Offseason breakdown: AL Central
Editor's Note: This is part of a three-day series that assesses each of baseball's 30 teams in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed according to the order in which they finished the regular season in their division in 2012.
A second straight division title -- the Tigers' first two since 1987 -- led to a successful playoff run through the A's and Yankees before a disappointing World Series sweep at the hands of the Giants.
With Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, the Tigers arguably have a top six as strong as any team in baseball. With that top-level talent intact, the Tigers have already been installed as World Series favorites by one Las Vegas oddsmaker. Still, it's mindful to note this team won just 88 games and outscored opponents by only 56 runs, so there is room for improvement.
The defense is what it is, with Cabrera, Fielder and Jhonny Peralta comprising three-fourths of the infield. Andy Dirks is the favorite for one outfield corner, but the Tigers could upgrade the Quintin Berry-Avisail Garcia platoon. Garcia needs more time in the minors, and Berry is best suited for a reserve role. The back of the bullpen needs to be improved, as Phil Coke is a risky bet as closer and Joaquin Benoit served up 14 home runs. They're solid relievers, but don't be surprised if the Tigers make a bid for a proven closer via trade or free agency.
The return of Victor Martinez means the Tigers will happily part ways with Young, his playoff production notwithstanding. He was one of the least valuable players in the majors in 2012 despite his No. 5 spot in the batting order. Valverde's playoff collapse and up-and-down season means he is headed elsewhere. Sanchez will draw a lot of interest on the free-agent market, so he is not a lock to return, and the Tigers can give his rotation slot to Drew Smyly.
Will the Tigers make a big free-agent splash? It seems unlikely, although a guy like Nick Swisher would be a nice fit in right field -- a switch-hitter and solid defender who could give the club a No. 2 hitter who gets on base in front of Fielder and Cabrera. Rafael Soriano would be an expensive solution at closer, so maybe the Tigers go after a guy like Chris Perez of the Indians. Ryan Madson missed the entire season following elbow surgery and would be a risky option but is less expensive than Soriano.
No matter what the Tigers do this offseason, they'll head into 2013 as the heavy favorites for a third straight division title. The Tigers already have $98 million committed to eight players, which doesn't include the arbitration increases due to Scherzer, Fister, Jackson, Rick Porcello and Alex Avila. Owner Mike Ilitch certainly has the itch to win, so money isn't necessarily an obstacle.
Even if Martinez doesn't hit like he did in 2011, he should be a big upgrade over Young, and if Peralta and Avila have some bounce back in them, the offense could be fine without spending big on an outfielder. The other option is to spend money on a starter and look to flip Porcello for bullpen help or a corner outfielder. He is young and has a good arm, but as a ground ball specialist, he is not going to succeed with that infield defense behind him.
The White Sox led the division for most of the second half before running out of steam in the final two weeks. They went 4-11 over their final 15 games, turning a three-game lead into a three-game deficit. Other than 11-0 and 9-0 wins over Cleveland on the final weekend, the offense scored more than four runs just once in that stretch.
The offense scored 94 more runs than it did in 2011 while the pitching and defense allowed 30 fewer runs. Still, it's hard to get a good read on the Sox. Over the past six seasons, they've bounced from 72 to 89 to 79 to 88 to 79 to 85 wins.
Third base, catcher, on-base ability, left field, back of the rotation. Paul Konerko was the only regular with an on-base percentage above .350. Middle infielders Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham will likely return, but both were offensive liabilities in 2012 with sub-.300 OBPs. Left fielder Dayan Viciedo hit 25 home runs in his first full season, but with a .300 OBP and poor defense, he wasn't really pushing the team forward. He'll likely be given another shot out there.
The White Sox already gave Jake Peavy a two-year extension, and they'd like to bring back Youkilis. You can almost certainly say goodbye to Liriano and Myers, leaving Pierzynski as the big question mark. Coming off the best season of his career at age 35, Pierzynski's power spike -- from 17 home runs over the previous two seasons to 27 -- seems like an anomaly, but he is probably a decent investment at the right price.
