The American League Central was a difficult division to call this year. That sounds like an excuse for some wildly inaccurate predictions, and we’ll get to some of those in a second, but it’s actually a fair comment. No one expected the Royals to be in contention, this isn’t 1985 you know, but you could have painted a realistic scenario for all four of the other teams in the division to come out on top. The closely-contested nature of the AL Central was proved as it ended in a single game play-off for the second successive season.
Joe: Twins, Mark: White Sox, Matt: Indians, Russ: Indians
Joe got it right on the button with his Twins pick, while Mark’s White Sox selection didn’t quite come through. As for Russ and I, there are your ‘wildly inaccurate predictions’ mentioned above.
1. Minnesota Twins (87-76 – lost to the Yankees in the ALDS)
A year after suffering heartache in a single game play-off against the White Sox, the Twins forced a game 163 yet again and this time came out on the right side of the result. It didn’t prolong their season by a great amount as the Yankees subsequently swept them in the ALDS, but it did give them their first division title since 2006 (when they were swept by the A’s) and they had two extra games to say farewell to the Metrodome.
One of the main reasons I was cautious on the Twins’ prospects back in early April was Joe Mauer’s lingering back injury. Nobody seemed to know how long he would be out for, or if it would hamper him throughout the season when he did return to the field. I think we can safely say he felt no ill effects after making his season debut on 1 May and he should be awarded the AL MVP award later today to cap off a fine year.
The M and M boys in Minnesota (Justin Morneau being the other half of the duo, of course) rightly grabbed the headlines again; however it says a lot about the contributions by the likes of Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Jason Kubel that the offense kept rolling along even though the two stars missed a number of games over the course of the season (Morneau’s year was ended on 12 September by a stress fracture in his lower back). The Twins also benefitted from strong pitching out of the bullpen by Joe Nathan, Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier and good seasons by starters Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. Carl Pavano came across from the Indians to add another solid starter to the rotation over the final two months of the season and shortstop Orlando Cabrera was a notable addition at the trade deadline.
Looking at their season record, the Twins didn’t have any spectacular months or eye-catching winning streaks. They just kept on playing consistent baseball all year long and that consistency was a division-winning virtue. The one blot on their record was an 0-7 mark against the Yankees, something that foretold their quick exit from the play-offs.
But let’s not end on a negative note. It was a successful year for the Twins and, with open-air baseball in a brand new stadium to look forward to; their fans have every reason to be cheerful heading into 2010.
2. Detroit Tigers (86-77)
Nobody knew what to make of the Tigers heading into the season. They had plenty of useful pieces, but then again they were seen as favourites in 2008 and promptly finished dead last in the Central. You would have been a brave or foolish person to confidently predict their fate.
It turned out that Detroit’s dreadful 2008 was made to look like a blip by a resurgent team who lost out to the Twins at the last moment. They became joint leaders in the Central on 10 May and didn’t fall down to second position from that point until the Twins won game 163 on 6 October. Missing out on the play-offs was a bitter blow; however it’s unlikely they would have fared much better than Minnesota in the postseason. In truth, the Tigers were a .500 club that scratched together a few extra wins (largely thanks to their 14-4 record against the Indians, as opposed to going 2-11 against the Red Sox and Yankees combined) and that was enough to challenge for the top spot in a division without a dominant team.
The unpredictable nature of the Tigers is a consequence of their roster. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander are two of the best players in the AL and in 2009 their efforts were supplemented by Edwin Jackson, an excellent addition via a pre-season trade with the Rays, and the rookie Rick Porcello (14-9, 3.96 ERA at just twenty years old – fitness permitting, he’s going to be a genuine ace for years to come) . So they have a small core of elite players (maybe Jackson’s second half suggests he might be less than that, maybe Jeremy Bonderman can rejoin that group after two injury shortened seasons), but how the team does from there depends on the supporting cast. If they are average overall, including when a mid-season addition doesn’t pan out, such as happened with Jarrod Washburn this year, then you’re looking at approximately an 84 win team. If several have career years and the bullpen performs well then they could win 90 games. If some of the supporting cast slumps and the bullpen hits a long rocky patch, they could be back down in 75-win territory.
