1) Minnesota Twins
If you believe, like we do, that pitching is the cornerstone of baseball success (we also believe you should never play poker against a guy whose first name is a major US metropolis, but that’s another story), then it’s hard to argue against Minny in the division once referred to as “Comedy Central.” While the quality of play all around has improved — the Royals remain the only team with no real shot to avoid the cellar — Minnesota is still the cream of the crop.
At the top of their rotation is reigning Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who mixes pitches in such baffling combinations that he went 13-0 after the All-Star break last year en route to an 18-2 record in his final 22 starts. He’ll enter the season healthy, which means 300 strikeouts and another Cy Young are entirely realistic. Brad Radke, who was once utterly indistinguishable from Scott Erickson, has silently emerged into the most consistent Twin there is, and Carlos Silva won 14 games while hurling 203 innings last year.
If the Twins’ staff is their backbone, the lineup isn’t far behind — Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart are two patient, multi-talented outfielders who set the tone for this team. This year that might be more important than ever, because the Twins have two near-rookies (they each had spot duty last year) who could loom large in their order: C Joe Mauer and 1B Justin Morneau. In his career, Morneau might break Harmon Killebrew’s team record for homers, and Mauer could emerge as the team’s best hitter. Mauer’s knee is held together by threads thinner than the team’s payroll, but if it holds up, he’ll blossom into the AL’s second or third best catcher this year.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the Twins is their pen — much like Joe Torre did with Rivera and Wetteland in 1996, the Twins’ starters can afford to play six-inning games. Their setup men — Juan Rincon, Grant Balfour, Jesse Cain — throw hard, and Joe Nathan is emerging as one of the AL’s premier closers.
2) Chicago White Sox
They start telling you as early as kindergarten to not copy off your neighbor’s paper, but apparently Sox GM Kenny Williams was absent on those days. Williams has scrapped the Earl Weaver “sit back and wait for the three-run homer” approach to building the ChiSox and replaced it with a model that seems to borrow a lot from the Twins.
First he built a solid rotation of Mark Buehrle (who led the AL in innings last year en route to 16 wins), Freddy Garcia, Orlando Hernandez, Jose Contreras, and Jon Garland. Each of those guys has notable limitations, but if they all click, the starters could win 55 games this year. Team officials claim each one could win 15 (75 total victories from the starters), which proves Williams was also absent on the days with the drug-free presentations.
Milwaukee retread Scott Podsednik, a new addition, will lead off. If Podsednik can improve his OBP, it should only help Aaron Rowand, the hardest-working Sox there is, improve on his .310 average, 24 dingers, and 69 RBIs last year at the two-spot. After those table setters, the lineup does drift back into familiar White Sox big-bopper territory, including free-agent pickup Jermaine Dye. Few seem to realize that Dye, a swing-for-the-fences hitter, is playing in the AL’s number-one home run park. If he can keep himself healthy, that’s a free-agent steal for Chicago. Carl Everett, who frequently battles injuries, consistency, and impulse control problems, might not even start for this team — but he’s capable of 25 homers off the bench, which would be pleasant.
The bullpen isn’t that deep, but probable closer Shingo Takatsu (whose entrance reminds some of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn from the 1988 landmark film Major League) did save 19 of 20 games last year with an assortment of slow, off-balance pitches. Ozzie Guillen should only mature as a manager, but the White Sox lack a top-to-bottom consistency that would allow them to overtake the Twins.
3) Cleveland Indians
In the early 1990s, the Indians were one of America’s biggest sports laughingstocks. Now, after being annual contenders under GM John Hart and manager Mike Hargrove, the Indians of Eric Wedge have started to fade back a little bit into that obscurity — they bang on the door through July, but then falter. However, the picture might change again. Current GM Mark Shapiro is one of the most highly regarded in the game, and the team has a surplus of young talent.
