AL Central Preview (Part 1)


In 2008, the AL Central was the most bunched up of all the divisions. Not only did it take an extra game to determine the division winner, the Central teams were separated by only 14.5 games. The next closest division was the NL West which had a first to last separation of 21 games. 2009 figures to be equally competitive, although I project the standings to look different than they did in 2008.

2008 Final Standings

W-L

GB

RS

RA

Chicago White Sox

89-74

-

811

729

Minnesota Twins

88-75

1.0

829

745

Cleveland Indians

81-81

7.5

805

761

Kansas City Royals

75-87

13.5

691

781

Detroit Tigers

74-88

14.5

821

857

To come up with my predictions I broke the teams apart into their starting position players, bench players, starting rotation, bullpen and closer. I ranked them 1-5 with 1 being the best and 5 being the worst. If a player had less than 50 AB in 2008 I listed their stats as N/A instead of their actual numbers due to the limited sample size. For my 2009 stats I am used an average of the projections from Baseball Prospectus, Bill James and CBS Sports.com with my own judgment lightly sprinkled in. Age listed in parenthesis is the player’s age on opening day.

Catchers:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

MIN

Joe Mauer (25)

.328/.413/.451

.320/.410/.460

+3

2

CLE

Victor Martinez (30)

.278/.337/.365

.290/.362/.453

-5

3

CWS

AJ Pierzynski (32)

.281/.312/.416

.275/.312/.410

-1

4

DET

Gerald Laird (29)

.276/.329/.398

.257/.309/.392

+2

5

KC

Miguel Olivo (30)

.255/.278/.444

.245/.275/.411

-1

The catching depth in the division is excellent. The Central boasts the best overall catcher in the AL in Joe Mauer as well as 4 other solid options. Cleveland’s Kelly Shoppach and Kansas City’s John Buck could start for several ML teams and are capable of playing on a regular basis.

Joe Mauer is the best catcher offensively and defensively. He is also the youngest of the five by a significant margin. He will start the season on the 15 day DL with reports ranging from him returning as early as mid-April to as late as after the All Star break. Most accounts have him returning to the Twins lineup by the end of April.

If Martinez is healthy and back to form in 2009 he could push Mauer offensively, but he can not come close to providing the defensive value that Mauer does. Now 30 and with Shoppach a more than capable backup, Martinez likely will log some time at 1B and DH during the year.

Pierzynski’s All-Star days are well behind him and he is easily the least popular of the five. Popularity aside, he is still a solid catcher and his health is vitally important to the White Sox.

Gerald Laird, like Pierzynski, is a solid catcher and had a nice season with the Rangers in 2008. Playing in Detroit also figures to have an adverse effect on Laird’s offensive numbers in 2009.

Olivo is the typical starting ML catcher but in the central he brings up the back of the pack. Olivo’s OBP has historically been lower than any of the other starter’s BA which pretty much sums up why he ranks last. Offensively he is basically the same as John Buck, but does give the Royals a little more defensive ability.

First Base:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

DET

Miguel Cabrera (25)

.292/.349/.537

.306/.381/.559

+1

2

MIN

Justin Morneau (27)

.300/.374/.499

.293/.368/.509

0

3

CWS

Paul Konerko (33)

.240/.344/.438

.265/.352/.476

0

4

CLE

Ryan Garko (28)

.273/.346/.404

.275/.348/.439

-3

5

KC

Mike Jacobs (28)

.247/.299/.514

.262/.319/.507

-9

Like C, the top ranked 1B is a no-brainer. Miguel Cabrera figures to be neck and neck with Morneau in BA and OBP in 2009, but will certainly have a decided advantage in SLG. Cabrera brings power to the position like no other player in the division even though he plays his home games in a pitcher’s park. It seems like he has been around forever, but at 25 years old he is also the youngest starting 1B in the group.

The second slot is as definitive as the first and belongs to Justin Morneau. His defense, like all other aspects of his game, is excellent. He is the epitome of a complete player minus the speed. Of all the players on the Twins roster he is the one they can least afford to lose for any length of time. Durability has not been an issue lately as Morneau has averaged 159 games played over the last 3 seasons including playing in all 163 games in 2008.

In third place is Paul Konerko who had a dreadful 2008. Personally I think 2009 will be a continuation of his decline but the other three sources I used for projection say otherwise so I have left him ahead of the remaining two options. Statistically he has been in decline for the last three seasons but can still hit the long ball and provide solid defense.

Fourth place belongs to Ryan Garko. He lacks the power of Mike Jacobs, but has and will continue to provide better BA, OBP and defense at the position. Garko is the least likely of this group to far exceed his projection.

