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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 3, 2010

MLB: AL Central Preview capsules

Associated Press

Capsules of American League Central teams, listed in order of finish last year:

Minnesota Twins

2009: 87-76, first place (beat Detroit in one-game playoff).

Manager: Ron Gardenhire (ninth season).

He's Here: SS J.J. Hardy, 2B Orlando Hudson, PH-DH Jim Thome, RH Clay Condrey.

He's Outta Here: SS Orlando Cabrera, 3B Joe Crede, CF Carlos Gomez, C Mike Redmond.

Projected Lineup: CF Denard Span (.311, 8 HRs, 68 RBIs, 97 runs, 23 SB, 10 3Bs), 2B Orlando Hudson (.283, 9, 62, .357 on-base percentage with Dodgers), C Joe Mauer (.365, 28, 96, .444 OBP), 1B Justin Morneau (.274, 30, 100), DH Jason Kubel (.300, 28, 103), RF Michael Cuddyer (.276, 32, 94), LF Delmon Young (.284, 12, 60), SS J.J. Hardy (.229, 11, 47 with Milwaukee), 3B Nick Punto (.228, 1, 38, 16 SB).

Rotation: RH Scott Baker (15-9, 4.37 ERA, 200 IP), RH Carl Pavano (5-4, 4.64 in 12 starts with Minnesota), RH Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.03, 205 2-3 IP), RH Kevin Slowey (10-3, 4.86, 16 starts), LH Francisco Liriano (5-13, 5.80 in 29 games, 24 starts).

Key Relievers: RH Jon Rauch (5-1, 1.72 in 17 games with Twins), RH Jesse Crain (7-4, 4.70 ERA), RH Clay Condrey (6-2, 3.00 in 45 games for Phillies), RH Matt Guerrier (5-1, 2.36, AL-leading 79 games), LH Jose Mijares (2-2, 2.34, 61 2-3 IP), RH Pat Neshek (missed all of 2009 with arm trouble).

Hot Spots: Closer and third base. Joe Nathan needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire season. The All-Star right-hander had a team-record 47 saves last season. It's a devastating blow for the bullpen, which doesn't have another pitcher with extensive closer experience, or that level of stuff. After discussing the role with Liriano, who expressed a desire to remain a starter, Gardenhire first elected to start the season with a closer by committee but then appointed Rauch to the job. He did some closing with the Nationals (17 saves in 2008), but he only has 26 career saves. In the field, Punto will be watched closely at third base after beating out better-hitting Brendan Harris for the starting spot. Gardenhire loves Punto's defense, but he has gone through long stretches of low production at the plate. With the additions of Hardy and Hudson, two better-than-average hitters, Gardenhire had the luxury of going with defense over offense at third. But Harris will be waiting to step in if Punto struggles.

Stat Sheet: LaTroy Hawkins had 28 saves for the Twins in 2001. That's the last time a Twins closer has not recorded at least 36 saves. Guardado and Nathan racked up 332 saves in the next eight seasons. Nathan had 246 from 2004-09, the most in the league over that span.

Bottom Line: After losing to the Yankees in the division series, the Twins pushed their payroll past $95 million in an attempt to close the talent gap for their first season at open-air Target Field. The Twins shored up the middle of their infield by adding Hardy and Hudson, and signed the 39-year-old Thome as a much-needed threat off the bench. Then they made the big splash, locking up Mauer with a $184 million, eight-year extension that could keep the hometown boy in Minnesota through 2018. The Twins are loaded on offense, and with the addition of Thome, are deeper off the bench than they have been in recent seasons. Now it's time to win. The Twins have five AL Central titles in the decade, but they've advanced out of the division round of the playoffs one time in that stretch. To take the next step, the team will have to find a way to fill Nathan's considerable shoes. Minnesota's rotation has been consistent, but it could use someone to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 starter. If that happens, particularly if Liriano can get back some of that magic that made him an All-Star in 2006 before arm problems derailed his last three seasons, the Twins should be considered the front-runner in the division and a threat in the postseason. The pieces are there for the Twins to make the first season in Target Field a memorable one.

Detroit Tigers

2009: 86-77, second place.

Manager: Jim Leyland (fifth season).

He's Here: LF Johnny Damon, RH Jose Valverde, 2B Scott Sizemore, OF Austin Jackson, RH Max Scherzer.

He's Outta Here: OF Curtis Granderson, 2B Placido Polanco, RH Edwin Jackson, RH Fernando Rodney, RH Brandon Lyon, LH Nate Robertson.

