An exciting NL Wild Card race notwithstanding, the 2009 pennant races seriously lacked intrigue; that is until the Minnesota Twins sprang out of their coffin right before the last nail was driven in.
The Twins came from 7 games behind in early September to beat the dysfunctional Detroit Tigers in a classic extra-inning one-game playoff (or if you're John Church, just some game back in October you keep trying to forget ever happened).
It was the conclusion to a thrilling pennant race that could've been even more exciting had the Chicago White Sox not played such uninspired baseball from Mark Buerhle's perfect game on.
Despite the lost season, Kenny Williams made a move at the deadline that should bring the pale hoes better fortunes in 2010, acquiring Jake Peavy to add to a rotation that already boasted Buerhle, Gavin Floyd, and John Danks.
By no means are they the favorites though, as the Twins return basically the same team that won the division last season. For all their off season activity, the Tigers may still have enough to contend in a division this weak.
As for the Royals and Indians, they didn't compete in 2009 and it's not likely they do this year either. Nonetheless, the prospect of another three team race going into the trade deadline should make for an exciting year of baseball in one of the major's most unpredictable divisions.
2009 Finish: 79-83, 3rd Place
Off Season Grade (C+)
Having made the majority of their changes towards the end of the 2009 season, the White Sox really didn't do much this off season. They brought in complimentary pieces including veterans Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel, speedster Juan Pierre, and former Mariners closer JJ Putz.
While these players should be useful, the South-siders' 2010 season hinges on players who were on the 2009 season.
Strengths: As Ozzie Guillen put it, they have a 1A and 1B in Peavy and Buerhle. The rest of the rotation is strong as well with Danks, Floyd, and young Daniel Hudson. Puz, Thornton, and Jenks could be a lethal bullpen trio. Quentin, Ramirez, and to a lesser extent Rios probably are all better than what they showed in 2009.
Weaknesses: Their offense was very inconsistent in 2009 yet they didn't add a difference-making offensive player. Last season, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the AL.
They have a bone dry farm system that likely will not provide them too many impact reinforcements this season.
Breakout Candidate - Gordon Beckham
Less than a year after they drafted him out of Georgia, Beckham was in the majors making a difference. There was a time that he and Scott Podsednik were carrying the White Sox offense by themselves. Now that he's moving to 2B, he has a chance to put up some of the most impressive numbers at that position in the majors.
2010 All Stars: Gordon Beckham, Jake Peavy
2010 Outlook: Since they won the World Series in 2005, the White Sox have been one of the most mercurial teams in baseball, following up disappointing seasons with good ones and vice-versa. If that continues, their fans are in for a more fun season than 2009 was. They look to have more than enough pitching wise; whether or not key offensive players bounce back will determine how 2010 goes.
2010 Finish: 65-97, T-5th Place
Off Season Grade (C-)
Few teams in baseball had a more uneventful off season; no one noteworthy left, no one arrived. Not usually what you'd like to see from a last place club but Cleveland made their changes long before the season ended, hosting a fire sale put to shame by the one the Pirates held. If the Indians bounce back in 2010, it won't be because of the moves they made this winter.
Strengths: Even with Martinez gone, they still boast a pretty potent offense; have they ever had a bad offense? Cabrera and Choo will only get better. The Sabathia trade has already paid dividends, as LaPorta and Brantley both figure to contribute in 2010.
Weaknesses: Their opening day starter will probably be Jake Westbrook; he was their 3rd starter in 2007 when they won the division. Carmona has yet to show signs he can get back to being his old self. Their poor starting pitching in 2009 caused bullpen struggles as well, particularly by closer Kerry Wood.
Breakout Candidate - Matt LaPorta
In 139 Post All-Star break ABs, LaPorta showed flashes of the great power potential that led to them acquiring him in the Sabathia trade, hitting .273 with 6 dingers. With Branyan and Hafner around, he might not get the ABs he figured to get right after the season, but he has too much potential for the Indians to leave him out of the lineup too much.
