Monday, April 09, 2007

MLB Preview- AL Central

"Oh now there's no sound, for we all live underground."

In the second installment of "The Preview," I will break down the AL Central, which is probably the best division in all of baseball. This is no joke. You're looking at four of the strongest teams in the AL, all of whom could conceivably win the division.

AL Central:
The reiging AL Champs will have a tough road ahead of them, as they are not going to be surprising anyone, and all of a sudden, they are the hunted. The Tigers were able to use their tremendous pitching and a bit of small ball to reel off nine potseason victories in a row last year, including four straight against both the Yankees and Oakland. Has the rest of the league figured out the Tiger bullpen after their meltdown against the Cardinals? There is definitely some material now out there that other teams can use to try and beat them, but the thing is this: It's easy to watch a 102 MPH fastball on tape, but it's a whole different story when you step into that box and put a bat on your shoulders, trying to stare down Joel Zumaya. Personally, I think the Tigers will win the division. After that, the future is very unclear.

Infield: Of course the infield starts with good ol' Pudge. Rodriguez has shown that he can lead the young guys to the promise land (tell me of another guy who went to two world series in four years with teams having an average age of under 25). Pudge is only getting older, but can still be relied on for an ample supply of offense and above average play behind the plate. At first, you have "The Mayor," Sean Casey. I have always liked Casey. The guy definitely knows how to put the ball in play (career .302 hitter, five out of ten seasons above .300). However, his numbers took a major dip last year. He did only play 112 games, so health is now becoming an issue for Casey. At second, you have everyone's favorite, Placido Polanco. This is a growing trend in baseball now. The valuation of a "utility" guy has certainly picked up over the past few years. Having a guy who can play three different positions is invaluable. Polanco is another guy who puts the ball in play, and also, he has some serious speed. This guy could very well be the best ninth hitter in all of baseball. Carlos Guillen is at short, and is showing no signs of giving up his fantastic numbers just yet. Guillen should be considered a top-10 shortstop. Rounding it out is Brandon Inge at third. Inge has seen his power numbers rise in each of his first five seasons (home run totals from 2002-2006: 7, 8, 13, 16, 27). However, I think Inge has peaked, and right now, I'm looking for him to get around 20 homers this year. Still, he is a very valuable commodity to have, and Inge is still going to have a very porductive season.

Outfield: The big offseason splash for the Tigers came in the form of Gary Sheffield. I'll say it once, and I'll say it again. I've seen a lot of baseball in my life, but I have never seen anyone swing as hard as Sheffield. Anytime he played the Sox, if he had a wall-ball off of the Monster, I would approximate and say that it took the ball around one and a half seconds to get there. I mean real hard. However, it will be interesting to see if Sheff can keep up his pace, as he is 39 now, and also, he will be hitting in a "pitcher's park," so look for a slight dip in his overall numbers, but still, Sheffield will be extremely effective batting in front of Maglio Ordonez, who will be used primarily as a DH. Curtis Granderson will be holding it down in center. Granderson had a productive year last season, and showed a bit of pop with 18 homers. However, you have to think the Tigers will trade off his power to get a couple more hits from Granderson in the leadoff spot (.260 average, .335 OBP). Out in left will be Craig Monroe, who is coming of his second straight monster year. Monroe led the team in home runs and RBIs, and I expect him to have the same kind of stats this year (around 25 homers, 90 RBIs).

Starting Pitching: Here's where things are going to be a little dicey. The staff ace, Kenny Rogers, will be sidelined until at least the All-Star break coming off of surgery to repair a blood clot in his left shoulder. Now the pressure is squarely going to be on Jeremy Bonderman and rookie sensation Justin Verlander to carry this team in Rogers' absence. Both are extremely young, and throw extremely hard. You have to hope that they pitch within themselves, and not try to over-extend themselves by trying to do too much. That would put them on the fast track to a season-ending injury, something the Tigers definitely cannot afford. The rest of the staff is pretty shaky. Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth have shown some good signs, but when you are playing against this division, with that kind of talent, the consistency is going to have to be there. Rounding out the rotation for the time being will be Chad Durbin, who pitched only six innings last year in the majors, so you know that Durbin may have a tough time shaking off some of the rust. However, he did make numerous starts for KC, Arizona, and Cleveland, so it's not as though he is completely unfamiliar to the pro game. Durbin actually was a reliever for a while there, but became a starter again two years ago while coming up with Cleveland.

