SweetSpot: Aaron Crow

Eric Karabell wrote on Friday about the closer situation for the Insider Kansas City Royals -- Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow have all picked up saves so far.

Karabell raised the possibility of all three guys saving 10+ games, which has been done 16 times since 1969, the last being the 2005 Diamondbacks (Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon, Brian Bruney) and 2005 Braves (Chris Reitsma, Danny Kolb and Kyle Farnsworth). Arizona finished 77-85 but Atlanta went 90-72 and won the NL East.

Of course, those weren't time-sharing situations, but cases where relievers pitched poorly and lost their jobs. Arizona eventually promoted Valverde to the role later in the season while Atlanta traded for Farnsworth.

But Royals manager Ned Yost could turn this into a positive job-sharing situation, rather than just deciding on one guy as his primary closer (that's still Holland for now). That would take a little creativity, something you don't see much from modern managers. If Herrera is really the best Royals reliever -- he is in my book, with that upper 90s fastball (here's an Insider piece on Herrera Insider and whether age is important for closers) -- then use him in tie games in the eighth or ninth inning or one-run save situations, and use him for more than three outs if necessary. If he can't pitch the next day, you still have Holland or Crow available (not to mention Tim Collins, another good arm in the bullpen). If it's a three-run save situation, don't waste Herrera; use Holland or Crow if they're available.

In other words, manage the bullpen more like a manager in the '70s or '80s would have. One of the teams with three guys to record 10 saves was the 1976 Phillies, with Ron Reed, Tug McGraw and Gene Garber, all of whom pitched at least 90 innings with an ERA under 3.00. I know times have changed -- that staff used only 11 pitchers all season (and of those pitched just three innings) -- but with a deft touch Yost could make his bullpen a bigger weapon.

How the Royals can win the AL Central

December, 11, 2012
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Mike Moustakas/Eric HosmerJamie Squire/Getty ImagesImprovement from Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, right, could lift the Royals into contention.


What would it take for the Kansas City Royals to unseat the Detroit Tigers, overtake the Chicago White Sox and hold off the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins to win the American Central in 2013?

Over the past three seasons, the AL Central champions finished the season with a roster totaling about 38 wins above replacement.

The 2012 Royals finished the season 25 wins above replacement, so there is a gap to be closed. We’re going to see if we can come up with the combination of numbers to close it.

Position players
The chart on the right shows MLBdepthcharts.com's projected Royals lineup for 2013 along with 2012 WAR total for those players.

Let’s take the youngest players in that group and give them some room to grow. Let’s bump Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez up an average of half a win each. And let’s work off the idea that Alex Gordon and the Chris Getz/Johnny Giavotella platoon will match in 2013 what they did in 2012.

Then, let’s make two leaps of faith.

1. That Jeff Francoeur goes from being the lowest-valued position player in baseball (minus-2.7 WAR) to borderline-replacement level (minus-0.7 WAR) by getting his defensive game back to something reasonable and by improving slightly as a hitter and baserunner (remember, he’ll be only 29 when the season starts).

2. That Eric Hosmer fixes what ailed him during his sophomore slump and gains back the WAR that he lost from 2011 to 2012, pushing him back up to 1.3 for 2013.

If all of that was to happen for the Royals, that lineup would be worth a collective 22.8 WAR, up 6.5 wins from what it was worth in 2012.

The Royals are not projected to have a strong bench in 2013, and most of their top-prospect position players are projected to start the season in Double-A or below.

So we’re going to presume that when they do go to reserves, they are hurt by replacement-level-or-less players more often than they are helped by Jarrod Dyson and Irving Falu.

Let’s subtract 2.0 WAR over the course of the season for the time seen by the bench.

That gives the Royals a position-player group worth 20.8 WAR.

Pitchers
The Royals basically have a No. 2 starter (James Shields) filling a No. 1 role, a No. 3 starter (Jeremy Guthrie) filling a No. 2 role, and a No. 4 starter (Ervin Santana) filling a No. 3 role. They have Wade Davis as their No. 4, which seems about right, and Bruce Chen as the No. 5.