In fifth we have Mike Jacobs who at 28 is already in his prime but figures to have his best season playing in a real baseball stadium in front of fans who actually care. His defense at the position is by far the worst, and that coupled with his low OBP make him an easy decision for the 5th spot. Still trading for Jacobs was a good move for the Royals. He is he is an infinite upgrade over Ross Gload at the position, still has room to improve and gives Kila the chance to spend an entire season at Triple-A.

At the end of the season, barring injury, the top two spots will belong to Cabrera and Morneau, but the other three spots are very much up for grabs. I can easily see a scenario where Jacobs has a breakout year and pushes past Garko and Konerko to grab the 3rd spot. I can just as easily see a scenario where Konerko’s production continues to fall off the cliff and he slides to the 5th spot.

Second Base:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

DET

Placido Polanco (33)

.307/.350/.417

.299/.345/.403

0

2

KC

Mark Teahen (27)

.255/.313/.402

.275/.346/.421

-4

3

CLE

Asdrubal Cabrera (23)

.259/.346/.366

.267/.341/.391

+3

4

MIN

Alexi Casilla (24)

.281/.333/.374

.261/.321/.343

-8

5

CWS

Chris Getz (25)

N/A

.251/.316/.344

-3

Placido Polanco is not an elite level superstar like Joe Mauer or Miguel Cabrera, but compared to the rest of his competition at 2B he is undoubtedly the best the division has to offer. Often overlooked, he has proven to be an excellent hitter with a line of .306/.350/.416 in his 11 year ML career. Polanco plays solid defense, gets on base and makes solid contact. He has only struck out 345 times while drawing a walk 278 times in his 11 years

Mark Teahen gets the distinction of the 2nd best 2B in the division. This ranking is based more on what could be than what has been. Teahen is the magical age of 27 and in his brief ML career has started at 4 different positions in the last 4 opening days counting his start at 2B to open this season. If the Royals can leave him at 2B and let him learn on the job, he could deliver great rewards. He easily has the most power potential at the position, and is an excellent baserunner to boot. Having a hitting coach, in Kevin Seitzer, who hit in the majors like Teahen used to before the Royals screwed up his swing can only help. Royals’ fans take heart, this is finally the year you get something tangible out of the Carlos Beltran trade.

Asdrubal Cabrera comes in third and is the best defensive player of the group. What remains to be seen is whether the Indians have a guy similar to the guy before or after he got demoted to Triple-A in the middle of the 2008 season. Before he was sent down in June, he was hitting .184/.282/.247. Once he came back up from Triple-A he went on a tear and hit .320/.398/.464. His minor league track record and his 159 AB in 2007 suggest something somewhere in the middle. Royals’ fans know all to well that you shouldn’t get too excited about a guy who has a huge second half after being demoted mid-season. In fact the most poignant reminder of this phenomenon is none other than the above listed Mark Teahen.

Alexi Casilla’s 2008 was also a tale of two seasons. Unlike Cabrera who was demoted, Casilla’s split season was due to a torn thumb tendon toward the end of July. Before his injury he was hitting .313/.351/.424. When Casilla came back he hit .225/.302/.289 but did have a number of clutch hits to keep the Twins in the chase for the division title. Like Cabrera the real player probably settles somewhere in between. Combined with Carlos Gomez and Denard Span, Casilla gives the Twins a lethal run of speed in their lineup. If he does falter in 2009, the Twins have Matt Tolbert waiting for a job in Triple-A.

Coming in last among the AL Central 2B class for 2009 is Chris Getz. In Triple-A last season Getz hit .302/.366/.448 with 11 home runs in 404 AB. Prior to last season in about 1,000 at bats Getz had only managed to hit 6 home runs. He does not have any real power and his 2008 spike in home runs was due to the extreme hitter’s park he played in. He projects out to be like Asdrubal Cabrera without the pop and Alexi Casilla without the speed.

Third Base:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

KC

Alex Gordon (25)

.260/.351/.432

.273/.358/.467

-2

2

CLE

Mark DeRosa (34)

.285/.376/.481

.274/.353/.427

-2

3

MIN

Joe Crede (30)

.248/.314/.460

.251/.305/.436

+2

4

CWS

Josh Fields (26)

N/A

.244/.328/.452

-4

5

DET

Brandon Inge (31)

.205/.303/.369

.238/.311/.398

+7

I am constantly amazed at how disappointed Royals fans have been in Alex Gordon thus far in his career. He is still an elite level talent and is regarded as such by many organizations outside of the Kansas City Royals. The Royals did not miss on their 2005 1st round pick and this is the year he proves it with an exclamation point. Even if he fails to improve on his 2008 season he will still be the second best 3B in the division.

He’s not likely to repeat his 2008 spike in power, but that aside Mark DeRosa is still a solid major league player. Though he has played in 11 ML seasons, it wasn’t until 2006 at the age of 31 that he started to produce at an above average level. Guys who develop this late in their career typically burn out quickly so his 2009 season could result in a precipitous decline. By ranking him 2nd I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. At 34 the end is coming quickly for DeRosa. The big question is whether or not that end comes in 2009.

