AL Central preview (cont.)
WINTER GRADE: A
As late as January, even GM Dave Dombrowski concedes he hadn't done very much, not that he had to after his team ran away with the division last year and returned all its key players. But then Victor Martinez got hurt and the Tigers suddenly needed a bat. They went out and got by far the best, and most expensive, hitter still available, free agent slugger Prince Fielder, at the cost of $214 million over nine years. Not only should Fielder more than make up for the loss of Martinez, he will combine with perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera to give the Tigers one of the game's most potent 1-2 punches in the middle of the lineup.
KEY QUESTION: Can Miguel Cabrera play third base?
As a consequence of Fielder's signing, Cabrera is being moved from first base to third, where he hasn't played at all since 2008 and was so mediocre that Detroit shifted him off the position. Cabrera earned raves in camp for his work ethic from everyone, especially coach Rafael Belliard, who has been his instructor, but if the Tigers were looking for a bad omen, they got one on March 19 when Cabrera was hit just beneath the eye by a scorching ground ball from the Phillies' Hunter Pence.
It was a play that would have been difficult for even a Gold Glover to make but it nonetheless showed just how precarious it can be. Cabrera sat out more than a week and manager Jim Leyland insists Cabrera will be back at third base during the season. Still, he is far too valuable -- last year he led the majors in hitting (.344), and OBP (.448) while hitting at least 30 home runs for the seventh time in eight years -- and far too expensive (owed $86 million through 2015) to stay there for long if something like that happens again. In the meantime, they'll live with his limited range and hope that he simply catches the balls he gets to and doesn't make any egregious errors.
X-FACTOR: Austin Jackson
Jackson has the speed -- 22 stolen bases in 27 attempts, an AL-high 11 triples -- to be a strong leadoff candidate but he strikes out way too much (178 times, by far the most among MLB leadoff hitters) and struggles to get on base (.317, 38th among leadoff men). In a lineup that as deep as Detroit's, Jackson's role is simply, as Leyland noted, be a tablesetter for hitters like Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young.
"In my eyes it's tough to call Austin Jackson a leadoff hitter, but he's there by default. . . . Miguel Cabrerea has looked fine at third. He's made all the plays. . . . They've got so many good offensive players, they can't all go in a slump together."
WINTER GRADE: B
The Royals are never going to be major players in free agency but for once they didn't have to worry as much about that. Their core of young, homegrown players is ready to take over, leaving them with fewer holes than usual.
In fact, Kansas City was even able to trade one of its most productive players not for salary relief but because it has yet another young player ready to take over. That was the motive behind dealing center fielder Melky Cabrera, coming off a season that included career highs in batting average, home runs, RBIs, hits and runs at age 27, to the Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. The move not only improves the starting rotation, it opens up a spot for Lorenzo Cain to take over in center.
The Royals also got former All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton in free agency. It seemed like Broxton would be a good set-up option but he'll likely have to take over ninth-inning duties now that closer Joakim Soria has been lost for the year with an elbow injury.
KEY QUESTION: Which young pitcher will take a step forward?
For all the talk about the promising nucleus in Kansas City, most of those are position players. The rotation that will start the season, on the other hand, includes 34-year-old Bruce Chen, the 29-year-old Sanchez and 28-year-old Luke Hochevar, a former No. 1 overall pick who has not lived up to expectations. For the Royals to contend, one of their young pitchers will have to prove to be a reliable big league starter. Options include 23-year-old lefty Danny Duffy, 22-year-old prospect Mike Montgomery, who should start the year in the minors but could be called up during the season, and 25-year-old Aaron Crow, who made the All-Star team as a middle reliever last year and will be in the bullpen at the start of this season but could join the rotation at some point in 2012.
Crow spent most of the offseason and spring training expanding his repertoire of pitches for just such a possibility, especially his circle changeup. He didn't have much use for the pitch as a reliever but would still throw it in the bullpen to keep it sharp.
X-FACTOR: Mike Moustakas
The No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft, Moustakas debuted with the Royals last season amid much fanfare but struggled for much of his 89-game stint in the bigs. He hit .263 but had only five home runs and a .309 OBP. He hasn't been all that impressive in camp, either, batting only .224 with one home run and a .274 OBP. He has prodigious power, as evidenced by his 36 home runs across two levels in 2010, but he'll need to harness some of that ability at the major league level if he is to become a reliable everyday middle-of-the-order threat the Royals so desperately need.
"They're continuing, in my opinion, their rebuilding mode. I think they're still a year away, specifically from a starting pitching standpoint. I think .500 would be a good goal for them this year, and I realistically see them coming up a bit short of that.... Eric Hosmer's got superstar written all over him. He's just a very advanced hitter, and I think he's only going to grow more into his power. He's special... Mike Moustakas, he's going to be a good player in time, but not as quickly as Hosmer. Still, I think he's capable of hitting .270 this year, with 20 homers and 80 RBI's... The future will hinge on their young pitching, and a couple of them took a step backwards last year, specifically Mike Montgomery, their top prospect. I thought he might have been pushed just a little bit too fast -- it's not stuff, it's command and confidence. He has a plus fastball and a plus breaking ball, but the change is still a work in progress."
WINTER GRADE: C
Three more mainstays from the Twins glory days -- closer Joe Nathan and outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel -- departed. In a break from organizational philosophy, the Twins turned not to their mostly barren farm system but to free agency to replace them. Hence the signings of, among others, outfielder Josh Willingham, DH/C/1B Ryan Doumit and infielder Jamey Carroll. They also brought in former Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya, but released him this spring after he had yet another injury to his pitching elbow.
KEY QUESTION: Will Justin Morneau play?
Morneau, a former MVP, has been injury plagued throughout his career and the last two years have been no different, as he's been limited him to just 150 games combined due to a concussion and the resulting symptoms. When healthy, Morneau remains a critical run producer -- he had 18 home runs and 56 RBIs before being lost for the year in July 2010 -- but his symptoms remain such a worry that doctors think if he gets worn down too much they could come back.
To prevent that from happening, the Twins will likely use Morneau primarily as the designated hitter and hope for the best case: that he can stay in the lineup and contribute and that Joe Mauer, another former MVP coming off an injury-ravaged year, can stay healthy enough himself to be an everyday catcher without compromising his own offensive production. The worst case scenario? Morneau himself hinted at that in camp, when he said that he would consider retiring if his concussion symptoms persist.
X-FACTOR: Ryan Doumit
If Mauer can catch, Morneau can DH and Chris Parmalee, a revelation in camp who looks to have won a starting job, can play first base, that would seem to limit the options for Doumit, who was signed to a one-year, $3 million deal in the offseason. But Doumit can, and has, played all three of those positions before, and has also played 60 games in right field during his seven years with the Pirates. It is that latter position where he might get the most action in 2012, but one way or another, the Twins will want to get his bat in the lineup as much as possible. That could even mean time at a position Doumit has never played before: left field.
"If the Twins are going to do anything, Joe Mauer has to be Joe Mauer again -- and I just don't see it happening. . . . If Justin Morneau is not going to be a scary middle-of-the-order hitter again, they need to consider trading him. . . .If this team goes .500 I'll be surprised."