2010 All Stars: Grady Sizemore
2010 Outlook: The strengths and weaknesses summary really tells you all you need to know. These guys can hit, and that's good enough to win some games. However, division titles are won with pitching and it looks as though that will again be their Achilles heel. As a Tribe fan, you just have to hope the team's young talent takes a step forward in 2010.
2009 Finish: 86-77, 2nd Place
Off Season Grade (C+)
In short, they did the exact opposite of what Cleveland did. They said good-bye to some very good players (Granderson, Jackson, Polanco), but welcomed a few as well (Scherzer, Valverde, Damon).
While their plan was a little to hard to follow at times, to say it flat out didn't make sense is ridiculously naive. Money simply wasn't as big an issue as everyone assumed, and the Tigers thought they could contend in the Central even in the wake of a couple "adjustments."
Strengths: Personal issues aside, Miguel Cabrera remains one of the game's elite hitters. Verlander and Porcello are one of the AL's best 1-2 punches. For all the noteworthy players they lost, their pitching as a whole looks improved. With Damon signed, the top of their lineup has the potential to be much better than it was in 2009.
Weaknesses: They are counting on Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen to protect Cabrera and drive in runs; both players struggled tremendously in 2009. The last third of their lineup is far too light-hitting. There are several question marks concerning the 4 and 5 spots in their rotation.
Breakout Candidate - Rick Porcello
Some thought the Tigers were insane for bringing him North after a strong spring training. The kid quickly proceeded to make those people look very stupid. As the rest of the team fell apart, Porcello saved his best for the stretch run, leaving game 163 with the lead. He could regress in light of throwing so many innings last year, or he could blossom; neither would surprise me.
2010 All Stars: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander
2010 Outlook: In the aftermath of the most pathetic collapse in their long history, it's no easy task guessing how this team will respond in 2010. Despite all the question marks, they probably have enough to at least be competitive in baseball's worst division. If nothing else, the Tigers look different. And from the viewpoint of this fed-up, embarrassed Tigers fan, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
2010 Finish: 65-97, T-5th Place
Off Season Grade (D+)
The story of the Royals the last few seasons has been potent young talent surrounded by underachieving veterans. Based on what they did this off season, that might continue.
Jason Kendall's game was hitting for average; he hasn't done that in years, yet the Royals gladly gave him $6M for two years while Rod Barajas just signed for one year and $5M less. While they didn't pay much for Podsednik or Ankiel, both are flawed, injury prone players who won't make KC overnight contenders.
Strengths: Reigning AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke has established himself as one of the best starters in baseball. Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo are players on the rise, both having enjoyed breakout years in 2009.
Weaknesses: Legitimate concerns remain about their bullpen, which was the worst in the AL last season. Three of the six players who hit 10 or more home runs for the team last year (Olivo, Jacobs, Teahen) are gone. Alex Gordon is starting to run out of time to prove himself. For all his hitting ability, Callaspo is a terrible defender.
Breakout Candidate - Robinson Tejeda
I had to look long and hard for a candidate from this team but I went with this swingman. In 6 starts for KC last year, Tejeda went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA and only 15 hits allowed in 30.1 innings. If he refines his control and earns a spot in the rotation, he could put up some numbers.
2010 All Stars: Joakim Soria
2010 Outlook: For reasons I still can't fathom, the Royals were the sleeper pick of the AL last year. They looked like they had turned the corner, and then May came; you know the rest. One year later, they're still not ready to get back to the playoffs for the first time since winning it all in 1985. Fortunately, they boast one of the majors' best farm systems so the future is somewhat bright. With Greinke around only three more years, the pressure is mounting.
2009 Finish: 87-76, 1st Place (Lost ALDS)
Off Season Grade (B)
Heading into the new year, it looked as though the Twins were going to continue having a quiet off season. They acquired JJ Hardy and resigned the suddenly resurgent Carl Pavano but neither move was talked about much. Then Bill Smith took advantage of the down market, making two great bargain signings in Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome, maintaining a strong defensive infield and adding pop to their bench.
