AL Central spring preview: Tigers still the team to beat
AL Central spring training preview (cont.)
This week, Cliff Corcoran will break down what to watch in each team's camp as part of SI.com's spring training preview. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2012. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in major league camp but has not yet debuted in the major leagues.
The Big Question: How will Victor Martinez rebound from a year lost to injury?
The Tigers have the AL Central on lockdown, so much so that they underperformed expectations last year and still won the division by three games. This year, they've improved rightfield and will have a full season of the deadline upgrades they made at second base and in the starting rotation last year.
They should also be significantly better at designated hitter with the return of Martinez from a year lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and microfracture surgery on his left knee. That said, it's hard to know what to expect from Martinez coming off a year of inactivity and a major surgery such as that one.
Historically, Martinez has been a very consistent hitter, posting an OPS+ between 122 and 131 in seven of the last eight seasons, the lone exception being the 2008 campaign which saw him spend two and a half months on the disabled list following elbow surgery. Early reports out of camp have been very positive (of course), but perhaps the most pertinent piece of information, however, is that the target he has to clear is very low. Detroit's designated hitters, led by Delmon Young, hit a combined .257/.291/.395 last year, a line Martinez could best even if he's only at 80 percent. If he's all the way back, Martinez could be a three- to four-win improvement at the position.
The Big Battle: Closer
The Tigers took the closer job away from Jose Valverde after Game 1 of last year's American League Championship Series, let him leave as a free agent (he remains unsigned) and showed little interest in former Rays and Yankees closer Rafael Soriano, who has since signed with the Nationals. All along, general manager Dave Dombrowski insisted that rookie Bruce Rondon, a bulky 22-year-old Venezuelan with a triple-digit fastball, could handle the job. However, Rondon has yet to throw a major league pitch, lacks an above-average secondary offering and has had his share of control issues in the minors (5.1 walks per nine innings in his career, 4.4 BB/9 across three levels last year).
Rondon will thus have to earn the job in camp. To do so, he'll need to hold off lefty Phil Coke, who finished six of the Tigers' seven remaining games after Valverde's Game 1 implosion in the ALCS, as well as veteran right-handed set-up men Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel.
The Big Prospect: RF Nick Castellanos
Castellanos, who turns 21 in March, moved from third base to rightfield soon after his promotion to Double-A last year. That surely made what is said to be the most difficult adjustment to make between minor league levels even harder, so ignore his sub-par performance at the plate for Double-A Erie last year and focus on his career .316/.367/.443 line and the way scouts swoon over his swing. The 6-foot-4 Castellanos is expected to develop more power as he matures (which is a typical development pattern for good young hitters), and with a strong 2013 season in Double- and perhaps Triple-A could be in the mix for a corner outfield job next spring.
The Big Question: How healthy is John Danks' left shoulder?
From 2008 to 2011 Danks averaged 195 innings and a 119 ERA+ for the White Sox, but last year, in the wake of a new five-year, $65 million extension, his pitching shoulder gave out. He had surgery in August to repair a torn capsule and clean up his rotator cuff and biceps tendon. Given that Chicago finished just three games behind the Tigers, Danks' injury was likely what cost his team the division last year.
This year, his salary leaps up to $14.25 million, and the White Sox are trying to catch a better Tigers team without the help of A.J. Pierzynski or Kevin Youkilis. The good news for the Sox is that Danks began throwing off a mound in early January and all reports have been positive thus far.
The Big Battle: Catcher
The White Sox opted not to get into a bidding war over the free agent Pierzynski, a 36-year-old catcher coming off a career year. Instead, they'll let faded prospect Tyler Flowers, minor league journeyman Hector Gimenez, and 25-year-old Josh Phegley battle over playing time behind the dish. The largest share of the catching duties is Flowers' to lose. He was Pierzynski's primary backup last year and owns a career .275/.391/.484 batting line in the minor leagues. However, he's also 27 and has hit just .205/.307.388 in 317 career major league plate appearances.
The Big Prospect: IF Carlos Sanchez
The White Sox's top prospect is outfielder Courtney Hawkins, the 13th overall pick in last year's draft, but the 19-year-old isn't ready for an invitation to major league camp just yet. That passes this designation on to the 20-year-old Sanchez, a slick fielding Venezuelan infielder with a good plate approach and the ability to hit for solid averages who cracked Triple-A late last year. Sanchez has experience at second base, third base and shortstop, and he may ultimately settle in at the keystone due to an average arm and the lack of power in his bat. Still, a good showing at Triple-A early this season could make him the White Sox's first option should injury or lack of performance (I'm looking at you, Gordon Beckham) create a hole at any of those three positions this season.