If Youkilis isn't re-signed, third base looks like a big problem. The best solutions on the free-agent market are Jeff Keppinger, who is probably stretched defensively there, and Eric Chavez. That would actually be a pretty good platoon, and if anybody can get creative, it's Kenny Williams. If Pierzynski isn't re-signed, Mike Napoli's power would play well at The Cell, but he won't come cheap.
By bringing Peavy back, the Sox will build around a potential rotation of Peavy, Chris Sale, a healthy John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Philip Humber or Jose Quintana. That certainly has the potential to be an outstanding rotation, but it comes with a lot of risk considering the injury histories of Danks and Peavy, Sale needing to prove he can handle a starter's workload again and the question marks at the back of the rotation. It's possible Williams will look to bring in a low-cost veteran starter to provide depth, but his main priorities will be third base and catcher.
The team appears committed to Addison Reed, who had 29 saves as a rookie with an unimpressive 4.75 ERA. The team should also be concerned about middle-of-the-order mainstays Konerko and Adam Dunn. Konerko hit .329 in the first half but just .263 in the second half. Dunn finished with 41 home runs and drew 105 walks but hit .204 and fanned 222 times. He really wasn't that productive in the second half, hitting .199/.302/.427 with some home runs and some walks, but not really enough to outweigh the batting average.
On the positive side, call it progress: The Royals improved from 71 to 72 wins. It was also their ninth consecutive losing season, with only one in which they lost fewer than 90 games.
The Royals can try and spin their youth and farm system, but this is still basically a wreck of a franchise. Eric Hosmer suffered a big sophomore slump, Mike Moustakas fell apart in the second half, Jeff Francoeur was a leader in the clubhouse but a disaster on the field, and the rotation was terrible, with a 5.01 ERA. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino didn't help.
On the bright side, the bullpen was excellent, full of power arms like Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins. Shortstop Alcides Escobar stepped up with the bat, and Alex Gordon had another excellent season, lining 51 doubles and winning a Gold Glove.
Starting rotation, right field, second base. The Royals already made one move to improve their rotation, acquiring Ervin Santana and his $12 million contract in exchange for a low-level prospect. Prospect Wil Myers is ready to compete for a starting job after hitting .314 with 37 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A -- if he's not traded. He is best suited for right field, especially with Lorenzo Cain playing well enough in the second half to earn the center field gig.
Soria is gone after missing the season, while Guthrie will be an attractive second-tier free agent after a strong finish with the Royals. The Royals would like to bring him back, but after years of losing in Baltimore, Guthrie may relish the opportunity to join a winner if it arises.
The big decision the Royals face is whether they should trade one of their young hitters -- Moustakas, Myers or Gordon would be the likely candidates -- for some young pitching. The problem is that trading any of those players opens up a hole in the lineup. The Royals were 12th in the AL in runs scored, so while Gordon would be an immensely valuable trade chip and Myers could replace him, it's then incumbent upon Hosmer and Moustakas to deliver on their potential. Otherwise -- barring the unlikelihood of luring Zack Greinke back to Kansas City -- it's scouring the free-agent market for Grade C starters like Joe Blanton, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Millwood while waiting for Duffy and Paulino to potentially return in the second half.
OK, there is some hope.
I would install Myers in right field, keep Gordon and Moustakas and hope you get lucky in the free-agent market. In a perfect world, maybe they lay out the cash for a Dan Haren or Edwin Jackson. Add one of those guys to Santana, Bruce Chen, Jake Odorizzi, Luis Mendoza, Luke Hochevar and later on Duffy and/or Paulino and maybe you can compete in the AL Central.
The offense has the potential to take a big step forward. Of course, we've been waiting for the big step forward for a few years now. One of these years it will happen.
On June 22, the Indians led the AL Central by 1½ games with a 37-32 record. They played about .500 ball through the All-Star break, winning their first game after the break to stand 45-41. They were three games out at that point and were still in it.
Then the team collapsed.
On July 14, Ubaldo Jimenez gave up eight runs and four walks in less than three innings to the Blue Jays. The next day, the Indians were shut out. Derek Lowe had a 3.06 ERA through June 1 but an 8.77 ERA over his next 10 starts, nine of those Indians losses. And so on.
From July 14 through the end of the season, the Indians went 23-53, manager Manny Acta lost his job, and the team now has to consider what to do. Do you build around Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley and try to patch holes, or do you clean house and start over?
