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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.