Opening Day is finally here. It is early and I'm not particularly funny, so all you get for an introduction is...here is the Sidler's AL Central preview.
Kansas City Royals (75-87)
Strengths: A solid young core of players led by Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Zach Greinke, and Brian Bannister. Butler has the potential to be a star-level bat and Gordon could be an All-Star 3B. You could probably even throw Joakim Soria into the mix, a Rule 5 draftee a year ago that was lights-out as a closer. As a whole, the Royals finally have a sense of direction under GM Drayton Moore.
Weaknesses: There are a lot of them—the right side of their infield is a mess (especially if Grudzielanik is on the DL for a while), the bullpen is very weak before getting to Soria in the 9th, the #4 and 5 starters are enormous question marks, and the offense doesn't have many impact bats outside of the two kids. Greinke had major mental issues in 2006, making it hard to project what will become of him.
Comments: This is probably still a last place team in the tough AL Central, but at least there is some hope for the future in KC and I wouldn't be surprised to see them be better than the Twins. I expect them to stay on the Twins' heels for the next few years as both teams try to climb out of the bottom of the division.
Minnesota Twins (76-86)
I've talked enough about the Twins (here) and (here)
Comments: Offensively, this team will struggle to score runs. The pitching staff is a huge question mark and the usually strong bullpen doesn't seem nearly as strong as it has the past few years—Nathan and Neshek will dominate in the 8th and 9th innings, but I think middle relief will be an issue. Whether management wants to admit it or not, this is a rebuilding year. Quick note about Mauer—if I hear people bitching about his RBI production this year, I will be tempted to punch them in the face. If he hits in the 2-spot, he'll be right behind Adam "offensive black hole" Everett and Carlos Gomez, two guys that will likely have Puntonian OBPs. Not exactly the recipe for RBI production.
Chicago White Sox (80-82)
Strengths: Absolutely great off-season—Nick Swisher is going to blow up in The Cell, Orlando Cabrera is a defensive and offensive upgrade over Juan Uribe (who slides over to 2B, apparently), and Carlos Quentin gives them a young OF with a lot of upside. All of these moves should give them a much-improved offense over last year's anemic output. Javy Vazquez has quietly been a very effective pitcher and Bobby Jenks is a very solid closer.
Weaknesses: Their primary power sources, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko, could take steps back this year due to age, particularly Thome and Konerko, two slow guys whose comparables don't suggest longevity. After Vazquez, I'm not much of a fan of their rotation. Buehrle should be fairly solid, but the other three spots are pretty big question marks. Outside of slugging 3B prospect Josh Fields, there is little to no depth in the minors, leaving them very susceptible to injuries. Ozzie Guillen doesn't seem to understand how to maximize run scoring opportunities and calls for way too many bunts.
Comments: This team reminds me of a rich man's Houston Astros. The little bit of talent in their minor league system was shipped out to fill holes on the major league roster this season. GM Kenny Williams did a great job getting young, cost controlled players in return, but there is just too much ground to make up between them and the top two teams in the division. Once Thome, Konerko, and Dye decline, the situation will get ugly in a hurry for the Southsiders.
Strengths: Four legit stars—Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, CC Sabathia, and Fausto Carmona. Notice I didn't include Hafner in that group, more on that in a bit. This is the best rotation in the division, but that isn't the greatest compliment in the world. The bullpen is solid up until Joe Borowski, but the whole closer thing is the most overrated position in baseball, leaving Betancourt out of that role allows Eric Wedge to use him in more high-leverage situations.
Weaknesses: For a defending AL Champion/contender,They are extremely weak at the corners—Casey Blake is an OK 3B and Andy Marte appears to be the most overhyped prospect in a while, last year's bad LF platoon returns, Garko is OK at 1B, and I don't know what they'll get from Guitierrez in RF. The big question for the Tribe is going to be Travis Hafner. His comparables suggest last year's second half swoon was the beginning of what will be a very quick, sharp decline for Pronk. Even though they have the best rotation in the division, it wouldn't be a surprise to see everyone in the rotation take at least a small step back in 2008.
Comments: I think the offense and pitching take small steps back this year and keep the Indians just out of the playoffs. They didn't do anything to improve last year's weaknesses this off-season while the White Sox and Tigers did. Still a very good squad, just not the division Wild Card winner in 2008.
Detroit Tigers (92-70)
Strenghts: Simply put--OFFENSE! The Tigers will have a top 3 offense that has a good mix of average and power hitters. Adding an MVP-caliber bat, Miguel Cabrera, never hurts. Verlander gives them an ace.
Weaknesses: The entire pitching staff other than Verlander. Bonderman has become a bit of an enigma, Willis was awful last year (in front of a terrible defense, it should be noted), Kenny Rogers is old, and Robertson is average at-best. The bullpen is a wreck after Zumaya and Rodney's injuries, leaving Todd Jones as the last man standing.
Comments: Yes, I am very concerned about their pitching this season, but I see this as one of those teams that will absolutely punish other teams' 3-5 starters and middle relief. Some of the Yankees teams of the past few years have gotten by this way, and I think it will work well enough to give the Tigers the AL Central pennant. The post-season is a different story…