Bullpen: Easily the strongest facet of this team. Todd Jones inexplicably continues to save 40 games a year. It seems like every year, people predict that this is the year he starts to break down, and every year, he proves his critics wrong. Despite having the flamethrower setting up games, and seemingly waiting in the wings if Jones were to fall off a little bit, I still think he will be the closer for the duration of the season, and he will get around 30-35 saves. The aforementioned Zumaya will continue to baffle hitters with his explosive stuff. He is the closer of the future, but for now, he is their eighth inning guy, and there's not too many better than him. Watching the Tigers in the playoffs last year, it just seemed as though they could throw out guys at will who could hit 97 on the gun, which makes me wonder about something. Is there such a thing as too many fireballers? It seems to me that if all you throw out there are guys that throw hard, wouldn't that make it easier to time as a hitter? I know guys will have different movements on their fastballs, but it's going to be around the same velocity every time. I would think you would want some kind of change of pace to keep the hitters honest, and make it so that they cannot get their timing down on these guys.

Overall: Again, despite being in a tough division, I think the Tigers will excel again this year. Verlander is going to have to shake any kind of "sophmore slump" and be a real driving force for this team. He is a very special player, and his team needs him in a big way. The Tigers are not a power hitting team, rather, they are a contact team that relies on their pitching to keep them in games and to allow a minimum amount of runs. Do they have enough for another deep postseason run? Well, that remains to be seen. What I do know is that, initially, the Tigers may struggle without Rogers, but if he is able to return this year, he will provide a huge boost in the later months, which I think will be just enough to carry the Tigers to a division title.

Minnesota: The defending AL Central division-winning Twins are going to have a tough time repeating this year, especially when you consider rookie phenom Francisco Liriano will be sidelined for the entire 2007 season with elbow surgery. However, they still have the best pitcher in the game in Johan Santana, the reigning MVP in Justin Morneau, the best reliever in the game in Joe Nathan, and the best catcher in Joe Mauer. Plus, there are other weapons sprinkled throughout this team that makes them perennial playoff contenders.

Infield: With Joe Mauer behind the plate, the Twins are looking at their franchise guy for years to come. Mauer has a rare combination of plate discipline, power, grace, and toughness, especially when you consider the position he plays. I think Minnesota needs to be careful with Mauer and put him into the DH role every now and again to try and conserve his health, because he is the franchise as far as an offensive superstar. Justin Morneau will be looking to duplicate his success from last year. After the Twins moved David Ortiz to Boston to make room for Morneau, people immediately labelled this an incredibly dumb move (including yours truly). However, Morneau has proved his worth, and I would not be surprised to see another .300/35/120 season this year (although you have to wonder if the Twins simply kept Ortiz at DH, they would still have both, and that would probably be the best lineup in baseball). With Luis Castillo at second, you have a guy who knows how to put the bat on the ball, and he has lights-out speed at the top of the order. The weak links of this team right now come on the left side of the infield, with Jason Bartlett at short and Nick Punto at third. These guys are offensive liabilities, but play well in the field and have good speed. Jeff Cirillo was signed just in case Punto could not hold down the hot corner for the entire year.

Outfield: You have to start out in center with the mulit-Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter. Hunter is in his contract year, and given who else is in the market (Andruw Jones, Ichiro), Hunter will be looking for a monster year at the Metrodome. His numbers were already good to begin with, but now, with something to prove to teams looking for a centerfielder (Boston, Texas, Atlanta), a 30/30 season is not completely out of the question if Hunter is able to stay healthy. Michael Cuddyer will be out in right. He was seemingly the "forgotten man" last year. I mean he had a huge year (.284/24/109), and really didn't get that much recognition. Cuddyer will try and have another breakthrough year batting cleanup. A real question mark is out in left with Rondell White. White is an aging veteran who doesn't nearly have the kind of pop that he once possessed back in his Montreal days.