Projected Lineup: CF Austin Jackson (.300, 4 HRs, 65 RBIs with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), LF Johnny Damon (.282, 24, 82 with New York Yankees), RF Magglio Ordonez (.310, 9, 50), 1B Miguel Cabrera (.324, 34, 103), DH Carlos Guillen (.242, 11, 41 in 81 games), 3B Brandon Inge (.230, 27, 84), C Gerald Laird (.225, 4, 33), SS Adam Everett (.238, 3, 44), 2B Scott Sizemore (.308, 17, 66 with Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie).

Rotation: RH Justin Verlander (19-9, 3.45 ERA, 269 Ks), RH Rick Porcello (14-9, 3.96), RH Max Scherzer (9-11, 4.12 in 30 starts with Diamondbacks), RH Jeremy Bonderman (0-1, 8.71), LH Dontrelle Willis (1-4, 7.49).

Key Relievers: RH Jose Valverde (4-2, 2.33 ERA, 25/29 saves with Houston), LH Phil Coke (4-3, 4.50 in 72 games with New York Yankees), RH Ryan Perry (0-1, 3.79, 53 games), LH Fu-Te Ni (0-0, 2.61, 36 games), RH Joel Zumaya (3-3, 4.94, 29 games)

Hot Spots: Center field, second base, starters after Nos. 1-2, setup men. The Tigers are counting on two players Jackson and Sizemore to make the jump from the minors to the majors, becoming regular players trying to replace the departed Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco. Detroit loves the top of its rotation with Verlander and Porcello, and hopes Scherzer's rough spring is an aberration. The Tigers signed Valverde to replace Rodney and acquired Coke to perhaps be the setup man Lyon was last year.

Stat Sheet: The Tigers became the first team in baseball history to lose a three-game lead with four games left and miss the playoffs, losing the 163rd game last season at Minnesota.

Bottom Line: Detroit proved it wasn't strictly in a cost-cutting mode after it looked as if that was the case early in the offseason, when it traded Granderson and Jackson and chose not to re-sign Rodney or Lyon. The Tigers signed Damon to a one-year deal, showing their team and fans they want to compete for an elusive division title. Detroit made the playoffs in 2006 as a wild-card team, making it to the postseason for the first time since the club won the AL East in 1987. The Tigers will need a lot of things to go their way to end the drought. Verlander has to be an AL Cy Young Award candidate, Porcello has to avoid a sophomore slump and a couple other starters will have to emerge to make the rotation reliable. If that happens, Valverde will have a chance to save 40-plus games like he did for Houston in 2008 and Arizona the previous year. Detroit will miss Polanco's clutch hitting, but Damon could make up for his absence. The Tigers have shown a lot of faith in the 23-year-old Jackson and 25-year-old Sizemore, believing they can turn potential into production. Cabrera claims he has cleaned up his act off the field and the franchise desperately hopes that's true since he's in the third season of a $152 million, eight-year contract.

Chicago White Sox

2009: 79-83, third place.

Manager: Ozzie Guillen (seventh season).

He's Here: 3B Mark Teahen, OF Juan Pierre, OF Andruw Jones, INF Omar Vizquel, RH J.J. Putz.

He's Outta Here: RF Jermaine Dye, OF Scott Podsednik, OF Dewayne Wise, 2B Chris Getz, INF Josh Fields, RH D.J. Carrasco, RH Octavio Dotel.

Projected Lineup: LF Juan Pierre (.308, 31 RBIs, 30 SB with Los Angeles Dodgers), 2B Gordon Beckham (.270, 14 HRs, 63 RBIs, 103 games), RF Carlos Quentin (.236, 21, 56), 1B Paul Konerko (.277, 28, 88), C A.J. Pierzynski (.300, 13, 49), DH Andruw Jones (.214, 17, 43 in 82 games with Texas) or Mark Kotsay (.278, 4, 23 with Red Sox and White Sox), CF Alex Rios (.264, 14, 62 in 108 games with Toronto; .199, 3, 9 in 41 games with White Sox), 3B Mark Teahen (.271, 12, 50 in 144 games with Royals), SS Alexei Ramirez (.277, 15, 68).

Rotation: LH Mark Buehrle (13-10, 3.84 ERA, staff-high 213 1-3 IP), RH Jake Peavy (6-6, 3.97 in 13 starts with Padres; 3-0, 1.35 in 3 starts with White Sox), LH John Danks (13-11, 3.77, career-high 200 1-3 IP), RH Gavin Floyd (11-11, 4.06), RH Freddy Garcia (3-4, 4.34 ERA, 9 starts).

