Thursday, March 13, 2014

MLB 2014 preview, part 4: AL Central

AL Central:

The DETROIT TIGERS are missing one significant piece this year. Manager Jim Leyland went back into retirement after leading Detroit to another division title, and so Brad Ausmus, who played most of his career with Detroit and Houston, takes over, but is missing two key players. First baseman Prince Fielder's stay in Motown was short, as he took the money and ran off to Texas. Doug Fister was dealt to Washington in exchange for utilityman Steve Lombardozzi, Jr., whose father played for Minnesota during their championship years. Detroit gave up again on reliever Jose Valverde in mid-season, and he is in the Mets' camp, hoping to help their pen. Joaquin Benoit signed with San Diego, but the Tigers in effect had swapped free agents, as they picked up Joe Nathan from Texas to be their new closer. As far as the rotation goes, you might as well pencil in Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander as #'s 1 & 1A, followed by Drew Smyly, Anibal Sanchez, & Rick Porcello. Ian Kinsler also comes over from Texas, as he replaces Omar Infante (Kansas City). Figure Lombardozzi will be given a first baseman's glove to spell the often immobile Miguel Cabrera, who moves back across the diamond now that Fielder is gone, turning over third to rookie Nick Castellanos.

I just don't see any sort of collapse here. If there is, it'd be a surprise, other than Ausmus' relative inexperience as a manager.

One of the biggest surprises of 2013 was the re-emergence of the KANSAS CITY ROYALS. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of their only World Series title, gift-wrapped, some say, by a blown call vs. St. Louis. The 2014 Royals don't have the same kind of star power as their forebears, more like a group of no-names who've been held back from the national spotlight because the Royals have been a divisional doormat in recent years. Then again, they were this-close to their first post-season berth since 1985, and a Wild Card is in their reach, if not the division title.

The CLEVELAND INDIANS have teased with resurgences the last couple of years, especially last year, in their first year under Terry Francona. The biggest changes are in their pitching staff. Relievers Chris Perez (Dodgers) & Joe Smith (Angels) left for the bright lights of LA. Scott Kazmir is in Oakland. Ubaldo Jiminez is in Baltimore. For offensive help, they picked up outfielder David Murphy (Texas). The wild card in all this is Carlos Santana, who all of a sudden doesn't have a steady position. Management decided he couldn't be a catcher anymore, but to keep his bat in the lineup, they'll make him more of a utility player. Mostly as a DH, Santana will also spell Nick Swisher at first and Lonnie Chisenhall at third. Yeah, the acquisition of Yan Gomes from Toronto before last season convinced them he and not Santana was their catcher of the future. As far as Santana goes, well, Detroit converted Brandon Inge into a third baseman near the end of his run there, and many moons ago, Johnny Bench added years to his Hall of Fame career in Cincinnati by playing third and first when he couldn't catch anymore. I think Santana's being groomed to replace Swisher at first if Swisher doesn't duplicate the numbers he put up with the Yankees before coming to Cleveland.

Robin Ventura is finding out the hard way how difficult it is to win in CHICAGO with the WHITE SOX. After just missing out on the division title in 2012, the ChiSox fell apart last season. So what does management do to solve the problem? They trade closer Addison Reed (Arizona), and see two other hurlers leave town in Gavin Floyd (Atlanta) and Hector Santiago (Angels). Reliever Scott Downs comes from Atlanta via free agency, but the biggest pickup was getting Ronald Belisario from the Dodgers? Aside from ace Chris Sale, the pitching rotation isn't that scary.

Lost amidst all the hype surrounding Derek Jeter's retirement tour is the fact that Paul Konerko is also hanging up his cleats. The fact that the White Sox don't look that close to contending this season will ensure he's an afterthought in the media's minds, except in Chicago.

Because they always make a run late in the season, no one is resorting to dissing the MINNESOTA TWINS as the "Twinkies" again. Besides, manager Ron Gardenhire wouldn't stand for it, I'm sure. As a player, Gardenhire came up with the Mets during their lean period in the early 80's, so he's steeled himself against overanalysis of his team's troubles enough to avoid getting blamed. Aside from losing catcher Ryan Doumit (Atlanta), the Twins have stood pat. Doumit's been replaced by Kurt Suzuki, whose 2nd tour of duty in Oakland was a short one, and Minnesota welcomed back outfielder Jason Kubel, who was with Arizona and Cleveland the last two years. The pitching has been bolstered by the addition of Phil Hughes (Yankees) and Ricky Nolasco (Dodgers). Then again, given how Hughes has been shaky the last couple of years.......!

Bear in mind that the Twins won't see NL East teams this year. That's the good news, especially after they got whacked by the Mets before the 3rd game of their series was snowed out. Bad news is, they have to play the NL West. Uh-oh.

Projected order of finish:

1. Detroit.
2. Kansas City.
3. Cleveland.
4. Chicago.
5. Minnesota.

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