AL Central Preview

This is the fourth in a series of posts by Asif Attarwala previewing the upcoming baseball season. I’ll be posting twice a week over the next three weeks going West to East across the divisions.

The AL Central is probably the easiest division in baseball to predict. It’s basically the Detroit Tigers and a big steaming pile of mediocrity. Here’s how I see things breaking down:

1. Detroit Tigers (Projected 2012 Record: 93-69)

The Tigers are head and shoulders the best team in the AL Central. They won the division by 15 games last season and the gap has probably widened in the offseason. Still, Detroit is a team with very obvious strengths and weaknesses. One of the Tigers’ strengths is their starting pitching. Justin Verlander is entering his age-29 season and is one of the best pitchers in the game, but a slight regression should be expected. Verlander allowed a .236 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) last season–indicating a fair amount of luck. His xFIP last season was 3.12 which is still very good, but not quite as good as his ERA of 2.40 would make him appear.

While Verlander (deservedly) gets most of the attention when it comes to Tigers’ pitchers, the rest of the rotation is quietly good. Doug Fister doesn’t have a great strikeout rate–his 6.07 K/9 in 2011 was a career high–but he makes up for it by walking very few batters (1.54 BB/9 in 2011). Max Scherzer has had some trouble staying healthy in the past, but his 2011 xFIP of 3.70 marks him as a very good number 3. Rick Porcello may never reach the lofty ceiling set for him after a very successful minor league career, but it’s easy to forget that he’s just 23. Porcello gets a lot of ground balls and doesn’t walk many batters, but in order to be better than a 3 or 4, he’s going to need to manage better than 5 strikeouts per nine. Top pitching prospect Jacob Turner could probably use some more time in the minors, but the Tigers have never been shy about pushing their prospects so Turner will likely begin the season as Detroits number 5 starter with Andy Oliver waiting in AAA should anyone get hurt or prove ineffective.

Detroit’s other major strength is the core of its lineup. Even with DH Victor Martinez out for the year, the Tigers should get above average or better production at first base, shortstop, third base, and catcher. The problem is that all that hitting comes at the expense of defense. The Tigers seem intent to play Miguel Cabrera at 3rd base and Prince Fielder at 1st, while DHing Delmon Young, but the Tigers might be better off moving one of Fielder or Carbrera to DH and finding a trade for Young. Cabrera hasn’t played third since 2008 and there’s a reason that he was moved off the position. Cabrera hasn’t been particularly good at playing first either, with a career UZR/150 of -2.7. Fielder can’t play any position other than first, and with a career UZR/150 of -6.4, he’s really a DH.

The outfield is another major question for Detroit. Brennan Boesch is a pretty good hitter, but he’s another below average defender in right, which diminishes his value. Austin Jackson is a good fielder in center, but he strikes out in about a quarter of his plate appearances and a .319 OBP isn’t going to cut it from the leadoff spot, especially with Cabrera and Fielder sitting in the middle of the lineup. Still, despite their flaws, the Tigers have a higher talent level, and a more balanced roster than any of their AL Central peers.

2. Chicago White Sox (81-81)

The White Sox are stuck in a bit of a no man’s land, with an aging core and a very thin farm system. They might get a couple win boost just by removing Ozzie Guillen from the clubhouse, but as currently constructed this is not a playoff team. Even after losing Mark Buerhle to free agency, Chicago has a pretty good rotation, anchored by John Danks and Gavin Floyd. Jake Peavey’s xFIP was 3.52 in 2011, indicating that he can still be effective when healthy. Unfortunately, it would be misguided to expect more than 100 innings from Peavey. Phil Humber was good in 2011, but prior to last season seemed a marginal Major Leaguer at best. The White Sox seem intent on trying lefty Chris Sale as their fifth starter despite the fact that most analysts believe he’s much better suited to the bullpen.

