The American League Central is going to have a tight pennant race in the upcoming season. Despite having its share of mediocre teams in 2008, these teams have taken measures to improve this winter, and the entire division is slowly but surely moving forward in the right direction.
First, we have the Minnesota Twins. That sentence is enough to top off the paragraph, because the Twins have yet to make a move this offseason! They kicked the tires around on Casey Blake, coming close to an agreement, only to lose him to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They were rumored to be in on Brandon Lyon, but he just agreed to terms with the division rival Detroit Tigers. More recently, the Twins are rumored to be watching reliever Eric Gagne and third baseman Joe Crede, but the Twins have not gone between exploratory talks with Scott Boras.
For the Twins, their only real news this winter is the death of owner Carl Pohlad, because everything else this winter has been a rumor.
Offseason Grade: A
UPDATE...Previous Grade: F (Gave them an F out of disappointment to add a third baseman, but overall no moves were the right move)
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox, defending division champions, have been wheeling and dealing in the down time. General Manager Kenny Williams started by sending big-game bust Javier Vazquez to the Braves. Among the return, the White Sox got big catcher Tyler Flowers, seemingly the future replacement for AJ Pierzynski.
However, the White Sox hadn't finished there.
They continued by signing third baseman Dayan Viciedo, Cuban defector. Viciedo, 19, has already garnered comparisons to Babe Ruth. The White Sox have announced that Viciedo will be competing for the starting third base job with prospect Josh Fields.
Then the White Sox added a rehabilitation project in oft-injured starter Bartolo Colon. Colon proved healthy early in the 2008 season before going down for the year, posting a 4-2 record and a 3.92 ERA, striking out 27 batters in 39 innings.
Finally, the White Sox made a surprise move by trading outfielder and first baseman Nick Swisher to the Yankees, getting corner infielder Wilson Betemit and pitching prospect Jeff Marquez in return.
Offseason Grade: A-
Kansas City Royals
The Royals finally stopped relying on a weak farm system this winter. Dayton Moore opened up the checkbook to improve the team for once. This time, the Royals recognized a lack of offensive catalysts, and an abundance of talent in the bullpen.
They evened this out by sending reliever Leo Nunez to the Florida Marlins for slugging first baseman Mike Jacobs, and by sending set-up man Ramon Ramirez to Boston for speedy center fielder Coco Crisp, who can serve as a run-creating leadoff hitter, sparing Alberto Callaspo or Mike Aviles being forced into the leadoff spot.
To lessen the blow of losing two of the livest arms in their bullpen discounting Joakim Soria, the Royals added veteran set-up man Kyle Farnsworth, who can help mentor the young pitchers and decently bridge to Joakim Soria.
Offseason Grade: B
In 2008, the Indians played far worse than in 2007. They fell from a 96-66 record to an 81-81 record, 15 wins less than the year before. The very slow start this year was at fault of a combination of things, including a weak bullpen and inconsistencies on the offense.
Third base was a miserable offensive position for the Indians, with Andy Marte hitting .221 in 80 games, and Jamey Carroll hitting a respectable .277. However, the two combined for four home runs in a power-starved offense.
This weakness was addressed by the Tribe trading with the Chicago Cubs for utility man Mark DeRosa, who hit .285 with 21 home runs and 87 runs batted in, playing first, second, third, and right field when needed.
The Indians didn't have a terrible bullpen, but all year long they lacked a true closer. The Indians added another player from the Cubs, signing All-Star closer Kerry Wood to a three-year deal to hold down the closer's role.
Offseason Grade: B-
The Tigers, a year removed from a surprise mega-trade with the Marlins rendering the Tigers World Series favorites among most baseball fans, were working on a tight budget this winter.
However, they did address their needs with solid acquisitions. First, they addressed the need of a catcher in trading for Texas' Gerald Laird. Then the Tigers made an unexpected move, trading outfielder Matt Joyce to the Tampa Bay Rays for starter Edwin Jackson.
This added a good young pitcher to an old and weak rotation filled with veterans who struggle to stay healthy. Finally, the Tigers just recently agreed to terms on a contract with former Diamondback Brandon Lyon, who once again lost his closer's role down the stretch.
However, if used wisely, Lyon may be able to build on his phenomenal first half numbers: including a 2.43 ERA and 19 saves.
Offseason Grade: C+
Alex Gordon, 3B, Kansas City
Gordon will be hitting in the best Royals lineup since he's joined the team. He will be hitting around Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs, David DeJesus, Billy Butler, and Mike Aviles.
