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Saturday, January 29, 2011

MLB Season Preview: American League Central

Being one of the youngest divisions in professional sports, the first champion crowned in 1995, one need only to take one look at the competing teams to see the true history of the American League Central division. In fact it is the only division in professional baseball in which all of its members have won at least one World Series championship, as well as played host to one of the greatest games of the past decade- the 2009 one game playoff between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins (won 6-5 by the Twins in 10 innings).

However, despite past successes the division has been relatively quiet in the playoffs in recent years, making it past the first round only 6 times in 16 years and, over the same time, appearing in only 2 World Series, winning one. That being said the division has welcomed in several high profile free agents this off season, and, whether by internal promotion or external upgrade, every team has improved their roster over last years model.

Considering that this division has only ever had 3 of its 5 (White Sox, Twins, and Indians) teams win it, I believe that this season will constitute more of the same, returning the White Sox to the playoffs for the first time in 3 years.

The Chicago White Sox: Preseason Rank: B+

Despite injuries, inconsistencies and the leagues most consistently overrated pitching staff, the White Sox made a hard playoff push down the stretch last season, winning 88 games and finishing 8-2 in their last 10. However, this season, with one of baseballs most balanced offensive units the White Sox look poised to mash their way deep into October. Ageing stars Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy headline this improved Sox rotation along with up-and-comers John Danks and Gavin Floyd, who up until now have not quite lived up to their promised potentials. Added to the mix in the off season was the epitome of mediocrity that is Edwin Jackson. Never before has a no-hitter perfectly personified the career of the achiever so much as his perfect game last season has: 0 Hits, 8 Walks. With a career ERA of 4.62 and a losing record, it is beyond my comprehension as to why this guy is considered one of the hundred best players in the league. That being said his best statistical season came two years ago with the Tigers, so maybe a return to his old stomping ground is exactly what he needs. Compared with all the talent in the front of the rotation, the back of the rotation is surprisingly flaccid and weak (Bobby Jenks ain't walking through that door). Looking to be a closer by committee operation in 2011, featuring the likes of Jesse Crain, Matt Thornton, and talented rookie Chris Sale, look for the Sox to trade a bat for an arm later in the season if they are still in contention. Speaking of hitting, these Sox have a salivating mix of power and speed that destines them for the best offensive club in the AL. Underrated for most of last season, and perhaps over shadowed by the lack of pitching competence, leadoff man Juan Pierre led the AL in stolen bases with 68, the most of his career. Along with Pierre was Alex Rios who had the quietest 20HR 30SB season in sports, one of the most underrated players in the league, and Paul Konerko who had his best all around statistical season since 2006 (when the Sox won the Series). Look for the addition of Adam Dunn to kick this offense into 5th gear, get this team past the 90 win plateau, and seriously contend for the AL pennant.

The Minnesota Twins: Preseason Rank: B

Hungry for a 3 peat of the division are the Twins, one of the most consistent teams in the sport over the past decade. This is a team that continues to defy expectations year in and year out, this is a team that Lil Wayne says "can't be stopped even when they are, in fact, stopped."From appearances this Twins team looks to be one of the weakest in recent years, desperately lacking middle infield help and quality starting pitching. They have added former Nationals great Matt Capps in the off season and Joe Nathan is returning but the lack of pitching depth from 3-5 is what will be their Achilles heel this season. In addition to the unremarkable pitching staff is the sorely depleted lineup the Twins have to offer; with the only tough outs coming from a banged up Joe Mauer, a banged up Justin Morneau, an inconsistent Michael Cuddyer, and a suddenly surging Delmon Young. The rest of the lineup is dreadfully soft and untalented, featuring no veteran presence. Nick Punto and JJ Hardy are potentially huge departures seeing as there were no heir apparent at either position. The Twins, normally solid defensively and fundamental offensively, appear to be taking a huge step in the wrong direction and are now several pieces away from contending. The only reason they are second on my list is because of the sheer ineptitude the bottom of the division features- two teams 25+ games back by the end of the season. The Tigers will be the biggest contender for this number 2 spot, but ultimately it will be only a moral victory for whoever because they will be far away from a playoff birth.