Starting Pitching: Now this is an "ace." Johan Santana will be holding down the fort for at least the next two years. The Twins have tried desperately to sign Santana to an extension, but it seems like Santana is destined to hit the free agent market, and once there, will easily be getting the richest contract ever given to a pitcher. Until that day comes, the Twins have to feel good giving this guy the ball every fifth day. Brad Radke, who was the #2 man for a long time, retired, and with Liriano out, their pitching is suspect after Santana. Boof Bonser (yes, you heard it right, the #2 starter's name is Boof...good stuff), Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson are going to have to do what they can as far as keeping the Twins in ballgames. Minnesota is left with a $50 million payroll, so they have determined that the best thing to do would be to re-build through their farm system. Matt Garza and Glenn Perkins will be starting the year in AAA, and don't be surprised if they get a call-up in September.

Bullpen: Again, the 'pen is led by the best closer in the game, Joe Nathan. Nathan has explosive stuff, with a fastball in the high 90s and a back-breaking curveball. It's basically all over if you are losing in the ninth inning to these guys. The best way to get to the bullpen is try and take advantage of a weak set-up man in Jesse Crain. In comparison to most set-up guys, Crain has to rank towards the bottom as far as ability is concerned. Minnesota has their lefty-righty specialists in Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes, and they are able to chop down the best hitters the opposition can throw out there.

Overall: There are serious concerns about the starting pitching. The Twins are going to try and stay the course through most of the year with their collection of mediocre pitchers until they can get their prospects up to the majors. I feel like the offense has so many weapons that the Twins are going to attempt to bash their way through the non-Santana starts. Their offense is really going to have to step up if they want to even be close to the top.

Record: 87-75

The Tribe has used an influx of youth in their lineup in the past to try and jump start their team. Now, Cleveland has gone out and acquired some veterans who they hope will step up and become leaders of this young team. The Indians replaced 2/3 of their outfield and have overhauled their bullpen. Still, there are a lot of questions left to be answered. Fortunately, though, they have one of the best young players in the game in Grady Sizemore, who many experts are picking to win MVP this year. While I agree that Sizemore is an amazing player, does he have what it takes to carry this team into the playoffs? Considering what division he is playing in, it will take a lot more than just one man to put the Tribe over the hump.

Infield: When you mention the infield, you have to start off with Victor Martinez, who had another outstanding year last season. Martinez will return to his duties behind the plate, but as shown in the past, to keep him healthy, Martinez will also be utilized as a first baseman. Again, this is a trend that is really starting to catch on, especially when you have outstanding young catchers like Martinez or Joe Mauer. Teams are finding ways to keep these guys in the lineup without them having to put wear on their knees from catching nine innings. Expect another big year from Martinez, who has shown that he is comfortable batting cleanup. When Martinez is behind the plate, Ryan Garko will be manning first. Garko has been in the minor league system since 2003, including the past three years at AAA Buffalo, where he had a great deal of success in between call-ups. Newly acquired Josh Barfield will play second. The Tribe have not had an impact player here in quite some time, and given how successful they were during the Carlos Baerga/Roberto Alomar days, they are hoping that Barfield (fantasy sleeper alert!) can come close to the kind of play he displayed with the Padres over the last couple of seasons. Jhonny Peralta is slotted to be the shortstop. Here's another guy who has gone largely unappreciated, but I expect him to hit around 20 homers, and considering that is a position that has a real power drop off, Peralta can really swing the bat. Rounding out the infield is Andy Marte, who was acquired last year for Coco Crisp (you're welcome). Marte is the type of raw talent that drove the Indians of the mid '90s. I really think that, someday, we'll be talking about him in the same breath as Jim Thome, Richie Sexson, and Manny Ramirez as far as young guys who played for Cleveland and were able to have break-out seasons and careers. Marte still is in need of help as far as adjusting to major league pitching, but with this being his first full year in the majors, I really think in two or three years, he is going to have the kind of season that he has shown could potentially happen by his play in the minor leagues. Also, keep your eye on Casey Blake, one of the best utility men in the game (plays first, third, and right field)

