3 x 5 AL Central Preview by Lee Vowell and Todd Vandenberg

American League Central Questions

AL-Central

Chicago White Sox

Question: The White Sox made a lot of moves this offseason, adding Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, among others. How much better, if at all, do you think they will be?

Lee: You have a pretty good team if Jeff Samardzija is your number 2 starter. The addition of David Robertson is huge as well because it finally solidifies the closer role. But the team had a big year last season from Jose Abreu and Chris Sale was Chris Sale, and still the Sox won only 73 games. I just think Sale will continue to find ways to get hurt and the rest of the division is good enough to make other teams suffer when not fully healthy or producing as expected. The Sox will be better, but won’t be good enough to contend.

Todd: A lot, like a dozen games. No, seriously. For details, see the third question here.

Question: What are the chances we see an all-Chicago World Series within the next two years?

Lee: The Cubs are still a few years away, I think. The White Sox have a smaller window because the team’s farm system lacks much depth, and as I said above I don’t think they will contend this season. So I don’t see a White Sox-Cubs World Series in the next two years.

Todd: Again, until I really thought about this in depth, I laughed. Not because of the Cubs, because they are definitely on the rise; I just discounted the Sox. But after some actual thought – no, not great within two years; within four, oh yeah. I will say this: the odds of an all Chi-Town Series are incredibly better than they were two years ago, when they combined for a sparkling 129 wins.

Question: Who will pay the bigger dividend for the South Siders: Samardzija or Robertson?

Lee: I will assume wrongly that the White Sox will contend to answer this question. Then it comes down to which is more important: a closer or a top of the rotation starter. The answer to me will always be the starter. The Sox helped themselves by getting not just Robertson to close but other good pieces in the pen. Samardzija will get to the pen with the lead most times, and the Sox should win most of his starts. He will pay the bigger dividend.

Todd:  Initially, I thought Robertson, easily. He’ll save 45-50 games; the Shark will start 32 games, and with some luck mixed with his skill, win 20. But – Samardzija pushes Scott Carroll and his 4.80 ERA and 1.48 WHIP out of the rotation, and pushes everyone else (other than Sale) back a game in the rotation. Now Quintana and Danks are your third and fourth starters, Noesi is the fifth guy; that looks a lot better than last year. Almost 2 runs per game better for 32 starts? That’s a lot more chances to win, to get it to your bullpen to close it out. Which brings us back to Robertson. Bringing him in, along with Zach Duke, is huge, because it pushes Belisario and Lindstrom with their combined 5.38 ERA and 14 of 22 save opportunities out. It also moves Jake Petricka, who was actually decent in saving 14 of 18 games, to the 7th inning guy. You’re saving probably 30 runs over 100.3 innings of relief pitching right there. The Sox blew 21 saves last year; how can this bullpen not convert at least a dozen of those? It’s actually much closer than I initially thought, but I think the addition of Samardzija improves the team by five or six wins, while Robertson (and I can’t stress enough, I *think*), improves them by six or seven wins. Hmmmm – eleven, thirteen more wins? Could be they’re this year’s Royals.

Cleveland Indians

Question: The Indians starting staff was very good in the second half last year, but the hitting was not. What will make the offense good enough this season for the Indians to have a chance at the playoffs?

Lee: Cleveland is one of the many cities I have lived in. I once had a cat named Alomar. The same day I got the cat I went to Jacobs to watch the Tribe play and I said whichever player gets the first hit I will name the cat after. And Robbie came through. Robbie no longer plays for the Indians, however, but they could probably use him even at his advanced age. The Indians used to hit and not pitch; last year they did the opposite and still won 85 games. Plus, defensively they were awful. My concern with the hitting is that Brantley peaked last season possibly, and he was by far their best hitter. If he digresses, the only way this team still has a shot at the playoffs is with improved defense and healthier hitters. They might do one but not the other.

