Thursday, March 30, 2006
2006 AL Central Preview (featuring The Police)
1. Cleveland Indians (Rehumanize Yourself)
For those of us who were sick of seeing the Yankees and Red Sox in the playoffs, Cleveland's utter collapse in the last week of the 2005 season was especially maddening. Still, you've got to love how GM Mark Shapiro has rebuilt (or rehumanized...eh, eh?) his team from the ground up after completely destroying the 1994-2001 contender. There's a lot to like here. They have a lot of strength up the middle, with All-Star caliber players at catcher and center field in Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore, respectively. They have two solid young starters in Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia, and they have one of the best hitters in the majors in Travis Hafner.
They have some questions, of course, (like, why does Casey Blake still have a job?), but overall they look like one of the strongest teams in the majors, and if everything breaks right, they could roll to a 100-win season.
2. Minnesota Twins (Walking In Your Footsteps)
The Twinkies are probably my favorite team behind the Giants, so, like the Giants, it's maddening when they do stupid stuff like squash Jason Bartlett behind Juan Castro or give Tony Batista the starting job at third base. They had the worst offense in baseball last year and, while they surely improved it by acquiring Luis Castillo and Rondell White, it probably still won't be characterized as anything close to good. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau should only get better, but an offense can only be so good with guys like Batista and Castro dragging it down. What is good is that pitching, led by #1 Golden God of the mound Johan Santana and a deadly bullpen (led by Joe Nathan, whom they acquired via some trade that I have no recollection of). That pitching will keep them over .500, and in the division race if they dump Batista and get some offensive help.
An interesting note about that bad offense. In 2005, the Twins led the league in "productive outs", that is bunting to get runners over and generally giving up outs in the pursuit of getting one run. The argument behind this, and one trumpeted by myriad sportswriters, is that good offenses are adept at pushing across one run when they need to. If you sit around waiting for the big home run, the saying goes, you're still going to be waiting.
Of course, the more enlightened of us know that this is total malarkey. Bunting and giving away outs is all well and good, and if you do it at the right moments (say, getting the winning run from second to third with no outs in the ninth inning), they can indeed be productive. But having guys bunt in the second inning is sheer idiocy. Apparently the Twins did this kind of thing ad nauseum last year, and their offense sucked horribly as a result. Obviously to score a lot of runs you need the players and the talent, and the Twins didn't have that last year, but they surely didn't help themselves in this regard, and giving away outs for fear of grounding into double plays is silly and counterproductive.
3. Chicago White Sox (You Know I Had the Strangest Dream)
Sox fans place a fatwa on anyone who dares say that the White Sox got lucky last year, but come on, Scott Podsednik winning a World Series game with a home run? And don't even get me started on the A.J. Pierzynski/Game 2 incident, or Phil Garner's bizarre decision to put Ezequiel Astacio into Game 3. Many veteran teams that come out of nowhere to win a World Championship tend to fall into oblivion the next season, and the White Sox are probably no different.
Credit Kenny Williams, though, for not being complacent, making some major roster adjustments. The Jim Thome deal could be a disaster or could be the deciding factor in a pennant race; it's hard to see any in-between. Javier Vazquez is a major improvement over the fifth starters last season. It's the holdovers I'm skeptical about. Jon Garland and Jose Contreras both had years way out of line with their career numbers, and with Contreras's age and Garland's lack of strikeouts, they may have been helped by a lot of (gasp!) luck. Podsednik is worthless if he's not hitting .290, and Joe Crede and Juan Uribe are just plain worthless anyway. They could well win the division, but don't be shocked if they muddle around .500 all year, with the media concocting ridiculous stories about their supposedly lost clubhouse chemistry.
4. Detroit Tigers (When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around)
They stink, but give them credit, at least they're trying their best to make people forget about that 2003 debacle. The last time this formerly proud franchise made the playoffs was 1987, when the team was led by Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell (who should have won the MVP that year, yikes), Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, and Jack Morris. That seems like a long way away, though. Hell, I was four years old and George W. Bush was busy driving Spectrum 7 into the ground.
The Tigers are weird. They don't seem totally inept, like plenty of other bad teams. Their free agent signings haven't been disasters (uh, except for Troy Percival), their pitching has been OK (well, except for like the entire starting staff), and they have some young talent (like Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander and, um...line). Ok, so they really are pretty crappy, and the influx of free agents is sort of a placebo, not a long-term antidote like they really need. They are getting better as a franchise, and there is at least a ray of light at the end of the tunnerl. They should make a push at .500 for the first time in eons, but that's the upside.
5. Kansas City Royals (Deathwish)
They have a front office that has no clue what it's doing. They have a moron for a manager. They spent a bunch of money on zero-upside veterans who aren't any good. Their future ace went nuts. Their best hitting prospect can't field worth shit. Their farm system is a barren wasteland. They had to pay Jose Lima incentive money because they failed to cut him after 19 starts of burning-log tossing. They refuse to trade their one tradeable commodity in Mike Sweeney. They've lost at least 100 games in three of the past four years. And their fanbase has basically given up on them.
Other than that, they suck.
-Random Stankeye Shameless Plug
Apologies for the continued tooting of my own horn, but here again for those interested is a player profile I wrote for my school paper. It's a puff piece, yes, but it was the feature article in our sports section, which was kinda cool. Also, the usual John Ryder/fake ID thing applies.
-Victor Conte, fresh from da Federal pen, denies that he ever gave Bonds steroids. This in no way proves Bonds's innocence, of course, but it's interesting nonetheless.