Al Central Predix: Stealin’ the Lunch Money

Michael Cox

An interesting fact about the middle of the American League: over the past three seasons, only the Braves have dominated their division more than the Twins. However, that�s partly because the second-place AL Central team (the White Sox, to name names) has averaged a mediocre 83 wins during that time.

And a closer look shows that yes, the Team Who Would Have Been Contracted has usually succeeded as the neighborhood bully in their own division, while playing about .500 ball against the rest of the league. So the question for 2004 is: will the rest of the division fight back this year, or is it another round of swirlies?

1. Minnesota Twins

The Twins are actually the closest thing to a lock in MLB this year. (Of course, I don�t need to tell you that predicting sports is an inexact science, guys are unexpectedly injured washing their cars, others develop voodoo curses and can�t find a live chicken, blahdy blahdy blah, so don�t come back and harass me if something like that happens, OK?)

Between last year�s CY Johan Santana and Brad Radke, the Minneapolis/St. Paul staff stacks up with the best of them. Of course, there are three other pitchers in a rotation, which won�t matter so much against divisional rivals as it will against a Red Sox or Angels, and even then, there�s a decent bullpen to fill in the gaps. Probably not as stellar as last year�s league-leading staff, but close enough, as they say, for rock �n� roll.

The Twins� hitting, conversely, could improve over their 2004 performance. Here�s to hoping, because the runs per game generated last year was only slightly better than the RPG allowed (4.81/4/41 — the lowest ratio of any first-place team). Let�s hope they can hit, because like everyone else in the division, their fielding will make Jim Carrey look graceful.

2. Cleveland Indians

This prediction is predicated on a few things:

  • Whether Juan Gonzalez is running on fumes.
  • The ability of the oldest pitchers on the roster — reliever Arthur Rhodes and closer Bob Wickman — to not get a hip injury on their way out of the shower.
  • The ability of the core from last year — guys like Travis Hafner, Ben Broussard and, yes, Coco Crisp — to maintain their offensive output from 2004. (Excuse me, but suddenly I want cereal.)

One thing to keep in mind is that the Wahoos have enough depth that if, say, Ron Belliard goes down (not that I�d wish it on him, but I�m just saying), then Alex Cora suffers a gardening accident, Brandon Phillips could move right in and begin using all that second-base practice the team sent him down for.

But it won�t be enough to overtake the Twins.

3. Chicago White Sox

The biggest problem the White Sox have had over the past several years has been that ownership doesn�t know whether to build a team or buy one, so they end up doing a crappy job of both. Making moves that don�t make sense (such as coming in on the short end of the Carlos Lee-for-Scott Podsednik trade), overpaying (Freddy Garcia, Jermaine Dye) and ditching a star with injury risk (Magglio Ordonez) while picking up one with possibly even a greater risk (Orlando Hernandez).

Then there�s the Big Hurt, upon whom the club depends in a kind of symbiotic relationship the Croc Hunter would admire. (Plus, I�d like to see him sneak up and grab Frank Thomas. �Oi, what a specimen we �ave �ere! �E�s a big boy — you gotta watch �im, though, if �e gets �is arms free �e�ll snap you in two, mate!�)

Like the Mets or Astros, iffy decisions (as well as the existence of another �little baseball� manager) have created the potential of either a train wreck or one brilliant season. Unlike the aforementioned teams, though, the upside isn�t a playoff berth — it�s another above-.500 season. The downside? Say hi to the Royals down there.

4. Detroit Tigers

When you improve as much as the Cats did last year, the question is whether it�s that they actually progressed in their rebuilding strategy, or managed to maximize what they had for one season. Either way, it did seem to help loosen the purse strings a tad (along with the dead hockey season, which meant owner Mike Illitch needed something to do this winter besides stand at center ice and weep).

Grabbing Magglio Ordonez off the free-agent market showed the Tigers are serious…er, about finishing second or third. Unfortunately, his production will likely just cover the decline of Ivan Rodriguez. Carlos Guillen�s 2004 was either an amazing breakout season or a big, big fluke, and history comes down on the side of fluke.

On the other hand, Detroit�s pitching should most certainly improve over last year, partly because of the excellent pickup of reliever Kyle Farnsworth and the not-so-excellent pickup of Troy Percival, and partly because they simply can�t get much worse than they did last year.

5. Kansas City Royals

The Kansas City Royals are a baseball team. They are in Kansas City. They play on real grass nowadays. They used to play on turf. I like fountains.

You know, it�s harder than I thought to write about the Royals without saying anything bad. But they�re going to hit badly (Emil Brown, Terrence Long?), field badly (again I ask, Terrence Long??) and pitch badly (just about everyone). Decisions seem to be made via rock-paper-scissors. A couple of the younger players might catch fire, but Royals officials would only put them out again. Not as depressing as the mess in Tampa, though still difficult to watch.

But after the game you can go to Arthur Bryant�s. I like barbecue.

about the author

Michael Cox wouldn�t mind a care package of ribs and sauce. Promise not to harass him for forgetting the cole slaw when you e-mail him from our Contact Us page.

Published April 6, 2005

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