Strengths: They have the best offensive tandem in the game in reigning AL MVP Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Denard Span had such a strong season, he made Carlos Gomez completely expendable.
They are one of the best, most fundamentally sound defensive teams in baseball. Few pitching staffs in baseball helped their own cause in 2009 more, as they again posted the fewest walks in the AL.
Weaknesses: It remains to be seen how they'll handle the outdoors; the Metrodome was the greatest home field advantage in pro sports. Francisco Liriano is still trying to get back to his old self, and as such the Twins do not have a prototypical "ace," relying instead on control pitchers.
Breakout Candidate - Delmon Young
He's been around so long, it's amazing to think he's just 24. Young played a huge role down the stretch as the Morneau-less Twins mounted their comeback, hitting 3 home runs and driving in 10 in 22 October ABs. The scary thing is that the Twins already have so many proven hitters, they're not depending on him at all.
2010 All Stars: Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan
2010 Outlook: It's not very often you have a down year through August and win the division on the strength of a great September, but the Twins did just that in 2009. Look for them to be more consistent in 2010.
On paper, they clearly are the best team in this division. Whether or not that translates to the actual season, we shall see; they play the games for a reason.
1. Austin Jackson: Talk about baptism by fire; Jackson has the unenviable task of replacing leadoff hitter and fan favorite Curtis Granderson. Too much is being made of his lack of power; if he's ready to hit for average and get on base in the majors, it could completely change the dynamic of Detroit's offense.
2. Francisco Liriano: While the Twins are contenders with or without him, if he's ready to be the ace everyone in baseball knows he can be, then suddenly the Twins can stand up against anyone in the AL. Early news about him is promising. By no means are they counting on him, but he still could completely change this race.
3. Alex Rios: When Kenny Williams took this guy off Toronto's hands back in August, he made one of the riskiest moves in recent baseball history. This guy's problems must be mental, because he still has amazing physical ability. It would be a huge boost to Chicago's offense if he got it together this year.
4. Jeremy Bonderman: Since going 10-1 in the first half of 2007, the guy has fallen off the face of the Earth thanks to injuries. Around that time though, it looked as though he was finally ready to become the Dan Petry to Verlander's Jack Morris. If he's finally back, the Tigers rotation may be just as good as Chicago's.
5. JJ Hardy: Once considered one of the game's up and coming shortstops, Alcides Escobar forced Hardy out of Milwaukee. The former all-star is still young enough to turn it around, and could boost what is already a potent Twins lineup. If nothing else, he gives them great defense.
1. Chicago White Sox (89-73)
2. Minnesota Twins (87-75)
3. Detroit Tigers (83-79)
4. Kansas City Royals (67-95)
5. Cleveland Indians (63-99)
Twins fans aren't going to like this. However, there is a rule in baseball concerning rebounds.
Simply put, I think the White Sox underachieved greatly last year.
If Peavy is healthy and Buerhle can continue to do more with less than any pitcher in baseball, I think their pitching is going to be just too good. Their offense is being short-changed a bit; they probably have enough to get by.
Make no mistake though, I love what the Twins have done and think they remain a surefire contender. The race could go down to the final weekend; at this point, I like the White Sox.
Few teams in the majors are as hard to forecast as the Tigers.
They have two of the best players in baseball in Cabrera and Verlander, surrounded by veterans coming off down years and largely unproven youngsters. If enough things happen, they could win the division; if not, they look like a .500 team. Until they show me some things (namely that they are capable of beating the Twins), I'm not getting too excited.
Given Baltimore's improvement, the Indians and Royals look to me like the worst teams in the American League.
Even in this winnable division, I give them no chance of winning; the Royals don't have the offense, the Indians don't have the pitching. If the AL Central remains so wide open in coming years, that bodes well for these two organizations.