MLB Preseason Capsule: AL Central Edition
Welcome to the third installment of seven in this preseason breakdown of each MLB division. The first six articles will cover the divisions, and the seventh will predict the playoffs and major award winners. Each team will have its offseason moves broken down, one major strength and weakness identified, one X-factor selected, and then their projected record for the 2011 season. The order of the slideshows will be from last to first in the division.
Today brings us to the AL Central.
Kansas City Royals
Acquired: Alcides Escobar, Jeff Francis, Vin Mazzaro, Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi
Lost: Zack Greinke, David DeJesus, Gil Meche, Rick Ankiel, Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth
Closer Joakim Soria has been a bright spot in dark times for the Royals franchise. In four years with the Royals, three of them spent as the full-time closer, Soria's racked up 132 saves and an incredible 2.01 ERA along with a K/9 rate of 9.9. Soria's one of the top closers in the game, which led to rampant rumors that he might potentially be on the move during this past offseason. Dayton Moore knows that he has something special in Soria, though, and intends to keep him as the anchor at the back of Kansas City's bullpen for a long time coming.
Now that Zack Greinke has been dealt to Milwaukee and Gil Meche has hung up his uninspiring spikes, the Kansas City rotation is clearly a weak spot on this team. Although the Royals have a lot of promising arms in their farm system such as Danny Duffy, John Lamb, new acquisition Jake Odorizzi and more, the Royals are currently running with a rotation of Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro, Jeff Francis, and Sean O'Sullivan. That's not a set of guys who will make opposing hitters shiver in their cleats very often. Hochevar's a former top prospect who's starting to live up to expectations, but the rest of the bunch doesn't have much to show for their careers, long or short.
Alex Gordon was once the future of Kansas City baseball. He was going to be the next George Brett for the Kauffman Stadium faithful. Now, with Mike Moustakas getting ready to ascend to the hot corner, Gordon is continuing his attempt to redeem himself with the Royals as the starting left fielder. Reminiscent of when Ryan Braun was shifted to left by the Milwaukee Brewers, Gordon is on what might be his last chance to make a name in Kansas City. Over 242 at bats last season, Gordon hit .215/8/20, numbers that won't light up the baseball world any time soon. The Royals are ramping up to try and bring a boatload of prospects in over the next few years and become AL Central contenders. For Alex Gordon to be a part of that push, he'll have to have a solid, if not stellar, 2011.
The Kansas City Royals always seem like a team that's constantly rebuilding. They get high draft picks, top prospects, and yet haven't had a finish better than fourth place in the last decade. That won't change this year, but hopefully, for the sake of parity, it will soon.
Acquired: Orlando Cabrera, Chad Durbin, Austin Kearns, Nick Johnson
Lost: Jhonny Peralta, Mark Grudzielanek, Russell Branyan, Andy Marte, Aaron Laffey
The Indians' middle infield defense is one of their strong suits this season. Veteran second baseman Orlando Cabrera and slick shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera will combine to make some sweet plays up the middle for Cleveland in 2011. The Cabreras combined for 23 errors in 2010, which isn't an incredibly low number, but Orlando's defense has always been better than his fielding percentage and Asdrubal was playing his first full year at short. Look for them both to be a solid double play duo for the Tribe.
As easy as it might be to dismantle the Indians rotation in the same way that I did for the Royals, I'll instead look to third baseman Jason Donald. Donald was one of the pieces in the trade that moved Cliff Lee to Philadelphia for the first time, and he played about half a year at the hot corner last year, hitting .253/4/24 in 88 games. With Jayson Nix the only other option at third, the Indians are continuing to go with Donald. Although he has a potentially bright future, the present is fairly dim and Donald probably won't hit any higher than .270 this season.
Another trade of an ace, CC Sabathia, brought back Matt LaPorta for the Indians. LaPorta was supposed to be an instant star in Milwaukee, and Cleveland had that same expectation when they got him in return. While Milwaukee made the playoffs with its half-season of Sabathia, Cleveland hasn't made any progress with LaPorta. Over the last two seasons, he's compiled 162 games played, hitting .232/19/62. While the power numbers are okay, that batting average really needs to come up for the Indians to continue having a reason to play LaPorta on a day-to-day basis.
Since the trades of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in consecutive summers, the Indians haven't been all too relevant in the AL Central, topping out at 81-81 in 2008. This team is just a bit better than Kansas City, but shares the trait of not being ready to compete with them.
Acquired: Brad Penny, Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, Jhonny Peralta
Lost: Adam Everett, Johnny Damon
The Tigers boast a strong rotation, with ace Justin Verlander followed by Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Phil Coke and new signee Brad Penny. If all of these guys can have strong years, which is naturally a stretch to assume, then the Tigers might put up a fighting chance in the Central in 2011. Even if Coke and Penny don't pan out at the back, the trio of Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello has really started to come together as a top three. The team is also dealing without Jeremy Bonderman, who may sit out the entire season. That puts extra pressure on the top three to contribute, and I think they'll do so just fine.