Again, remember that we’re creating a scenario in which the Royals win the AL Central. So let’s take a rosy view of this fivesome and hand them 140 starts.

Let’s peg Shields as a 4-WAR pitcher, Guthrie as a 3-WAR pitcher and Santana as a 2-WAR pitcher.

That’s not a horrendous reach. Those numbers would rate as the third-, fourth- and fifth-best seasons for those pitchers, respectively.

Davis was a 1.1-WAR starter in 2010, so let’s plug him in for 1.0 in 2013.

With Chen set to turn 36 in June and trending downward, we’ll drop him from -0.2 to -1.2.

We’ll split up the remaining 22 starts among Luis Mendoza, Luke Hochevar, Guillermo Moscoso, Will Smith, Tommy John-recoverees Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy and whichever prospects (and they still have a few) emerge from the minors.

The big thing here is that if those top five Royals starters are healthy, their fill-ins can’t do too much damage. We’ll subtract 1.0 WAR for their work.

Now to the bullpen -- and we know that relief pitching is volatile. But again, we’re trying to establish what the Royals need to win, not what they will do.

Among Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins, two will probably struggle to duplicate their 2012 numbers, and maybe one of the others gets hurt.

As a group, those five guys were worth 6.8 WAR last season. That’s pretty good and strikes us as hard to duplicate. But again, this is a young group, so maybe the drop-off isn’t so great.

Let’s give them 5.0 WAR this time around and take away 1.0 WAR for anyone else who fills in for a time (the starters listed above, and Everett Teaford get the first crack).

Let’s add it all together. The lineup has a value of 20.8 WAR. The starting rotation is worth 8.0 WAR and the bullpen is worth 5.0 WAR.

That gets us to almost 34 wins above replacement.

Our target was 38.

So we still have four wins to make up.

How do we do that? We change a few numbers.

Let’s add a win to Shields and make him a 5-WAR pitcher, something he has done once before in his career. That means he should be getting some Cy Young votes.

Let’s make Guthrie a 3.5-WAR pitcher, meaning he basically does what he did in 91 innings for the Royals in 2012 for 200 innings in 2013.

Let’s make Davis a 1.5-WAR pitcher, which is better than he has done before, but he's young enough to improve.

That takes care of half of the win gap. Now we need to find two more wins among the position players.

There are a number of ways to do this, such as adding 0.2 WAR to every regular (boring), taking a couple regulars and making them a bit better (also boring), making Francoeur into an almost-average player (meh) or hand all of that WAR to one player (fun!).

I like the last option, even though it’s a bit reckless.

I’m going to give those 2 WAR to Hosmer and make him a 3.3 for 2013.

Hosmer rated 26th in WAR among the 30 players with 300 at-bats who played at least half their games at first base last season. Bumping him to a 3.3 would jump him 20 spots, to the point of being viewed among the better first basemen in the game.

So, Royals fans, that’s what you’re looking at. Unrealistic? Probably.

But here’s the key point: No one said this was going to be easy.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

