Its 2008, deals continue to be made, and its never too early to start thinking about how our beloved AL Central will pan out. Beyond just another instance of blogger-fueled detail-grubbing, this really seems like one of the most fascinating AL Central seasons in memory. Then again, I thought we'd see an epic four-team race (between actually good teams mind you, not just NL-esque garbage parties) in 2007, and instead we got a half-hearted Tigers-Indians battle, which never amounted to much because the Tigers simply had a miserable second half. It seems fairly certain that 2008 will again be a two-team race, but I doubt anyone really has a grasp on how the Twins-White Sox-Royals battle will turn out.
So here is what I'm thinking, as of a miserable Sunday night in January:
1. Detroit (2007 Pythag 89-73) The Tigers aren't the 100-win monster that people seem to expect, but they'll be a very good team. The Willis-Cabrera trade is more properly viewed as a hedge against numerous likely declines than as a Randy Moss type deal that vaunts them to historical levels of dominance. Forget his awesome 2007 total numbers, did you know that Mags hit .429/.498/.639 with runners in scoring position last season? Yea, thats not happening again. Still, despite the incredible oldness of the roster, this is almost like a Yankees team of recent vintage, with Renteria and J. Jones also coming in for late-night stories about the 90s and overpriced, but still legitmate, production. Even Gary Sheffield will be around for 80 games or so. Like those Yankees teams, its a roster where three or four guys can really disappoint or miss time to injury, and it still doesn't really matter. To take the comparison further, the pitching staff looks good, but also vulnerable to some rough patches as well. Early hunch: 93 wins.
2. Cleveland (2007 Pythag 91-71) The Indians won 29 one-run games last season, creating some gap between their actual record and how well they actually played. Like the Tigers, this is a deep enough roster that they can absorb some down seasons (like Hafner's 2007) and still do well, thanks to whoever else steps up and the general quality of the team. While they might easily win the division again, the gap between them and Detroit wasn't very wide, and I'm not sure they'll get the tremendous starting pitching they saw in '07. Sabathia threw 241 innings last season en route to a career season, and it seems highly likely he won't be posting a 3.21 ERA again. Ditto for Fausto Carmona's 3.06 mark (215 IP). Honestly, I'm not thrilled about what Paul Byrd might do in 2008 either. Other than adding noted Christian Jamey Carroll, and the brilliant addition of RP Kobayashi, Cleveland seems a little too content to expect that never-that-good-to-begin-with Asdrubal Cabrera and another season of Gutierrez/Dellucci/Michaels splitting time on the corners will work again. Still, its a low-risk roster whose strength is up-the-middle awesomeness with Martinez and Sizemore, buttressed by not fielding anyone else who completely sucks, which is a greater asset than it appears at first glance. Early hunch: 90 wins.
3. Twins (2007 Pythag 80-82) I was tempted to put the White Sox or Royals here, but the Twins are still ahead of those two, possibly even if they trade Santana. I see an adequate, if uninspiring outfield of Young-Monroe-Cuddyer, with just about the same taking place on the infield. Sure, Lamb-Everett-Harris won't produce many runs, but Morneau and Mauer will help keep the lineup functional, and above turn-of-the-century Dodger levels. No, they can't win the divison, but even if they trade Santana and Nathan, there's too much OKness here to prevent a total collapse. The Twins went 10-26 against the Tigers and Indians combined in 2007, and I think they'll improve on that in 2008, if nothing else. Liriano is lurking here somewhere in the shadows, right? Early hunch: 80 wins.
4. White Sox (2007 Pythag 67-95) There are scenarios where the White Sox win 90 games, and scenarios where they win 60, and I'm not sure which extreme is more likely. There's a miserable season or two lurking somewhere in the nearby future here, as this is a very old team, but I don't know if it arrives in 2008. The fact is, the lineup at least is now potentially scary thanks to new additions Quentin, Cabrera, and Swisher. At first blush I didn't like the Cabrera or Swisher trades, especially in the long-term, but with Juan Uribe and Josh Fields waiting to fill in during the inevitable injuries to someone old, I think its a given that the league-worst offense will improve. Kenny Williams may have overpaid for Nick Swisher, but Swisher essentially replaces Darin Erstad in the lineup, one of the largest upgrades anyone's made all winter. Sure, the pitching could potentially implode, just like it did last year, but there is also a chance that Danks and Floyd aren't horrible and that Buehrle and Vazquez eat innings and survive. And Konerko, Dye and Thome aren't actually as old as they seem, as they'll only be 32, 34 and 37 respectively. So yea, not something you'd want to build around, but not exactly suicidal for one more year either. Maybe I'm giving Ozzie and Cooper a little too much faith that they'll fix their bullpen, but... Early hunch: 78 wins.
5. Kansas City (74-88 Pythag) I don't actually think the Royals will finish fifth, but I think they're probably still the fifth strongest team in the division, if that makes sense. Fourth, with either a Chicago or Minnesota collapse, is pretty likely. But Minny and Chicago both also have better odds of taking third than the Royals do. The biggest problem the Royals face is a lack of elite talent. If you were to construct an AL Central All-Star team, which Royal would make it ? Alex Gordon you say? There's that Cabrera guy, and Alex might not even be better than a generic Joe Crede season until 2009, either. Basically, you've got Gil Meche in there somewhere as the AL C. AS's #5 starter maybe, with Soria making the bullpen squad. I think everyone on this site can talk themselves into seeing this as a 85 win team, and that might even happen, but that requires massive leaps from a number of guys, and how likely does that ever happen? Last season, Teahen, DeJesus, Shealy and Gordon all had disappointing seasons, which puts a damper on my natural enthusiasm for all of them. Still, this roster is now good enough that it could compete for a playoff spot in the National League, which is reassuring in its own limited way. I expect a better offense, with a potentially excellent bullpen, buoying dropoffs from Meche and Bannister. There are things to like across the roster, but my sense now, at this moment, is that the Royals are about where the Brewers were two years ago, which is still better than we've been since the late 1990s. Early hunch: 77 wins.
So... this looks strange doesn't it? I'm a little lukewarm on the actually good teams, and convinced the Twins and White Sox still have some fight left in them. The off-season is far from over, but barring the inevitable Johan drama, its likely that we now know where everyone pretty much stands: Cleveland and Detroit as the clear class of the division, with a lot of uncertainty beneath them.