Key Relievers: RH Bobby Jenks (3-4, 4.29, 29/35 saves), LH Matt Thornton (6-3, 2.74, 87 Ks in 72 1-3 IP), RH J.J. Putz (1-4, 5.22 in 29 games with New York Mets), RH Scott Linebrink (3-7, 4.66), RH Tony Pena (1-2, 3.75 in 35 games with White Sox).

Hot Spots: Center field, designated hitter and closer. Will Rios revert to his All-Star form or struggle as he did in his brief appearance with Sox after being claimed off waivers late last season? If he falters, Jones could move in after a good spring. Guillen decided to go with a rotating DH this season after the Sox decided against re-signing Jim Thome or Dye. Jenks fell one short of his fourth straight 30-save season after missing final 11 games. He's struggled with a calf issue again this spring despite losing some weight.

Stat Sheet: The White Sox made 113 errors last season but are hoping the additions of Vizquel and Jones will shore up the defense, especially in the late innings. Buehrle was 2-7 with a 4.78 ERA in 13 starts after his July 23 perfect game against the Rays.

Bottom Line: There's been tension between Guillen and general manager Ken Williams over social networking this spring. Guillen's son resigned from the team's video department after the front office was unhappy with some of his tweets that were critical of the team. That friction aside, the White Sox appear to have one of the best rotations in the AL if Peavy stays healthy and Buehrle can avoid another second-half meltdown, which could be the result of throwing at least 200 IP in nine straight seasons. And will Guillen's new strategy of manufacturing runs with increased speed compensate for the loss of power bats? Can Pierre give Chicago the catalyst out of the leadoff spot to replace Scott Podsednik, who was not re-signed? Beckham, who quickly learned to play third once he was called up last season, now will be playing his third position in three years with the switch to second (he played shortstop in college). The acquisition of Teahen was supposed to give the Sox a steady left-handed bat but he struggled during the spring. Veterans Konerko and Pierzynski are in the final years of their contracts.

Cleveland Indians

2009: 65-97, tied for fourth place.

Manager: Manny Acta (first season).

He's Here: C Mike Redmond, 1B Russell Branyan, RH Jamey Wright, RH Mitch Talbot, 2B Anderson Hernandez, INF/OF Shelley Duncan, INF Mark Grudzielanek, OF Austin Kearns, INF Luis Rodriguez.

He's Outta Here: INF Jamey Carroll, C Kelly Shoppach, RH Tomo Ohka, RH Jose Veras.

Projected Lineup: SS Asdrubal Cabrera (.308, 68 RBIs, 42 doubles), CF Grady Sizemore (.248, 18 HRs, 64 RBIs in career-low 106 games), RF Shin Soo-Choo (.300, 20, 86, 21 SB), DH Travis Hafner (.272, 16, 49, 94 games), 3B Jhonny Peralta (.254, 11, 83), 1B Russell Branyan (.251, 31, 76 in 116 games with Seattle; will start season on DL), 1B Matt LaPorta (.254, 7, 21, 52 games) , LF Michael Brantley (.313, 11 RBIs, 28 games), C Lou Marson (.250 in 14 games with Cleveland), 2B Luis Valbuena (.250, 10, 31).

Rotation: RH Jake Westbrook (hasn't pitched in majors since 2008, elbow surgery), RH Fausto Carmona (5-12, 6.32 ERA), RH Justin Masterson (1-7, 4.55 in 10 starts after trade from Boston), LH David Huff (11-8, 5.61), RH Mitch Talbot (4-4, 4.47 ERA at Triple-A Durham).

Key Relievers: RH Kerry Wood (3-3, 4.25 ERA, 20 saves), RH Chris Perez (0-1, 4.32 in 32 games after trade from St. Louis), LH Rafael Perez (4-3, 7.31), RH Jensen Lewis (2-4, 4.61), Tony Sipp (2-0, 2.96).

Hot Spots: Rotation, rotation, rotation. There don't appear to be any Cy Young winners left on this roster. The Indians traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, leaving little quality behind. Westbrook, a 15-game winner in 2006, hasn't pitched in the majors since May 28, 2008, undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery two weeks later. Still, he's the Indians' No. 1 starter and probably would be no better than a No. 2 or 3 on most staffs. Carmona has shown signs of getting back to the form that made him a 19-game winner in 2007. The Indians sent him down to their lower minors last season to work on his mechanics and conditioning. He arrived at training camp in better shape but Cleveland needs to see more. Masterson, acquired last season from Boston in the Victor Martinez deal, could emerge as the staff's ace. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder is engaging and polite off the field, but the Indians have been impressed with his competitive fire on the mound.

