Chicago White Sox
Last Year: 88-74, 2nd in AL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: The White Sox say they’re going “all-in” this season, complete with a corresponding bump in payroll. Setting aside the question of why the team hasn’t been leveraging its big-market advantage as much as it could have in the past, they’ll be the top dollar dogs in their division this season.
What are Sox fans getting for that money? Probably the best pitching staff in the division. Not only do the Sox have four good starters in John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson — plus a fifth if Jake Peavy can get healthy — but they’ve also paid their relievers well, bumping Matt Thornton’s pay and bringing in Jesse Crain and Will Ohman. You can question the wisdom of paying top-dollar for guys not likely to throw many innings. But the Sox also have their share of minor leaguers to throw at the wall at Charlotte, so should someone falter or last year’s top draft pick Chris Sale isn’t ready, someone should be ready to stick.
The offense might be a bigger problem. Juan Pierre’s glove is what makes him an adequate player. Alex Rios and Alexei Rios are as streaky and Carlos Quentin as fragile as ever. Paul Konerko must come close to repeating his biggest season, while Gordon Beckham and A.J. Pierzynski have to bounce back for poor years.
It helps that the Sox have abandoned their silly rotating DH scheme of a year ago, and Adam Dunn was probably the best potential fit. If he adjusts to life in the American League and has a typical Dunn-like season, the Sox should probably be viewed as the favorites in the AL Central.
Last Year: 91-71, 1st in NL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: The Reds surprised everyone by batting their way to an NL Central title last season with enough pitching options to overcome injuries and various ineffective performances.
It would be an even bigger surprise to see it happen again. After an MVP season from1B Joey Votto and a breakout from RF Jay Bruce, the offense should be good again, with other effective players in smaller roles, like CF Drew Stubbs and 2B Brandon Phillips. It’s hard to see both 3B Scott Rolen and C Ramon Hernandez both staying healthy and hitting as well as they did a year ago, especially while asking for nothing else to go wrong.
The pitching, though, is where things really get dicey. Bronson Arroyo is always walking a fine line between solid work and disaster. I’m skeptical Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez can stay healthy the full season. Consider me also bearish on Mike Leake repeating his surprising rookie season. Should Homer Bailey or Travis Wood establish themselves for a full season’s worth of work, the Reds probably still don’t make up the ground they lose from the surprising patchwork job of 2010.
Hopefully the team’s strong bullpen — including the electric Arnoldis Chapman — looms larger than I expect for this group, which I expect to finish third in the NL Central this season.
Last Year: 69-93
CHRIS PUMMER: The Indians are nobody’s darkhorse pick like they were for some last year. The realization that there’s not enough big-league pitching in this organization is probably the reason. There doesn’t even look to be many arms with upside that will begin the season in Cleveland, with Fausto Carmona being what he is — Bronson Arroyo-lite — and Justin Masterson unable to leverage his great groundball rates into an advantage.
That’s probably in part because the Indians were awful defensively. That might not improve, even with Jhonny Peralta moving on. A still-slowed Grady Sizemore, plus a likely revolving cast of left fielders means Cleveland won’t be much better at catching fly balls. Orlando Cabrera might play as a second baseman, but his sick bat might mean the Indians aren’t really getting healthy at the position.
RF Shin-Soo Choo is one of the best hitters in the league, and Carlos Santana could become one of the best catchers in the game faster than you think. With some other solid performances, maybe this team makes a run a .500. More likely they just stay comfortably in front of the Royals and anyone else who might by chance implode in the AL Central. This is going to be a long rebuilding process for Cleveland.
Last Year: 83-79, 3rd in NL West
CHRIS PUMMER: The Rockies made things interesting last year, hanging within one game back in the NL West up until a late-September nosedive kept them from catching the imploding Padres or staying ahead of the eventual World Series-winning Giants.
You’d have to think the Rockies can contend again, though maybe part of the Coors Field effect that’s hard to weed out of the numbers is the difficulty in looking at a Colorado pitching staff and mustering optimism.
Ubaldo Jimenez is one of the best starters in baseball, but after him there’s the overpaid (Aaron Cook, and now Jorge De La Rosa), the not-fully-tested (Jhoulys Chacin), and then some other guys. John Maine and Jason Hammel are among those other guys the Rockies need to cobble together into about 300 good innings to make another run at the NL West.
No setbacks for offensive monsters SS Troy Tulowitzki and LF Carlos Gonzalez would help. So would some improvement from Seth Smith, Dexter Fowler or Ian Stewart. Catcher Chris Iannetta needs to keep hold of the starting job now that it’s his to lose. I do like Todd Helton to have a good year if he’s healthy.
Right now I’d be cautious of rating the Rockies higher than second-best in the NL West right now.
Last Year: 81-81, 3rd in AL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: It’s been a few years since I’ve liked what the Tigers have started the season with. This year isn’t any different.
Besides Brandon Inge, the rest of the infield looks like a potential disaster with SS Jhonny Peralta, a fragile Carlos Guillen at 2B and Miguel Cabrera at 1B. In particular, Guillen and Peralta might not hit well enough to cover for any defensive deficiencies.
In the outfield I think CF Austin Jackson’s offensive numbers will fall back to earth, especially if he doesn’t show more power. Magglio Ordonez would look better at DH than RF. The Tigers do have the capable Ryan Raburn in LF, and while Brennan Boesch will likely never again hit like he did the first half of last season, you could do worse for corner outfield insurance. If Casper Wells gets a lot of playing time, the battle for third place with Cleveland is on.
The Tigers signing of Victor Martinez was panned by some, but I like the move. He’ll get time at C, DH and 1B, essentially giving the team flexibility at all of those positions. If Al Avila can’t establish himself at C, look for Martinez to be there most days by August. If Cabrera is really awful with the glove, look for Martinez there. Otherwise, Martinez is a legitimately great hitter who is worth of batting from the DH spot.
Detroit did roll the dice with its pitching staff. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are a great 1-2 at the top of the rotation, but the Tigers must have bounce backs from Brad Penny and Rick Porcello, who are returning from injury-plagued and ineffective campaigns, respectively. Phil Coke must also prove he can handle a starter’s workload, even with the low expectations place on a fifth starter.
Those things are imperative, because there’s not much depth left should things not work out.
I have a hard time believing more than two of those three things can happen for Detroit this year, which I why I think the Tigers will again finish in third place.