AL Central Preview: Detroit has everyone else playing for second
The Tigers trumped the field by signing Prince Fielder for nine years, $214 million
The Royals' core of young, homegrown players is ready to take over
The Indians added some veteran pieces that may help them make a move
In 2011, the Tigers were the only team in the American League Central to post a winning record, they won the division by 15 games -- the largest margin by any first-place club in baseball -- boasted the league's dual MVP and Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander, and added to their division-leading payroll by making the division's most prominent offseason acquisition in free-agent slugger Prince Fielder. Perhaps that's why, when he was asked this spring if he was in favor of MLB adding a second wild-card team to each league, White Sox general manager Ken Williams said, "Hell yeah I want it."
Like all of Detroit's AL Central rivals, Williams' primary goal will be to win the division, but with that task looking rather daunting as the season begins, there's no shame in the White Sox, Indians, Royals and Twins being happy that there is suddenly an extra postseason berth available.
Besides, as Williams knows, nothing is guaranteed. "Out of my previous 11 years here, I don't know how many times we were picked as the favorite and somebody else won," says the 12th-year GM, whose club has won the Central twice in his tenure. "But," he adds, "I will agree with everyone else that the Detroit Tigers are the team to beat."
WINTER GRADE: D
If applicable, the better letter here might be 'R,' as in rebuilding. That's the word dropped by general manager Ken Williams after he traded closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for minor leaguer Nestor Molina back in December, which came around the same time longtime staff ace Mark Buehrle left as a free agent and signed with the Marlins. Just a few days later, however, Williams said a full-blown rebuilding was never the plan, although before that month was over he had dealt outfielder Carlos Quentin to the Padres for two more minor leaguers.
By spring training, Williams was shrugging off talk of a complete overhaul."We haven't done anything different this offseason than in any other," he said. Part of that is because he's banking on struggling veterans like Adam Dunn, Gordon Beckham, Alex Rios and pitcher Jake Peavy playing to their capabilities. If that happens, the White Sox will essentially have made major upgrades at four positions without spending a penny or giving away a single player.
KEY QUESTION: Is Robin Ventura ready to be a major league manager?
Ventura's hiring as White Sox skipper last October was so unexpected it even took him by surprise. "It took me a minute to understand what [Williams] was asking me," said Ventura when the prospect of him replacing the departed Ozzie Guillen was broached. Ventura, who spent 16 years as a major leaguer, had never coached or managed professionally and by his own admission knows next to nothing about certain aspects of the job, such as how pitchers go about their business. To that end, he can rely on noted pitching coach Don Cooper, a holdover from the Guillen regime, though he noted that his one rule when he goes to take a pitcher out will be "I get to stand on top of the mound and they have to walk down."
The White Sox are longshots to contend this year but Ventura will nevertheless have to command the respect of his players and be able to help guide and teach the young players who may not remember him as a player.
X-FACTOR: Adam Dunn
Last year, his first in Chicago after signing a four-year, $56 million contract, Dunn set a major league record for lowest batting average by a hitter with at least 425 plate appearances: .159. That would be bad enough, but the man who averaged 37 home runs a year for the previous nine years also didn't produce any power, hitting just 11 homers and compiling a .569 OPS, more than 300 points below his average from 2002-2010. "Poor Adam just couldn't get out of his own way last year," said Williams.
Dunn will be counted on to return to form this season and will be in the middle of a White Sox lineup that last year ranked 11th in the league in runs scored. It's critical that he perform like the player he was before he got to the Windy City if Chicago is to have any hope at contending. "I don't know what happened last year," he said, "[But] I'm damn sure not going to have a year like that again."
"It's going to be a long year for the White Sox. They've got to retool and now's a time to do it. ... Robin Ventura might be a good manager for them. He's a good leader and he's very even-tempered. ... Adam Dunn should have gone down to the minnors last year. If he just makes contact he hits 35, 40 home runs. ... Jake Peavy is not nearly what he used to be. He used to throw 95 with great movement and now it's 90-91."
WINTER GRADE: C+
Last year the Indians were extremely young -- perhaps too young in fact. So in the offseason, general manager Chris Antonetti acquired a handful of veteran players to provide, in his words, "quality major league depth" rather than to rely solely on minor leaguers and replacement-level players to compensate for the inevitable run of injuries any team faces. To that end, the Indians traded for Derek Lowe, late of the Braves, and ex-Twin Kevin Slowey to enhance the starting rotation, added Casey Kotchman (coming off a career year in Tampa Bay) to take over at first base, and signed veterans like Ryan Spillborghs and Aaron Cunningham to provide depth elsewhere.
None of those moves alone will vault Cleveland into playoff contention but in a division that is wide open behind the Tigers, they won't hurt.
KEY QUESTION: How healthy is Grady Sizemore?
Sizemore made three AL All-Star teams before his 26th birthday but since 2008, the last of those seasons, he has never played in more than 106 games, has had major operations on both knees and went back on the DL this spring with a back injury that required surgery. There is no timetable yet for his return.
Without him, the Indians still have some decent offensive options, such as shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and catcher Carlos Santana, but those are the only two players to hit at least 14 home runs and no one stole more than 17 bases. At his best, Sizemore was a 30/30 player and a game-changing force in the lineup. Those days are probably over, but he is still young enough (just 29) that he could be an effective force if only he can get and stay injury-free.
X-FACTOR: Ubaldo Jimenez
Adding Lowe on the cheap -- it cost Cleveland just one minor leaguer and Atlanta will pay most of Lowe's $15 million salary for this season -- gives the Indians another proven major league starter but they have to be hoping for better results than the last previous All-Star they traded for.
That would be Jimenez, who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in 2010 but, after being shipped from Colorado to Cleveland at midseason last year, went just 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA. His diminishing fastball velocity has not returned in full force this spring, leading some to wonder if his fantastic '10 campaign was just a fluke. The cost of obtaining Jimenez was high -- two of Cleveland's top pitching prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, went to the Rockies in the deal -- and the Indians needs to see some return on its investment. Along with Justin Masterson, Jimenez is being counted on to anchor Cleveland's rotation.
"They might have overachieved a little bit last year. But you know what? They've got some young talent that's coming on... I think Shin-Soo Choo's going to have a big year, because he's a real good player and have everything go wrong last year... They sent Matt LaPorta down, and I don't think he's in their future plans that much. He's had some chances, but in my understanding he just doesn't adjust to what he needs to do as far as being a big league hitter. There's so many holes in his game, and the swing's kind of long. That's why they signed Casey Kotchman -- he'll be a solid guy at first and a tough out... Ubaldo Jimenez's mechanics break down. His front side would fly open last year, and then you throw less hard. I imagine he'll be back -- everything I hear about the guy is he's a wonderful young man, and bright... Maybe they can get Carlos Santana out after 6 or 7 innings, save his legs -- replace him with Lou Marson, who's a real good defender. Santana's really a premium hitter."