The Detroit Tigers: Preseason Rank: B

MVP this year baby!
A potential sleeper team in the always deceitfully competitive AL Central, the Detroit Tigers are a young but experienced team that is only a piece or two away from truly competing. With the additions of Victor Martinez and Brad Penny, the Tigers have brought experience and veteran leadership to a young pitching staff desperately needing a parental influence. I like the potential this pitching staff has, anchored by annual Cy Young threat Justin Verlander, but unless young guns Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer can take big steps forward I just don't see the Tigers breaking 85 wins. The Tigers must also rely on youthful position players (Scott Sizemore and Ryan Strieby) or hardened veterans (Brandon Inge and Carlos Guillen). Certainly, as position players go, there is no lack of depth on the Tigers which is a characteristic that many playoff destined teams share. Talent is one thing, but production is another, and the Tigers have been unable to produce in recent years- whether it be due to injuries or flat out incompetence. There are reasons to be excited about the Tigers this season; they have one of the games best pitchers, best hitters, and most exciting young players. For me to pick the Tigers as the runner up in this division would not be a stretch, and I would not think twice about it, however I believe that this particular team's window for success starts next year and, as long as they can keep their players on the field, this team will sprint for October glory.


The Cleveland Indians: Preseason Rank: C

It is a testament to the futility of the Royals that the Indians are ranked this high, as I think either team could lose 100 games and no one would think twice. These Cleveland Indians have question marks at every position, and just might send Cleveland fans over the edge when it comes to their professional sports teams. Two years ago the Indians went 81-81, the year after they went 65-96 and last year they showed signs of improvement, going a modest 69-93; this sudden drop off of success begs the question: "What the hell happened?" It seems as though the Indians were in a Nationwide Insurance commercial, where 'life comes at you fast,' dump trucked by injuries, derailed promising careers, and losing big name pitchers- unable to pay them. Fausto Carmona, and the rest of this Indian staff, are going into this season with something to prove; after putting up a collective stinker of a season the 4 main cogs in Clevelands rotation stepped it up in September, putting up a collective 3.35 ERA. Carmona went 2-1 with a 1.99 ERA in September, former Red Sox Justin Masterson posted a 2.86 ERA in August and September combined, Mitch Talbot went for 2.89 in September and 2010 rookie Carlos Carrasco showed up with a 3.83 after getting the call to join the big boys. However to say that the Indians are on 'the right track' is just not true. They have a handful of good players but no potential franchise building blocks, and like the other team in this position (Houston) they lack talent in their farm system. If you are an Indian fan chances are that you know how to cope with loss and garbage teams, so don't be surprised when these chiefs stink up the joint for the next several years.

The Kansas City Royals: Preseason Rank: C

The real life representation of Nic Cage's character from Leaving Las Vegas, The Royals are as hard to watch as they are depressed and disgusted at themselves. Kansas City made the right decision this off season when they dumped Zach Greinke, unfortunately they got shafted in the deal. The center piece of  the deal was Alcides Escobar, a 26 year old prospect who hit .235 last year (.250 career) and as a 'speed' guy only stole 10 bases. But don't worry, he is a great defender. In that deal the Royals also dumped Yuniesky Betancourt, their best hitter, the man who led the team in homeruns and RBI's- but don't worry, Escobar is a slick fielder. A. Slick. Fielder. This team has thrown in their cards essentially saying, 'fuck it, these young players are going to have to put the team on they back,' a lot like Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers actually:
This season the Royals are going to rely heavily on the strengths and weaknesses of their highly touted prospects. Young players go through an adjustment period of anywhere between a few months and several years before they are fully acclimated to the big league atmosphere; so not only are these players getting rushed to the show irresponsible for their development, it could set the Royals further back in terms of future success. Consistently the Royals have one of the best farm systems in the league but they do such a bad job with there players that none of them ever turn out as good as they are thought to be. The Royals are one of the games worst franchises, plain and simple, and as exciting as it would be this team is no where near contending for anything.

