By Mike Ivcic
Day two of The Tenth Inning’s season preview takes a jaunt across the Heartland, where we analyze the AL and NL Central divisions. If you missed our ride along the East Coast on day one, you can find it here, while the final leg of our Lewis and Clark journey appears tomorrow.
American League Central
1) Detroit Tigers
Three most important players: Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder
Why make this any more complicated than it needs to be? Yes, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, and whomever Jim Leyland decides to use as a closer are also very important, but when the three best players in the division are all on this team, it’s a very simple equation. The better those three play, the bigger the division lead will be at the end of September. Most pundits expected the Tigers to run away with the division last year and Chicago hung around until the final week, so anything can happen, but there’s simply no doubt that the Detroit roster is far and away the best in the AL Central.
Biggest question mark: Closer
As mentioned above, this job could wind up being handed to just about anyone that has “RP” next to their name on the roster. Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, and Joaquin Benoit will all likely get a chance to close games this year, and maybe the “closer by committee” philosophy will actually wind up being more beneficial in the long run for this club, but it can’t be understated that not having one go-to closer at the back end of the bullpen does leave the defending AL champions with a rather large question mark heading into opening day.
2) Kansas City Royals
Three most important players: James Shields, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler
If the Royals want to make the leap into playoff contention, then the equation is very simple – the stars must be stars. Shields must be the ace the Royals expect him to be, especially since they traded top prospect Wil Myers to get him. Likewise Hosmer and Butler both need to have big years to provide some thump in the middle of that batting order. This is not Verlander-Cabrera-Fielder, and they shouldn’t try to be â only the Tigers have those three. Instead, the trio above will have to have support from Wade Davis, Jeff Francoeur, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Jeremie Guthrie, and many others in order to stay in contention all season. They definitely have the ability, but it’s not likely that this is the year the playoff drought ends in Kansas City.
Biggest question mark: Responding to pressure
The front office finally made a move that signifies to both the fan base and the current players that they really want to win. That’s definitely a good step, but with those moves come some expectations of success, especially in a division where second place seems easily attainable. On paper, this is the best chance the Royals have had this century of playing October baseball, but how this team handles those expectations will be an interesting subplot to watch this season.
3) Chicago White Sox
Three most important players: Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham
Manager Robin Ventura’s group would have been a shoe-in for most surprising team last season if not for two other teams in the American League that made a tremendous jump in the Athletics and Orioles. Still, for this group to have been within a week and a half of winning the AL Central over the eventual AL champions shows just how much talent is truly on this roster. For the Sox to duplicate their feat from a year ago, they’ll need another full season from a healthy Peavy to headline their rotation, and they’ll need more than a .236 average from Beckham. He and his double play partner Alexei Ramirez both need to continue their maturation, though the addition of Jeff Keppinger does provide Ventura with some options should either of them falter. Then there’s Rios, who actually came pretty close to earning his $12.5 million salary last year and needs a similar performance this year as the main player in the White Sox order. If all of the pieces converge again, this team might be able to pull off what they couldn’t last year and claim a playoff berth.
Biggest question mark: Repeat performance
Like any relatively young team, part of the growing process is learning to repeat the same performance from one season to the next. Thus the biggest question for Chicago is how they’ll respond to being so close to the playoffs and falling short. Having a veteran like Paul Konerko that’s been through the wringer multiple times will certainly help guide the younger players, but I see a step back for at least a year before they truly challenge Detroit for division supremacy.
4) Cleveland Indians
Three most important players: Ubaldo Jimenez, Nick Swisher, Brett Myers
If the Indians hope to compete in what is most likely going to be the weakest division in baseball, they are going to need a huge year from just about everyone in their starting rotation. Justin Masterson is probably their most consistent starter and the one that will probably turn in the best year, but it’s the transition of Myers from the bullpen back to the rotation and the always enigmatic Jimenez that stands as the biggest obstacles for success for Terry Francona’s club. If Jimenez and Myers submit above average performances, Cleveland could be this season’s version of Oakland or Baltimore. They’ll also need Swisher to embrace his role as the cagey veteran leader who has been to the postseason and understands how to get there. It’s a lot of ifs – thus the fourth place prediction – but if it happens, at least it won’t be a total shock.