Joe Crede, when healthy, is a terrific source of power in a lineup and has gold glove defensive ability. Still, I’m not sure what to make of him for 2009. I don’t know how healthy he really is or how long he will stay that way. Back injuries that require surgery have ended many spectacular careers and I am certain Crede will never get close to his 2006 level of play. For what he is getting paid this season he is a low risk, high reward player who fills a need. If he can last till the All-Star break before he breaks down he will likely have given Danny Valencia (24) enough time to get ready for the job in Triple-A. Creaky back and all he is a much better option than the two guys that follow him.

Josh Fields displayed good power in his time with the White Sox in 2007, but it came with a .244 BA and .308 OBP. So it should have come as no surprise when the White Sox went back to Crede to open 2008 and sent Fields down to Triple-A to start the season. At his best Josh Fields is a lesser version of Joe Crede with less power and less defensive ability.

Finally we come to Brandon Inge. Hitting .205/.303/.369 in your 30s is a good way to find yourself forced into early retirement. It is puzzling to me that the Tigers cut Gary Sheffield even though he was guaranteed a large sum of money, but they won’t let go of Brandon Inge who is guaranteed about $13 million over the next 2 season. Even more surprising is the fact they believe him to be their starting 3B when they have 26 year old Jeff Larish ready to display his power in the majors.

Shortstop:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

KC

Mike Aviles (28)

.325/.354/.480

.290/.342/.467

+5

2

CWS

Alexei Ramirez (27)

.290/.317/.475

.287/.322/.477

-6

3

CLE

Jhonny Peralta (26)

.276/.331/.473

.268/.334/.441

+4

4

MIN

Nick Punto (31)

.284/.344/.382

.275/.341/.368

-2

5

DET

Adam Everett (32)

.213/.278/.323

.231/.281/.322

+4

He only got a shot because Tony Pena Jr. was so historically bad. Once he was through the door Mike Aviles locked it up tight, closed the blinds, and got a restraining order on TPJ. In hindsight you look at Mike’s minor league numbers and ask yourself why he wasn’t given a serious look much earlier. In over 2,400 minor league at bats he hit .297/.338/.464. The knock on him was that defensively he was sub par at SS even in the minor leagues. 2008 seemed to put that at rest, as his fielding percentage and range factor were both well above league average for the position. His minor league numbers added to his 2008 performance lead me to believe that last season was not a fluke. It is likely his numbers will come back to the pack just a little bit at the plate and in the field but he still should be the best the division has to offer at the position.

Alexei Ramirez comes in second and is certainly in the discussion for the top spot. Like Aviles, Alexei has only had one ML season to prove himself. What Ramirez lacks, compared to Aviles, is a quantifiable minor league track record and defensive numbers. Ramirez is a heck of a player with both power and speed. He is making the move from 2B to his natural position of SS to make room for Chris Getz.

Johnny Peralta is only 26 but it seems like he has already been around forever. In his 4 full ML seasons he has hit 81 home runs. He has yet to hit his prime and has put up two very consistent offensive seasons in a row.

Nick Punto is definitely not in the class of Aviles, Ramirez, or Peralta. In fact, he’s not in the class of most of the starting SS in the major leagues. But one thing is certain, he is light years ahead of Adam Everett. Ideally a utility player masquerading as a starter Punto makes contact, gets on base at a good clip, has the intangibles and makes the plays he is supposed to. At best, Punto is an old school shortstop who is outclassed in today’s game.

How do you make starting Brandon Inge at 3B look even worse? The answer is simple, start Adam Everett next to him at SS. Everett is the type of player the Twins love and even they quickly tired of the Adam Everett experience. At 32 he has no offensive capability left and really has no business on a major league team. Yes he can field, but you can find plenty of younger defensively minded, no bat shortstops roaming the independent leagues and on the fringes of Triple-A. Tony Pena Jr. may have more value to a ML organization since he can at least throw in the 90s.

Designated Hitter:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

CWS

Jim Thome (38)

.245/.362/.503

.249/.370/.502

N/A

2

MIN

Jason Kubel (26)

.272/.335/.471

.282/.348/.489

N/A

3

KC

Billy Butler (22)

.275/.324/.400

.295/.357/.460

N/A

4

DET

Marcus Thames (32)

.241/.292/.516

.252/.314/.493

N/A

5

CLE

Travis Hafner (31)

.197/.305/.323

.248/.352/.422

N/A

After 18 ML seasons and 541 career home runs heading into the 2009 season there is no doubt Jim Thome is the class of the DHs in the division. At 38 years old, he still gets on base at a very high rate despite his low BA. Except for 2005 when he was injured, Thome has hit over 30 HR every season since 1996. Health permitting, he will continue that run in 2009 and remains the most feared hitter in the White Sox lineup.

