot of caveats kind of apply, but it might be interesting to use those kinds of numbers to see which teams are more likely to vary from their forecast.
jjaffe
3/21
Not officially, but the Tigers pitching coach says Rogers' wife told him he's retired. Given that info plus the fact that he's 44, coming off a 5.70 ERA and unsigned on March 20, it's safe to assume he knows when to fold 'em.
Oleoay
3/21
It wouldn't be the first time in his career he posted an ERA that high. His PECOTA card shows him rebounding in 2010, his age 45 season... which comp drives that rebound?
ostrowj1
3/21
I would bet Moyer?
jjaffe
3/21
Rebounding all the way to a 5.49 ERA, with an EqERA that's actually 0.15 higher than last year. With numbers like that, Jimmy Leyland better convince him to come back. Rogers' similarlity index is 11 (below 20 is "historically unusual"), and his comps are listed right there on his card. Moyer's 2007 is 2nd behind Warren Spahn, with Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Jim Kaat and Tommy John following.
Oleoay
3/21
His PECOTA card indicates in 2010 (not 2009), he would "rebound" to a 4.71 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP, attributed to a slight drop in h/9, bb/9 and hr/9. His 2009 projection is the aforementioned 5.53 ERA and 1.62 WHIP. Not to nitpick a quirk, but if Rogers has a historically low similarity score, then what kind of variable would project that kind of effort in an age 45 season? Does PECOTA think he'd move to PETCO or something? I would expect that PECOTA, given no good comparisons on a player, would assume the player would get worse in 2009 and then even worse in 2010...
dcoonce
3/21
Just guessing, but it may turn him into reliever - there's more 45-year-old lefty reliever comps, I'm guessing. And, being LOOGYS primarily I would assume their ratios are better than those of starting pitchers.
jjaffe
3/21
Yes, it's projecting that about 1/3 of his appearances would be out of the bullpen, which helps to lower his ERA. Still shaky to put much stock in that given that he doesn't even fill out a full similarity index of 20 pitchers. Plus, you know, the whole thing is rather moot given that he's apparently retired.
Oleoay
3/23
Granted, it is a moot point since he is retired... but I was more interested in the insight into PECOTA. If it is just a super-huge formula with a bunch of factors counted in, when something that doesn't pass the sniff test like a 45 year old projects to have a better season, it could imply that one of those factors in that formula is getting too much weight.
jwillie
3/21
If Crede doesn't work out...the twins still have the Harris/Buscher platoon to work with. I expect them to supplement these boys for Crede more often then expected, especially at home(Dome turf.)