With all the surrounding talent, Alex Gordon will have a great opportunity to blossom into the hitter he is hyped up to be this year, with an opportunity to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100.
Denard Span, OF, Minnesota
Span took the American League by storm last year, playing in 93 games, hitting .294, hitting six long balls, collecting 47 RBI, and placing second on the team with 18 stolen bases.
If Span sees more playing time in 2009, he could very well be the next great hitter for the Twins' dynamic offense.
Clayton Richard, SP, Chicago
Richard could very well put up numbers similar to John Danks or Gavin Floyd in his first full year as Chicago's No. 5 starter. In his first year, Danks went 6-13, with a 5.50 ERA while having control issues. In a partial 2008 season, Richard went 2-5 with a 6.04 ERA, also struggling with control.
Edwin Jackson, SP, Detroit
Jackson is already with his third team after being traded by the Rays to the Tigers. However, this may finally be the year that Jackson puts it together and reaches his potential, because he will now be pitching his home games at cavernous Comerica Park.
Here he shouldn't have a hard time keeping the ball in the yard, and he may find himself with a low-4.00 ERA by the time the end of the season rolls around.
Shin-Shoo Choo, RF, Cleveland
By the middle of the year, Shin-Soo Choo found himself back in the big leagues with Cleveland. By the end of the year, Choo, 26, was hitting .309, with 14 home runs, and 66 runs batted in. He achieved this in only 93 games, hardly half of a season.
If Choo plays at the same pace in 2009 he could become a serious threat in the Cleveland lineup.
Award Watch: Possible Contenders
MVP: Justin Morneau
Morneau is the epitome of a complete hitter. He has no problem hitting for average, hitting home runs, and driving in runners on base. He also brings great defense to first base, normally a position for out-of-shape veterans on their last legs. Need I mention where the Twins would be without Morneau's production?
Comeback Player of the Year: Carl Pavano
Pavano was signed by the Indians to fill a gap in the starting rotation left by CC Sabathia. He is finally healthy after missing all of the 2007 season and a good portion of the 2008 season.
With a solid Cleveland team he has a good shot at winning 10-15 games, earning a solid chance at Comeback Player of the Year honors.
(Insert Delivery Company Here) Relief Pitcher of the Year Award: Joakim Soria
Joakim Soria has an incredibly live arm. The Baseball Cube ranks his parts of the game as following: 92 control, 96 k-rating, and a 100 for efficiency. The ratings are based on a 1-100 scale. Soria has the numbers to go with it: a 1.60 ERA, 42 saves, and a 0.86 WHIP.
Minnesota Twins: 93-69
The Twins have one of the most complete teams in the division at this point. They have great run creators in Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, Nick Punto, and Alexi Casilla; along with great run producers in Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young.
They have great young pitching with Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, and Glenn Perkins. Most importantly, Manager Ron Gardenhire puts great emphasis on the fundamentals, especially defense.
Chicago White Sox: 89-73
The White Sox have a very talented team, and they are starting to move in the right direction by bringing in younger players, but at the end of the day, they don't have enough experienced pitchers. The back end of their rotation is a glaring question mark, and Paul Konerko needs to go back to old form to take the pressure off of Dye, Quentin, and Thome.
Cleveland Indians: 85-77
The Indians have too many pitching issues to work out in the rotation. Carmona struggled with injuries in 2008, as well as prospect Aaron Laffey. Anthony Reyes proved to be a solid acquisition, but Carl Pavano probably won't do much of anything. The Indians are taking a step forward, but the playoffs are too big of a jump at this point, especially without CC Sabathia.
Kansas City Royals: 84-78
The Royals have vastly improved their offense this winter, but their bullpen has picked up the tab for these improvements. Also, their starting pitching at this point is just not well enough to compete with the rest of the division. The very loyal Royals fans would probably be thrilled to see a winning Royals team, and they are not far away from a playoff run. They are almost there, but this isn't the year, yet.
Detroit Tigers: 76-86
The Tigers are also moving ahead, but they aren't even near being playoff contenders yet. While the offense certainly is there, the pitching is miles behind the rest of the division. Justin Verlander needs to pitch like he did in 2007, and Jeremy Bonderman just needs to stay healthy.
According to CBS Sportsline, Dontrelle Willis will be in the rotation going into the season, and the Tigers absolutely need Willis to pitch like he did a few years back with the Marlins.