Indians might be A.L. Central's best
Dayn Perry / Special to FOXSports.com
Posted: 11 hours ago
The denizens of the American League East may get most of the bandwidth/column inches on an annual basis, but these days the AL Central, without question, is baseball's toughest division.
In that loop, you have two playoff teams from 2006 (the Tigers and Twins), the 2005 world champs (the White Sox) and one of the best up-and-coming young teams in the league (the Indians). In other words, you have four playoff-caliber squads in one division (sorry, Royals, you're out of the discussion for the moment). Considering these are the days of the unbalanced schedule, these four teams are going to eat each other alive in 2007, and as a result, you may see only one team from the Central make the post-season. It will still be baseball's most brutal circuit.
We're still a month-and-half from spring training games, so it's too early to make any firm predictions. However, most of the Hot Stove maneuverings are behind us, so we are able to get a "lay of the land"-type grasp of how the AL Central might unfold. So let's take a closer look at these four teams and how the '07 season figures to treat them.
To begin, let's take a look at some key indicators from last year (AL rank in parentheses):
2006 A.L. Central Key Stats
Runs scored Runs allowed OBP SLG Starters' ERA Bullpen ERA Defensive efficiency
Tigers 822 (5th) 675 (1st) .329 (12th) .449 (5th) 4.00 (1st) 3.51 (2nd) .712 (1st)
Twins 801 (8th) 683 (2nd) .347 (5th) .425 (9th 4.50 (5th) 2.91 (1st) .692 (8th)
Indians 870 (2nd) 782 (7th) .349 (3rd) .457 (4th) 4.31 (3rd) 4.66 (11th) .686 (10th)
White Sox 868 (3rd) 794 (10th) .342 (6th) .464 (1st) 4.65 (8th) 4.53 (10th) .700 (5th)
(* - Defensive Efficiency measures what percentage of balls in play a defense converts into outs.)
Now let's examine each of the "Big Four" on an individual basis ...
Last season, the Tigers won 95 games and their first pennant since 1984. As you can see from the above numbers, they succeeded with great pitching, great defense and good power production. Most of that roster is intact going into 2007, so you can expect another strong season in Detroit.
One source of concern, however, is Justin Verlander. He faded badly down the stretch in 2006, and, counting the post-season, he worked 207.2 innings on the year. Considering his previous high for innings in a season — as a minor leaguer and in college — was 130.0, a drop-off in 2007 is a distinct possibility. On the other hand, Jeremy Bonderman moves another year closer to his prime and should continue his skills growth, Mike Maroth will be back from injury, and phenom Andrew Miller will be ready for a larger role.
Elsewhere, it's incumbent upon Jim Leyland to religiously platoon Sean Casey with Chris Shelton and to ensure that Marcus Thames is in the lineup every day. If those things happen and Carlos Guillen stays healthy, the Tigers will be right there once again.
Minnesota will be a quality team in the upcoming season, but there are reasons to fret. First and foremost is the rotation behind Johan Santana. Francisco Liriano (2.16 ERA in 121.0 innings last season) will likely miss all of 2007 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in November, and Brad Radke (2.84 ERA in the second half) has retired. That means the Twins will go to spring training with Boof Bonser, Carlos Silva, Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Sidney Ponson all vying for the final four spots in the rotation. There's some promise in there with Bonser and Garza, but you should expect growing pains.
There's also the possibility that Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, because their successes in '06 were built heavily around high batting averages, might come back to earth. That's especially a concern for Morneau, who is not a true .321 hitter at the highest level (batting average is the traditional hitting statistic most prone to random variation). As well, it's doubtful that Rondell White, at his age and state of disrepair, can be a productive regular any longer.
Can Justin Verlander, Carlos Guillen and co. scheme their way back into the playoffs? (Ron Vesely/MLB / Getty Images)
Chicago White Sox
The tendencies of U.S. Cellular Field tend to make the Sox's pitching staff look a little worse than it really is and make the Sox's hitters look a little better than they really are. However, the pitching staff is indeed the team's problem going forward. With the recent trades of Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy, the Sox don't enjoy the proven depth they've had in the past, but they do perhaps have more upside. Mark Buehrle needs to rebound, Jose Contreras needs to stay healthy, and they need to dig up a reliable fifth man. The bullpen — a serious problem last year — has been modestly upgraded, and they have a number of young starters who could be deployed as relievers should the need arise.
Offensively, Brian Anderson should make strides. On the downside, Jermaine Dye, while still remaining productive, should see his numbers take a dive, and Scott Podsednik will remain a glaring liability in left.
In 2005, the Indians had the best bullpen in baseball (2.80 relief ERA), and last year they had one of the worst. That decline was the big reason the Indians fell back in the standings to such a degree. So it's to GM Mark Shapiro's credit that he's worked so hard this winter to improve the relief corps. New to the scene are Roberto Hernandez, Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski and Aaron Fultz. That means the Tribe will have multiple closer options and vastly improved depth, particularly from the right side.
Elsewhere, the Indians return the ingredients of an underrated rotation, and core hitters like Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez are back. David Dellucci and Jason Michaels should form an effective platoon in left, and Andy Marte should improve in the upcoming season. Also, the bench figures to be a pronounced strength.
One final point on the Indians: If you look at what their record should've been based on runs scored and runs allowed (89-73 instead of their actual record of 78-84), then you'll see that they're in for a serious rebound in 2007. Expect that to happen
Any of these four teams would probably win the NL West, NL Central and AL West, but in reality they have the misfortune of competing against one another for a single division crown. At this early juncture — and it is terribly early — the Tigers and Indians appear to be better poised. There's still time for rosters to be tweaked, injuries to occur and trades to happen, but right now Detroit and Cleveland figure to be the teams doing serious battle for the AL Central title.
If you insist upon a ludicrously premature prediction, then here it is: it's the Tribe's year.