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2009 MLB Predictions: AL Central

So obviously not everyone agreed with the Yankees missing the '08 playoffs in my AL East predictions. We'll see if the AL Central draws as much ire, which, before reading this I'll just say, this was absolutely the hardest division to call. 

Without further adue, the AL Central for 2009 will shake down like this.

Division winner-


The Cleveland Indians

That second-half finish without CC Sabathia was no fluke. They have a lot of young players who struggled in the first-half of last year that started to show their potential in that 41-27 ending to 2008. 

Starting with offense, they have a strong lineup that boasts a healthy Victor Martinez, Sizemore in the leadoff spot, and Shin Soo Choo, who has been looking like the real deal since last July, and it's continued in this World Baseball Classic.

Jhonny Peralta is about ready to have his first All-Star appearance in 2009.  At 25 years old last year, he posted career highs in RBI and runs scored and seems to be primed to have a breakout season. Add utiltiy man Mark DeRosa at third base and Ryan Garko coming off the bench and this team looks solid. 

Notice we haven't mentioned Pronk in this equation, and reports say he's 100 percent recovered from that shoulder surgery.  If he can return to form, this offense is going to put up some serious numbers; however, his .176 spring batting average is of some concern. Matt La Porta may also make an appearance this season which if you recall, La Porta was the gem prospect from the Brewers in that CC Sabathia trade. 

Other than Sizemore, there's no real speed on this team, so they'll have to hit to win, but that shouldn't be a problem.

Starting pitching, believe it or not, is this team's biggest Achilles heel.  Cliff Lee, obviously, is the reigning Cy Young Award winner, and though he has had a rough spring (ERA above 12.00), he had a terrible ERA last year in the month of March (ERA above 5.50), and we saw how that turned out.

Fausto Carmona should also get about 15 wins next year. After that though, the No. 3 through No. 5 pitchers are quite questionable.  Those spots will belong to Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes, and either Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Scott Lewis or Zack Jackson.  Their No. 3 pitcher right now is Pavano, which uhh...he was good a while ago..right?...That's all that needs to be said about him. Let's move on.

Reyes was strong in the second-half last year, but got injured and also struggled for the two years before those 16 games with Cleveland.

Which Reyes comes out will determine if this team wins the division, and since he has been doing great this spring (0.75 ERA over 12 innings), I'm expecting 13-15 wins with a 3.60 or 3.70 ERA.

Laffey did exactly what young pitchers do last year when he came out of the gate strong and then ended up struggling. We'll see if he can make progress in 2009 as he seems to have the inside track on the No. 5 spot in the rotation. 

I think their No. 1, 2, and 4 pitchers should be strong enough to push them through to the playoffs, and they've got an incredible bullpen to finish off games.

The addition of a solid closer in Kerry Wood is something this team has desperately needed for years. Jensen Lewis was 13-for-13 in save opportunities in '08 and is a great option for the setup man.  Add the left-handed Perez for the seventh inning and they are going to be a difficult team to mount a comeback against.

Should any of their starters struggle early, they still have backup plans with Jeremy Sowers and Scott Lewis, so they have options.

The team that will challenge them the most for the division crown is...


The Minnesota Twins

This was a tough decision to put the Twin Cities in second. I went back and forth putting them in first and the Indians in second, but when all was said and done, I decided Joe Mauer's injury could be enough of a problem that they miss the playoffs. I mean it is a back injury to a catcher—that sounds like something that could recur.

If they do get it under control, he is going to guide this young pitching staff to success.  But Joe Mauer's health is the key to this team's '09 chances.  They need him in every facet of the game, but the one area they need him more than his stellar batting average, on-base percentage, and immaculate defense is managing an extremely young, but extremely talented pitching staff. 

Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano can have 15-20 win seasons a piece, but not without Mauer calling the game.  Scott Baker recently got roughed up in a Spring Training game, and when asked what the problem was, he immediately said "Pitch selection."

He said he's so used to not shaking off Joe that he didn't think about what to throw in certain situations. 

