Saving the best for last, we turn the focus on the hometown team's division today. Top to bottom, there isn't a division in baseball that can compete with the AL Central. That being said it will be a dogfight all year, and the constant competition may cost whomever isn't lucky enough to win the division, the wild card. So let's take a look at the teams:
Chicago White Sox
The story of the White Sox the last two years has been the pitching. In their World Series winning season of 2005, only one starter surrendered more than 100 runs, last year all five starters did. Why? Well hits allowed are relatively the same for the pitchers both years, but strikeouts and groundouts were down and home runs allowed were up. So basically the pitcher couldn't get the inning ending double play or strikeout when they needed it, and giving up more home runs obviously never helps your cause. Even with the regression in 2006 the Sox still won 90 games, so if the strikeouts go up, and the HR allowed goes down a fraction that could be worth a win or two. That is if Ozzie Guillen can figure out what the strength of this team is. The Sox have three really good power hitters in the middle of their lineup (Konerko, Dye, and Thome), and guys like Joe Crede and A.J. Piersynski that can hit well enough to drive people home as well. Do you know why Dye, Konerko and Thome are so good? Even if they don't drive in a run they get on base for someone else to do so. It's no surprise those three led the team in OBP. Now what it that mastermind Ozzie Guillen going to do this year? Bunt more. The problem last year wasn't that you didn't have enough people in scoring position; in fact you scored more runs than all but two teams in the major leagues. The problem is that your pitching staff gave almost a full run a game more. What you should be doing is finding two guys at the top of the order that can get on base. As of right now you have Scott Posednik (2006 OBP .330), Tadihito Iguchi (.352 better but not great), and for some reason Darin Erstad (.279...Neifi Perez's was .260). Adam Dunn struck out nearly 200 times and still had an OBP of .365. It simple, have the top of the order get on base, then your big three will either drive them home, and you score runs that will compensate if your pitching staff is more 2006 than 2005. For some reason teams have bought in to this myth that if we have people that play hard we will win. That's great if you have people that play hard, but you know what really helps...being good. I don't care how tough or gritty Darin Erstad is; in no way does he make the White Sox better. The Cardinals did not win the World Series because David Eckstein's guts, they won because the pitching staff pitched lights out, they didn't make any mistakes, and the Tigers made a lot. Having Albert Pujols didn't hurt either. So unless the pitching staff comes through for Ozzie this summer, it could be a long season on the Southside, and could end with him jobless.
Everyone's 2006 sleeper pick to win the division last year, did just that, slept in. Here it is in 2007 deja vu all over again. Everyone loves the Indians to win the division once again. Let's see what they did this offseason to warrant the attention. Having a log jam at Third base they let Aaron Boone go, gave the job to Andy Marte, and traded Kevin Kouzmanoff to San Diego for 2nd baseman Josh Barfield. They brought in free agents Dave Dellucci and Trot Nixon, who aren't big hitters, but the field well and get on base. That bodes well for Travis Hafner, who was having an MVP caliber season before an injury shut him down for the season in August. Plus they have superb lead off man Grady Sizemore, and probably the best hitting (but worst fielding, he allowed 100 stolen bases last year) catchers in Victor Martinez. Filling out the lineup (which was 2nd in runs scored in 2006) will be platoons of Casey Blake and Ryan Garko at first base, Shin-Soo Choo and Freddy Gutierrez at the corner spots in the outfield, and Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. The pitching staff last year was a Jekyll and Hyde situation between the starters and bullpen. The starters were outstanding with C.C. Sabathia and his top 5 ERA leading the way for Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Jeremy Sowers and Paul Byrd. Fausto Carmano filled in for Sowers when he reached his inning limit for the year, and will do the same for Lee, who will start the season off on the DL. The bullpen was flat out atrocious. GM Mark Shapiro went out and brought in new closer Joe Borowski, and set-up men Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz to take the pressure of Rafael Betancourt and company. Does this make the bullpen better? Yes. But it still is an arm or two short from being the elite bullpen a contender needs. Still any team with Travis Hafner is one that needs just one swing to get back in a game, or put it away.