I might get some flak for saying this, but Miguel Cabrera is my weakness for the Tigers in 2011. His drunk driving arrest last month after claiming to be sober really hurt the team internally, and his sobriety could be a big issue in Detroit all season. If Cabrera can keep his act together and be a key team player, forget I ever wrote this bit. But if he has more off the field issues that are alcohol-related, then you'll understand why Miggy falls into this slot for Detroit, especially because the backup options are Victor Martinez or Don Kelly.
I had to think about this one for a while, but I feel that Rick Porcello will be the most important player for the Tigers this year. As I mentioned in the Strength, Porcello's part of a 1-2-3 potential punch with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. He's also the bridge to the weaker part of the rotation featuring Phil Coke and Brad Penny. The better Porcello does, the more that the Tigers can have a few bad outings from Coke or Penny. The worse Porcello does, the more that the Tigers have to rely on the back of the rotation. It's not always an enviable position to be a third starter, but Rick Porcello is going to be a big key for the Tigers in 2011.
For a while, the Tigers might look like a team with a shot to win the AL Central in 2011. The Twins and White Sox, however, will prove to be too much as this team starts to slip in August.
Chicago White Sox
Acquired: Adam Dunn, Will Ohman, Jesse Crain
Lost: Scott Linebrink, J.J. Putz, Manny Ramirez
The White Sox bring a lot to the table in 2011 in terms of power bats. Carlos Quentin, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko are in the heart of the order, and Alex Rios and Alexei Ramirez have the capability to smack a long fly themselves. Paying as much as Kenny Williams did for Adam Dunn was a big risk, but Williams knows that the White Sox needed to do more to better compete with Minnesota. There's definitely a big possibility of a decent handful of power displays from this lineup.
Just as the Indians are going with a fairly inexperienced third basemen, so too are the White Sox. Brent Morel's career consists of 65 at bats in a September call-up last year, and he's currently penciled in as the starter. The White Sox could also go with Mark Teahen, but it looks as if Morel will be getting the nod. If that's the case, third base could be a weak link for Chicago all season, especially if Morel has trouble reading big league pitching over the whole year.
Jake Peavy is coming back from a devastating injury to his pitching arm in 2011. He's trying to come back from a complete tear of his right latissimus dorsi tendon, an injury which is believed to have never been suffered by a major league player before. In layman's terms, Peavy is in uncharted waters with his recovery. He recently started throwing again, and hopes to get back to full form as soon as he can. However, this injury, if it doesn't heal correctly, will most likely end Peavy's career. Therefore, Jake Peavy's right latissimus dorsi tendon is my X-factor for the Chicago White Sox in 2011.
The addition of Adam Dunn and the potential return of Jake Peavy will go a long way to helping the South Siders challenge the Twins in the Central, but things develop a little too slowly and they fall a few games short of a division crown.
Acquired: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Jim Hoey
Lost: Jon Rauch, J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson
Does the name Joe Mauer ring a bell? If it doesn't, then for penance, watch at least 40 Twins games this year. If it does, then you're well aware that Joe Mauer is the best catcher in baseball. 'Power' Mauer dropped from 28 home runs in 2009 to nine in 2010, but that could be an effect of the first year in Target Field. Mauer should surpass that number this year. He hit .325/9/75 last year and posted an .871 OPS. None of those numbers are as good as 2009 (.365/28/96, 1.031 OPS), but the fact that they're still some of the best catcher numbers in the bigs should tell you something about Joe Mauer.
The untested Tsuyoshi Nishioka is my weakness for Minnesota in 2011. He posted numbers of .346/11/59 with a .905 OPS with Chiba Lotte Marines last year, but foreign imports are never a sure thing. Yes, there are success stories like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, but there are also failures like Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Kazuo Matsui (and I wonder why I'm still a Mets fan). Nishioka should be solid at second base for the Twins this year, but until I see any results, he's just as vulnerable as any other rookie.
Justin Morneau is still trying to work his way back from a concussion suffered in July. He hasn't played a spring training game yet, although he has been working with the team. Right after Joe Mauer on the hierarchy of players that Twins fans have an unrequited love for is Justin Morneau. His style of play and positive attitude are great assets for the Minnesota franchise, and he's pretty good at hitting and fielding too. If Morneau can make a speedy recovery and see the field in April, then the Twins should be good to go for 2011. If he suffers setbacks, the White Sox or Tigers could potentially challenge the defending division champs.
Morneau comes back, Mauer hits 15 home runs, and Francisco Liriano wins 15 games as the Twins take another AL Central title.