The offense is a good example of this problem. After Cabrera, even the next best hitters gave cause for concern. Magglio Ordonez had to hit like mad (.359/.422/.525) from the end of June onwards to raise his numbers up to around his normal level and even then he only went deep nine times all year. Brandon Inge hit 27 homers, but struck out 170 times and had an OBP of .314, while Curtis Granderson’s 30 homers disguised the fact that he continued to struggle so badly against left-handed pitching (.183/.245/.239 with 2 HR) that you’ve got to question Jim Leyland’s decision to start him at all against southpaws (and it pains me to write that, as Curtis does a tremendous amount of good work as an ambassador for baseball outside the U.S.).
The Tigers had a decent season in 2009, but it’s difficult to predict how they will perform next year, particularly as GM Dave Dombrowski doesn’t appear to have a great deal of wriggle room to make major changes to the roster over the offseason.
3. Chicago White Sox (79-83)
From an overall perspective, it was a mediocre year for the White Sox. They finished below .500 in a division that, as we’ve already seen, was winnable and they didn’t really mount a challenge in the end. An 11-17 August left them in third place, six games behind the Tigers, and they were unable to close the gap the rest of the way. Jim Thome’s departure to the play-off-bound Dodgers at the beginning of September was an acknowledgement that 2009 wasn’t going to be the White Sox’s year.
The offense never got going and only the Royals (4.23) and Mariners (3.95) scored less runs per game in the American League than the White Sox did (4.47). The biggest disappointment of all was Carlos Quentin. He had a breakout year in 2008 and would have been an MVP contender had he not ended his season a month early after injuring himself in a freak accident (fracturing a bone in his wrist when banging his bat in frustration). Injuries cut into his playing time again this year, he missed all of June and most of July with foot and knee ailments, but he didn’t perform well even when he was fit enough to take the field. The hope is that he can recuperate over the winter and be back to full form and fitness in 2010.
A 79-83 record and a ‘lost’ year for their batting star of 2008 would seem to lead to a forgettable season, but that was far from the case on the south side of Chicago. Firstly, White Sox fans saw the emergence of the rookie Gordon Beckham, who looks set to be a favourite at the Cell for years to come. Secondly, GM Kenny Williams completed arguably the biggest trade of the season by acquiring Jake Peavy from the Padres. His initial impact was tempered by injury, but a genuine ace like Peavy could be a difference-maker in what looks set to be a tightly contested division for the foreseeable future.
And then there was the considerable matter of Mark Buehrle’s perfect game on 23 July against the Rays, pitched in front of a rapturous home crowd. It was just the eighteenth perfect game in Major League history and everyone lucky enough to witness the historic event, from those at the ballpark to Brits following the action live via MLB.com, will never forget it. In particular, Dewayne Wise’s incredible catch that kept Buehrle’s bid alive in the ninth inning will live long in the memory. I’ve seen it again countless times since and it never fails to sweep me off my feet: a moment of pure baseball excellence, emotion and joy.
So White Sox fans can’t feel too disappointed with what the 2009 season brought them; however, they will be looking for a return to the play-offs from their team in 2010.
Cleveland Indians (65-97)
White Sox fans had some exciting moments to enjoy, balancing out their disappointing year; Cleveland Indians fans did not. In fact they had the opposite. Fan favourite Victor Martinez was tearfully traded to the Red Sox just before the trade deadline and the season ended with two more former favourites pitching against each other in the World Series: Sabathia and Lee with the Yankees and Phillies respectively. The Indians’ former stars were playing elsewhere, while Grady Sizemore missed the best part of two months due to injuries and Travis Hafner’s 2004-2006 peak moved a further year away, making a return to those heights ever less likely.