Another season, another group of teams with high aspirations ready to get shot down. My Tigers, starting out strong but fading fast since 1894.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

MLB Season Preview: American League East

Winners of 12 of the last 14 All-Star games, the American League has been the dominating force in Major League Baseball for the better part of the last 15 years. Featuring the games most powerful division, and the inspiration for the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic, the American League is clearly the league for those short attention span 'fans' of high-octane, big bopping baseball. Another distinction that the American League is known for is the amount of bandwagon fans that, year after year tell us how good the Yankees or Red Sox are going to be without knowing anything other than Derek Jeter, his girlfriend, A-Rod, A-Rod's girlfriend and that obese gentleman for the Red Sox who is called 'Big Papi.'  The American League continuously reminds me of cable television shows: games are always broadcast and teams here get the most attention but the quality of baseball is not pitch perfect and after 1 bad season the exec's are not afraid to pull the trigger on some guys.

Season previews are ambiguous, in fact its damn near impossible to determine the outcome to something before you see it in action. But, to me, that is the whole fun with it. I can decide that the Royals will shock the world and win the soft Central Division (probably not), or that Rangers' manager Ron Washington will get busted for using drugs before the infamous Josh Hamilton (wait. that happened?). Baseball is a game of streaks where what happens today can affect how you play tomorrow, and that is what is so great about it. It has an aura of unpredictability, that any team can beat another on any given day is why we watch the Yankees play the Indians saturday on Fox, why we decide that, "Tim Lincecum looks like he is hooked on meth and scours the streets looking for forsaken money, I want the Giants to win the World Series." Baseball is the ultimate individual sport, and is thus completely ruled by a world of meaningless stats and cheap trends. But in between the 7 dollar beers, 35 dollar hats, and Tim McCarver's lucid, vivid stories and analysis (don't make that face, yes this is sarcasm) is a game that we can all enjoy from our $4135 air conditioned club box where we can justifiably think that, "hey, I think I could beat David Ortiz in a foot race," or that "theres no way Jim Thome can touch his toes, I should be out there instead." It is a sport that personifies what it is like to be American, but also complete luck to figure out.

Just like the rest of the world, I will start with the American League East, or as I like to call it: The 'Lets Throw Money at our Problems to Make Them Go Away' Division. One of the most popular in all of professional sports.

The Boston Red Sox: Preseason Grade: A- (Division Winner)

Good luck in Beantown, sweetie.
Infinitely deeper than the 2010 Sox, the 2011 model has a chance to make some waves in the storied AL East, provided they don't get bit as hard by the injury bug like last year. It is great to watch how Theo Epstein has, year after year, identified his squads weaknesses and aggressively attacked them in the off season. In fact, after the past couple of years, the Yankees could stand to learn a thing or two. But obviously hot-stove championships do not necessarily translate to on field success, however I believe that these current Sox have the pitching and hitting depth that are crucial to potential contenders. Recently much has been made about the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez; how two premier players at their respective positions make the Red Sox a no-brainer pick for World Series glory. However, although baseball is a sport ruled by statistics something must be said for the circumstances into which these guys enter. Both of them come from relatively small markets compared to Boston and there is no way to know how they will react to the media pressure and intense scrutiny that comes with the territory. Some players can handle the pressure, like a Manny Ramirez, but others cannot and their tenure is marred with underachievement and tension. CC has been in this division for his whole career so he knows something about playing at Fenway in September, but Gonzalez, who has been stuck in San Diego (what a problem to have) his whole career, doesn't know the pressures of Boston or even the hardships of the American League. For the most part players switching from the NL to AL struggle in their first couple of seasons, unaccustomed to the style of play and stiff level of competition. I will say that the Red Sox are the best looking team in this division coming into the season, and I believe that this is their division to lose.


The New York Yankees: Preseason Grade: B+ (Wild Card)

So totally precious... OMG
Led by A terrific, albeit ageing, group of core players, the New York Yankees have the ingredients to, yet again, contend for division title with the only real competition being the new look Red Sox. They have the priciest and most talented infield of any team in baseball- both offensively and defensively, and a quality, veteran group of outfielders. However, the Achilles heel of this team in recent years has been a lack of pitching depth and this year looks no different. Very uncharacteristically of the Bronx Bombers, it seems that this off season they have done very little, if not nothing, to get better. This is a team that, 2 years ago, was too talented not to win the World Series, and now after 2 straight off seasons of futility has declined to the point at which their 4 and 5 starters will be virtually unknown to everyone outside the 5 boroughs. The contenders for the final 2 spots (after Sabathia, Burnett, and Hughes) are Sergio Mitre (64 career games started, 3 last season), Ivan Nova (7 career, all last season), Andrew Brackman (0 career starts), and Joba Chamberlain (now that Brett Favre is gone, the best 'Will he, or won't he' in sports). Look for another season with the team ERA pushing 4.5-5 and an embarrassing loss in the early rounds of the playoffs. Probably the most competitive Yanks-Sox rivalry in several years.   