Jason Kubel holds down the 2nd spot this year, but will be passed by Billy Butler in 2010. Once a top prospect in the Twins organization, Kubel has battled back from a severe knee injury to finally start making good on all of his potential. He can’t run like he used to, but the bat is legit and there is plenty of room for growth. We have not yet seen the best of Jason Kubel.

When talking about potential, no one is higher on the list than Billy Butler. He didn’t take the majors by storm in 2007 or 2008, but he did hold his own. He will continue his progression in 2009, but the power may be another year or two from displaying itself in full force. At 22 years old the sky is the limit for Butler. Like teammate Alex Gordon, fans should take time to recognize what he already is, instead of focusing on what he has yet to become. In both cases the operative word there is yet. Butler and Gordon are still the offensive cornerstones of the franchise.

Marcus Thames has quietly put up some very good numbers the last 3 seasons. At 32 he lacks the potential of Butler and Kubel, and clearly isn’t in Thome’s class but he is an asset to the Tigers. What you have seen in the previous several seasons from Thames is what you will probably see in 2009.

Shoulder problems have derailed what could have been for Travis Hafner. He is a shell of his former self, and likely never will get back to the form that made him such a force in 2006. In his prime he was fun to watch, but those days are long gone.

Outfield:

Rank

 

 

2008

2009 Projection

Defense

1

DET

Carlos Guillen (33)

.286/.376/.436

.289/.368/.450

+2

 

 

Curtis Granderson (28)

.280/.365/.494

.280/.350/.493

0

 

 

Magglio Ordonez (35)

.317/.376/494

.296/.360/.468

-6

2

MIN

Delmon Young (23)

.290/.336/.405

.301/.342/.437

-6

 

 

Carlos Gomez (23)

.258/.296/.360

.267/.310/.379

+8

 

 

Denard Span (25)

.294/.387/.432

.279/.385/.414

+5

3

KC

David DeJesus (29)

.307/.366/.452

.288/.362/.421

+5

 

 

Coco Crisp (29)

.283/.344/.407

.279/.338/.403

+3

 

 

Jose Guillen (32)

.264/.300/.438

.271/.322/.445

-4

4

CWS

Carlos Quentin (26)

.288/.394/.571

.273/.363/.485

-2

 

 

DeWayne Wise (31)

.248/.293/.450

.240/.297/.416

-4

 

 

Jermaine Dye (35)

.292/.344/.541

.270/.334/.491

-3

5

CLE

Ben Francisco (27)

.266/.332/.438

.271/.334/428

+2

 

 

Grady Sizemore (26)

.268/.374/.502

.277/.374/.500

+8

 

 

Shin-Soo Choo (26)

.309/.397/.549

.276/.353/.444

-5

The Detroit Tigers boast the oldest and most established OF in the division. As a unit Guillen, Granderson and Ordonez hold their own defensively but no one is going to sniff winning a gold glove. They all hit for average, they all get on base, and they all have above average power. Granderson is the only one of the three that has the potential to significantly outplay his projection.

When it comes to projection, the Minnesota Twins outfield is in a class of its own. They are young, they are fast and they all have incredible upside. This unit will not hit for a lot of power in 2009, but long term the power potential is there in Young and Gomez. Defensively they are already the best unit in the division. Carlos Gomez in CF and Denard Span in RF are both in the conversation for best fielders at their positions in the AL. All three of the Twins have the ability to significantly outplay their projections. I did not include Cuddyer in the starting outfield because I believe by season’s end he will be the odd man out. That said all 4 of their outfielders are crucial for the Twins 2009 season.

There isn’t much projection to be done with the Kansas City Royals outfield of David DeJesus, Coco Crisp and Jose Guillen. All three of them are established and all three of them will produce at an above average major league level. DeJesus and Crisp have good speed, but lack true base stealing capability. Signing Crisp to play CF allowed the Royals to move DeJesus to LF and Guillen to RF which effectively improved their OF defense at all three positions. They are now the 2nd or 3rd best fielding OF in the division.

While the Twins and Royals are the 2 best outfields in the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox run out a below average fielder at all three positions. On the flip side, even at 35, Jermaine Dye can absolutely mash. Carlos Quentin would have led the AL in home runs if he hadn’t broken his wrist late least season. If Quentin’s 2008 performance was more reality than mirage, the Sox have the 2 best power hitting corner outfielders in the division. CF however is an absolute black hole with DeWayne Wise being the most recent occupant. To go along with their deficient defense, the White Sox outfield is also significantly lacking speed.

If I could pick one AL central outfielder to start my team, it would probably be Grady Sizemore. The problem with the Indians OF is the guy playing on either side of him. Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo are young but have limited potential. Outside of Sizemore there is little speed, little defense and little to talk about.

Thus concludes Part 1 of my 2009 AL Central Preview.

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