After coming within five errors of winning the World Series, the Tigers didn't just sit back and bask in the magic of 2006. They went out and fired the first shot of a free spending offseason and acquired future Hall-of-Famer Gary Sheffield and locked him up for three years. Lost Jaime Walker after he was offered a three year $12 million contract by the Orioles, but replaced him with Jose Mesa for $2.5 million for one year. Re-signed Sean Casey to play first for one more year at $4 million. Some are concerned about Sheffield's ability to play the entire year. I can't see why he wouldn't be able. For one, last year was the only year that he missed an extended period of time. Secondly he hurt himself in the field, which as a DH he will see sparingly. Sheffield hopefully will act as a mentor to the young hitters, just as Kenny Rogers was to the young pitchers. If he can get his career .398 OBP habits to spread to hitters like Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe, this lineup will be deadly. Also moving Lloyd McClendon and his clipboard from the bullpen to the bench as hitting coach will make a difference as well. Cutting down Curtis Granderson's strikeout will be his task for the year (so far so good, he only has 4 in 46 AB this spring). He was second to Carlos Guillen in walks, if he can turn some of those K's into hits or walks, Curtis will be in the .300 AVG, .375 OBP range. Add to that his ability to go deep (19 HR last year) it would make him one of the most dangerous leadoff men in the league. As for the pitching, I don't expect the same type of season for Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers. But I see Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson to continue their pattern of improvement. Each are entering their fifth year with the Tigers, and each have improved ERA and strikeouts from prior years. Robertson will finally get that run support this year and win 16 games with a sub 4 ERA. Bonderman will strikeout 200+, flirt with 20 wins, and be a Cy Young candidate. With Mike Maroth appearing healthy the Tigers have a staff 2 power guys (Bondo and Verlander), 2 finesse guys (Maroth and Kenny) and a guy that mixes both styles (Robertson). Each is capable of winning 15 games this year. As for the bullpen, Todd Jones, yes he did blow 6 saves last year (in 43 opportunities), but so did Jon Papelbon (in 41 opps.), and he almost won rookie of the year. The problem with Jones is that he should not be pitching more than one inning. The big blowups occur when he is trotted out for a second inning. Exhibits A, B, and C team to beat in . This is where the Mesa signing is a good deal. He is a closer type that can pitch more than one inning. In fact, other than Jones, there isn't a guy in the bullpen that can't go two innings or more if needed. So settle down people Jonesy will blow a save or two, or six, but nobody's perfect (except Mike Gonzales, but he's not even a closer anymore). The Tigers are no longer a surprise, and the favorites to win the AL Central.
Kansas City Royals
The good news is that GM Dayton Moore got the Royals famously cheap owner, David Glass (of course he's cheap he owns Wal-Mart), to open up the checkbook. The bad news is the spent $60 million of it on Gil Meche and Octavio Dotel. On the plus side they have probably the number one prospect in all of baseball Alex Gordon waiting to join the team. So while this year the division will be spanking the Royals, there are some bright spots on the horizon.
Last year the Twins shook off a shaky start to came back to win the division. They did this after replacing ineffective Tony Bautista and Juan Castro with Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett, and powered by the arms of Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, and Brad Radke. The "piranhas" are back, but the arms of Liriano (Tommy John surgery), and Radke (retirement) are not. Reigning MVP Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter lead the offense. Everyone on the team can get on base, and the big three drive them home. New DH Jason Kubel looks to follow in the footstep of homegrown hitters Morneau and Mauer, and add more punch to the line up. The Twins will need it. After Johan Santana, the rotation consists of unproven youngsters Boof Bonser and Matt Garza, who were shaky at times last year; and veteran Russ Ortiz, Carlos Silva, and Sidney Ponson, who have combined for 99 losses in the past three seasons, and rookie Glen Perkins who has yet to start a major league game. The one plus side is that if spots 2-5 can hand over a lead to the bullpen it more than likely will stick. The Twins have one of the best with closer Joe Nathan, and relievers Juan Rincon, Pat Neshek, Joe Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Dennys Reyes. But I doubt that's good enough to get the Twins their fifth division title in six years.
1) Detroit (95-67)
2) Cleveland (90-72)
3) Minnesota (89-73)
4) Chicago (80-82)
5) Kansas City (60-102)