April, 14, 2012
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  • Austin Jackson scored a run in each of the Tigers' first six games this season. That was the longest streak by a Detroit batter to start a season since Darrell Evans crossed the plate in each of the first eight contests in 1986. And it's the longest streak by a Tigers leadoff hitter since 1939, when one of Jackson's center field predecessors, Barney McCosky, also scored in the first eight games of the season. In game seven on Friday, however, Jackson was on base only once (he walked in the eighth) and was stranded at third.
  • [+] EnlargeAustin Jackson
    Duane Burleson/AP PhotoAustin Jackson is having a solid season for the Tigers early on.
    The Red Sox managed to blow a three-run lead in the ninth and a two-run lead in the 11th in losing a wild one to Detroit on Sunday, 13-12. It was the first time Boston had scored a dozen runs and lost since May 31, 1970, when they were on the wrong end of a 22-13 slugfest with the White Sox at Fenway.
  • Alfredo Aceves gave up all three ninth-inning runs in Sunday’s game without retiring a batter, making him just the second Red Sox pitcher in the live-ball era to work zero innings pitched in each of his first two appearances of the year. Guido Grilli faced one batter each in the first two games of the 1966 season, and didn't get either of them out.
  • The Tigers used eight pitchers in that 13-12, come-from-behind win over the Red Sox. It marked just the second time in 70 years that Detroit had come back to win a game in which their starter surrendered seven-plus runs without getting through the third inning. Omar Olivares was the starter in 1997 when the Tigers rallied to beat Baltimore 11-8.
  • On Sunday, the Yankees managed just three hits -- all doubles. That same day, the Twins had just two hits as Jason Hammel posted the longest no-hit bid of the year so far. Both Minnesota knocks were doubles. It's the first time in almost three years that two teams have done that on the same day. But then … the Royals did it against Oakland (three hits, three doubles) on Monday … and the Athletics did it against Kansas City (one hit) on Tuesday.It's the first time since at least 1917 that there have been three straight days where a team had every hit be a double.
  • On Sunday, Jeff Samardzija (making just his sixth career start) was afforded the chance at a complete game. He had to be pulled after giving up a two-out homer that pulled the Nationals to within a run. Four days later, Matt Garza was en route to a shutout against Milwaukee, but was pulled after committing a two-out error that allowed the inning to continue. So the Cubs had two pitchers this week leave the game after 8.2 innings pitched.The Cubs hadn't had two pitchers work exactly 8.2 innings in the same season since 1995 (Jaime Navarro and Frank Castillo).
  • In Sunday's Cardinals-Brewers game, you could say the teams spread it around. In the 9-3 Milwaukee victory, the 12 runs were charged to eight different pitchers. In fact, every hurler who appeared in the game ended up with at least one earned run on his record.It's the first game in eight seasons where the teams combined to use eight or more pitchers, and every single one of them got charged with at least one earned run. The last time that happened was on Sept. 9, 2004, when the Royals erupted for a 26-5 victory over the Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader.
  • James Shields got called for a balk Wednesday on an illegal pickoff throw to third. That was in the bottom of the fifth -- after Justin Verlander had been called for his own balk in the top of the fifth.It was the first MLB game to feature balks by both teams in the same inning since Aug. 16, 2004, when the Rangers' Mickey Callaway and then-Indian CC Sabathia committed them in the fourth inning of a 5-2 Texas win.
  • In that same game, Verlander threw eight shutout innings before getting tagged for four runs and the loss in the top of the ninth. He became the first pitcher to throw eight scoreless innings, then surrender four (or more) runs in the ninth to take a loss since Tim Hudson did it for the Braves on Sept. 22, 2005. Hudson allowed a three-run homer to Shane Victorino of the Phillies for most of that damage before Macay McBride had to come in and get the final out.
  • In Monday's Yankees-Orioles game, Derek Jeter went a perfect 4-for-4 for the visitors, while Matt Wieters went a perfect 4-for-4 in the home dugout. It was the first game this year to feature two players with four-hit games.Since the start of 2010, there's been only one other MLB game where a player for each team went a perfect 4-for-4 or better -- and it was between the Orioles and Yankees. On July 30, 2011, Vladimir Guerrero’s 4-for-4 was the bright spot for Baltimore as the Yankees -- led by Robinson Cano's 5-for-5 -- demolished them 17-3.
  • In Yu Darvish's much-anticipated major league debut on Monday, he allowed five earned runs, four walks, hit a batter, threw one wild pitch -- and won the game because the Rangers spotted him eight runs.He's the first pitcher in the live-ball era to win his major league debut while giving up all of those stats (or worse). Even take away the wild pitch, and only one other hurler has hit five earned runs, four walks, one HBP and a win in his debut. That was the Blue Jays' Matt Williams on Aug. 2, 1983.
  • Jeff Gray of the Twins earned the first one-pitch victory of the season on Wednesday. Gray threw his one and only pitch to Peter Bourjos to end the top of the seventh, after which the Twins took the lead in the bottom of the inning. The Twins, conveniently, recorded the last one-pitch win last season, by Matt Capps on Sept. 23.
  • Speaking of pitching oddities, the Royals-Athletics game was finally called in the top of the eighth inning on Tuesday after its second rain delay. Aaron Crow, who had pitched the seventh for the Royals, was credited with his first career save. Technically, he does meet the save criteria set forth in the rule book, notably that of being the "finishing pitcher" in a game his team won.The last player to be credited with a save prior to the ninth inning was Tony Sipp of the Indians, who received one in a rain-shortened affair with Tampa Bay on July 23, 2010. That also remains Sipp's only career save.
  • On Tuesday, Freddy Garcia of the Yankees famously threw five wild pitches to tie the single-game American League record for such a thing. He was also the first pitcher to throw five-plus wild pitches in an outing of less than five innings. But two of those wild pitches scored runs for Baltimore. Another run scored on an error. That made the Orioles the first team in two years to score four-plus runs with one or fewer RBI. (The one RBI they did get came on a home run.)For the Orioles, it was just the second time since moving to Baltimore that they scored four runs on one or zero RBI. The other was in their inaugural year: On June 27, 1954, they scored three times on errors by the Athletics before finally walking off on an RBI single in the bottom of the 11th.
  • Oakland "walked off" in unusual fashion on Wednesday when Jonathan Broxton plunked Yoenis Cespedes and Jonny Gomes to force in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th. It was the first game to end with back-to-back hit batters since Sept. 2, 1966, when Stu Miller of the Orioles hit Al Weis and Tommie Agee of the White Sox in the bottom of the 11th. (I admit that Elias found this a lot quicker than I would have.) However, Gomes became the first Athletics batter to get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in extra innings since at least 1947. (It had never happened in the Baseball Reference "play index" era.) It's also noteworthy that Oakland scored its two runs in the 12th without a base hit. The three runners ahead of Cespedes reached on two walks and an error.
  • Before Friday, there had been 36 double-digit strikeout games by teams this week (including seven games where both teams did it) but not one by a single pitcher. Max Scherzer's 11-strikeout outing on Friday afternoon broke that string.
  • In Wednesday's 17-8 eruption between the Giants and Rockies, there were four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Jeremy Guthrie, Guillermo Mota, Jeremy Affeldt)who all gave up at least six hits and at least five runs. It's the first time that that has happened since July 17, 1998, when Seattle dropped an 18-5 score on the Royals at the Kingdome.(It is also very intriguing that, in that game, both teams posted a seven-run inning. Except I don't know of a good way to search line scores.)