Outfield: The aforementioned Sizemore will be in center. I don't think it's a stretch at all to have him posted as having a 30/30 season. Easily one of, if not, the best leadoff hitters in all of baseball (ongoing fight with Carl Crawford on that one). Also, when you consider he bats around .300 and gets on base roughly 40% of the time, you are looking at a guy who is going to be a star for years to come. He already has somewhat of a cult-following in Cleveland, but his stardom has still yet to have reached its peak, but expect a monster year from Sizemore. In left, David Delucci will once again have a starting job in the outfield. Delucci was traded right before last season from Texas to Philadelphia. Delucci had been a starter with the Rangers, and was primed to repeat his career year of 2005, but when he was traded to the Phillies, he was relegated to being a fourth outfielder. Now, in the relatively hitter-friendly confines of Jacobs Field, Delucci will most likely put up 20-25 homers and have similar success like the season he had two years ago. Of course, in right is a guy near and dear to my heart. I still can't get used to another #7 in right at Fenway. Trot Nixon is the definition of "gamer." He is everything you would ever want in a ballplayer. He is a "team first" guy. A guy who is willing to do whatever it takes to win. Because of decreasing power numbers, Nixon became "expendable" to the Sox, who went out and signed J.D. Drew, let Trot walk on to Cleveland. He may not put up the numbers he is used to having, but he will bring leadership, something that can't be measured by a box score.

Although I don't have a spot reserved for breaking down a DH, I have to have a stand-out little paragraph for Travis Hafner, who is as good of a pure hitter as you will see in the game today. This guy has scary power and hits for average as well. By keeping him at DH, Hafner will be able to play out the year while having a relatively small chance of ending up on the DL. If he gets to 50 homers like he is capable of doing, Hafner should get the same kind of respect that Sizemore will get in the MVP race. Just a really fantastic guy to have batting third, especially when you have Grady at the top getting on base all the time.

Pitching: C.C. Sabathia will return as the ace of the staff. This guy is a workhorse, basically a shoe-in to give you 30 starts and 200 innings every year. They say Sabathia may be a bit on the heavy side, but he is still very effective, and his body type actually helps him as far as his overall strength to endure an entire season. Jake Westbrook has been shaky at times, but can still be deemed as being reliable overall. Jeremy Sowers has shown all kinds of potential, and will get the nod as the #3 guy in the rotation. Sowers looked good in his first year in the bigs, and I think he could potentially be a huge asset for the Tribe to have this season. Paul Byrd has flown largely under the radar for basically his entire career, but still, having Byrd as your fourth starter is definitely not all that bad. You can usually rely on him to win 11-12 games if he stays healthy. Francisco Carmona is still an anomoly to manager Eric Wedge and the rest of the Indians organization. Last year, they tried using Carmona as a closer after they traded off Bob Wickman to the Braves. Turns out that wasn't exactly a good idea (anytime you give up walk off homers to David Ortiz on back-to-back nights, there stands good reason for someone to come down with Byung-Hung Kim syndrome). Carmona went 1-10 as a reliever last year, so the Indians figured that, if they spaced Carmona's outings out for more than an inning, it would take some of the pressure off of him. Carmona has good stuff, and perhaps this is the best way to utilize him.

Bullpen: This was the focus of the Indians in the offseason. They attempted to sign Keith Foulke, but he retired before he ever threw a pitch. This meant that Joe Borowski, who is coming over from Florida, will have an uncontested trip to the end of the bullpen to take the closer spot. Borowski came up with 36 saves last year, and I expect pretty much a similar effort from him this year. Cleveland also went out and got Roberto Hernandez, but I don't see him having much impact. Rafael Betancourt will serve as the set-up man, and Fernando Cabrera, Aaron Fultz, and Jason Davis round out the bullpen squad. Overall, this is not really a formidable group. It is going to be hard to get the ball to Borowski. This is going to be a really big test to see if this team can somehow make it to the trade deadline without losing too much ground. I expect that, if Cleveland is still in it by then, to pull off a move for more relief help, because even though this was their focus, they didn't pull the necessary moves to really pull themselves out of the muck that was created last year when Wickman was traded, which eventually was the downfall of the Tribe's playoff push last season.

Overall: This team has three guys they are basically builiding their team around. Unfortunately for them, none of those guys can pitch in the 8th inning. I think the Indians did make a legitamate push to try and get whatever kind of help they could in the 'pen, they came up pretty short. Adding Borowski was definitely an upgrade from what they had the last three months of last season, but overall, the bullpen, and even the starting pitching is pretty weak. The Tribe will attempt to outslug their opponents, but that will only work for so long.