Todd: Ehhh – I don’t think so. The Sox – well, you read what I had to say there – will be better. The Motor City Kitties aren’t going away yet. The Indians only have four players at 3.0 WAR or better last year; they’re still missing a couple pieces. Maybe there’s help in a heralded rookie from last year, though. They should see if Johnny Manziel can hit a little; he sure can’t play QB.

Question: A lot is expected from Trevor Bauer; will he improve enough to help the Tribe take this division?

Lee: Bauer’s stuff is very good, but he has had issues throwing strikes. 12 times in 2014 Bauer threw 100 pitches in a start that did not last 7 innings. So far in Spring Training he has had much better focus and control. He is only 24, but it feels like he has been around forever. This could be the year he reaches his potential and be really good. He just needs to keep throwing strikes.

Todd: I anticipate Bauer will have an excellent year, as his control keeps improving. He’s faced 51 batters in spring, and walked none. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win 16 games, but that won’t be enough.

Question: Is Michael Brantley the Andrew McCutchen of the AL?

Lee: Brantley has yet to produce like McCutchen consistently. The first year Brantley could belong in this argument is last year. Brantley, however, has yet to have a season with over a .400 OBP, and last year was the first year he came close (.385). Cutch has had three straight over .400. Even though Cutch has had three straight seasons of finishing in the top three of voting for NL MVP (he won in 2013), I still think he is underrated. He should be near the top of every fan’s “If you were building a team, who would you start with?” Brantley had a good season last year. Let’s see if he can do it again, just as McCutchen does every year.

Todd: If he isn’t, who is? He’s got the power, just a bit less than Cutch; he’s got the speed, a bit more than McCutchen; he’s got the glove, except of course he’s in left while Cutch is in center. While Brantley doesn’t walk as much (52 – 84), he also strikes out half as often (56 – 115). He stole 23 bases, was caught once. ONCE! Yes, he’s a beast on the rise, an MVP candidate, and he is the AL’s Cutch.

Detroit Tigers

Question: The Tigers have already lost one top of the rotation starter in Max Scherzer. They have a weak farm system. They have an owner who is seemingly willing to pay players. How important is it that they re-sign David Price?

Lee: Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski uses prospects in an unusual way. At least, he does when compared to many other current teams. He actually is very willing to trade prospects (he traded five of last season’s top 10 Tigers minor leaguers, according to ESPN) for current major leaguers. Eventually, however, you run out of good prospects and you are left buying players. The Tigers have been good every year for a while (one losing season since 2005), but almost always seem to not meet expectations at the same time (because they have not won a World Series since 1984). They have an aging core, so they have a small window. The rest of the division is improving. They had better sign David Price. Or they should seriously think about rebuilding soon before they turn into the Phillies.

Todd: Critical. Porcello and Smyly are gone too, and while they weren’t exactly number ones, that’s another 29 quality starts gone, in addition to Scherzer’s 22 (not to mention those 252 K). Simon and Greene are good pickups to replace Porcello and Smyly, but they absolutely have to keep Price.

Question: Will this be the 2014 Verlander with 160 K miles, or will he able to roll back the odometer to 2012?

Lee: Verlander has had a higher ERA and lower strikeout totals with each successive season over the last four. Last year he was not good, but it now looks like a season that should not have been a surprise. Sometimes when a pitcher is so dominant over a few years (Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana, etc.) it’s difficult to think they will not always be great. Verlander won’t be the pitcher he was in 2012 ever again, but I do think he will be better than last season. Why? Because I can’t help but think Verlander will always be great.

Todd: So far he’s looked better this spring, but his K rate has dropped since 2011, and his velocity has dropped every year as well. Hate to say it, but he’s just a little better than an average pitcher now, and I don’t care how tight he throws the curve, or squeezes Kate Upton.

Question: Would this team have been better in old Tiger Stadium than spacious Comerica?

