American League Central: Indians and White Sox, a Two Team Race

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American League Central: Indians and White Sox, a Two Team Race

The American League Central will be pretty competitive this year.  Let’s see how the teams shape up.

Cleveland Indians

Cleveland comes into this year looking to not only make the playoffs, but go deeper than they went last year.  If that is to come to pass, they will have to do it on the backs of their pitching.  They will need repeat performances from C.C. Sabathea, and Fausto Carmona, who were dominant last year.  Even though they logged a lot of innings last season, they should be solid again.

The rest of the rotation is full of question marks.  Jake Westbrook was injured last year and posted a 6-9 record and a 4.32 ERA, which is below his standards.  He has been great this spring and I look for him to bounce back and really bolster the rotation.

Paul Byrd should be fine as a four in the rotation.  He tends to be up and down.  He can put together some dominant outings, but when he is bad, he is really bad. 

Cleveland’s starting rotation has potential and should post good numbers.  What I believe will put the Indians over the top is their bullpen.  Joe Borowski led the American League in saves last year, and Raphael Bentancourt had a 1.47 ERA as the set-up man.  It doesn’t end there either as left-hander Raphael Perez had an ERA under 2.00 in 44 appearances. 

Their bullpen has a lot of depth and flexibility and if they pitch as they are capable of, there is no reason they can’t win the division.

The everyday lineup will be potent enough to give their pitchers plenty of run support.  Travis Hafner will be looking to bounce back after a sub par season for him.  He still drove in 100 runs but only hit 24 homers. 

Grady Sizemore will provide his normal all star caliber play, and Victor Martinez will be counted on to anchor the middle of the lineup.  Veteran Casey Blake will continue to supply his steady play and leadership.

Cleveland is very well balanced as a team.  They can hit, the top of the rotation is excellent, and they have a solid bullpen with some young live arms.  No weaknesses on this team.

Projected finish - 1st place.

Detroit Tigers

This division figures to be a two team race, and Detroit has made some off-season acquisitions that they think will put them over the top.  Miguel Cabrera comes over from the Marlins, and gives them a murders row feel to their lineup.  Dontrel Willis, also from the Marlins, will add depth to their starting pitching, and Edgar Renteria takes over at shortstop and brings his .332 average over from the Braves.

You have to believe that some of Willis’ struggles last year were due to playing on a team that had no chance of winning.  I can’t see him posting an ERA of over 5 again with Detroit.  He did struggle this spring, so it will be interesting to see how he does.  If he continues to struggle there will be talk concerning whether he is done as a top to middle of the rotation pitcher.

The rest of their rotation is pretty set, with Justin Verlander, their ace, (18-6) last year and Kenny Rodgers, who is hoping to log more than the 63 innings he pitched last year, at the top of the rotation.  Nate Robinson and Jeremy Bonderman had some pretty hefty ERA’s last year (4.76 and 5.01 respectively) so they will need every bit of the run support they will get from the hitters.

Todd Jones closes, but he is by no means automatic.  He saved 38 games in 2007 but he had and ERA over 4.00.  I count this as a weakness.  They have young and untested arms in their bullpen as well.  Yorman Barzado had an ERA of 2.28 last year, but he only pitched 23 innings.  Bobby Seay and Zach Miller are the most consistent relievers they have that are healthy, but there is not much after that. 

Denny Bautista will get a chance to be the set up man until Fernando Rodney comes back from injury, which is not a positive in my book.  Joel Zumaya is also injured, recovering from shoulder surgery.    Until then, it will be hit and miss with their bullpen.  Edge, Cleveland. 

If Dontrel Willis can be effective, it makes their rotation a very good one.  I don’t think it is as good as Cleveland’s though.

Along with Cabrera and Renteria, Jacque Jones came over from the Cubs and has been under the radar.  There are no easy outs in this lineup.  Maglio Ordonez will try to duplicate his all star season of last year, while Carlos Guillen will be his usual productive self.  Gary Sheffield’s challenge will be to stay healthy and play more than 133 games this season.  Detroit has plenty of difference makers in the lineup, but that doesn’t always translate into playoff appearances.

To start the season, Detroit will be minus Curtis Granderson due to injury, but as their lineup is so stacked, they will not miss him.

At least starting out, Detroit’s bullpen will be their weak point.  To the extent they overcome that, will determine how far they go this year.

Projected finish - 2nd place.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2007 season where they finished in 4th place in the division.  They have made changes in the off-season in an attempt to sure up a leaky bullpen, and to inject life into a team that looked like they were sleepwalking last year.

