Thursday, March 31, 2005

AL Preview II = AL Central

I previewed the AL East yesterday, (just scroll down, stop being lazy -- do I have to link EVERYthing?), so it's time for the AL Central. This one should also be no surprise at the top, despite the progress that pundits claim the Indians and Tigers have made. Here we go again:

The Twins are still the class of this division and the notion that it's even close is wistful thinking on the part of the media. They have the best pitcher (Johan Santana, the lefty Pedro-of-1999), the best closer (Joe Nathan), the best overall player (Toriiiiiiiiiiii Hunter), the best young player (Joe Mauer), the best outfield, a full year from baby-bopper Justin Morneau to enliven the offense, a top-notch set-up crew (Romero, Rincon) a good defense and a solid rotation that may get better depending upon the health of Joe Mays. Hopefully for them, they'll beat out the AL West winner for second-best record in the AL so they'll play the Red Sawx in the playoffs instead of tackling the Yankees again.

The Indians are the No. 2 team here. Why? Go with the negatives: Kevin Millwood is not only removed from Atlanta where Leo Mazzone worked wonders with his Rick Helling-quality pitching talent, he is also in the American League (where every team other than the Royals and Drays has at least 8 guys who can hit) and completely outside the NL East (where every stadium except Philly's is a pitcher's dream park and none of the teams other than Philly can hit). Nineteen games against Detroit and the ChiSox are tougher on pitchers than 19 against the Mess, DC/Montreal/San Juan and the Marlins. The rest of the team? They lack a bullpen that can rival Detroit or Minnesota, the hitting is good, the defense is not on-par with Minnesota and Jody Gerut needs to regain his 2003 form to help his boys overcome the Twins. The rotation is a semi-strength: I've never been high on Millwood and Cliff Lee was the worst 14-game winner in the AL last year but Westbrook seems to have a clue and Sabathia is potentially dominant. An 85-88 win season is entirely possible; 92 and a division crown seems like a bit of a leap.

The Tigers not only made one of the great improvements in sports history (43 wins in '03, 72 in '04), they actually underperformed! How's that? Check out the "Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball" -- an explanation is here. That theory posits that the Tigers should have won 79 games. Yipes! Now, they're still young and there are better teams in the division but Jeremy Bonderman can pitch, the relief group is good (Urbina, Percival) and there's a wealth of young talent enhanced by some sharp vets like Ivan Rodriguez. Still a work in progress, but certainly not the sorryness that took the field two years ago. Give credit to Alan Trammell.

Do you know any White Saax fans? I don't. Talk about a team without cache: they have no real identity. The White Saax have a futility streak even longer than the one the RedSawx broke last year, they lack the lovable loser characteristic of the Cubbies, their ballpark is the dullest of the new stadiums in the post-Camden Yards era, their owner is the single largest reason that salaries have skyrocketed (he wanted to break the union in '94; helped kill the season over salary structure then turned right around and offered Albert Belle a HUGE bank-breaker deal in the off-season after 1996 that sent contract prices soaring), and the Hawk-and-Wimpy show is nowhere near the national phenomenon that was Harry Caray. On top of all that, this year's team is a compilation of retreads and can't-misses who missed (Ben Davis, Joe Crede, Jon Garland). Still, the team has three inning-eating starters (Buerhle, who's good, and Garcia/Garland, who are average -- check out Garcia's numbers pre- and post-trade from Seattle) and a solid if perplexing closer, lots of power (Everett, Dye, Crede, Konerko, Frank Thomas) and . . . what? A lack of intangibles (young team on the rise, exciting new manager, excellent offseason, etc.). That means a lack of a chance to win. Ultimately, their record may be indistinguishable from Cleveland or Detroit (all three could go 81-81), but vastly inferior to Minnesota.

Finally, the Royals. And I do mean finally. If they were in the AL East or West, they'd be the worst team in the league because they'd get pounded by Yanks/RedSawx/O's or Angels/Rangers/A's. But they can feed enough off the soft middle of this division to mask some of their weaknesses. Actually, other than Zack Greinke, that's about all the Royals have.

Finally an AL Central trivia piece: The AL Central's five teams combined have the fewest World Series wins in the divisional era of the three AL divisional groupings (notice, I'm accounting for the fact that from 1969-93 there were only two divisions because the measure is by current divisional grouping). Total for the AL Central's five members = 4 (Minnesota '87, '91; Detroit '84; KC '85). The A's and Yanks alone have matched (A's have 4: '72-'74, '89) or exceeded (Yanks have 6: '77, '78, '96, '98-'00) the AL Central members' total since 1969. Even worse: the NL West has 3 (Dodgers '81, '88; DBacks '01).

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