It was a thoroughly demoralizing campaign for Cleveland and manager Eric Wedge paid the price by being sacked just before the season came to an end. The Tribe started badly with an 8-14 April, torpedoed their own season by going 9-18 in June and then stumbled to a miserable climax with a 7-21 September, including an eleven-game losing streak. Those of us who tipped them to win the division were completely wrong and in retrospect it’s clear that I sensed the danger signs (“I like the Indians although their rotation could end up disappointing followers of the Tribe”) and failed to heed them. Lee pitched brilliantly as expected and Carl Pavano did a decent job before moving to the Twins, but Cleveland didn’t have much else to offer in the rotation and expecting the likes of Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey and Fausto Carmona (remember the excitement caused by his 19-8 season in 2007?) to pitch them into the postseason was overly optimistic to say the least. Kerry Wood was acquired over the offseason and he pitched well enough; however a top closer doesn’t count for much when the team around him doesn’t give him a chance to save important victories.
Were there any bright spots? Well, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo showed what he could do if given a whole season to contribute on a regular basis and twenty-three year old Asdrubal Cabrera had an impressive season, hitting forty-two doubles and fielding well at shortstop. The Indians have also acquired some interesting prospects over the last few seasons that could form the nucleus of an exciting young team a few years down the line. At the top of the list is their star catching prospect Carlos Santana who looks set to take over Martinez’s role for years to come in Cleveland, probably after spending the first half of 2010 in Triple-A while another catching prospect, Lou Marson, gets some Big League experience.
Despite his win-loss record with the Nationals, new manager Manny Acta is highly regarded and his recent appointment heralds the start of a new era in Cleveland. It’s never easy for fans to watch their once-contending team lose its best players and effectively start again. That’s just how things are for the non-big market teams though and the Tribe are at least lucky to have an excellent Front Office, led by GM Mark Shapiro, that knows better than to kid themselves that they can still be a contender.
Kansas City Royals (65-97)
The Royals’ season was all about Zack Greinke. He rightfully won the AL Cy Young award with the type of season that many predicted he could have when he came onto the Major League scene as a twenty year old in 2004. It has been far from plain-sailing since that point as Greinke laboured through a seventeen-loss season in 2005 and then nearly walked away from the sport altogether due to his battle with a social anxiety disorder. He was given the time and support to find a way to cope with his illness and his completion of a full season as a starter in 2008 (going 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA) was widely cheered; however, that was just a stepping stone to even greater things.
He started the 2009 season by pitching four shutouts in his first six games, three of which were complete game efforts with ten strikeouts in each, and he kept rolling along from there. Greinke’s excellence stems from having the perfect combination of outstanding stuff, great command and a natural feel for pitching. That allows him to completely dominate a lineup to earn an eight-inning win in one start (striking out fifteen Indians on 25 August) and then throw a one-hit, complete game shutout the next (30 August against the Mariners) while striking out just five. His numbers look special on their own (2.16 ERA, 242 strikeouts to 51 walks etc), but you need to combine them with watching some of his starts (which you can do via MLB.com) to truly appreciate that he was a master of his craft in 2009. Anyone who in any way doubts his Cy Young credentials because he only won 16 games with a poor Royals team is wrong to do so, simple as that.
Greinke was virtually the only positive for the Royals though. Billy Butler and Alberto Callaspo performed well and Alex Gordon is still young enough to get to grips with the Majors, although his ranking from some as one of the best prospects in baseball prior to the 2007 season is beginning to look like a false dawn. The renovation of Kauffman Stadium has also created a great place to watch a ballgame, by all accounts. It’s just a shame that the locals don’t have a great team to watch.
I wasn’t at all surprised because GM Dayton Moore made some baffling decisions, adding players that didn’t seem likely to help them all that much and an 18-11 start didn’t disguise this. On-base percentage may be looked down on by some who think it is an invention of ‘Billy Beane’s Moneyball’, but it’s not simply a goofy idea dreamed up by stat freaks. The aim of an offense is to score runs. Players that get on base help you to do that, players that don’t get on base make it more difficult. Mike Jacobs (.318 career OBP prior to 2009), Willie Bloomquist (.322) and mid-season recruit Yuniesky Betancourt (.305) are not terrible players, but you don’t want to be relying on them to use up a lot of at-bats as key members of your lineup. All three had worse OBP’s with the Royals in 2009 (.297, .308 and .269) than their career marks at the end of 2008. It summed up the franchise: one that was already struggling and then took another step back in 2009. Sadly Royals fans just have Greinke’s starts and the performances of a few other players to look forward to in 2010.