    By the way, on their next two games on Thursday and Friday, the Giants promptly had two pitchers (Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain)carry no-hit bids into the sixth inning. The only team to have bids in consecutive games last season was also the Giants. That happened on May 8 and 10 by Ryan Vogelsong and Lincecum.
  • The Orioles and Blue Jays combined to hit seven home runs in Baltimore's 7-5 victory on Friday. All were solo shots. It's the first game with seven-plus home runs that were all solo since a July 20, 2010 game at Camden Yards between the Rays and Orioles.
  • There's always one guy left out.In the 10-9 "pitchers’ duel" between the Twins and Angels on Thursday, 17 of the 18 starters recorded at least one base hit. Howard Kendrick was the lone collar, going 0-for-4 plus a walk.

    It's the first nine-inning game this season to have 17 different starters record a base hit. There were three games last season where all 18 did.
  • Minnesota got a four-hit game from Denard Span and three-hit games from Joe Mauer, Josh Willingham and Danny Valencia. It's the first time the Twins have had four players with three hits, including at least one with four, since they dropped a 20-1 score on the White Sox on May 21, 2009.
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.


We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

Catcher
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

Shortstop
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

Closer
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

Bullpen
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

Intangibles
1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
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The American League Central may have a reputation as baseball's skinflint division, but such is not the case: The White Sox, Twins and Tigers each had payrolls over $100 million in 2011 and ranked in the top 10 of highest-salaried ballclubs.

The problem was that two of those three teams didn't get much for their money. Considering the issues in Chicago and Minnesota, and the youth and unwillingness to spend big in Cleveland and Kansas City, Detroit will enter 2012 as the heavy favorite to win the division -- no matter what happens in the offseason. But even the Tigers are far from a sure thing and if the Indians can get good health from Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore in 2012, plus strong seasons from youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall, their offense could be dramatically improved.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Here's a quick look at some action plans and items of interest for the five teams.

