AL Central Preview
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox finished last season needing only a modest amount of pitching to make a serious run at the division title in 2003. They got it when they traded for Bartolo Colon, who, if he can stay healthy, brings more to them as a quality innings eater than he does as an ace of the staff. The bullpen was simply overworked last year and was in desperate need of a 200+ inning starter in order to stay fresh. Colon should provide that provided his weight doesn't interfere with his performance. A dark horse in the rotation is Esteban Loaiza, who has mystified many pitching coaches over the course of his career: how can a guy with his stuff be so hittable? However, because of the unbalanced schedule, he will get ample opportunities to pitch against teams he dominates historically - Detroit (2.51 ERA), Cleveland (2.52 ERA) and Minnesota (3.40 ERA). Gone is change-up closer Keith Foulke in favor of power fastball closer Billy Koch. Given that Foulke had a decent season last year and has slightly better career statistics than Koch, one has to wonder if the change will have any positive impact. Koch has already had some impact - positive or not remains to be seen - by stating flatly that the Twins were "just lucky" last season. Even before spring training games began, bulletin boards for both teams were starting to fill. On offense, the White Sox have more depth on the bench than last year with the addition of Brian Daubach and the continued maturity of Joe Borchard and Willie Harris. Young hitters like Borchard, Aaron Rowand and Joe Crede will certainly add more pop to the line-up, but their impatience may cost the Sox more opportunities to score. Still, there's enough talent here to challenge for the Central title. Prediction: 86 wins, 2nd in the division.
The Tribe lost a lot of offense when Jim Thome packed his bags for Philly. However, this won't be a bunch of hitless wonders. The Indians have a number of very good young hitters who could develop into a very dangerous line-up in the next few years. Milton Bradley, Ben Broussard, Brandon Phillips, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez all have strong minor league resumes and only need major league experience. Karim Garcia finally showed some of the power that has tantalized 6 organizations and he's still only 27 years old. Surprisingly, Matt Lawton will open the season in the line-up, after offseason surgery revealed that he not only had a completely torn labrum, but that it had begun to heal abnormally. He may begin the season slowly, but should be fully recovered by May. While they probably won't be among the leaders in runs scored, this team will have a decent offense. Where the Indians will have there biggest trouble is keeping runs off the board. With Colon and Chuck Finley gone from last year's staff, the starting staff consists of retreads and youngsters. Ricardo Rodriguez looks promising, as does Jason Davis and Cliff Lee, but none of them look like ace material. While they may give the Tribe an occasional outstanding outing, it's a bit much to expect them to deliver consistently enough to push this team into contention. And if CC Sabathia's workload over the last 2 years ever catches up with him, a staff that depends on Brian Anderson, Jason Bere and youngsters might struggle for 70 wins. Danys Baez takes over the closer role, but the rest of his support cast is very much like the starting staff - retreads and youngsters. There are simply too many question marks in the pitching staff to expect this team to do anything but tread water. Prediction: 70 wins, 3rd in the division
It's certainly cheaper to hire a new manager and hope he works miracles than it is to dump the entire organization and start over. Actually, there are a few bright spots in Detroit and with GM Dave Dombrowski leading the renovation, there will be more in the near future. Alan Trammell is now running the club on the field and he brought back several of his compatriots from the glory-Tigers of the early 80s to help him foster a winning attitude on this young team. Bobby Higginson will play the role of elder statesman leading the charge on the field. The Motor City Kitties have a number of intriguing young players who could become solid major leaguers: Eric Munson, Omar Infante, Eugene Kingsale, Andres Torres, Ramon Santiago and Carlos Pena. However, the safe bet is that it will be a couple of years before they all realize that potential. Pena, Munson and Kingsale are the most likely to have a significant impact this year. The Tigers pitching situation is another matter entirely. The bullpen should be decent with Matt Anderson closing (although he will likely be traded this year) and Franklyn German in the role of set-up. The rest of the cast - Julio Santana, Oscar Henriquez and Jamie Walker - is solid. But the rotation may render that point moot. With the exception of knuckleballer Steve Sparks, who hasn't been effective since 2001, the rotation is largely comprised of young starters with dubious upside. Andy VanHekken and Jeremy Bonderman showed some promise in the low minors, but it will probably take a couple more years for them to settle in. None of the others, if they were in any other organization, would grade out as more than mop-up relievers. Prediction: 62 wins, 5th in the division
Kansas City Royals
The Royals have a number of players who will awe fans with their raw athletic ability. Unfortunately, much of that raw ability will not translate to the scoreboard because of an organizational lack of baseball skills. Still, the Royals should be better than their 62-win effort last year, especially if they can keep centerfielder Carlos Beltran for a good portion of the season. With oft-injured Mark Quinn no longer obstructing his path, Dee Brown will get a chance to live up to some of the hype surrounding his minor league career. Carlos Febles has had a surprisingly strong spring, showing a keen eye at the plate, prompting optimism that he can display his full range of speed and power this season. Raul Ibanez will show that last year's solid production was no fluke, that he had been capable for several years but had simply never gotten the opportunity. The bench is a little deeper with the additions of Mike DeFelice and Desi Relaford. Like the Tigers and the Indians, the focus of the pitching staff will be on young starters. Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt struggled with consistency in their first year in the bigs, but could end up as pretty decent starters. Albie Lopez and James Baldwin were brought in to lead the staff, but realistically they won't be much more than serviceable innings eaters, if that. The bullpen is loaded with guys who throw in the mid-90s and higher but it remains to be seen if they can throw enough strikes to keep hitters honest. Mike MacDougal and his 100 mph fastball enters the season as the closer, but unless he can reign in his wildness, he may not keep the job for long. Jeremy Hill and Ryan Bukvich have spent the spring working on offspeed pitches and could challenge for the role should either demonstrate any consistency. The dark horse in the race is Rule 5 pick-up DJ Carrasco, who's having a better spring than any of them. Prediction: 66 wins, 4th in the division
Like the Angels, the Twins were beneficiaries of a very efficient offense last season. And like the Angels, they had several positions fail to match expectations, so they might very well score as much this season as last. The difference between the two teams is that the Twins have an influx of better hitting talent to bolster what they already have on the field and several of their starters are just now entering their prime production years. Bobby Kielty and his near .900 OPS will likely absorb most of the at bats that were given to Brian Buchanan last season, provided he can stay healthy. Matt LeCroy will get many of David Ortiz' at bats and should be just as productive. A wrist injury slowed Luis Rivas last season, but he is primed for an improved season, as is Cristian Guzman. The rotation is reasonably solid, but extremely deep. While Brad Radke and Rick Reed are the acclaimed aces of the staff, the talent lies at the bottom of the rotation with Joe Mays, Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse and Johan Santana. Kenny Rogers was signed this spring after Eric Milton's balky knee required additional surgery, possibly keeping him out the entire year. Rogers could be a nice pick-up as he is an extreme groundball pitcher who does very well on turf (3.44 ERA over the last 3 years) and now has an excellent infield defense to back him up. As brittle as the Twins starters have been over the last several years, it's almost certain that Santana will get opportunities to start. It's just a shame that he won't be given that chance from the outset of the season as last year he was by far the Twins most effective starter, posting an ERA (3.13) a full run lower than anyone on the staff except for Rick Reed (3.80). Still, it will be a mild surprise if he doesn't get at least 20 starts this season. The bullpen is a bit softer with the loss of Mike Jackson to free agency, but is still one of the best in the AL, with veteran Mike Fetters being the only real weak link. Prediction: 87 wins, 1st in the division