Since 1995, the American League Central has been the playground of the Cleveland Indians. The closest anyone has come to dethroning them was 1997, when the White Sox finished a mere 6 games back. The way the teams are shaping up for 1999, only Detroit has a chance to be even that close after June.
The Indians fell just short of tarnishing the Yanks "greatest ever" campaign last year in the ALCS. They matched up fairly well against the Yanks in every facet of the game except for starting pitching. So naturally, this offseason, the Tribe went out and signed a second baseman and a DH. Certainly new 2B Robbie Alomar, a huge upgrade, both offensively and defensively over Joey Cora/David Bell, and DH Wil Cordero, who should be able to come close to the production of Brian Giles splitting time between DH and 1st base, will help an offense that ranked 6th in the AL last year. But with rookie slugger Richie Sexson also in the mix, the offense wasn't really in question. The Tribe addressed some potential deadspots in the bullpen by picking up hard-throwing Jerry Spradlin and Ricardo Rincon via trades and the winter league reports on ex-phenom starter Steve Karsay have been very promising. But if the Indians hope to get past the Yanks in the postseason, they are going to have to acquire a front of the rotation starter. Look for them to make a deal at some point this season for Kevin Appier if he's healthy, or Curt Schilling, both of whom have smoked the Yanks during their careers. Kenny Rogers and Brad Radke are also possibilities, but neither has had much success against New York.
Jerry Reinsdorf's White Sox are the poster children for what small-brained management can do for a large market club. This season they will be without the services of two of their best run-producers - 3B Robin Ventura and OF Albert Belle. In their places will be the unspectacular Greg Norton and Jeff Abbott, respectively. The Sox are also rumored to be interested in dealing their best run producer ever, 1B/DH Frank Thomas. His replacement would be the career .256 hitting Darrin Jackson. So it appears that Jerry Reinsdorf may finally get his wish from 1994: to have the White Sox play a full season with replacement players. Actually, the White Sox have some very talented regulars in SS Mike Caruso, 2B Ray Durham and 1B Paul Konerko, with 3B Carlos Lee on the horizon should Norton live up to expectations. All four have the talent to become All-Stars. In addition to Abbott, the outfield has potentially good Magglio Ordonez and potentially average Brian Simmons. The pitching, however, has little to offer. Although relatively young, with the exception of Jaime Navarro, none of the starting pitchers possess a particularly impressive record in the minors, indicating their potential is probably limited. The bullpen is also relatively inexperienced and talent-starved, with set-up man Bob Howry being the only one with star potential. If the White Sox were in any other division, I'd say they were destined for last place. But where they are, it's a toss up.
The Kansas City Royals signed C Chad Kreuter and banjo-hitting, defensive wiz Rey Sanchez this offseason. They also traded one of their better outfield prospects for non-slugging 3B Joe Randa. Not exactly the harbinger of things to come that Royals fans were hoping for. The Royals still have some pitching with Kevin Appier (for now) and closer Jeff Montgomery. If Jose Rosado can recover from the gross overuse at the hands of ex-manager Bob Boone, then both he and Glendon Rusch could become quite good, maybe as soon as this year, but more likely in a year or two. The Royals have several prospects ready to contribute - 2B Carlos Febles and OF's Jeremy Giambi and Carlos Beltran being the most noteworthy - but have had trouble figuring out how to develop talent beyond the minor league level: only last year did they realize that they needed to play uber-prospect Johnny Damon full-time. Under the new ownership the Royals appear to be headed in the right direction; it just may take a while for the desired results. For now, look for them near the bottom of the standings.
There are apparently two ways to get a new stadium. One is to put a winning team on the field, despite losing money; this method worked for San Diego and San Francisco, but not for the Marlins. The other way is to scrap the team and plead poverty; this method worked for Pittsburgh, but not for Montreal and apparently not for the Minnesota Twins. Still, the Twins feel compelled to continue their bargain-basement ways, opting to release shortstop Pat Meares after he asked for the kingly sum of $2 million per year. Denny Hocking will take over his vacated spot until Cristian Guzman, one of the prospects from last year's Knoblauch deal, is ready. The rest of the line-up is relatively unchanged, led by veteran catcher and Minnesota native Terry Steinbach. Journeyman power-hitter Melvin Nieves will likely be replacing the retired Paul Molitor in the DH spot. The pitching staff will be virtually unchanged from last year's squad. Closer Rick Aguilera is rumored to be on the trading block this spring. Set-up man Mike Trombley has been anointed as his successor should Aggy be dealt. Although the Twins have some very good talent in 2B Todd Walker, OF Matt Lawton and 1B David Ortiz, they are still at least several position players and pitchers away from seriously competing.
The Detroit Tigers were touted as a threat to challenge the Indians for the Central crown last year. Instead, they challenged the Twins for the cellar, mostly due to bad years by key players and injuries. They still have a solid core of everyday players in 1B Tony Clark, 2B Damian Easley, and OF Bobby Higginson. This year, that core will get some serious help from uber-OF- prospects Juan Encarnacion and Gabe Kapler. The Tigers also acquired DH Gregg Jefferies and 3B Dean Palmer to add punch to an offense that finished 12th in the AL in runs scored. Catcher Brad Ausmus was brought in via trade to take over the catching duties and to turn around a talented young pitching staff that failed to live up to expectations. Many in the Tigers organization bemoaned the fact that the pitchers stop throwing inside effectively. Ausmus is an excellent reciever, setting up pitches very well, especially inside. He's also one of the better defensive catchers around, throwing out runners at a 40% clip for his career. With Ausmus behind the plate, the pitchers should be able to concentrate more on making quality pitches, and with the talent they have, that qualtiy could be quite high. Justin Thompson, Brian Mohler and Seth Greisinger each have excelled at every level they've pitched. If they respond to Ausmus the way Bergman and Lima did in Houston last year, the Tigers will have a front 3 that will match up well against just about anyone. Willie Blair, who won 16 games with the Tigers in 1997, and Bryce Florie round out the rotation. The bullpen is solid. In 1996, hard-throwing Todd Jones began the year closing games for the Astros, but was relieved of those duties by even harder-throwing Billy Wagner. Look for a similar changing of the guard this year as Todd Jones will probably be relieved from closing by the 100 mph heat of Matt Anderson. Sean Runyan will provide effective set-up from the left side. With their mix of veteran leadership and young super-talents, the Tigers should finally live up to last year's billing and challenge for a spot in the postseason.
3) Kansas City