Detroit Tigers

1. Third base (Brandon Inge)

With Inge plummeting to a .197 average, Detroit's third-base production was among the worst in the majors. The team has already been linked to free agent Aramis Ramirez and trade discussions with Angels on Maicer Izturis. Both would be big upgrades over Inge, who still has one year remaining on his contract. The dark horse possibility: With Carlos Guillen ($13 million) and Magglio Ordonez ($10 million) off the books, the Tigers pursue Jose Reyes to fill their leadoff void, moving Jhonny Peralta to third base.

Likely solution: As much I love the Reyes idea, Ramirez to Detroit seems like a logical fit. The negatives are Ramirez's lack of range and Detroit's need for a little more athleticism in the lineup.



2. Middle relief

By the postseason, Jim Leyland was down to two relievers he trusted: Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit. Al Alburquerque had a strong rookie season out of nowhere and Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth provide rare power lefty arms, but Albuquerque and Schlereth still have trouble throwing strikes. The Tigers could go after a low-cost veteran like LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Gonzalez or Darren Oliver, or maybe make a trade pitch for White Sox lefty Matt Thornton, although it seems unlikely Chicago would trade Thornton to a division rival.

Likely solution: A veteran righty-hander, with the Tigers counting on improvement from Coke and Schlereth.

3. A left-handed bat.

The Tigers missed Brennan Boesch's stick in the playoffs, as Victor Martinez and the hobbled Alex Avila were the only threats from the left side (granted, Don Kelly hit a big home run). Boesch's return will help, but Detroit could use a lefty bat to help balance out the lineup.

Likely solution: Andy Dirks may given another shot at that third/fourth outfielder job after hitting .251/.296/.406 as a rookie. But what about Rockies left fielder Seth Smith, who is on the trade block? His career .518 slugging percentage against righties has been bolstered a bit by Coors Field, but he's a solid hitter who could platoon with Ryan Raburn in left, or allow Raburn to play some at second base.

Cleveland Indians

1. Find a left fielder who can hit.

Michael Brantley is a decent asset -- but as a center fielder. The plan to use Brantley as an everyday left fielder was never a great one to begin with, as he's never going to pop many balls over the fence. Brantley, Austin Kearns, Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck all started at least 20 games in left; Jared Head started six games there. As a group, Cleveland's left fielders hit a miserable .233 with seven home runs; only Baltimore and Minnesota received a lower OPS from their left fielders.

Likely solution: Signing Grady Sizemore doesn't necessarily push Brantley back to a starting role in left field. He's best used as a fourth outfielder and Sizemore insurance. Michael Cuddyer may end up getting priced out of Cleveland's range, so how former Twins teammate Jason Kubel? He can play left and step in as designated hitter when Travis Hafner suffers his inevitable breakdown.

2. Find at least one more starter.

Right now, the Indians can only count on Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez for their rotation. Carlos Carrasco is out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Fausto Carmona was terrible and even Josh Tomlin is a question mark after the league caught up to him in the second half (5.26 ERA).

Likely solution: Jeanmar Gomez has been roughed up in two stints in the majors (146 hits in 116 innings), but his Triple-A numbers were solid, if unspectacular. He'll be given another chance in spring training to battle David Huff for a rotation spot.

3. If not Matt LaPorta, who plays first base?

The big prospect acquired in the CC Sabathia deal, LaPorta just hasn't hit as expected, posting a .299 on-base percentage in 2011. The Indians seem ready to punt on LaPorta, who turns 27 in January so isn't even that young. Carlos Santana ended up playing a lot of first base down the stretch, but let's hope he's kept behind the plate, where his hitting value would be maximized.

Likely solution: If free agent Carlos Pena lowers his price, he's a possibility, and the Indians reportedly talked with Houston about Brett Wallace. I'm not sure Wallace is much of an upgrade over LaPorta, but at least he's younger. Casey Kotchman could fit nicely here as lower-cost alternative after posting a .378 OBP with Tampa. And hey, he's only two years older than LaPorta.

