Minny in the Middle

 

AL Central: well, a weekend into the season, and given the benefit of seeing a couple of games featuring Minnesota , I continue my outlook on this season.

CHICAGO- If recent trends were to continue, the White Sox might be looking at a lost year. After all, after winning 2006 and ’08 campaigns they lost ground and ended up sub-.500 the following years. However, happily for Barack Obama , that’s one trend that won’t outlast his stay in the White House. The prez’s favourite team looks pretty decent this year.

This is a team that can hit with the best of them. Last year they were in the top 8 in the bigs in average, slugging, home runs (and stolen bases too) , and they’ve only gotten better. Adam Dunn was a major acquisition , and will really make the ball fly out of US Cellular. Being the same age as Ryan Howard, he has 100 more career homers and with an equally good bat protecting him in the lineup, a 50 homer campaign isn’t out of the question. Paul Konerko, the other big bat, shows no sign of slowing down and somehow Ozzie Guillen seems to have unlocked the mystery that is Alex Rios and coaxed a good season out of him. No one here in Canada ever questioned his ability, but his maturity and work ethic were serious concerns. He’s a five-tool player who if healthy and fully mature, could probably hit .300, 180+ hits, 30 homers and steal 30. He’s not fully mature. But he might not be far off. Add in Alexei Ramirez, now the best SS in the American, hard-headed, hard-working catcher AJ Pierzynski, bench strength in versatile Mark Teahen (if he indeed loses out to rookie Brent Morel as the everyday 3B) and you have a team poised to score a lot of runs. This might be a necessary thing as the pitching is only run of the mill.

Mark Buehrle is still reliable and will do better than his .500 season last year, and Gavin Floyd and John Danks are ok but far from dazzling. A healthy Jake Peavy would make a big difference, but that seems weeks away from happening at best. Jesse Crain is a good addition to the ‘pen, but not an adequate replacement for gone and not missed (by Guillen at least) bobby Jenks. However, if young Chris Sale’s remarkable debut at age 21 last year wasn’t a mirage, the Sox might have their next great reliever.

Like at Wrigley field, there’s always a good chance of a battle erupting on this Chicago team’s bench. Unlike the Cubbies, here it would no doubt involve the manager. But that’s where the similarities end…these South Siders just might give their fans a bit of excitement in October. 2011 Prediction: 91 wins, 1st place.

CLEVELAND: I stopped briefly in Cleveland back in ’09. I was surprised at how scenic parts of it were and how nice some of the people. Too bad for them that if the declining population and shrinking employment wasn’t bad enough, they had to deal with the spectacle of Lebron kicking sand in their faces as he left town and now a baseball team which has gone from borderline great to borderline grave in a few short years.

Yes, the catcher is healthy, should have a good season, but won’t make anyone think of his name ahead of the guitarist enshrined in the Rock n roll Hall of Fame in the city upon hearing the name Carlos santana. Grady Sizemore starts off injured again, and Travis hafner– well who knows? Mirroring the team itself , he’s gone from star material to irrelevance in a few easy years. Sin Soo Choo is the real star in town now, but he won’t be able to do much single-handedly to save a lousy offense. Jared Goedert, who had 83 RBI in the minors last year might add his name to a long list of potential rookie third basemen in the bigs this year, particularly now that the I’s have traded Jayson Nix to Toronto.

The bullpen is surprisingly strong, and will be called on often. Fausto Carmona is OK, but not a prototypical “ace” and it goes downhill from there. Drew Pomeranz, their 2010 top pick, draws rave reviews but seems at very least a year away from the mound in Ohio.

One wonders why chief Wahoo is still grinning. 2011 prediction: 58 wins, 5th place.

DETROIT: Like all cats, the Tigers can be a bit of a mystery. Generally they seem full of more promise than they deliver, despite having a very sound and respected manager in Jim leyland. That said, if GM can turn it around in Detroit, there’s no doubt the Tiggers could too.

Justin Verlander rivals Felix Hernandez as the best pitcher in the AL now, is a shoo-in to deliver 200 innings, 200K and an ERA a run or better than the league average, and with some booming bats this year he is poised to win 20. And the bats should be booming, with the addition of Victor Martinez.

The press has tried to pillory Miguel Cabrera for his DUI arrest, but seems to me there’ve been some big drinkers in past decades who could still swing a bat. One wonders how many of the nasty diatribes written by sports writers were posted from barstools anyway. What matters to Detroit is that Cabrera is as good a shot as anyone in baseball to win a Triple Crown ; a .313 career hitter who averages one RBI in 5 AB and who at 28 is only finally really hitting his prime. Add in speedy Austin jackson (my pick for AL rookie of year last season), dependable Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez and you have a team poised to slam 200 HR this year and score significantly more than the 751 runs they did last year.

Pitching is a bit of a question mark beyond Verlander. Max Scherzer seemed to come into his own last year and makes a good #2 guy, but which Rick Porcello will show up– the good rookie of 2009 or the struggling, inconfident one of last year? Can Phil Coke make the transition from bullpen to rotation? My guess is both will do so, adequately enough to keep the Tigers in contention right down to the wire. 2011 Prediction: 89 wins, 2nd place.