Biggest question mark: Veteran pitching
Outside of Myers and lefty reliever Rich Hill, there isn’t a ton of experience on this pitching staff. Younger arms may mean increased velocity and energy, but it also means a great deal of youthful mistakes. Francona and his staff will have to do a tremendous job of mentoring this group and guiding them through what are sure to be a myriad of mistakes, which may very well be too much for the inexperienced Indians to overcome over a full season.
5) Minnesota Twins
Three most important players: Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham
A quick glace down the pitching section of the roster leaves a lot to be desired, so it’s going to be incumbent upon the three guys above â along with the rest of the lineup – to give the Twins the ability to outscore their opponents, because outpitching them is rather unlikely. Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Trevor May – not exactly names that inspire a ton of confidence. It’s definitely a young team, and the front office is clearly trying to rebuild the farm system to provide the next crop of talent similar to the group that arrived in the big leagues between 1999-2005, but it’s a long process that’s going to leave fans in the Twin Cities with at least another couple seasons of subpar baseball before that young talent ascends to the majors.
Biggest question mark: Mauer’s contract
The Twins most prized player is under contract until 2018 at $23 million per year with a full no trade clause. Still, it’s hard to envision Mauer still being the same player in three years as he is now, especially with the years of catching in his past. The Twins opened each of the past two seasons with a payroll above $100 million, a rather surprising statistic considering their traditionally conservative fiscal approach to contracts, so the question becomes if and when does Mauer decide he’ll let the Twins shop him around in order to help them continue to rebuild while he chases a championship. After all, the local “boy” does turn 30 this year. I’d put the chances of Minnesota dealing him at about 0.05% this season, but it’ll be the elephant in the room for the next few years as this organization tries to rise out of the cellar.
National League Central
1) Cincinnati Reds
Three most important players: Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman, Bronson Arroyo
Had this preview been written in mid-March, it probably would have included a scathing indictment of the Reds decision to move Chapman to the starting rotation. Instead, it appears that Dusty Baker and company have regained their limited senses and decided to keep Chapman in his role as the best closer in the NL. Yes, that includes Drew Storen, Craig Kimbrel, Rafael Soriano, Sergio Romo, and anyone else that may compete for that title. Look, folks – 105 mph is 105 mph. Don’t mess with it. As for Votto, he’s the Reds most feared hitter, and it’s a fluke that they played as well as they did without him last year. If he misses extended time again this year, they probably won’t be as lucky. The interesting choice here is Arroyo, but for the last few years he’s been the mainstay in the rotation for this club. If Cincinnati can once again get 30 starts and 180+ quality innings out of the oldest player on the roster and the oldest pitcher on the team by a solid five years, then this team is a no-brainer to repeat as division champs and may be the most likely threat to topple the Nationals in the NL.
Biggest question mark: Centerfield
If given the opportunity, Baker and GM Walt Jockety might even try out John Fogerty for the position. Ok, that was terrible, but I couldn’t resist â the options are that scary for the Reds. Chris Heisey hasn’t shown the ability to play every day, Shin-Soo Choo has never played centerfield, and the only actual centerfielder listed on the roster – Yorman Rodriguez – is 20 years old. Not really the type of position battle that World Series-contending teams typically like to see in spring training. The obvious thought is Choo, with Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick manning the corner spots and Heisey as the fourth outfielder, but that needs to be proven in real, big-league action.
2) Pittsburgh Pirates
Three most important players: Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek
Or at least that would have been the answer had this preview been written the last time the Pirates had a winning season. But never fear, Pittsburgh fans â your time has come! No, they won’t make the playoffs (the rest of the league is still too talented) but the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in American professional sports will come to an end this year. This, of course, only happens if a rotation filled with unknown quantities of big names â A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Karstens – can support the two young up-and-coming mainstays Charlie Morton and James McDonald. It’s an enviable position for manager Clint Hurdle, actually – a lot of talent that will compete against itself for spots on the mound – but the key is still finding five starters who will give the Pirates a shot to win every game. The lineup will certainly be buoyed by the addition of veteran Russel Martin behind the plate, who along with Brandon Inge and Clint Barmes will continue to mentor and lead the tremendously talented young guys that the Pirates continue to funnel into the Steel City.