Chicago White Sox

1. What do you do with Adam Dunn and Alex Rios?

Dunn hit .159 with a .569 OPS. Rios hit .227 with a .613 OPS. Dunn was the least-valuable position player in baseball, according to Baseball-Reference.com, while Rios was seventh-worst. They made $24 million in 2011 and will make a combined $26 million in 2012. Both are signed through 2014.

Likely solution: General manager Kenny Williams will be busy during the winter meetings, perhaps shopping around guys like Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Matt Thornton, looking for some sort of backup plan to these two pieces of junk. The 40-man roster currently includes Alejandro De Aza, who probably deserves a chance to play somewhere after a nice run (if over his head) last season. Let's put it this way: he can produce an OPS higher than .613.

2. Third base (Brent Morel)

After struggling all season, hitting .250 with just two home runs and seven walks in 328 at-bats through August, Morel suddenly changed his approach in September, got more patient and swung for the fences. He hit just .224 the final month, but with eight home runs and 15 walks. Was it a legitimate improvement, or merely feasting off September tired arms and rookie call-ups?

Likely solution: Morel's hot September earns him another shot.

3. The new manager

This isn't so much an action plan, as a big question mark. Robin Ventura has no previous managerial experience, but the good sign for the White Sox is that respected pitching coach Don Cooper is still around to handle the pitching staff.

Likely solution: If Dunn and Rios stink it up again, it won't matter how well Ventura transitions into the job -- he'll be doomed.

Kansas City Royals

1. Fix the rotation

The Royals had a 4.82 ERA from their starters; only Baltimore was worse in the American League.

Likely solution: The Royals already made a move here, trading Melky Cabrera to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez. The club also re-signed Bruce Chen. With the signing of Jonathan Broxton, and the emergence of rookie relievers Greg Holland, Louis Coleman and Tim Collins in 2011, fellow 2011 rookie Aaron Crow will be given a shot at the rotation. I have my doubts it will work: Crow walked 31 in 62 innings out of the bullpen and left-handed hitters tagged him for a .311 average and .538 slugging percentage. There's a reason he struggled in the minors as a starter in 2010 (5.73 ERA). He has a great arm, but won't be able to rely on his fastball/slider combo as a starter.

2. Second base (Chris Getz)

Royals second basemen posted a .301 OBP and .636 OPS (26th in the majors) in 2011.

Likely solution: Rookie Johnny Giavotella played the final two months there and hit .247 with a .649 OPS. He'll head into spring training as the favorite to win the job. He hit .338/.390/.481 at Triple-A, so the batting potential is there: Bill James projects him to hit .295/.342/.419.

3. Center field (empty -- Cabrera traded)

The Royals were smart to deal Cabrera after his career season.

Likely solution: Lorenzo Cain, acquired from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, will finally get a chance to play after spending 2011 in Triple-A. Cain is old for a guy still considered a prospect -- he turns 26 in April -- so he should be a polished product by now. He showed some power for the first time in his career, hitting 16 home runs for Omaha while batting .312. He doesn't walk much, so won't be a star, but should come closing to matching Cabrera's 2011 production.

Minnesota Twins

1. The M & M boys

After 2011's train wreck -- the club's first 90-loss season since 2000 (and at 99 losses, the most the 1982 Twins lost 102) -- it seems pretty clear this team will be dead in the water again unless Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau get healthy and regain their All-Star status. But they also can't assume these guys are going to play 140-plus games.

Likely solution: Obviously, the Twins need a better backup plan for Mauer than giving .167-hitting Drew Butera 250 plate appearances. They already accomplished with the smart signing of Ryan Doumit to a one-year deal for $3 million. Doumit can catch or play right field, but his bat is good enough to warrant a regular place in the lineup even when he's not behind the plate. Of course, he's also been injury-prone throughout his career. Prospect Chris Parmalee, who impressed in a September call-up, gives the team a potentially decent backup option for Morneau as well.

2. Right field: Empty (Michael Cuddyer, free agent)

For all the attention Cuddyer is getting, let's remember that he's really just a complementary bat on a good team. Unfortunately, considering some of the other outfielders the Twins tried last season -- Rene Tosoni, Jason Repko, Trevor Plouffe -- you realize they had nobody in the upper levels of the system.