Stat Sheet: The Indians lost their final 15 road games last season, finishing 30-51 away from Progressive Field, their worst road record since 2003. Cleveland's 15-game streak was the longest by any team to end a season since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

Bottom Line: Three years after coming within one win of the World Series, the Indians are rebuilding again. Acta inherits a team with quality position players, but severely lacking in the pitching department. Cleveland's hopes of contending in the balanced and winnable AL Central will hinge on the top of the rotation. Acta was fired after 2 1/2 seasons in Washington. Indians general manager Mark Shapiro believes Acta is perfectly suited for baseball's youngest roster. Sizemore didn't play up to his lofty standards last season, but the three-time All-Star, moved out of the leadoff spot to No. 2 in the order, should be better after undergoing offseason elbow surgery. The underrated Choo was the only player in the AL last season to hit .300 with 20 homers and 20 steals. Hafner has looked like Hafner again this spring and finally seems to have pop in his swing after shoulder surgery in 2008. The Indians have been plagued by poor starts in recent seasons. They need a better beginning to convince a skeptical fan base that they're worth its time.

Kansas City Royals

2009: 65-97, tied for fourth.

Manager: Trey Hillman (third season).

He's Here: CF Rick Ankiel, 2B Chris Getz, OF Brian Anderson, C Jason Kendall, INF Josh Fields, OF Scott Podsednik.

He's Outta Here: OF Josh Anderson, LH John Bale, C John Buck, C Miguel Olivo, OF Coco Crisp, LH Lenny DiNardo, INF Luis Hernandez, INF Tug Hulett, 1B Mike Jacobs, OF Mark Teahen, RH Doug Waechter, RH Jamey Wright, RH Yasuhiko Yabuta.

Projected Lineup: LF Scott Podsednik (.304, 7 HRs, 48 RBIs, 30 SB with White Sox), C Jason Kendall (.241, 2, 43 with Milwaukee), RF David DeJesus (.281, 13, 71), 3B Billy Butler (.301, 21, 93), DH Jose Guillen (.242, 9, 40), 3B Alberto Callaspo (.300, 11, 73), CF Rick Ankiel (.231, 11, 38 with St. Louis), SS Yuniesky Betancourt (.240, 4, 27), 2B Chris Getz (.261, 2, 31 with White Sox).

Rotation: RH Zack Greinke (16-8, 2.16 ERA, 242 Ks, 229 1-3 IP, AL Cy Young Award winner), RH Gil Meche (6-10, 5.09), RH Luke Hochevar (7-13, 6.55), RH Brian Bannister (7-12, 4.73), RH Kyle Davies (8-9, 5.27).

Key Relievers: RH Joakim Soria (3-2, 2.21 ERA, 30/33 saves), RH Ramon Colon (2-3, 4.83), RH Kyle Farnsworth (1-5, 4.58), RH Juan Cruz (3-4, 5.72) RH Robinson Tejeda (4-2, 3.54).

Hot Spots: How will the volatile Guillen, entering the final season of a $36 million, three-year contract, react to being the primary designated hitter when he prefers the outfield? With winter signings Podsednik and Ankiel, there is no room for Guillen in the outfield. The leading candidates for the final rotation spot, Davies and Tejeda, have been inconsistent all spring. The Royals have been frustrated in their search for a reliable setup man in front of Soria. After trading away RHs Leo Nunez to the Marlins and Ramon Ramirez to the Red Sox after the 2008 season, the Royals' revamped bullpen was disappointing last year. With Alex Gordon starting the season on the disabled list with a broken right thumb, the Royals will use Alberto Callaspo, who played mostly second last year, at times at third base. Callaspo's offense, .300, 41 doubles, is a plus but his defense is a minus.

Stat Sheet: A renovated Kauffman Stadium opened last season, but the "new" stadium did not generate much of a home-field advantage. The Royals went 33-48 at home, the worst home record in the American League. The Royals were the worst-fielding team in the AL, committing 117 errors in 2009. They're hoping Kendall, Getz, Ankiel and Podsednik will help trim that number.

Bottom Line: The Royals have had only one winning season since 1994 and had the worst record over the past decade in the majors. In the mediocre AL Central, 85 victories could keep a club in contention. If the Royals are to finish above .500, they will need Greinke to retain the dominance that led to the 2009 Cy Young Award. Also, Meche, the No. 2 starter, must remain healthy after a bad back and sore shoulder limited him to 23 starts and 129 IP last year. The Royals also need the disappointing Hochevar to have a breakout year. The division is up for grabs, especially with the Twins losing closer Joe Nathan for the year, but the Royals would have to have several things fall into place to rise to the top.