The Big Question: Is the outfield stable enough to survive the loss of Wil Myers?
The answer here is likely "no." Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain can't seem to keep his legs healthy enough to get his major league career off the ground, as he'll be 27 in mid-April and has just 425 major league plate appearances under his belt spread over three seasons). Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur is, well Jeff Francoeur, a player who has been effectively replacement level over the last five seasons, undermining his strong 2011 campaign by being roughly as far below replacement level in 2012 as he was above it the year before.
There are other questions on this roster: Can Eric Hosmer rebound from his sophomore slump? Which versions of Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie will the Royals get? How will Wade Davis handle the return to starting? However, the loss of Myers, one of the top five prospects in all of baseball per both ESPN.com's Keith Law and MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, will linger over this team unless all of the above are answered positively.
The Big Battle: Second Base
The Royals never really settled on a second baseman last year, with Chris Getz, Johnny Giavotella and Yuniesky Betancourt all making between 43 and 55 starts at the position. Getz and Giavotella are back to battle over the keystone this spring along with Elliott Johnson, newly arrived from the Rays as the final piece of the Myers trade. Two others will try to work their way into the conversation: minor league veteran Irving Falu, who raked in 91 plate appearances in his major league debut last season at age 29, and non-roster invitee Miguel Tejada, who will turn 39 in May and couldn't hit in Triple-A for the Orioles last year.
Giavotella, a career .308/.380/.443 hitter in the minors, was supposed to have claimed the position by now, but his approach at the plate has fallen apart at the major league level in each of the last two seasons (combined 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio compared to 1.1 in Triple-A the same two seasons). With Giavotella's 26th birthday arriving in July, one wonders how many more chances he's going to get before the Royals move on.
The Big Prospect: RHP Yordano Ventura
With Myers gone and Kansas City's other top prospects still in the low minors and not yet invited to major league camp, this designation falls to the 22-year-old Ventura. He owns a devastating fastball/curve combination, the former pushing triple digits with movement and the latter being a quality out pitch, and struck out 10.7 men per nine innings across three levels topping out at Double-A last year. He's listed at 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, making him a slip of a man at a position typically dominated by big bodies. The Royals have shown an open-mindedness about pitcher size, but Ventura's small frame (and still developing changeup) could limit his potential as a starter. On the flip side, as a reliever, he could contribute as soon as this season.
The Big Question: Did the Diamondbacks have a good reason to trade Trevor Bauer?
For an Indians team that's not yet ready to contend, getting Trevor Bauer as part of a three-way trade with the Reds and Diamondbacks must seem too good to be true. Bauer, the third overall pick in 2011 and a top-10 prospect entering 2012, has all six team controlled seasons remaining and has already made his major league debut. The biggest piece Cleveland had to part with was Shin-Soo Choo, a 30-year-old rightfielder who went to Cincinnati. Choo has never hit more than 22 home runs in a major league season and was entering his walk year. That the Diamondbacks gave up Bauer for Triple-A shortstop Didi Gregorious, who is not considered an elite prospect and may not even develop into a major league regular, is even more suspicious.
Just what caused Arizona to sour on Bauer so quickly? Was it his reportedly bristly attitude, his eccentric on-field preparation, his reported refusal to listen to coaches or veteran players, his indiscrete use of social media, something mechanical, something physical, or all of the above? Whatever it was, is it something that the Indians can fix, or that Bauer, perhaps having been given a wake-up call by the trade, can leave behind with his Diamondbacks uniform?
As good a player as Choo is, Bauer was a worthy gamble for Cleveland. General manager Chris Antonetti claims the Indians did their "due diligence" on Bauer, but one only need look at Ubaldo Jimenez's performance with Cleveland (13-21, 5.32 ERA) after he was acquired in a trade in 2011 to seen an example of a player whose surprising availability seems far less suspicious in retrospect.