The Tribe rotation is erratic. C.C. Sabathia is a beast on the mound, but sometimes loses his composure and struggled with the “ace” tag last year, going 11-10 with a 4.12 ERA. Jake Westbrook emerged as a star in his place, pacing the team in wins with 14 and ERA at 3.38. If Westbrook and his sinker can adjust to hitters who know his stuff, he might be successful again.
Kevin Millwood, Cleveland’s biggest off-season move, will also help anchor the first 60 percent of the rotation. Millwood moves from hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park to a pitcher’s haven at Jacobs Field, and if he can recover from nagging elbow problems, he could win 15 games and provide some leadership to a young staff. I say that now, but if he flops and only starts 18 games, I’ll deny it like there’s no tomorrow.
Except for Ronnie Belliard hitting first, the lineup is mostly big bangers. Cleveland led the AL with 6.1 runs a game last year, and they may approach that again. Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Ben Broussard, Aaron Boone, and Casey Blake are all young studs (well, maybe not Boone) capable of 25-35 homers and 80 – 100 ribbies. Outfield defense is a question mark, as is the bullpen – the duo of Arthur Rhodes and Scott Sauerbeck has potential, but elderly Bob Wickman as a closer is shaky, especially in a division with some solid top-to-bottom lineups.
4) Detroit Tigers
The Tigers were horrific two years ago, but made some great strides last season. If they can finish 81-81 this year, consider them contenders into the next decade. The starting rotation is young and inconsistent, but the ceiling on these kids is higher than any staff in the AL Central.
Some scouts consider Jeremy Bonderman to have the best stuff in either league, and he’s penciled as the third or fourth starter. Mike Maroth, who dropped 21 games two years ago, gained some off-speed stuff and fits nicely at the top of the rotation. Jason Johnson, Nate Robertson, and Wilifredo Ledezma are good, young hurlers. Johnson can be inconsistent and Ledezma needs to prove he can throw 200 innings. However, the staff is helped tremendously by Pudge Rodriguez. Rodriguez has become the face of this franchise, and along with new acquisition Troy Percival, he should be an excellent mentor to the young staff.
Carlos Guillen might be the best shortstop in the AL, especially if he fully recovers from his ACL surgery. Magglio Ordonez joins the roster to replace Dmitri Young as the best power hitter on the squad. Ordonez has an injury-filled past, but could send 40 balls surging out of Comerica if he stays on point. Aging outfielders Bobby Higginson and Rondell White are both in the final year of their contracts and in danger of being replaced by younger personnel.
With Ugeth Urbina as setup man/viable trade bait, the Tigers can be confident with a lead after seven innings. Only the Twins have the same ability in this division, so if the young arms mature faster than expected, leapfrog these guys over the Indians, and maybe even the Sox.
5) Kansas City Royals
In an off-season poll of all 30 general managers, Kansas City received the most votes for “no chance to make the playoffs.” We admit the organization is a bit hapless, but there are some bright spots. Zack Greinke, the new ace of the staff, is only 22, capable of being a workhorse, and has amazing control. In spring training he’s walking guys like they’re Barry Bonds, but in general, his control is impeccable, and he could be a Cy Young winner by 2009.
1B Mike Sweeney will probably add a lot to someone’s playoff run come late July. Angel Berroa, the 2003 AL Rookie of the Year, completely fell apart last season and did some time at AA, but finished pretty strong and could produce well from the two-hole this season. Terrence Long, who was developed in the prized Oakland farm system but never truly clicked in the A’s major-league ranks, might become the anchor of this offense from the four or five spot in the order. He hits to the gaps and has some wheels.
Brian Anderson can be the punch line to any baseball joke and make it funny, but perhaps playing in baseball’s version of purgatory will help him snap out of his career-long doldrums. Finally, Dodgers’ playoff hero Jose Lima returns to his former stomping grounds, and might be capable of 12-13 wins pitching later in the rotation.
about the author
We thought Ted Bauer came from the mean streets of 8 Mile, but as it turns out he said he once lived 8 miles from Rodeo Drive, where the sales clerks can get quite snippy. Ask for the scoop on that new Armani store when you e-mail him from our Contact Us page.