The Tampa Bay Rays: Preseason Rank: B

How fast can I get out of Tampa? Just you watch.
Even with the addition of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, oh how the mighty have fallen. The Rays, reigning champs of the hellacious East, are a shadow of their former self. Losing Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza in the same off season puts much pressure on the backs of Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton to increase production. It also puts a large weight on the Rays rookies, most notably Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings (the Rays two highest rated prospects, most likely to see starting action). Unless this new crop of Rays' young guns live up to the hype right now (as unfair as it may seem), this team is looking to take a huge step back this season. Negatives aside, I do believe this is a team which has the potential to shake things up a bit in the division, possibly contend in the early months but ultimately fall flat once September rolls around. The Tampa Bay Rays will be one of the most exciting teams in baseball this season, however to young and inexperienced to contend in this division.


The Toronto Blue Jays: Preseason Grade: C+
Product of 'Roid Rage'? Probably.

A young team with loads of hitting prowess but also a glaring lack of pitching depth, the Toronto Blue Jays were a pleasant surprise to the uber competitive AL East last year resulting in many jumping on the Labatt's Blue Jay Bandwagon this season. I wanted to join, I really did, but I just couldn't convince myself that an inexperienced pitching staff such as this could lead a lumberjacking, homerun hitting team anywhere. That being said, these Jay's are one of the most interesting teams in the division this year; seeing how they will cope with trading away their franchise player (Vernon Wells) for an above average catcher (Mike Napoli) then turning around and tradign him for a 3rd closer/ setup man hybrid (Frank Francisco). Following the Blue Jays must be the Canadian equivalent of 'General Hospital' or 'As the World Turns,' D-R-A-M-A. That being said Blue Jays' fans do have things to look forward to this season: Ricky Romero, their 27 year old ace, came off a very solid season going 14-9 with an ERA of 3.73 in 210 innings of work. Solid, eh? Fans also have the luxury of looking forward to another season of Jose "I must be taking some type of performance enhancer because I had never hit over 15 homeruns in a season until last season when I hit 52" Bautista, although let's be honest he is not going to have another season like last year. That is unless he hits .260, gets less than 150 hits and strikes out 120 time, which is very reasonable. The Jays have a very promising core of players, including the very talented but yet to figure it out Yunel Escobar, but are still one or two pieces away from seriously contending in this division. On the brightside they might have the best end of a bullpen in the league and deal some of those guys later for a much needed starter or, no, no they need a starter.


The Baltimore Orioles: Preseason Rank: C

Guerrero in Baltimore? Why not?
The Orioles, my hometown team before the Washington Nationals entered the scene, have been one of the worst franchises in professional baseball for the past decade. Since Cal Ripken retired in 2001 the Orioles have all but disappeared from the baseball landscape and can hardly be expected to fill more than 40% of their beautiful Camden Yards. Going to Orioles games are my earliest baseball memories and, although they are not my favorite team, I feel inclined to root for them more so than any other team (besides the Tigers). Recently, however the birds have made strides in a positive direction by signing Buck Showalter, developing young pitching talent (Zach Britton, Brian Matusz), and vehemently searching for roster upgrades (Mark Reynolds, Derek Lee, and potentially Vlad Guerrero). It is never a good time to be an Orioles fan, because it seems like the organization never has a desire to win, but someday soon this franchise just might crack that magic 75 win plateau and, potentially more impressive, sell out a game that doesn't feature the Red Sox or Yankees. However, we are still several years away from anything better than The Wire coming out of Baltimore- sorry Ravens. 

Looking like another season of Boston-NY coverage, but unlike last year their meetings will actually have playoff implications. Can't wait.