2007 Preview: AL Central

This was normally to run on Friday but due to being blasted by a blizzard and not attending work on Friday, I didn’t have access to what I had written. But as they say, better late than never. This was the final installment of the divisional reviews and the next two Fridays we will break into individual award winners by league. Then March 23 will be my post season predictions followed by our last Friday before the start of the season with a wrap up of spring training and one last glimpse of my predictions. In case you were interested in checking out my previous divisional previews, you can check them out below:

NL West / NL East / NL Central / AL West / AL East

Today’s topic: American League Central

The AL Central has become the most competitive division in all of baseball. It has had the American League representative in the World Series the past two seasons as well as the AL Cy Young two of the past three years, and the batting champ and MVP last season. Plus there was the pennant chase down the stretch last season between Minnesota and Detroit with the Twins winning the division on the final day of the season. Needless to say, the talent of the players and teams in the Central is incredible.

1.) Detroit Tigers
Last year’s American League representative in the World Series didn’t really have any glaring holes in their team. But if there was one that they wanted to fill, it would have been a middle of the order hitter that pitchers would fear. Well problems solved with their newest addition Gary Sheffield. All Sheffield has done over his 19 year career is amassed 455 homers, 1501 RBI, and a line of .297/.398/.525. If that doesn’t provide a threat, I don’t know what does. In fact the presence of Sheffield will only make those around him better. More fastballs for the guys in front of him and more runs driven in for the team. If this Tigers lineup wasn’t solid before, it sure is now.

As for the rotation, the biggest question is how 2006’s Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander will fair this season after getting “tired” towards the end of the season a year ago. Despite hitting the wall late last season, Verlander still posted a 17-9 record and 3.63 ERA. The Tigers are hoping after 2006 the right hander’s stamina has increased and he’ll be strong the entire stretch. They’ll need him strong all year as they learned last season when the Twins won the division on the final day of the season. The Tigers do not want another repeat of that.

Bottom Line: Despite not winning the division last season, the Tigers are still the team to beat in 2007. They are the only AL Central team without question marks. However they must be careful. The Indians are young and strong and the Twins always seem to find a way to win. If their rotation can stay strong, they will be tough to topple.

2.) Minnesota Twins
The Twins pulled off a comeback that was nothing short of a miracle in 2006. Now that they have learned they have a solid lineup, they can relax a bit heading into the upcoming season. But they will need to make sure “The Piranhas” (Castillo, Punto, Tyner, and Bartlett) are able to pick up where they left off last season causing fits for opposing teams and setting up the middle of the lineup which includes the reigning batting champion (Joe Mauer .347/.429/.507) and the reigning MVP (Justin Morneau .321 AVG/34 HR/130 RBI).

While the lineup isn’t causing much concern, the rotation is. After reigning Cy Young Johan Santana there are a lot of question marks. One man they hope to rely on is Boof Bonser who made a huge impact once he was inserted into the rotation last season. Going into September during the big push towards the division crown the Twins had just lost two of their most important starters Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke to injuries. They needed someone to step up and help Santana carry the load. Boof was that guy and went 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in six September starts. With Liriano out all season and Radke’s retirement, Boof has been thrust into that spot again as the team’s number two starter. The young righty showed a lot of grit and determination on the mound last season and should be able to carry it right into 2007. With a lot of question marks in this rotation, the Twins need him now more than ever.

Bottom Line: As I said earlier, the Twins always seem to find a way to win games. I think that if their rotation solidifies, they will win the wild card or possibly even the division. This team can hit and has a great bullpen so the only thing holding them back from repeating in 2007 would be any faltering from their rotation.

3.) Cleveland Indians
Of course when you think of the Indians lineup, you immediately think of Travis Hafner and his .308/.439/.659/42 HR/117 RBI numbers. But the all too often forgotten Grady Sizemore is the key to this lineup. He hits leadoff but he could just as easily hit third with his .290/.375/.533/28 HR/76 RBI/22 SB numbers. When both these bats are going they make everyone in the lineup better. If the Indians want to compete this season, they will need to continue to score runs like they did in 2006. And these two are the catalysts to doing so.

The Indians have the offense to be very competitive this season but have the same issue as the Twins. While the Indians do have a more proven staff, they need to have them take another step forward. An example of this is Cliff Lee who in 2005 had a 18-5 record with a 3.79 ERA. In 2006 he had stretches where he struggled and put up a 14-11 record with a 4.40 ERA. The Indians are going to need to rely on him more so it is essential for him to regain that 2005 form.

Bottom Line: I think the Indians will be right there competing all season. How far they go just depends on how long that rotation holds up. This is a very strong team and looks to feed off their failures of 2006.

4.) Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox learned last season that when you live and die by the home run, more often than not you will end up dying by it. After a giant drop off in their rotation’s performance (the bread and butter of their World Series run), the White Sox found that just hitting home runs would not be enough in their pursuit to repeat as champs. Their main offensive threat Jermaine Dye had a career year last season. But even his .315/.385/.622/44 HR/120 RBI wasn’t enough for the Sox to even come close to making the playoffs. I’m very doubtful that he will approach such large numbers again as before last season throughout his 11 year career he had only hit over .300 once, never hit more that 33 homers (only reached 30 or more twice), and had only reached the 100 RBI plateau two other times. I’m not saying he’s not a very good hitter, but I just don’t see him having such an explosive season again.

The other reason I don’t see the Sox finishing very high this season is because their staff has actually taken a step backwards. Their ace Freddy Garcia bolted for Philadelphia leaving the White Sox a little lighter in the quality arms department. Despite not being considered their “ace”, I believe Jon Garland is their best pitcher after quietly posting back-to-back 18 win seasons. I really can’t say they need Garland to “step it up” for them as its very rare to find a pitcher who can post consecutive winning seasons like that. Basically everyone around him needs to “step it up” if the Sox want to even get a sniff of first place.

Bottom Line: All I see when I look at the 2007 White Sox is a team that is worse on paper than they were in 2006. Now that’s not to say they will play that way, but I just don’t see how they expect to contend at the end (as the Sox are a annual weak team down the stretch). They need their pitchers to regain some of their 2005 playoff magic otherwise it will be a long season on the south side.

5.) Kansas City Royals
This off season the Royals’ name has been murmured more than any off season for as long as I can remember. That’s mainly due to a horrible contract signing (Gil Meche who’s contract I have roasted before about) and more importantly the two huge prospects they have on the cusp of the big leagues named Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Since I’ve covered these two a lot already, I’ll focus on their other young stud that can already be found on their major league roster. Mark Teahen put up some very nice 2006 numbers. In only 109 games, he posted .290/.357/.517/18 HR/69 RBI and solidified himself as a legit bat to be mixed in with Gordon and Butler someday. Of course Teahen will most likely get bumped out of his third base job to the outfield to make room for Gordon, but I must say, the combination of those three in the middle of the lineup really will be fun to watch.

The Royals staff will now be lead by the 5 year, $55 million Gil Meche. This one I just plain don’t understand. Why would a small market team pay over $10 million per year for 5 years to an average pitcher? In fact, I’m using the word “average” very generously. Meche has spent his entire 6 year career in the very pitcher friendly Safeco Field and has a 4.65 ERA to show for it. That’s not very good and doesn’t seem to be worth more that $10 million per. Meche has a lot of high expectations to fulfill now after signing this contract. Here’s to hoping he can come close to it.

Bottom Line: The Royals won’t compete this season. In fact its going to be a few seasons even after they get their big prospects to the team as their rotation needs a lot of work. Hopefully they choose to spend their money on some better pitching as I just don’t feel that Gil Meche is the answer to their future.

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