Baker, Liriano, and Slowey all have tremendous potential. If Mauer is behind the plate and Crain and Nathan are closing out the eighth and ninth innings, they have quite the formula for success. 

For those wondering about Liriano's health, he's two and a half years removed from his Tommy John's surgery. As of March 23, he had a 2.95 spring ERA, and all reports say he's ready to have another big season; not as great as '06, mind you, but still a 2.50-3.00 ERA.

Their offense is the reason I don't think they'll win the division. It's quite suspect, with Morneau being the only heavy hitter, but Kubel is good for at least 20 homers, 80 RBI, and maybe Delmon Young can finally figure it out this year. 

Even if they don't have that pop, this team wins with small ball, defense, and speed.  Carlos Gomez and Denard Span will have to improve their on-base percentage before the Twinkies can succeed. If they do, that's a lot of stolen bases and sacrifice bunts that will be enough for this team to win 3-2 or 2-1.

Defensively, their left side of the infield is as good as it gets with Joe Crede at third and Nick Punto at short, which is always a huge help to young pitchers when they know those guys behind them will make plays.

Another key for the Twins will be whether or not Jose Mijares can finally get over the terrible luck he's been having and be the pitcher they had in September (0.87 ERA, 0.29 WHIP in 10.1 IP). Since then he had an argument with his manager in winter ball (where he had a 1.40 ERA) and left early. Following that, he showed up to camp out of shape and has gotten shellacked in Spring Training.

If he can return to form in Triple-A and be a seventh inning option, you'd better not be trailing this team after the sixth, or it'll be over before you know it.

The reason I think they finish behind the Indians is simply the difference in offensive firepower, but the Twins have enough to contend and could easily pull out a first-place finish.

Coming in third...

The Chicago White Sox

Mark Buerhle is as solid as it gets for a No. 1, and John Danks will have another great year. I'm not as sure about Gavin Floyd; he has the stuff, just not the control.

Nearly 4 BB/9 innings and 30 home runs allowed last year shows he has trouble locating the strike zone, and after him it gets ugly with Colon and Contreras rounding out the rotation.

If one of those guys gets hurt, Clayton Richard would step in. Richard is a 26-year-old prospect who has a lot of potential, but struggled last year in the big leagues with an ERA over 6.00. I'm not nearly as concerned about their starting pitching, though.

Their bullpen is also terrific, with Linebrink, Thornton, Dotel, and Jenks, so no worries there. 

My biggest concern for them is their offense.  This is a team that lives and dies by the long ball. Dye, Thome, and Konerko aren't getting any younger, and two out of three of them don't hit for average. 

Quentin, clearly, is a stud, as is Alexei Ramirez, but Chris Getz, Josh Fields, and Dewayne Wise just make this lineup too weak to compete without the ability to play small ball, like the aforementioned Twins. 

No one on this team hit over .300 last year, and only two players had on-base percentages over .344. Yet they had three players hit over 30 home runs.  That spells trouble to me, and it also means a lot of stranded runners if they can only swing for the fences, instead of putting the ball in play or working a walk to stretch out pitch counts.

Considering they'll be facing the Indians and Twins pitching staffs on a regular basis, I think they'll lose those battles more often than not. 

Ozzie Guillen does get the best out of his players, though, and is a terrific situational manager, knowing just when to put the hit-and-run on or what pitcher to bring in to get out of a jam. We'll see if he can work his magic again this year.

Despite all that, I still have the reigning Central Division champs missing the big dance.

In fourth place...


Kansas City Royals

This team kind of reminds me of last year's Rays. They're makeup is comprable, not to be mistaken as identical, though.

I wouldn't be surprised if they did pull a half-way Tampa Bay run, finishing in third, considering their prospects are now of age.

And now that some time has passed since their debuts, all the pressure of those previous expectations have been somewhat lifted. Maybe they can finally put something together.

Offensively, they actually look pretty good. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler will need to live up to the hype this year for the team to make some noise. But the lineup shakes down pretty well. Adding Mike Jacobs is a solid pick-up. Mike Aviles, who can hardly be called a prospect at 28, needs to prove he can repeat what he did last year over a full season.

