Spring Training Preview: AL Central
Posted: Monday February 18, 2008 1:25PM; Updated: Monday February 18, 2008 5:04PM
The AL Central once again is loaded with the Tigers and Indians ranking among the elite clubs in baseball and the White Sox coming off a banner offseason as well.
Where: Winter Haven, Florida (Grapefruit League)
2007 record: 96-66 (1st, AL Central)
Wow, he's still here? After losing most his playing time down the stretch, Josh Barfield was not expected to be brought back. However, the Indians still have him in camp, although Asdrubal Cabrera is the incumbent.
Winter grade: W (withdrawal). Same as the Red Sox, but without the half-hearted attempts to trade for Johan Santana. The Tribe's Opening Day roster could feature 23 of the 25 guys who played for them in the ALCS. The top 11 guys in both at-bats and innings pitched return, and the big off-season pickups were a Japanese reliever and a middling utility infielder.
NRI (Non-Roster Invite) to watch: Center fielder Trevor Crowe stalled out at Double-A last season and is now a marginal prospect. The Indians, however, have enough question marks on the outfield corners -- populated largely by veteran fourth outfielders -- that a big spring could get the switch-hitting Crowe into the discussion.
Job battle to track: Cabrera is a plus defensive shortstop who may have to beat out Barfield again just to play second base. The Indians seem comfortable with Jhonny Peralta at shortstop for now, and while flipping Peralta and Cabrera across the keystone makes all kinds of sense, "originality" isn't high on the list of the traits of an otherwise solid management team.
One move to make: Any, given how they spent the last four months. The pitching staff is fairly set. However, the Indians have an unimpressive set of corners, outside of first base, for a team with designs on October. A middle-of-the-order bat who can play third base or either outfield corner would make a big difference to a team whose lineup falls off considerably after the top five.
More and more, the AL's "Big Four" looks like a "Big Three." The Indians return virtually everyone from last year's division titlist, a team that was one win from a World Series. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the lack of moves to address the team's poor corner outfield options and a relatively top-heavy lineup are worrisome. The Tigers got a lot better, while the Indians seem to be hoping that posting a .260 EqA again will be enough. Whether internally or externally, they have to upgrade the outfield this spring to maintain their status.
Chicago White Sox
Where: Tucson, Arizona (Cactus League)
2007 record: 72-90 (4th, AL Central)
Wow, he's still here? Josh Fields' moderately impressive rookie season, coupled with his inability to play left field, was supposed to mean the departure of Joe Crede. Teams have not been willing to deal for Crede without seeing him play, however.
Winter grade: B+
If you knew nothing else but the lists of players coming and going, you'd have to conclude it was a good winter on the South Side. The Sox upgraded a terrible bullpen and outfield, and got better at shortstop while dealing just one player, in Garland, who meant anything to them.
NRI to watch: A weak list is headed by former Blue Jays' first-round pick Miguel Negron, who has washed out of four organizations in the last three years. With last year's collection of lousy fourth outfielders mostly gone, there's an opening for a speedy glove man to make the team.
Job battle to track: Jerry Owens vs. Quentin, with Swisher playing left or center depending on who wins. Quentin is the favorite, and could be the steal of the offseason for GM Kenny Williams. However, if Quentin's surgically-repaired shoulder doesn't allow him to hit, Owens' speed in center is going to be attractive to manager Ozzie Guillen. Owens' overall numbers were lousy, but he played better in the second half, well enough to make him a viable option.
One move to make: This improved roster remains one top-tier starting pitcher shy of hanging with the top two teams in the division. They likely don't have the prospects left to trade for that guy, but it's the one move they could make that would change the discussion.
The Garland-for-Cabrera trade was the signature move in an offseason that saw the Sox dump a whole bunch of the dead weight from the '07 team. That deal helps them a lot; you don't often get to upgrade by 50 points of OBP in the infield, and Cabrera is also a good defensive shortstop. There's a lot of variance here; guys like Quentin, Cuban signee Ramirez, and Jose Contreras could be six-win players, or they could bounce around replacement level. The Sox have correctly played for the present, and no matter what happens, Williams can be commended for choosing the right course of action.