Likely solution: Doumit may factor into their plans here, but regardless, the Twins need another bat to play a corner or DH. Smith is a trade option and free agent Josh Willingham is another possibility.

3. Closer: Empty (Matt Capps and Joe Nathan, free agents)

Nathan signed with Texas while GM Terry Ryan recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that it's likely Capps could return.

Likely solution: Capps was terrible last year, allowing 10 home runs in 65.2 innings while striking out just 4.7 hitters per nine innings. Two years ago, he had a 5.80 ERA. I can't fathom why any team would want to make Capps its closer. Sadly, however, the rest of the Minnesota bullpen is nearly as uninspiring (as is the rotation, but I don't have room to get to them here), but Capps throws strikes and there's nothing the Twins love more than a pitcher who throws strikes (velocity are ability to miss bats don't seem to be a factor). There's no reason for this team to spend big money on one of the remaining free-agent closers, so it probably will be Capps or lefty Glen Perkins.

Moustakas the latest Royal reward

June, 11, 2011
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Aaron Crow, Danny Duffy and Eric Hosmer have already made their big-league debuts this season. On Friday night it was Mike Moustakas’s turn after his call-up on Thursday evening. The 22-year-old third baseman has shown a great deal of power in his minor-league career, and will look to solidify the infield corner spots opposite Hosmer -- the team’s top prospect -- at first base.

Prior to the season, every scouting publication had the Royals’ system ranked as tops in all of baseball. With a combination of powerful hitters and big-time arms on the mound, they had already landed six players on Keith Law’s top 100 prospects. Moustakas came ranked 23rd overall after landing at the 68th slot on Law’s list in 2010.

The young left-handed hitter hit 10 home runs for Triple-A Omaha prior to his call up, and hammered 36 between Omaha and Double-A Northwest Arkansas last season. His power is real and he has shown the ability to hit for a respectable .282 average throughout his minor-league career.

One knock against “Moose” has been his poor strikeout-to-walk ratio. His .331 OBP spread across his two trips to Triple-A is far from impressive, and is mostly due to his lack of walks. His batting average was .290 for Omaha, but he has walked just 27 times while striking out in 69 of his 448 plate appearances. Add in the fact that major league pitchers will likely expand that ratio and you can see a minor reason to worry.

Even if Moustakas does struggle this season, the experience with the big-league ballclub will certainly help him next season when even more of the Royals prospects can move through the system. The solid base built by Dayton Moore and the front office is impressive; despite making some questionable decisions for his major league team, Moore has made a point to build through the system and with the wave cresting and coming in, it looks like he has succeeded.

Even so, not everything is working out according to plan. The system was dealt a blow a week ago when it was announced that the team’s top pitching prospect, John Lamb, will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss over a calendar year of baseball. This will stall his development, but as we have seen through the performances of many players, it may not necessarily hurt his future performance. Mike Montgomery, rated as the 28th best prospect in baseball by Law, is the team’s next highest rated pitching prospect. Currently, he is struggling with control problems (5.2 BB/9) at Triple-A, so a promotion this season seems unlikely unless something changes dramatically.

In the meantime, Moustakas’ promotion is likely the last of the big-name prospects to land and stick in Kansas City this season. His arrival caps off a season of franchise-altering promotions. The team is still not and likely will not be in contention in 2011, but as these young players gain experience they will gain confidence. In a division with no clear-cut franchise far ahead of the rest, a few wise transactions by the front office to fit with the prospects could easily get the Royals around the corner.

As previously mentioned, I would not expect Moustakas to light up the world as he begins his career. Hosmer certainly has, posting a .349 OBP and five home runs to date, but his approach in the minors was much more refined than Moustakas’s. Moustakas has a great swing that will allow him to hit for average and power, but the inefficiencies in regards to his approach at his plate will hurt as he begins his tenure as a major leaguer. Defensively, Moustakas has a terrific arm and limited range, according to Law. Luckily, he will be playing next to arguably the top fielding shortstop in all of baseball in Alcides Escobar, so he should receive a bit help on that end.