Biggest question mark: Closer
Trading Joel Hanrahan was probably the right move for Pittsburgh. Picking up four players in exchange for two while simultaneously lowering payroll is a virtual lock for any GM. Still it does leave the Pirates with a hole at the end of games, as Jason Grilli is not at Hanrahan’s level when it comes to closing the door. If he can somehow match or even come close to matching the Hammer’s 2012 season, though, it could create a fun September from one end of the Ohio River to the other.
3) St. Louis Cardinals
Three most important players: Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Adam Wainwright
No one’s saying it, so we will â this is suddenly an old baseball team, and that’s not even counting Rafael Furcal and Chris Carpenter. Holliday is 33, Beltran is 35, even Wainwright is 31. Throw in Yadier Molina (30), Jason Motte (30), and Jake Westbrook (35), and suddenly a good portion of this roster is on the wrong side of the three-decade ledger. It may not actually come to pass, but this team just looks ripe for a bad year. In each of the last two seasons, the Cardinals managed to edge their way into the postseason at the expense of the Braves (final day of the ’11 regular season and ’12 wild card game) and then play their best baseball in the postseason. But just getting to the playoffs will be tougher with the Pirates and Dodgers improving and the Nationals, Reds, and Giants still looking primed for 90-win seasons. It’ll be up to the two thumpers in the middle of the order to each accomplish the unlikely task of playing 150 games and Wainwright to submit a Cy Young-caliber year to push the Cardinals into the playoffs again this season.
Biggest question mark: Health
Furcal and David Frease will start the year on the DL, while Carpenter has by all accounts thrown his final big league pitch. This is a deep team, which is why they’ve been able to withstand injuries in previous years, but the margin for error continues to shrink just as this team creeps from “veteran” to “old.” Keeping their marquee players in the lineup everyday is a must for Mike Matheny.
4) Milwaukee Brewers
Three most important players: Ryan Braun, John Axford, Yovani Gallardo
The first one should be self-explanatory – as talent-laden as this group appears, without an MVP-type season from Braun they could easily finish last. The two pitchers, meanwhile, are going to be asked to outperform even their previous best seasons in order to keep Milwaukee competitive. The rotation behind Gallardo is a big black hole, so every fifth day it’s going to be up to the Brewers ace to pick up a win. Axford, meanwhile, needs to find his 2011 form quickly, because any lead he’s handed must be converted into a win, Gallardo or otherwise. The lineup will once again score runs â Braun is still complimented by Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, Nyjer Morgan, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Jonathan Lucroy, virtually the same group that brought Milwaukee within a game of the World Series two years ago – so expect a decent amount of double-digit scores coming out of Miller Park this season.
Biggest question mark: Every pitcher not named Gallardo
Yes, that aforementioned black hole will rear its ugly head 130 times this season if the Brewers aren’t lucky. There are certainly talented pitchers on this team like Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson who had experienced some success in years past, but Ron Roenicke has to be lying awake at night fretting over exactly what kind of start his team’s going to get every time Gallardo doesn’t pitch. It’s the reason Milwaukee’s considered a long shot to win the division.
5) Chicago Cubs
Three most important players: Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo
Give Theo Epstein some credit here – bringing in players like Scott Hairston, Edwin Jackson, Ian Stewart, Scott Baker, and David DeJesus over the last two years at least gives the Cubs some veteran leadership and keeps them competitive while he rebuilds the farm system. It’s that farm system that produced Castro and was the final stop for Rizzo after he was acquired by the Padres, but any hope of success for Chicago this season lands squarely on the backs of those two. The pitching staff is littered with familiar names – Jackson and Matt Garza the two most notable at the front of the rotation – but it all means nothing if Marmol can’t find the plate. A focused, strike-throwing Marmol gives the Cubs a premier closer and the ability to finish games, but too often it’s the opposite – the exact reason he’s clearly one of the most important players for this year’s North Siders.
Biggest question mark: Alfonso Soriano
Marmol was an easy choice here, but he’s been covered already, so we’ll instead select Soriano. Even at 37, he can still be an impact (though probably not premier) player in the big leagues, so getting even a slightly above average season from him would definitely be a huge plus for the Cubs. Still, as nice as that would be, we know plenty of Cubs fans that have already started their countdown to the day his bloated contract finally expires.
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