On offense, the White Sox should be a little better if only because it’s hard to imagine Adam Dunn being worse than he was last season. Alexei Ramirez doesn’t get a ton of attention, but he’s probably the best shortstop in AL and put up a 5-win season in 2011 (the offensive bar for shortstops is very low and Ramirez is a terrific fielder). On the other hand, second baseman Gordon Beckham has been a disappointment since his encouraging rookie season. Second base may not be a premium offensive position, but a .296 OBP doesn’t get it done anywhere on the diamond. Beckham is 25 so he’s probably got another season to prove himself, but a change in scenery might be needed.

AJ Pierzynski and Paul Konerko will be 35 and 36, respectively, this season so it’s hard to imagine their being any better than they were in 2011 and right fielder Alex Rios looked to be at the end of the road last season even though he’s just 31. The most interesting player on the White Sox roster is left fielder Dayan Viciedo, a 23-year old Cuban defector. Viciedo has hit for both average and power in the minors, but he doesn’t walk much so his value will be largely predicated on his ability to hit home runs.

The White Sox are a decent team on paper, but their best players are getting older and there isn’t anything on the farm to replenish the roster in the coming years. They might be a win or two better than they were in 2011, but this is a team facing decline.

3. Cleveland Indians (79-83)

The Tribe started 2011 on a roll before predictably backsliding into mediocrity and finishing a game under .500, which is indicative of their true talent level. The one thing that Cleveland does have is pitching as pointed out by Dave Cameron (insider access required). For those that don’t have insider, the gist of Cameron’s argument is that Cleveland’s rotation of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe, Kevin Slowey, and Josh Tomlin compares favorably to Detroit’s staff. I’m a bit skeptical, mostly because I’m more bearish on Jimenez and Masterson than Cameron or ZiPS are. Masterson has evolved into a very good starting pitcher, but his sidearm delivery and lack of a great change-up make him vulnerable to left-handed hitters, which puts him just below ace level in my book. Jimenez has had a great deal of success in the past, and was the victim of bad luck last season, but I don’t see him in the same category of pitchers as Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia. Lowe’s peripherals indicate that he should be able to bounce-back from a tough 2011, Cleveland is a better defensive team than Atlanta so more of the ground balls that Lowe induces should turn into outs. Tomlin and Slowey are serviceable, if unremarkable, back-of-the rotation arms.

Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo struggled with health and personal (DUI) issues in 2011 and it clearly affected his play. Still, when healthy, Choo is one of the most underrated players in the game. He’s a good defender in right and is generally good for about 20 homers and a .400 OBP. Center fielder Michael Brantley has a reputation for being a good defensive player, but UZR hates him. In any case, Grady Sizemore has already had back surgery this spring so Brantley has the position locked down. Left fielder Shelley Duncan will hit the occasional homer, but he’s not good for much else.

The Indians have a surprisingly good infield, with a few promising players. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera drew a lot of headlines last season and while he’s a good player, he appears to be overhyped. Cabrera generated 3.6 WAR last season, and all of his value is in his bat. For a shortstop a triple slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .273/.332/.460 is phenomenal. That said, Cabrera’s UZR last season was -11.8, which indicates that he probably shouldn’t be playing shortstop, especially when the ground ball tendencies of Cleveland’s pitching staff are considered.

The Indians have promising young players at second and third in Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. However, Kipnis isn’t a great defensive player either and the Indians seem intent of starting Jack Hannahan at third to give Chisenhall more time to develop. Catcher Carlos Santana is a very valuable player. He still hasn’t shown the power he displayed in the minors, but he’s just 25 and even if he slugs .460 rather than .550, he’s among the best offensive players at the position. By playing Casey Kotchman the Indians are essentially punting offensive at first base, which isn’t something that most contenders do. Travis Hafner is Travis Hafner, expect about 1.5 WAR.