Chicago added Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink to stabilize their bullpen.  It remains to be seen what Dotel has left because of the myriad of injuries he has had the last couple of years.  Linebrink has always been a steady performer out of the pen with Milwaukee and San Diego, and his addition will definitely help.

Orlando Cabrera comes over from the Angels and will make an immediate impact.  He scored over a hundred runs and hit over .300 as well.

Jose Contreras needs to have a repeat performance of his 2006 year for this team to contend.  He needs to be that solid number 2 behind Buehrle to make their starting rotation formidable.

They also need their young starters to pitch well in order to take the pressure off their bullpen.  If John Danks and Gavin Floyd do well, then Chicago will be a factor in the division again.  Closing games will not be a problem with Bobby Jenks around.

It remains to be seen whether or not the White Sox will be big run producers this year.  They have power, but they will have to manufacture runs to win..  Alexi Ramirez will get the start in center-field as a rookie, Nick Swisher will be in left, Juan Uribe will start for now at second, and Joe Crede will start at the hot corner.  How they perform will go a long way toward determining their sucess scoring runs. 

The usual suspects, Paul Konerko, Jim Tome, and Jermaine Dye will be relied on heavily to drive in runs.  

The White Sox have a chance to surprise this season and contend.  I like their balance and I believe their starting pitching will be better than advertised.  If their relievers hold up, there is a chance they could finish second in the division.

Projected finish - 3rd place.

Kansas City Royals

Even though Kansas City finished last in the division in 2007, there is still hope.  Their rotation is actually pretty good and they do have an ace in Gil Meche.  The question has always been whether he, and the other starters will get run support.  Brian Bannister is a number 2-3 rotation guy when effective, and Zach Greinke pitched well last year. 

The back side of their rotation has issues, but their top 3 pitchers should be good enough to compensate for that.

Joakim Soria will close.  He had 17 saves in his rookie year (2007) with a 2.48 ERA.  The Royals do have viable middle relievers in their bullpen.  Ron Mahay pitched well in relief last year between Texas and Atlanta, posting ERA’s less than 3.00.  Jimmy Gobble will be a factor as a set up man and has pitched well.

Leo Nunez adds depth, and they are looking for good things from Yasuhiko Yabuta, their right-handed import from Japan.  His assortment of pitches and the way he attacks the strike zone has make Kansas City believe he will be special. 

If that turns out to be true, then Kansas City’s bullpen will be the strength of their team and will keep them in a lot of games.

The question is whether or not they will score enough runs to compete.  There is not much power in their lineup.  Jose Guillen is one of the only true long ball threats they have.  Here is where they will struggle.

What will help them is the fact that Minnesota is rebuilding and will not be  much of a threat. 

The Royals have a rookie manager, Trey Hillman, and a team that will have to manufacture runs without hitting home runs all the time.  Even though the pitching should excel, they don’t have much margin for error.  They may not win the division, but won’t be an easy out either.

Projected finish - 4th place.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins will be somewhat of a mystery this year as they enter their rebuilding mode after trading Johan Santana and losing Tori Hunter.  Their staple over the years have been pitching and defense, which they will look to continue under Ron Gardenhire’s management. 

The strongest part of the team will be their bullpen.  That won’t be the case if they are over-used because the starters can’t go deep into games.  They are led by their all star closer Joe Nathan (37 saves last year) who is almost a sure thing.  Matt Guerrier was a workhorse last year and logged 88 innings with a 2.35 ERA.  Pat Neshek pitched well in 2007 and Dennys Reyes adds additional depth.

The big question is their starting pitching.  The Twins picked up Livan Hernandez and he is an innings eater.  Other than Hernandez they don’t know what they will get from their young pitchers.  Boof Bonser and Nick Blackburn will need to pitch well to solidify the rotation.  If they don’t, it will be a long season for Minnesota.

Eventually their young pitchers will pay dividends, but probably not this year.  Their offense will be anchored by veterans Justin Morneau, and Joe Mauer.  Carlos Gomez replaces Tori Hunter in center-field, and it will be a learning process as he tries to find his way at the plate and in the field.  Mike Lamb comes over from Houston to man third base and provide leadership. 

With so many young players, the Twins will have a better idea of where they are in the middle of the season.  They need to find out who their future stars will be and let them get experience now so they can contend in the future. 

Projected finish - 5th place.

The American League Central is shaping up to be a two team race, with the White Sox looking to crash the party.

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