Record: 83-79

Chicago White Sox: The boys from the North side have seen a bit of a decline in their quality of play since winning it all two years ago, even though they have basically retained most of the key ingredients that got them to that point. The White Sox are definitely going to be able to produce a lot of runs, especially with the murderer's row of Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, and Jermaine Dye. However, they struggle with most of the rest of their lineup, which includes a lot of "dead spots." Their starting pitching has their moments, but they have been wildly inconsistent as a unit. The bullpen is even more sketchy, as even their closer, who has potential to be one of the best in the league, has shown that he is not bulletproof. This team seems to be in a state of limbo, and they haven't really done anything to change that. Basically, they are hoping that they can recapture some of the magic of two years ago by hanging on to the same guys. It also seems as though their manager, Ozzie Guillen, was one of the main reasons they were so successful, lighting a fire under his team which seems to have become a dim flicker over the last year.

Infield: A.J. Pierzynski is solid behind the plate. He seems to be improving at the plate each year as well in terms of balancing both his power and his ability to get on base. I've always been a fan of A.J. He is a guy who will be candid about what he thinks, and he plays the game with max effort every time he straps on the mask. At first is Paul Konerko. Konerko has shown he is one of the elite players in the league, and easily in the top 5 as far as offensive first basemen. Konerko not only hit 35 homers and drove in 113 runs, but he also hit for .300 for the first time in his career. It still remains unclear where Konerko will bat in the order, but wherever he ends up, he is a force to be reckoned with. Tadahito Iguchi will start at second. Iguchi, in his first two years, put up decent numbers for a second baseman. Still, I think he has room to improve, considering he struck out over 100 times in both seasons. Still, he did almost score 100 runs last year, so he is somewhat formidable at the plate. Juan Uribe will return to start at short. Uribe showed signs of power (21 homers, 71 RBI), but his average has suffered because of it (.235). He had a similar season in 2004 in terms of power, but he batted .283, which is a significant change from his average last year. If he is not careful, he could wind up in a platoon situation with Alex Cintron. Joe Crede is at the hot corner, and from all indications, here's a guy who could have another stellar year. Crede had a career year last year, breaking through with a .283/30/94, all career highs. If Crede is able to duplicate his success from last season, you will be looking at one of the most under-appreciated players in the whole league, and it's no coincidence that it is that way because of the other guys on this team. Crede could be a star in the making.

Outfield: Scott Podsednik will start the season off in left field, although it has been made known that he will not start against many lefties, as Guillen has become more comfortable with Podsednik seeing righty pitchers and some lefties, while giving Pablo Ozuna a chance against a majority of the lefties. There have been concerns about Podsednik's health, but I still believe is in the elite class of baserunners. Remember, this was one of the moves that put the White Sox over the edge in 2004 (although Carlos Lee is a tremendous talent, Podsednik brought the element of speed that the Sox were lacking, and while Lee is certainly better than Podsednik, Lee had things the White Sox already had, and Podsednik has the things they needed). Newly acquired Darin Erstad will get the start in center. Erstad only played 40 games last season, and it remains to be seen how effective he will be after coming off of offseason ankle surgery. In right is Jermaine Dye, who supplanted even Konerko in terms of the most valuable hitter on this team. Dye has always been good, but turned in an MVP-caliber type year last season, with a .315/44/120. Dye is a bopper, and he has become very comfortable at U.S. Cellular, and also in this lineup, which contains enough ammuntion around him to know that he is going to get pitched to on a regualr basis.

Starting Pitching: Here's where it gets kind of interesting. For whatever reason, Jose Contreras will start the year as the #1 guy instead of Jon Garland, who will start at #2. Ok...why? Contreras has been beyond inconsistent, and has had a roller coaster-like career thus far. Meanwhile, Garland is one of the best young pitchers in the game, and after a year in which he posted a 18-7 record, you have to wonder about the logic in that move. Maybe it is to protect the young righty from competing against an opposing ace? At #3 is Javier Vazquez, who is still trying to find his form that he had in his Montreal days. Don't get me wrong, he has shown that he still has good stuff, but he is unable to put it together on a consistent basis. Mark Buehrle is slated as the #4, but he has experienced forearm troubles, and it's unknown when he will be coming back. After the Sox traded away Brandon McCarthy to Texas, they have opened up the #5 spot to one of their young pitchers in the system. For now, John Danks, who was brought over in that trade, will get the nod. This could change very quickly, as Gavin Floyd is also waiting in the wings, waiting for a spot to open up (this shouldn't be too difficult considering that Vazquez and Buehrle are both at the end of long-term deals, so if Floyd doesn't get in this year, he most certainly will next year).

