AL Central spring training preview (cont.)
The Big Question: Will three key hitters bounce back?
The White Sox seem to have more questions than answers right now, including "What is GM Kenny Williams up to?," and is "Robin Ventura really ready to be a big league manager?" The biggest, however, concerns their lineup. Specifically, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham, three players in which the White Sox invested a great deal, hit a combined .209/.284/.324 last year, and no one knows how much they'll bounce back from that, if at all.
Dunn and Rios, the former of whom is a designated hitter and the latter of whom had a bad year both in the field and on the bases in 2011, are both signed through 2014 with a combined $82 million remaining on their contracts ($44 million and $38 million, respectively). Beckham, who at least contributed with his glove in the infield, was the eighth pick in the 2008 draft and looked like a future star as a rookie in 2009. If they don't bounce back significantly, the White Sox' lineup could be reduced to the soon-to-be-36-year-old Paul Konerko and the slick-fielding Alexei Ramirez, who hits well for a shortstop, and seven below-average bats.
The Big Battle: Outfield
The White Sox only have 14 hitters on their 40-man roster at the moment, which locks Dunn, Rios, Beckham and third baseman Brent Morel (.245/.287/.366 as a rookie last year) into the starting lineup spots, but even with Rios penciled into one of the three pastures, the White Sox outfield is an open question.
Converted shortstop Brent Lillibridge and minor league veteran Alejandro De Aza played good defense and hit well in limited time (roughly 200 plate appearances each) last year and soon-to-be-23-year-old Cuban defector Dayan Viciedo is said to have the inside edge on rightfield after moving off third base and hitting .296/.364/.491 with 20 homers in Triple-A last year. Kosuke Fukudome, the former Cub whom the White Sox just signed to a one-year deal, could also be in the mix along with fading prospect Jordan Danks, who is not on the 40-man.
The Big Prospects: Addison Reed and Nestor Molina
By his own admission, Williams' trade of closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays appeared to signal a rebuilding on the South Side, but it's worth noting that Williams has a fantastic closer prospect ready to crack the major league roster in fireballer Addison Reed. Williams also got a compelling starting prospect in return for Santos in control artist Nestor Molina, who, like Reed, is a 23-year-old righthander. Reed is expected to make the team out of camp, though not as the closer just yet, while Molina just cracked Double-A last year and is unlikely to see the majors this year, though his 9.25 K/BB ratio last year was so impressive that the Sox could move him into the bullpen to get him up faster.
The Big Question: What will the Royals get for the $4 million they spent on Jonathon Broxton?
In stark contrast to the White Sox, the Royals don't have many question marks heading into camp, but the 300-pound Broxton is a big one. From 2006 to 2009 the former All-Star posted 2.79 ERA and struck out 11.8 men per nine innings (good for a 3.49 K/BB) while averaging 74 games a year for the Dodgers. Things,went bad in a hurry in mid-2010, however, and elbow problems ended his 2011season in early May. Broxton had surgery on his elbow in September, but it was just a minor clean-up, which could be good news (nothing more was structurally wrong with the joint) or bad (he was pitching like there was).
Watch the 27-year-old's velocity in camp. In 2009, his average fast ball was 97.5 miles per hour, per TexasLeaguers.com. It was 95.3 in the second half of 2010, and 94 in April 2011.
The Big Battle: Starting rotation
The biggest surprise coming out of Royals camp last year was the team's decision to move 2009 first-round pick Aaron Crow into the bullpen and put him on the major league roster with just one year of minor league ball that topped out at Double-A under his belt. The move worked in the short term, with Crow making the All-Star team, striking out more than a man per inning, and posting a 2.76 ERA. This spring, however, Crow is going to get a chance to force his way into the rotation, which is only technically full with lefties Danny Duffy, Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez and righties Luke Hochevar and Felipe Paulino. Hochevar and Paulino are the most likely to yield their spots based largely on the team's investment in the other three.
The Big Prospect: Wil Myers
The Royals installed four rookies in their starting lineup last year, including top prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas at the infield corners, put Duffy in the rotation and stocked most of their bullpen with young talent from within the organization. This year, they'll fill centerfield, vacated by the trade that sent Melky Cabrera to San Francisco for Sanchez, with 26-year-old Lorenzo Cain, so Royals fans are seeing plenty of their team's top prospects. Still, they should be excited to get a good look at Myers this spring. Myers' Double-A debut last year was sullied by an infection in his left knee, but he's still considered a special hitter who should be a key, heart-of-the-order run producer on the next contending Royals team and take over in rightfield.
The Big Question: Can Justin Morneau come back?
That was the big question last year, and the answer, ultimately, was no. Morenau, who had his brilliant 2010 season ended by a concussion in early July, didn't hit in camp last year and hit just .225/.281/.338 through early June when a herniated disc in his neck sent him under the knife. He was no more productive during his brief return in August. Then his concussion symptoms returned after he made a diving play in the field late that month. Morneau is now a year and a half removed from being a productive major league player and one has to wonder if he'll be able to continue his career at all if those symptoms, which he last felt in December, return again.
The Big Battle: Right field
After the big three of Rays pitcher Matt Moore, Mariners catcher/DH Jesus Montero and Angels' outfielder Mike Trout, the Twins' Joe Benson could be the best rookie in the American League this year, but he'll have to win the rightfield job first. Benson has never played a game at Triple-A, but he hit .285/.388/.495 in Double-A last year, got 74 plate appearances in the majors in September (though they didn't go nearly as well), and will be 24 in early March. Benson has power and speed, is a good fielder with a strong arm, and will take a walk, but his on-base numbers have been inflated by double-digit hit-by-pitches in four of the last five seasons and he has averaged nearly a strikeout per game in the minors, which could signal a problematic plate approach.
The Big Prospect: Oswaldo Arcia
Third baseman Miguel Sano is clearly his team's best prospect, but he's also a teenager who, in his case, has yet to play in a full-season league. He won't be in camp, and the drop off to the next-best Twins prospect is significant. With Benson having already made his major league debut and second baseman Eddie Rosario and outfielder Aaron Hicks not appearing on the team's list of non-roster invitees (Rosario has yet to play full-season ball either), the top minor leaguer in camp is probably 20-year-old switch-hitting outfielder Oswaldo Arcia. Arcia, who is on the 40-man roster, can hit for average and power, but he's slow, doesn't walk and has yet to play above A-ball.