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Posted: Thursday February 19, 2009 11:16AM; Updated: Thursday February 19, 2009 7:06PM

Spring Training Primer: AL Central (cont.)

Detroit Tigers

Jeremy Bonderman
Detroit pitcher Jeremy Bonderman looks to bounce back after losing the 2008 campaign to injury.
AP

Location: Lakeland, Fla. (Grapefruit League)

2008 record: 74-88 (5th AL Central)

Winter grade: C+
The Tigers didn't do enough to turn around a last-place team that allowed 857 runs in 2008. Detroit seems content to hope that starters Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander and relievers Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya all return to their 2006 form. They must also believe that Dontrelle Willis might again be a serviceable major leaguer and that Gary Sheffield and Brandon Inge -- who sported OPS+ of 90 and 76, respectively, last year -- will improve.

As for the moves the Tigers did make, they were all helpful: snagging catcher Gerald Laird from the Rangers for a pair of minor-league pitchers and catcher Matt Treanor via free agency; dealing emerging outfielder Matt Joyce to the Rays for inconsistent, but promising starter Edwin Jackson, who projects as the Tigers' No. 4 starter; and adding a pair of low-cost, one-year deals in shortstop Adam Everett, a reclamation project, and reliever Brandon Lyon, who pitches like a young Todd Jones.

Key question: Can the pitching staff perform like it's 2006?
During Detroit's pennant-winning run three years ago, the young aces, Bonderman and Verlander, both 23 at the time, combined to go 31-17 over 400 innings, with a 3.87 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 326 strikeouts. Last year? They went 14-21 over 272.1 innings (Bonderman only threw 71.1), with a 4.69 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 207 strikeouts. Bonderman missed most of the season with a blood clot. Verlander was AL Rookie of the Year in '06 and pitched even better in '07 (including a no-hitter), but struggled mightily last season. He threw roughly the same innings in '08 as '07 but had 20 fewer strikeouts and logged 20 more walks.

Similarly, in '06 Rodney and Zumaya were 13-7 with eight saves and, more importantly, a 2.67 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 155 innings. In '08 the pair was 0-8 with 14 saves, managing just a 4.38 ERA, 1.73 WHIP and 71 strikeouts in only 63.2 innings. Zumaya's Guitar Hero injury was only the start of his problems (he also suffered a fractured shoulder), as he threw only 57 innings the past two seasons. Rodney's propensity to allow baserunners -- a 1.59 WHIP in '08 and 1.41 for his career -- is too high, and led to his blowing six of 19 save opportunities a year ago.

Prospect to watch: Rick Porcello, SP
Only 20, the highly-touted first-round pick in 2007 pitched in high A ball last year (8-6, 2.66 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 72 Ks in 125 innings) and is projected to start the season in Double A, but a lot could change this spring. As GM Dave Dombrowski said earlier this month, "A lot of people in our minor league system that know Porcello feels that if he goes out there and he gets the ball every five days in spring training, which he will, that he will end up being one of our five best pitchers and in our rotation come the end of spring."

Position battle to follow: Closer
Lyon, who had 26 saves despite a 4.70 ERA and 1.48 WHIP last season, is the early favorite since Rodney struggled in the role last year. It seems clear that Detroit doesn't want to burden Zumaya (who is still only 24) with the ninth inning as he returns from injury, even though he may be the long-term solution.

Scout's take: "They all have to come back to where they were for them to have a sniff. When you look at Verlander, Bonderman, Willis, Sheffield, Brandon Lyon, Zumaya, you always remember the good years. You don't think of the injuries and the age factor and so on and so forth that kick in for all these guys. They will be pretty good in the infield. [Miguel] Cabrera will have a good year, he's a very good hitter. Placido Polanco is a winner. Adam Everett is going to catch every thing. And Brandon Inge is a good athlete. ... One of the interesting things about the Tigers is how their pitchers adapt to the Laird/Treanor combo. When you bring in two guys from the outside like that, it's going to take a while for everyone to get comfortable with one another. Gerald's a good player athletically, but Gerald's not going to Harvard Law when he finishes his career. Jimmy [Leyland] is one of the best at handling players, so he may be able to get something out of Gerald. And Matt Treanor is one of the best backup catchers in the big leagues."

Kansas City Royals

Location: Surprise, Ariz. (Cactus League)

2008 record: 75-87 (4th AL Central)

Winter grade: C
The Royals made the first trade of the offseason -- dealing reliever Leo Nunez to the Marlins for first baseman Mike Jacobs (he of the 32 homers and 93 RBIs, as well as the .247 average and .299 OBP). K.C. later swapped another reliever, Ramon Ramirez, for Red Sox centerfielder Coco Crisp; locked up starter Zack Greinke with a four-year, $38 million extension; signed free agent relievers Kyle Farnsworth (two years, $9.25 million) and Doug Waechter (one year, $640,000) and utility player Willie Bloomquist (two years, $3.1 million); and will enter the spring with a team-record payroll of about $75 million.

The Royals are banking on internal improvement, calculating that young players like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Luke Hochevar all take a collective step forward.