Bullpen: Bobby Jenks opens the year as the closer. The young fireballer has shown a lot of potential, and has been very successful, but he still needs to work on his control. He did have 80 K's, but also had 31 walks and a 4 ERA. The other thing could be that he was a touch overworked last year, making 67 appearances, which is an incredible amount for a closer. When you consider the stress that all those appearances had on him, knowing that he was in a win/lose scenario basically every time, maybe that had some kind of effect on his psyche. Again, I'm not trying to speculate, but I just find it interesting that they worked a 25-year old guy in his second year that much. Mike MacDougal, who you may remember as the former closer at KC, has shown he can be effective in the set-up role, posting a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings. The rest of the bullpen is all over the map. Matt Thornton, David Aardsma, Nick Masset, and Andrew Sisco have shown no signs that they will be able to hold down the "in-between" role. This is why Chicago will not be able to contend this year. They need help, and they need it real bad in their bullpen. The starters, for the most part, are not going to be able to go seven innings, meaning that they need a bridge to get to MacDougal and Jenks, and the "bridge" they have now is like one of those rickety wood-planked bridges held together by rope and going over a raging river. Sure, every now and again, you'll be able to sprint across and get safely to the other side, but most of the time, the boards will give way, and the river will push you down to the waterfall (ok, that was kind of a roundabout analogy...I made an attempt at doing something somewhat imaginative there though, so at least give me that).

Overall: The Sox do have a potent offense, but they will struggle with their pitching. The Brandon McCarthy trade didn't really make sense to me. I mean they did get two good pitching prospects from the Rangers, but McCarthy was suppose to be a great pitcher, and the Sox avoided having to give him up for two years. And then, once they have room in their rotation, they ship him out? I don't get the reasoning behind that. They also shipped Freddy Garcia to Philadelphia for more young prospects, which means they are looking towards the future, but for right now, they don't appear to have the goods to be a contender in the Central.

Record: 83-79

Kansas City: The Royals are going to be cellar-dwellers for a few more seasons, but as the front office starts spending more, like they tried to do this offseason, and once their farm system, which scouts have been raving about for years, the Royals will start moving up the ranks. But for now, they are still the worst team in the AL. Again, they are trying to put something big together, but I'm not previewing the future (well...I kind of am), this is for the present season, and as of right now, things do not look good for KC.

Infield: John Buck will be manning the plate this year. Don't expect too much from this guy. I'm thinking he will have a "Varitek" year (by the way, this will be the official term for a guy who should have a .280/20/80 year but will end up going .230/15/60...I love 'Tek, but, I'm telling you, the guy has to get the bat off his shoulder...please!). At first will be Ryan Shealy, because Mike Sweeney, who will spend a majority of the time hitting DH, has been battling injuries for the last couple of years, and because he is still the most reliable hitter on the team, they need Sweeney to stay healthy. Shealy showed potential in the minors when he was in the Colorado farm system, but is still somewhat of an anomoly in terms of what he can do at the MLB level (has had less than 300 ABs). Mark Grudzielanek begins his second season with the Royals. Once known for his versatility, he is now relegated to only playing second, and because of the lack of anyone behind him potentially being able to take over, Grudzielanek has a ton of job security, but again, I wouldn't expect too much out of him. Tony Pena, Jr. will start the season at short. Again, this is a potential pitfall in the lineup, as Pena doesn't have any kind of prescence at the plate. However, he is wanted for his defense and not for his bat. At third, things are going to get interesting. Rookie sensation Alex Gordon has been on such a hot streak that he jumped from AA Wichita (mind you, he did not play rookie ball, he started at AA, this is his second season of pro ball) straight to the majors. Gordon has long been considered one of the brightest talents going, and this year, he will attempt to show what all the hype has been about. I expect big things from Gordon, but I don't expect them happening for at least a couple of months, if not, maybe sometime into next year. This kid is going to be fantastic though, but don't jump to conclusions if he stumbles out of the start gate.