The Big Battle: Designated Hitter
Though he often vacated it due to injury, Travis Hafner was the Indians' primary designated hitter for the last 10 seasons. A free agent this offseason, Hafner is now a Yankee, and Cleveland has no clear successor lined up. That leaves the position open to just about every hitter in camp save the eight men ticketed to start in the field.
Rostered players in the mix include whichever one of Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs isn't starting in leftfield (though both derive much of their potential value from their work defensively), righties Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, switch-hitters Cord Phelps and Mike McDade and lefties Ezequiel Carrera and Rule-5 first baseman Chris McGuiness. Non-roster candidates include lefties Jason Giambi and Jeremy Hermida and righties Ben Francisco, Ryan Raburn, Matt Carson and failed first base prospect Matt LaPorta.
None are particularly inspiring choices but given the lack of a clear frontrunner, a hot spring by any of them could result in the Opening Day nod. Of course, that will change if the Indians sign 42-year-old Jim Thome for a third stint with the team.
The Big Prospect: RHP Danny Salazar
The Indians' top prospects, led by 19-year-old shortstop Francisco Lindor, will all have to wait at least one more year for an invitation to major league camp, but Salazar, a mid-sized righty with an impressive fastball/slider power combination and a developing curve, is on the 40-man roster and could crack the major leagues this season. That's more likely to happen in relief than in the rotation, but the 23-year-old Salazar, who went 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA in six Double-A starts late last year, remains a starter for now. Watch his curveball in camp. The quality of that pitch could play a major role in what his future role will be.
The Big Question: Have the Twins hit rock bottom yet?
Minnesota fell hard in 2011, and while it didn't really get up off the mat last year, it did see a slight improvement in both its record and run differential, thanks in large part to healthy seasons from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Those extra three wins weren't a sign of a turnaround, however. This offseason saw the Twins trade two-thirds of their 2012 outfield and let long-time infielder Alexi Casilla go to Baltimore on waivers.
Perhaps the following statistic is damning enough in and of itself, but Denard Span, Ben Revere and Casilla, largely due to their play in the field and speed on the bases, were three of the Twins' seven most valuable players, pitchers included, in 2012 according to Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR).
By bWAR, those three combined to be worth more than nine wins above replacement last year, but their prospective replacements for 2013 don't project to be much better than replacement level. There's little reason to expect much improvement elsewhere on the roster and by the trading deadline, players such as Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham could have followed those three out of town. Given that, the Twins' best hope to avoid a 100-loss season in 2013 is for their solutions in center and rightfields and the middle infield to exceed those lowly expectations. That places additional importance on . . .
The Big Battle: Centerfield
The Twins plan to give 25-year-old lefty Chris Parmelee the first crack at rightfield coming off a season in which he struggled early in the major leagues, then went down and crushed Triple-A for a couple months. They have also penciled in 26-year-old Pedro Florimon Jr. at shortstop (pushing 38-year-old Jamey Carroll to the keystone) because he can at least field the position (hey, remember when the Twins gave away J.J. Hardy for nothing?). Centerfield, in the wake of the departures of Span and Revere, however, is wide open.
The primary contenders here are 27-year-old Darin Mastroianni, who may enter camp as the favorite if only because he lacks potential that can be wasted by being rushed, 24-year-old Joe Benson, a top-100 prospect each of the last two springs whose stock took a tumble with an awful, injury-plagued 2012 campaign and 23-year-old Aaron Hicks, who ranks among the top prospects in the organization but has yet to play above Double-A. There's a good chance that job will be Hicks' by the end of the season, but the best case scenario in the spring might be a strong showing from Benson that pushes Mastroianni back to the bench.
The Big Prospect: OFs Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia
Hicks and Arcia are a matched set of outfielders who should be the Twins' center and rightfielders, respectively, in 2014, if not before. Both performed well at Double-A last year. Neither has seen Triple-A yet, though both should start there this season unless they pull an upset and win a major league job out of camp.
Arcia, who bats lefty and will turn 22 in May, is a career .314/.371/.535 hitter in the minor leagues. He hit better than that in half a season at Double-A last year and projects as a solid, slow-footed, rightfield slugger, though not necessarily a star. Hicks, who turned 23 in October, hits for less average and power, but draws more walks. He is believed to have similar power potential (something like 20-odd homers annually), switch-hits and adds speed and quality centerfield defense. Once those two are in place, the Twins may begin to see some real improvement, though a return to winning baseball still seems a long way off.