Key question: Will Butler and Gordon take the next step?
From his rookie season to his second year, Gordon bettered his average by 13 points, his on-base percentage by 37, his slugging percentage by 21, but even the improved numbers were only .260/.351/.432. Meanwhile, Butler -- who batted .336/.416/.561 in 397 minor leauge games -- has failed to match those power numbers in the majors, producing only 22 doubles, 11 homers, a .324 OBP and .400 SLG last year. If Butler and Gordon are able to take the proverbial "leap," then their bats, alongside Jacobs and Jose Guillen, could pack a powerful middle of the lineup.

Prospect to watch: Mike Moustakas, SS
The shortstop and No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Chatsworth (Calif.) High -- where he hit 24 home runs in 97 at bats as a senior and was named Baseball America's high school player of the year -- has great raw power and, at 19 years old in '08, led the Class A Midwest League with 22 homers in his first full season with a wood bat. He split time at shortstop and third base and, with another strong minor league season (likely at Double A), he could get a September call-up. A Moustakas/Gordon left side of the infield is K.C.'s dream of the future.

Position battle to follow: Wherever Mark Teahen plays (mostly second base)
The Royals signed the 27-year-old to a one-year, $3.575 million contract to avoid arbitration, so the versatile Teahen is clearly in their plans, but what's not clear is where those plans will place him. In 2005 and '06 he was a third baseman; in '07 he played right field; and last year he played at least one game at first, third, left, center and right. His best chance for a starting job now is at second base, a position he's never played professionally (though Teahen did play there some in college), but is re-learning it this offseason to compete with Alberto Callaspo (who batted .305 in 213 at bats) and Bloomquist, who plays even more positions than Teahen. Expect Bloomquist and Teahen to square off in position battles all around the diamond.

Scout's take: "Coco Crisp will be a good pickup for them. If they can keep Jose Guillen on the field, that's not a bad outfield, with [David] DeJesus and Coco Crisp. Their infield is sketchy, their catching is not very good. I don't see them being .500. ... [Butler] is an all-or-nothing guy, in my judgment anyway. ... They've got some pretty good starters. [Gil] Meche is a serviceable guy. Greinke's got all kinds of ability. [Joakim] Soria's got to do it again for me, [though] he had a great year last year. ... I think they're going to try to force-feed [Teahen] into second base, but I don't think he can play there. The trouble with Teahen is that he's a 'tweener everywhere he plays. He doesn't have enough power to be a corner outfielder. He doesn't have enough speed to play in the middle anywhere. He's a third baseman, but that's where their big prospect is."

Minnesota Twins

Location: Fort Myers, Fla. (Grapefruit League)

2008 record: 88-75 (2nd AL Central)

Winter grade: D
This offseason the Twins have added only reliever Luis Ayala (basically replacing Pat Neshek, who had Tommy John surgery) and only save themselves from a failing grade because they didn't lose anyone from a club that narrowly lost the division in a 163rd game. Maybe the economy has taken its toll -- the Twins' payroll is expected to be about $60 million, down from $74 million in 2007 -- which is not going to inspire much fan confidence or excitement for their new stadium, due to open in 2010. If the Twins sign free agent third baseman Joe Crede, as they are reportedly close to doing, then this grade elevates to a C.

Key question: Can the twentysomething starters win a pennant?
The projected rotation of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Nick Blackburn is young and inexperienced, averaging 25.4 years old and only 41.4 career starts. Baker, at 27, is the oldest. His 76 starts are twice as many as any of the other guys have (Slowey is second, with 38). In the last two years the Twins have given shots to retread veterans Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson, none of whom performed as well as the kids, so the Twins rightfully seem content to enter spring with their mid-20s crew.

Prospect to watch: Kevin Mulvey, SP
Mulvey lacks the name recognition of Phil Humber, but he may be the better young pitcher acquired in the Johan Santana trade. Mulvey, a hard-throwing 23-year-old right-hander from Villanova, has a 3.62 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 154 Triple A innings. He was the Mets' minor league pitcher of the year in 2007 and a Futures Game participant that season. Should any of the starters falter, Mulvey may get the first crack at patching up the rotation.

Position battle to watch: Third base
Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris are the incumbents, with Buscher starting 60 games at the position last year and Harris splitting time between short, third and second. Both are decent hitters but lack the power one traditionally expects from the hot corner, which is why the Twins' interest in Crede makes a lot of sense, even if his persisting back injuries have limited his playing time the last two seasons. Crede was an All-Star after hitting 16 homers in the first half, though he played only 11 games in the second half.

Scout's take: "To me they've got a pretty good club if Liriano comes back [to 2007 form]. They need Carlos Gomez to mature, both physically and mentally, out in centerfield. Who knows with Delmon Young? He's got a bad reputation, but he's got all kinds of ability. They've been trying to move him all winter. They have studs. [Joe] Mauer is probably the best catcher in baseball. [Justin] Morneau's a good player. They've one of the best three closers in baseball with [Joe] Nathan. They're a darkhorse for me."

SI.com's 2009 Division Previews
AL EAST     |     AL CENTRAL     |     AL WEST     |     NL EAST     |     NL CENTRAL     |     NL WEST

 
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