Outfield: Although they have Sweeney as the captain and veteran leadership, the franchise guy is out in right field. Mark Teahen is poised to have a big season this year. Teahen is entering his third year in the bigs. Last year, in just 109 games, he posted a .290/18/69/10 and a .519 slugging percentage. The Royals really think that this is going to be the guy to take the torch from Mike Sweeney once he departs or retires. I feel like a .300/25/90/20 season would not be out of question if Teahen stays healthy. David DeJesus will start in center. He is in almost a Freddy Sanchez-like mold. A guy who hits for average, gets on base, scores runs, and don't worry about power or speed numbers. DeJesus should score around 100 runs, hit around .300, and have close to a .400 OBP, which is exactly what you need from a leadoff man. Rounding out the outfield is Emil Brown in left. You know, to be honest with you, I know very little about this guy, but after reading his stats from the last few years, Brown is actually a good little hitter. In his two seasons with KC, Brown went .286/17/86 in '05 and .287/15/81 in '06. So, with that being said, I would expect something of the same from Brown this year, because as he has shown, given an opportunity (he was with Pittsburgh for five years, barely got any playing time), he can produce some fairly good numbers. Also, keep in mind that Billy Butler will eventually get called up sometime during the season. He is one of the top 10 prospects in the country.

Starting Pitching: The biggest splash the Royals have made in recent memory came in the form of Gil Meche, who signed a 5-year, $55 million contract. KC is hoping that they have found a guy to anchor their staff for the forseeable future while they continue to groom their stud pitchers down on the farm. I like their aggressiveness, but I think they may have gone after the wrong guy. I think Meche would be a good #3, maybe even a #2, but they have put a lot of resources into a guy that has a lot of potential to be a bust. If they had waited another year, when guys like Carlos Zambrano, Jason Jennings, Bartolo Colon, or even John Smoltz hit the market. Or, had they have been a little more aggressive this year with a guy like Jason Schmidt or Randy Wolf, maybe that would have been a better move, at least in my opinion, than to put all this pressure on Meche. Remember, next year, the Royals are going to be spending aorund $20-25 million, so they need to hit the phones hard next year and try to get a true #1 guy. Zach Grienke could be a great pitcher (won 2003 Minor League Player of the Year). He has already shown he has great stuff, and hopefully he was able to handle the off-the-field issues that led him to miss most of last season with social anxiety disorder. Grienke is another guy that fills out as a #2 guy, not an ace. Odalis Perez, Jorge De La Rosa, and Brandon Duckworth are basically warm bodies to go our and pitch after their two legitamate guys throw. Guys who will be making appearances with the big club down the road include Luke Hochevar, Tyler Lumsden, and maybe even a third in Erik Cordier.

Bullpen: The Royals were not so pleased with the play of Ambroix Burgos last year, so they let him walk to the Mets, and KC signed the aft-healthy Octavio Dotel to a one-year pact. Dotel has not been healthy in about three years since he got the closer's role in Oakland. The Royals decided to gamble on him (it was either going to be him or Gagne, they chose Dotel), and if he somehow can produce anywhere close to what he did while he was healthy, this could be a fantastic move for the Royals. It's a big risk, but frankly, there is a lot of upside, and if it doesn't work out, you wipe your hands clean of it after a year. So when you break it down, it seems like the Royals didn't make too bad of a move there. Keep in mind that KC led the majors last year with a whopping 31 blown saves, so call it desperation, but they had to do something. David Riske will be called upon to serve as the set-up man. Riske is kind of a journeyman, but has proven that if he gets settled into a clubhouse, or a particular park, that he can really be effective. After that, you have guys like Jimmy Gobble, Joel Peralta, and Todd Wellemeyer who will do their best to keep them in games, but don't expect a whole lot from that group. Anything they can offer is about all the Royals are asking for.

Overall: Still, this team is not ready to compete with the big boys. However, there are a lot of things to be positive about if you back the Royals. Because of their string of down-right horrendousness, they have been able to stockload a ton of talent in their farm system, and in two or three years, they are going to be bringing up some extremely talented personnel, and if the GM can continue to get more and more payroll flexibility, they will be able to lock these guys up, and can build a pretty decent club for years to come. But, this will not be the year that that happens. They will be in last, but they will have their fair share of bright spots this year as well.

Record: 65-97

The AL West is up next. Thanks for reading. Peace.


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