The first ballgame of what should be a long career was a success, as Moustakas singled, walked and scored a run in a Royals’ 4-2 win. The walk was on four pitches by a wild Ervin Santana, who finished his night for the Angels with five strikeouts and five walks. For the Royals, this is hopefully the first of many successful nights for Hosmer’s new counterpart and the Royals’ next big bat.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Prince FielderJeff Hanisch/US PresswireYou OK? I'm OK, and you're out.
Ben Duronio writes about the Braves for the Capitol Avenue Club, part of the SweetSpot network. You can follow or tweet him at @Ben_Duronio.
Typically, even at this early point in the season, Kansas City Royals fans are already getting sour looks on their faces: Picture Dennis Leonard after accidentally swallowing his chewing tobacco. The very best the Royals could do last season was three consecutive wins. Granted, Kansas City strung together that victory trifecta on six different occasions, but three straight was the point at which Royals momentum peaked on the way to a 67-95 finish. It was as if this payroll-challenged outfit had not a salary cap, but a consecutive wins cap.

This year's Royals, however, have changed their walk-up music.

[+] EnlargeKansas City's Matt Treanor
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerMatt Treanor's three-run homer in the 13th on Sunday gave the Royals a last at-bat victory.
It takes a Marty Pattin-bulldog mentality to begin a season like this. Tuesday's walk-off win over the White Sox made the Royals just the third team in the past 20 seasons to have its first four wins come in the last at-bat and the first AL team to do so since the 1989 Royals. That win, following Sunday's 12-9 win over the Angels that ended on Matt Treanor's three-run homer in the 13th inning, gave the Royals consecutive wins in games lasting longer than 11 innings for the first time since April of 1969.

Yes, K.C. blew a ninth-inning lead Wednesday afternoon against Chicago. But the Royals tied it in the bottom of the ninth and had the winning run on third base with one out in the 11th. Jeff Francoeur struck out and Alcides Escobar grounded out to strand that winning run. The result wasn't there but at this point it's more about the mentality -- the Royals were a base hit away from five straight last at-bat wins.

Joakim Soria blew the save Wednesday, but he failed to convert only three save opportunities last season and is among the game's best closers. This season, for the first time in quite a while, there may be more in that Royals bullpen than just their All-Star closer. Kansas City's last three wins have all been recorded by rookie relief pitchers.

Saturday's victory went to Aaron Crow, the Royals' first-round draft pick in 2009, who signed with K.C. one year after the Nationals couldn't sign him after drafting him in the first round in 2008. Tim Collins, meanwhile, wasn't drafted at all. Collins is 5-foot-7 and perhaps 170 pounds. He can light up a radar gun near 97 mph and throw a curveball that buckles major league knees. He'd previously been with the Blue Jays and Braves and earned a place in the Royals bullpen this spring after arriving in camp as a non-roster invitee. Collins' path to the Kansas City bullpen could not have been more different than Crow's, but after three innings of two-hit relief Sunday, Collins had earned his first major league victory. Tuesday's rookie reliever winner was Jeremy Jeffress, who was the Brewers' first-round pick in 2006 and came to the Royals as part of the haul received from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade.

The offense has been there, too. Alex Gordon, the University of Nebraska hero who hit just .232 and .215 the previous two seasons, may be one more slumping season away from officially becoming a hometown bust, but is 11-for-21 with five RBIs in his past four games. He's hitting .379 overall, with five doubles, a homer and a 1.075 OPS. Gordon, Melky Cabrera, Francoeur, Billy Butler and Chris Getz are all batting north of .290. Treanor's weekend included two brilliant defensive blocks of home plate for outs and the walk-off home run that beat the Angels.

From here the Royals play three games at Detroit and two at Minnesota. Then it's back home for eight games against the Mariners and Indians. There's a fair chance given their energetic start and remaining April schedule, that Kansas City could still be a first-place team entering May.

Steve Berthiaume is a SportsCenter anchor and host of Baseball Tonight. He'll be a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. Follow him on Twitter at @SBerthiaumeESPN.
Host Nate Ravitz was kind enough to have me fill in today for Matthew Berry on the Fantasy Focus podcast . We had plenty to talk about after Opening Day, including:

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