With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 3, we look at the American League Central …
Twins: I feel for this team. I really do. They’re some of the best group of guys I’ve ever dealt with, and — after a storybook division win last year and some nice offseason moves — they looked like strong contenders heading into Spring Training. But it won’t be easy recovering from the loss of one of the greatest — and, like most of the guys on this team, most underrated — closers in baseball, as Joe Nathan will miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery. Still, they’re a great defensive club, the bullpen is strong, and I love that offense. Orlando Hudson was a nice addition to the two-hole, and Jim Thome makes that a very formidable bench. And you already have Denard Span leading off, and Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel in the middle of the order. But Nathan or not, I’m not a big fan of that rotation composed of basically a bunch of No. 3 and 4 starters. There simply is no legitimate top-of-the-rotation guy among Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano or Nick Blackburn. Perhaps Francisco Liriano can capture some of that old magic, but that remains to be seen. So does this team.
Tigers: The Tigers waited until the start of Spring Training to acquire the services of Johnny Damon. But boy do they need him. I didn’t see any way they can go into the season with youngsters Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore and still expect to compete in the division. But they’re right up there now, and they have as good a shot to win it as the Twins or White Sox do. Miguel Cabrera is always a force in the middle of the order, and the talk of camp has been how good Magglio Ordonez has looked thus far. The guy who needs to produce is Carlos Guillen, who went into Thursday batting just .236 this spring and hit just .242 with 11 homers in 81 games in 2009. Pitching wise, Justin Verlander is one of the top arms in the game, and Rick Porcello is close to being that, too. But they’ll feel the loss of Edwin Jackson, as three question marks, as Max Scherzer, Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis bring their fair share of questions to the rest of that starting staff. In the bullpen, Jose Valverde was a nice addition, and there are some other nice pieces that make it a formidable bunch. All in all, I think the Tigers did pretty well this offseason considering they expected a fire sale with the economic climate Detroit currently faces.
White Sox: I really don’t know what to make of this group, to be honest. I have no real read. I’m sure cooky manager Ozzie Guillen has something to do with that. But it has more to do with the uncertainty of some of their most important players. Guys like Alex Rios, Jake Peavy, J.J. Putz, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. With those guys, you could strike gold or come away with coal. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if this team loses 100 or wins 100. They’re that much of an enigma. That starting rotation has a chance to be great with Mark Buerhle and Peavy at the top. But Peavy was limited to 20 innings last year after Tommy John surgery. The lineup could be great, but Rios, Jones and Pierre will have to produce in order to complement Carlos Quentin, Paul Konerko and Alexei Ramirez. Who knows if that’s going to happen? And the bullpen could be solid, but that could hinge on a bounce-back year from Putz as the bridge to Bobby Jenks. South Siders = Big Mystery.
Indians: Just like when he took over as the Nationals’ skipper in 2007, it’s going to be a trying first year in Cleveland for new manager Manny Acta. Frankly, the Indians are just not a contender yet. But Acta will at least have some nice pieces to work with. Keep your eyes on speedy left fielder Michael Brantley and power-hitting first baseman Matt LaPorta. (Not just because he’s a former Gator; though that’s reason enough, right?) Also, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo — he of a .300 batting average, .394 on-base percentage and 20 homers last year — is one of the more underrated players in baseball. And the big boys, Grady Sizemore, Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner and Fausto Carmona have looked good this spring. Besides Westbrook and Carmona, though, there isn’t much else in that rotation, and Kerry Wood — probably out for the first two months of the season — can’t really be counted on to close games out. So, the Indians are still a ways away. But they’ll be exciting to see offensively.
Royals: Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke joins a team heading into the 2010 season with … well, not much else. That rotation is up in the air after Greinke, as Gil Meche, Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister were all shut down late last season with shoulder fatigue. One look at this roster, and you’d swear you’re gazing at the recycling bin sitting on the side of your house. Rick Ankiel, Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall were the big offseason additions for the Royals, so we’re using the term “big” loosely here. Perhaps what’s most important, though, is for Alex Gordon — Kansas City’s No. 2 overall Draft pick in ’05 — to finally realize his potential. Since they won’t compete, watch for the Royals’ future in Gordon, right-hander Aaron Crow and lefty Noel Arguelles.
AL Central champion: White Sox
— Alden Gonzalez