Jose Guillen and Coco Crisp are two players who've lost a step, but maybe they can return to brilliance. In fact, Guillen already had a solid 2008, so there should be no reason to expect him to regress in '09. Not great, overall, but it has potential. 

Starting pitching is the exact same thing. Gil Meche is not an ace, but he's consistently above average, as is Zack Greinke, who showed some flashes of what he's capable of last year. 

Kyle Davies is a young pitcher the Braves gave up on, but if he can get some control on his...well control, then he could make the Royals front-three very formidable. 

That brings us to Luke Hochevar. If he makes the rotation (which I think he will), he  could be a pleasant surprise this year and make the Royals dangerous.  Ramirez and Bannister will not make much of a difference for this team, no matter who gets the No. 5 spot. 

The bullpen has Soria, who has clearly shown he can handle the job of closer. The rest of the back-end inning-eaters is a venerable who's who of guys that should've been great, but never figured it out: Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Joel Peralta.

The overlying theme for this Royals team is this: A lot of potential. Whether it's with prospects or guys who missed their prime, they could do something big.  Will those prospects fulfill the public's expectations? Will the players who missed chances earlier in their career make the best of this opportunity? If so, the Royals could surprise some people in 2009.

And in fifth place...

The Detroit Tigers

Last year was an abomination, and without any significant changes to the roster, 2009 won't be any different.

Starting pitching is still abysmal, but I feel Verlander will bounce back and make himself a worthy ace again.

Bonderman, believe it or not, is only 26 years old, and I just feel at some point, he will figure it out, but based on history, I can't give him that benefit of the doubt just yet. 

Edwin Jackson was their big addition in a trade with Tampa, but it seems like they're adding more of the same. A young pitcher with great potential that just can't put it together in the big leagues.  Galarraga seems like he will be solid, but this rotation just isn't enough compared to what they'll be going up against on a daily basis. If you stack their ones, twos and threes against other teams, it looks like this...

Verlander, Bonderman, Jackson vs. Cliff Lee, Carmona, Pavano.

Verlander, Bonderman, Jackson vs. Baker, Liriano, Slowey.

Verlander, Bonderman, Jackson vs. Buerhle, Danks, Floyd.

Verlander, Bonderman, Jackson vs. Meche, Greinke, Davies.

I take the opposition in all those matchups, with the exception of the Royals, which is more of a wash between the two teams. Take into account the Tigers' bullpen is also atrocious, so even if they win the battle of starters, they will lose when it comes to the seventh inning on.

Outside of Zumaya, there's nothing worth noting here. Brandon Lyon was their big signing. And in case you don't know, Brandon Lyon was the guy who couldn't hold the closer job in Arizona.

If Zumaya is healthy, I would be surprised if he didn't move to the closer spot, but that's if he's healthy. Besides, who is going to bridge the gap for the Tigers to get to the closer?

Rodney with his 6.7 BB per 9?

Ryan Perry may be the only bright spot in the Tigers pitching department this year, with a plus fastball sitting in the mid-90s and a great slider, but he probably will start in Triple-A. He'll be the best thing to watch for if you're a Tigers fan.

Offense is great, but they're going to have to outscore their opponents to win, which is no key to success. Pitching, when it's on, is unhittable. If Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano or Mark Buerhle are hitting their spots, there's little you can do, even if you are Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, or Curtis Granderson. 

Their defense got an upgrade with Adam Everett at short, and their offense can compensate for his lack of hitting, but there's just too many deficiencies for this team to compete.

So there it is, your 2009 AL Central standings. 

This division really is wide open, and I think even the Royals can make a push this year, so it should be interesting to watch how it all ends. Will Mauer's back be a problem? Will Pronk get back to form? How will those White Sox, young and old, hold up entering 2009?  Can the Tigers starters make their mark and shock the big leagues? Will the Royals be this year's Rays?

Should be fun.


Best of the American League
Tampa Bay
Los Angeles
Total votes: 270

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