Lee: This is an interesting question because it does seem like the Tigers still want to just mash. The lineup is big on power hitters. It could just be that the hitters they have would be good at either park, but just imagine Miguel Cabrera (or Prince Fielder when he was still in Detroit) at Tiger Stadium. That would have been awesome.

Todd: Since they moved the left field wall in by 25 feet in 2003, Comerica has become a fairly neutral park overall, as opposed to the extreme pitcher-friendly field in its debut. That has certainly helped RH power hitters like Miggy, but the short porch in right at old Tiger Stadium would have put a smile on V-Mart’s face, that’s for sure.  As more and more of the cozy bandboxes opened, Tiger Stadium’s relative hitter-friendly effect became less pronounced anyway; relative to the league it only slightly favored hitters (other than fellas strong enough to go the other way and pop the ball onto that porch, like Big Cecil). That’s the long way of saying, without left-handed power to get those porch homers, they’re a bit better off in Comerica.

Kansas City Royals

Question: The Royals made it to the World Series last year. They have lost two significant parts of that club. What do the Royals need to do to contend this season?

Lee: Just more of the same: run the bases, get decent starting pitching so that the amazing bullpen can close it down and play defense. The Royals are built perfectly for their park. James Shields is overrated anyway. Sure, he gives a team a lot of innings and he is not a bad pitcher, but there are several pitchers who can easily do what he does. He will wish he had the Royals defense in San Diego.

Todd: Be extremely lucky, again. Replacing Shields with Edinson Volquez is the opposite of the Sox, in that it moves their number two up to number one, etcetera. Volquez had a good year last year, but he’s due for an off year; seriously, other than in his rookie season of 2005, his ERA has been worse than in even-numbered years. 2011 and 2013 ERA: exactly 5.71. You’re welcome, KC! As for Aoki, I see replacing him with Alex Rios basically as a wash. To contend, they’ll need much better production from the traditional offensive-minded spots of 3B, 1B and DH; 178 RBI combined from those three isn’t a sustainable recipe for winning.

Question: The Royals have built through the farm system, which is a good plan for a team not wanting to spend lots of money. How long can they sustain the success they achieved last season?

Lee: As long as the front office keeps drafting good players. The Royals have been a team waiting on their prospects to bloom and they finally did last year. They still have good pitching prospects in the minors with RHPs Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte and LHPs Sean Manaea and Brandon Finnegan, so the Royals should be good for several years. I have to say, however, and this in no way is meant towards disrespect to the players, but the Royals giving small-medium market reasons for maintaining a fairly low payroll is bullshit. The owner is David Glass, former CEO and COO of a small company named Wal-Mart. You know Wal-Mart. It’s the company that is killing America. (Yes, I realize Wal-Mart has decided to raise the minimum wage to $9/hour but that is 1) a public relations move, 2) an attempt to drive competitors out of business and 3) not enough – the real living wage of a single mother with two children, for instance, needs to be around $21/hour, according to a study by MIT.) And Glass is an owner who has made wads of cash since taking over ownership of the Royals, but keeps run the club the Wal-Mart way. Is this fair to fans? No. But when you have the money Glass has, why care about something so little as the common fan? Glass does not care about the players either, though, so it’s all good (“During the Major League Baseball strike of 1994-1995, Glass opposed any settlement with the players’ union without a salary cap, and supported the use of strike breaking ‘replacement’ players, despite a court ruling that the use of replacement players violated federal labor law.” – Zinn, Dave <July 2010>. Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love. Scribner. pp. 133–140).

Todd: See above; they won’t, at least not this season. They won’t be awful by any means, and they will be back in the postseason again; just not this year. It’s absolutely the right plan, but you still have to produce on the field, and they need a few more of the farmhands to mature.

Question: The Royals have a great bullpen, but will they have the lead often enough for Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland to matter?

Lee: Yes, they will. Even losing Shields the Royals starting pitching is good enough to keep the team in games. I think Yordano Ventura is going to be very good and will emerge as the Ace. Danny Duffy will be good too. They signed Edinson Volquez, and even though he was good for the first time in years last season, I think he has another good season because of the Royals defense. The great thing about the Royals starters is that they only have to be decent for six innings most nights. That’s a nice luxury to have.