4. Kansas City Royals (74-88)

The Royals’ have a really good young core, but they’ll only go as far as their pitching takes them and most of their pitching prospects took a step back in 2011. Prior 2011, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb looked like the future of Kansas City pitching, but Montgomery got hurt and was ineffective, while Lamb hurt his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. Danny Duffy is now the best of the Royals’ pitching prospects almost by default, and his 2011 major league campaign wasn’t that encouraging (4.82 FIP and nearly 4.5 BB/9). Still, Duffy is just 23 and has a very good minor league track record so it’s not out of the question for him to take a step forward. Realistically, in order to become true contenders the Royals need at least two of  Montgomery, Lamb, Duffy, and Jake Odorizzi to become solid front-end starters, which given the attrition rates for young pitchers is hardly a given. If that doesn’t happen, KC might be forced to trade some of its stud prospects like right fielder Wil Myers for pitching to avoid wasting the primes of their young position players.

In the meantime, their current rotation is hardly inspiring, featuring such luminaries as Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, and Felipe Paulino. Trading Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez was a smart move, but Sanchez is really more of a number three than an ace and he’s currently the Roayls’ best starter. Ace reliever Aaron Crow has been working out as a starter in spring training, but he really struggled in the role as a minor leaguer and making the rotation seems like a long shot.

Despite the concerns about their pitching, the Royals are very promising in the field. Alex Gordon appeared to figure things out last season, and although he’ll probably regress a tiny bit and he’ll never live up to the next George Brett tag, he provides a little of everything in left field. First baseman Eric Hosmer appears to be a star in the making, in the Mark Texiera mold and third baseman Mike Moustakas is an excellent hitter as well. The Royals are average or better defensively at every position on the infield except third.

Kansas City has a chance to take a big step forward in the near future, but it will probably come in 2013 or 2014, depending on what happens with the team’s pitching.

5. Minnesota Twins (65-97)

I’m probably lower on the Twins than most others, but I don’t see much to get excited about here. Minnesota has a decent rotation of strike-throwers. After his disastrous tenure with the Yankees, Carl Pavano has quietly reinvented himself as a decent command pitcher and Scott Baker is perhaps the most underrated pitcher in baseball. Still, Francisco Liriano’s health is always a question mark and Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis both kinda suck.

There isn’t much to celebrate in the field either. Justin Morneau just hasn’t been the same since suffering a concussion two years ago, and while he hasn’t reported any problems this spring it would be beyond optimistic to expect him to return to his previous level of play. Joe Mauer is arguably the best player in the game when he’s healthy, but he’s never healthy. The Twins will likely try Mauer at first and DH to keep him on the field, however, moving him from catcher to either of those positions reduces his value significantly. Given the concerns surrounding Mauer, trading Wilson Ramos to Washington for reliever Matt Capps was an incredibly shortsighted move. Denard Span is a solid player in center field, worth about 2-4 wins above replacement. There really isn’t much else to say about the Twins, although I hear their park is nice.

Potential MVP: Miguel Cabrera, 3B, DET (ZiPS (AVG/OBP/OPS) .310/.406/.954, 31 HR)

He isn’t a third baseman, but Cabrera can really hit, and MVP voters don’t place a huge emphasis on defense anyways.

Potential Cy Young: Justin Verlander, DET (ZiPS (ERA, K/9, BB/9, FIP) 2.96, 9.23, 2.36, 2.91)

Even if he takes a step back due to BABIP normalizing, he’s still the best pitcher in the division. A threat to pitch a no-hitter in any given start.

Potential Rookie of the Year: Jacob Turner, DET

There isn’t a ton of rookie talent in this division, after a year when Kansas City graduated two candidates in Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Turner probably needs a little more time in the minors, but he’s been on the radar for a while now and there aren’t a lot of red flags around him. I don’t expect him to win the award, but he’s really the only contender here.

Conclusion

It’s Detroit and everyone else, really. Kansas City could make some noise in a year or two, but the Tigers have the clearest path to the playoffs of any team in baseball, despite their flaws.

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