Starting rotation (the Indians ranked 13th in the AL in ERA), first base, left field, designated hitter.
All of the above. Two trade targets for opposing teams are Shin-Soo Choo, who has one year left before free agency, and Cabrera. The Indians acquired Mike Aviles from the Red Sox, and their top prospect is highly touted shortstop Francisco Lindor. If the Indians trade Cabrera, Aviles could hold down shortstop until Lindor is ready in a couple years. Closer Chris Perez is as good as gone after his public criticism of the organization. Perez is a proven closer, so he may actually bring back a decent prospect in return, even though his 3.45 ERA over the past two seasons isn't that impressive.
If the Indians look to wheel and deal, they'll be seeking young pitching. They also have to decide if Santana is a catcher, a first baseman or trade bait. His arm strength behind the plate is adequate, but his movement on balls in the dirt left something to be desired. Lou Marson is a solid defensive catcher, and Yan Gomes, acquired with Aviles from the Blue Jays, can catch. Otherwise, the first-base market is thin with guys like James Loney and Carlos Pena.
Attendance has plummeted in Cleveland in recent years -- they ranked 29th in the majors in 2012 -- ownership is unwilling to spend in the free-agent market, and the farm system is considered one of the weakest in the majors. In other words, it looks like a lose-lose-lose trifecta in Cleveland.
New manager Terry Francona lends an air of credibility to the franchise and there is a base of talent with Cabrera, Kipnis, Santana, Choo and Brantley, but this is a team that allowed the most runs in the league and scored the second fewest. Francona may wish he would have waited for a better job, especially if the Indians embark on an Astros-like teardown.
The Twins won five AL Central titles from 2002 through 2010 but have finished last in back-to-back seasons. Move back to the Metrodome!
The rotation was historically awful (5.40 ERA), and Scott Diamond was the only pitcher on the staff to throw more than 109 innings. Only six other teams have had such innings deficiencies (the Rockies also "achieved" this feat in 2012). Basically, the Twins' philosophy of finesse starters who throw strikes finally caught up to them. The Twins had 140 fewer strikeouts than the No. 13 team and 440 fewer than league-leading Tampa Bay. After cutting payroll from $113 million in 2011 to $100 million in 2012, the Twins may look to trim even more in 2013.
Starting rotation, bullpen, shortstop, second base, power. Jamey Carroll is around to fill second base or shortstop, although he is best suited for a utility role. The problem is, if you play Carroll, Denard Span, Ben Revere, somebody at shortstop and Joe Mauer, you're not getting much power from five positions, which is why even though the Twins ranked fifth in the AL in on-base percentage, they ranked just 10th in runs scored. That approach can work -- hey, look at the World Series champs -- but it's difficult to generate enough offense doing it that way.
The Twins didn't pick up Baker's option but will still negotiate with the right-hander. The Orioles have already claimed Casilla. The big trade rumors surround outfielders Josh Willingham, Span and Revere. Willingham had a big season with 35 home runs and, at $7 million per year over the next two seasons, could be a valuable trade chip. But the Twins may prefer to trade Span or Revere, two players with similar abilities, speed and defense, but no power. Span is signed to a team-friendly deal through 2014 and brings elite defense in center field, so he would bring a decent pitching prospect or two in return.
The Twins' top prospects -- Miguel Sano, Oswaldo Arcia, Aaron Hicks, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario -- are all hitters, with only Kyle Gibson close to ready as a potential rotation option. If the Twins shop Willingham and/or Span, it will be for starting pitching help. One report had the Twins already inquiring about Tampa Bay starter James Shields.
The Twins have options. They have a solid offensive foundation and could trade prospects for immediate help. They could try to sign a top free-agent starter such as Kyle Lohse or Anibal Sanchez. Or they could go in the opposite direction and trade some of their veterans for prospects and try to build a rotation for the future to join the hitting prospects who will be ready in a couple years.
I wouldn't be so willing to punt 2013, especially given the flaws with the White Sox, Royals and Indians, but Minnesota would still need to add at least two quality starters -- and probably three. If they spend some money and bring back Baker, sign a guy like Sanchez and make a big trade for Shields or somebody similar, the Twins could surprise.
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