Todd: I don’t see the Royals as regressing a lot this year, but I just don’t see them hitting well enough to repeat last year’s semi-miracle.

Minnesota Twins

Question: The Twins are another team trying to build through the farm system. The system appears loaded. What young players might be called up to make an impact this season?

Lee: The Twins are following right behind the Royals. The Twins farm system is very good, but only a couple of players RHPs Alex Meyer and Trevor May will possibly make a year-long impact in 2015. I think Byron Buxton is going to be a top 10 player in the majors for years. He can throw and run, and his power will develop and be a weapon. He won’t be in the majors until at least June though. Neither will 3B Miguel Sano, who had Tommy John last year and missed the season. There could be some late call-ups, but the Twins prospects are still a few years away from helping the team contend for a playoff spot.

Todd: Both Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano missed most (or all) of last season, and both have just been sent down for more seasoning. (I’d go for a nice blackened seafood mix myself, black and cayenne pepper, a bit of garlic…). We’ll see both these guys soon enough. RHP Jose Berrios might not show up till September; until then they’ll all be with the Lookouts, probably be punishing our Tennessee Smokies in AA.

Question: Will Joe Mauer bounce back? He dropped from 5th in OPS among AL 1B in 2013 (.880) to 14th in 2014 (.732). And if he doesn’t, how long before the team admits he doesn’t produce like a 1B needs to?

Lee: Joe Mauer has hardly in his entire career hit like a first baseman is expected to hit. He’s been a great contact hitter, but has had only one season where he showed homerun power. So, he will never hit like a corner infielder. He had much more value when he was a catcher. He’s just overpaid at his position now. Too bad, really, because he seems like a really good guy and someone you want to do well.

Todd: He’s a demigod in the Twin Cities, as he should be. After last year’s 54 R / 58 RBI performance – oh, sorry, that was Eric Hosmer; my bad. After last year’s 59 R / 69 RBI per – dammit, that was James Loney. Okay… after last year’s 59 R / 53 RBI – what, what was that, Lee? That’s for Garret Jones? So, I think you see where I’m going with this, right? 60 R / 55 RBI were actually Joe’s numbers. He did draw enough walks to be a bit better than those stiffs, but a .732 OPS and 2.1 WAR doesn’t get you statues. He’ll bounce back somewhat, but at this point, he’s on the Pete Rose career path; a corner infielder who can hit for average, draw some walks, with some doubles power. He’s so loved, maybe someday in a dozen years he too can write himself into the lineup as the absolute worst 1B in the league.

Question: On the flip side, will Danny Santana get even better?

Lee: The Twins had to be happy with what they saw from Santana last year. I am not sure he is the future, however. The Twins have a couple of good shortstop prospects, so it may be that Santana is really playing to be traded at some point.

Todd: He may regress a bit, as the sophomore slump is almost as well known a law as the Third Law of Baseball Thermodynamics (thou must hit scorching liners to leave the island; thou canst not walk thy way off). His 19 walks and 98 strikeouts proves he learned that law well. As of this writing, the Twinkies are shifting him back to SS in hopes he can improve on 2013’s 36 errors, as Byron Buxton is clearly the CF of the future, the very near future. Seems Santana should be able to handle it as he had only two errors last year at SS in 120 total chances. Overall, I think Santana will handle the move back well; even if he struggles a bit, they should leave him at SS, let him know they’ll live with a few errors and let him get his confidence back. He’ll be A-OK, and eventually continue to improve his game.

Predictions

Lee:

*Detroit 87-75

Cleveland 84-78

Kansas City 82-80

Chicago 82-80

Minnesota 70-92

Todd:

*Detroit 88-74

Chicago 84-78

Kansas City 80-82

Cleveland 77-85

Minnesota 64-98

*-denotes playoff team

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