KANSAS CITY- It’s been said that when Toronto first gained an MLB franchise in the 70s, KC was the team they modeled their organization after. Now it appears that the positions have reversed and the Royals are modeling the Jays, if trading away the ace of the staff for minor leaguers is any indication. And as up here, it may represent some short-term pain for long-term gain. By trading Zack Greinke they appear to only be acknowledging that their former Cy Young winner would have long since moved along for greener pastures through free agency before they could contend again, so why not beef up an already talented minor league system? Arguably smart decision-making but no doubt difficult to sell to a demoralized fan base who’ve not seen a winner around their parts since 2003. And have no hope of seeing one this year, either.

With Greinke, last year’s surpriser , Bruce Chen, and Bryan Bannister all leaving town in the off-season, the already poor pitching staff lost a cumulative 29 wins and 488 innings off their ’10 numbers. Hard to imagine Vin Mazzaro doing much to offset that loss. Thus now Luke Hochevar has become the opening day starter, and probably the least impressive ‘staff ace’ in all of big league baseball. Young John Lamb and Mike Montgomery are highly-touted lefties who show great promise ,but should be at least a year away from their debut. However, with names like Sean O’Sullivan (6.11 ERA in last season’s stint of 13 starts which didn’t show the Show Me State too much to excite) pencilled into the rotation this spring, the future for the young southpaws may be sooner than later. Joakim Soria is outstanding , of course (he’s had saves in no less than 54% of all Royals wins over the past couple of seasons) but essentially a wasted resource there.

At the plate, no way will this team end up second in batting average again , and consider that even though they did last year, that still did little to help them put runs across the plate… they were 20th in that department. Jeff Francoeur should be able to reinvent himself in this small, low-pressure market (maybe .275, 24 or so homers), Melky Cabrera is less likely to. Billy Butler continues to develop into one of the better first basemen in the league and soon he’ll be playing across from young Mike Moustakas, an early Fantasy fave pick for rookie of the year- not surprising given his 36 HR, 124 RBI minor league tallies of last season. However, the KC’s began the season with Wilson Betemit their regular third bagger.

Even if they won’t have a Cy Young winner, they’ll bag one “award”… Kila Ka’aihue seems to have the “hardest name to spell” in the bag.

This team will battle cleveland all season for last place, but unlike the Ohio squad, this team may have reason for optimism. Their AA Northwest Arkansas team won the Texas League championship last fall and some experts rank the royals’ minor league talent as best all-around. But, for now… 2011 Prediction: 60 wins, 4th place.

MINNESOTA: Ron Gardenhire certainly deserved his Manager of the Year award last year; it seems every year he adds another “M” to Minneapolis , Minnesota. Magic. Each year he seems to start out with a team which looks OK, but unspectacular, on paper, loses key players for significant stretches of time and yet maneouvres the team into the playoffs anyway. This year however, things are a bit different. Thanks to JMx2 (MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau) becoming household names and apparently becoming healthy, as is Joe Nathan, the Twins are boasting a nine-digit payroll and lofty expectations to win. Can Gardenhire still work magic under these conditions?

Add into the superstar pair emerging star Delmon Young and his 100+ RBI of last season, remarkably speedy and accurate outfielder Denard Span (who last year was third in total chances in the AL with his range, and dazzled Rogers Centre crowds this weekend in toronto), and very under-rated, reliable Michael Cuddyer (who should double his low HR tally of last year) and the Twin Cities have good reason to feel high on their boys of summer. Then there’s new Japanese phenom Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a batting champion last year on the other side of the ocean taking over for Orlando Hudson at 2B. What could go wrong?

Well, lots actually. Nishioka is only a .280 career hitter in Japan, so anything more than .260 over here might be a gift, and though it’s only a couple of games, so far he has shown he’s no O-dog with the glove. Infielding could be an adventure for the Twinkies. By August, expect his name to be pronounced “No Suzuki”. Justin Morneau says he’s fully recovered from his concussion that knocked him out for half a year last year, but was limited in his playing during spring training so one has to wonder. Then there’s the pitching.

The Twins seem to brag that they’ve got two former starters sitting in the bullpen (kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins) but that may be indicative of poor talent assessment and a weak bullpen more than of a loaded starting rotation. Does anybody foresee Carl Pavano repeating his 17 win, 3.75 ERA of last year – particularly when one remembers that after mid-August he went just 2-4 with an ERA well over 5? Not me. Soft-tossing Nick Blackburn got away with one this afternoon, but looked much more like an easily hittable, 5+ ERA deadweight than a potential star trying to refind his good stuff. And while having Joe Nathan back is certainly a plus, it might take awhile for him to regain his full pre-surgery form. Even if not, the loss of Jesse crain and Jon Rauch is difficult to overcome with just one man.

Worst of all, this edition of the Twins has something new; swagger. Justin Morneau swaggers around like a Canadian hockey star (something he’s often compared to), whining about the well-liked new Target field not being personally pleasing to him; Joe Mauer is working hard at being an aspiring annoying actor and all-in-all the team is acting like they are the Natural Governing Team in the midwest. Well, you know what they say about “pride”. It comes before a fall. And this year, fall will come a little earlier in Minny. 2011 Prediction : 84 wins, 3rd place. Expect some 22 or more of those W’s to come at the expense of the Indians and royals.

Next, onto the one I’m really watching…and given the budgets and size of the markets, one most people are– the AL East.

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