Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011 Predictions - AL Central

1. Chicago (91-71)

There's a lot that could happen with this team, so they're awfully tough to predict. It all starts with Ozzie, who could be described as mercurial - he's feisty, in your face, and often doesn't know when to pick his battles. That's worked with some teams over the years and not with others, so the best thing to do when predicting it is shrug it off. That doesn't mean it won't have an affect, it just means we have no clue what that affect will be. Beyond that, Carlos Quentin is healthy, and Adam Dunn was the most underrated signing of the offseason. Even declining some, he's a huge upgrade at DH for these guys, and will at least offset Konerko's likely decline. Gordon Beckham rebounded after a bad first half. The starting pitching will be solid even if Jake Peavy makes little contribution - I'll take a rotation of Danks, Buehrle, Floyd and Edwin Jackson and be happy. Depth is a fair concern, but this team has the highest upside in the division.

Player to watch for: Alexei Ramirez. The Cuban Missile was the best shortstop in the league in 2010, both offensively and defensively. He's a flashy player, so a playoff run could make him a strong candidate for the "so many people talked about him being underrated that he became overrated" all-stars. He's a very good player though, and the lack of quality shortstops in the American league makes him a valuable commodity.

2. Minnesota (90-72)

Every year they win more games than they can be reasonably predicted to, so why not just pick them for more wins than is reasonable. Say what you will about Gardenhire's playoff managing, but he consistently gets the most out of his team in the regular season. Still, there are questions. Will Joe Mauer's power come back? Is Justin Morneau 100%? Can Denard Span bounce back after a bad year? Will Danny Valencia be the Twins best 3B since the Gary Gaetti era? Will Francisco Liriano stay healthy? It's a lot to juggle, but the Twins have some depth on offense, and six capable starting pitchers. Personally, I don't agree with putting Slowey in the bullpen, as he doesn't have the kind of pure stuff that is likely to be maximized in a shorter role. I wouldn't be surprised to see him traded to a team with some holes in the rotation in exchange for a more traditional reliever.

Player to watch for: Justin Morneau. Morneau was the best player in the AL the first half of last year, until a flukish knee off the head gave him a concussing that took him all season, and then all winter, to recover from. It's a tribute to the Twins (and Jim Thome, specifically) that they were able to keep playing winning with Morneau out, but one would think they need him healthy in order to make another playoff push.

3. Detroit (84-78)

The Miguel Cabrera thing seems to be hanging like a cloud over this team, but Jim Leyland will have them focused on baseball once the season begins. The problem, of course, may not be the focus of the rest of the team, but of Cabrera himself. The Tigers are trying to figure out how to deal with the off-field problems of their best on-field player. The Victor Martinez signing will help out the offense, which was right around league average last year. Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch had a rough go in the second half last year - strong full season performances from those two will make a big difference. Justin Verlander is a legitimate ace, but the rotation beyond him and Max Scherzer could be frightning.

Player to watch for: Max Scherzer. His 2010 stats look solid on the whole, but take a step back. In the first couple months, he was so bad that he ended up at Triple-A Toledo to sort out his mechanics. In April and Mayu, he was 2-4 with a 6.42 ERA. In 47 innings, he'd struck out 40, walked 20, and allowed 9 homers. After his recall, Scherzer went 10-7 with a 2.55 ERA. In 148 innings, he struck out 144, walked 50, and allowed only 11 homers. Those are ace numbers, and if he can keep that up, he and Verlander form the best 1/2 combo in the American League.

4. Kansas City (69-93)

This team is all about 2013 and beyond. We've heard all about the incredible stock of prospects the Royals have gathered, to the point where they are in Tampa Bay Rays 2006 or Cleveland Indians 1992 mode. Of the guys who are here already in the majors, only Billy Butler seems likely to be a contributing factor in four years, unless Alex Gordon and/or Alcides Escobar figure it out. This first half could be another long few months, but expect Mike Moustakas to join the club sometime after midseason. Royals fans have reason to hope once again.

Player to watch for: Billy Butler. Actually, you should probably try to get Omaha Royals tickets if you can. But, if you are watching the major league team, Butler is one to keep your eye on. He very quietly put up a .318/.388/.469 line in his age 24 season. His level swing produces more line drive doubles than it does home runs, but that's a minor quibble- the likely upside here is a consistent .325 hitter with good patience and 20 to 25 home runs, and the nice thing is that the downside isn't much lower than that. I don't forsee him becoming a superstar, but it's almost impossible to believe that he'll be something less than very good.

5. Cleveland (66-96)

Is there a more depressing team to be a fan of? They blew the 1997 World Series, the 2007 ALCS (to the Red Sox, who ended up sweeping the World Series), and now must sit around as Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia became baseball's two highest-paid pitchers. There are positives here. Shin-Soo Choo is a dynamic five tool star, the most underrated player in baseball by a longshot. The sky is the limit for Carlos Santana. Grady Sizemore may finally be healthy.Asdrubal Cabrera is very good defensively. Justin Masterson gets a lot of ground balls... You see where this is going. There are some things to be positive about, but I just don't see how they're going to win that many baseball games. If they don't end up with the American League's worst record, something went wrong for somebody else.

Player to watch for: Grady Sizemore. Not just because he's so darned dreamy, but because we're hoping he's finally healthy again. From ages 22-25 he put up a .281/.372/.496 line and combined it with great defense. Maybe the Mickey Mantle comparisons were a little crazy, but Sizemore looked like he'd be one of the best players of the decade. Then injuries happened and Sizemore suddenly appeared to be on the Eric Chavez career path of a true superstar in his early 20's who is never able to reach expectations because of injuries. If Sizemore is healthy, he and Choo will form arguably the best outfield duo in baseball, but 2008 Grady Sizemore seems a long way away.

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