As I tend to do, I've saved the favorite for last. In the American League Central, that has to be the Chicago White Sox because they are the defending champions of the division. This is certainly the most wide open set of five in Major League Baseball. Depending on who's talking, every team has a true shot to take the flag.
You cannot say that about any other division in baseball—thanks to the San Diego Padres and the AL West (only has four teams).
The first preview I did was for the Cleveland Indians and I'm sticking to what I said there—the Tribe will take the AL Central and may just surprise everyone by popping up in the World Series.
However, when all else is equal, the favorite has to be the king o' the hill from the previous year. Although all four other teams in the Junior Circuit's Central division have improved and should see rebound years from crucial pieces, none has made titanic strides.
I'd say whatever margin for error the ChiSox had in 2008 is gone and they're in trouble heading into 2009. Until that's actually happened on the field, though, they're the team to beat.
And it's based on the following roster:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Paul Konerko
Second base—Chris Getz/Gordon Beckham
Third base—Josh Fields
Left field—Carlos Quentin
Center field—Jerry Owens/Dewayne Wise
Right field—Jermaine Dye
Designated hitter—Jim Thome
The White Sox have finally decided to get younger, having (apparently) made commitments to prospects Fields—26 with enormous power potential—and Owens—just turned 28 and tons of speed. I guess it's to make up with the ancient pieces in right and DHing.
Second base seems to be the only position up for grabs in Spring Training, although Ozzie Guillen is hyping Wise for some reason in the outfield.
Jayson Nix is raking in the exhibition season, but the guy couldn't hit well enough in Denver to keep his starting gig with the Colorado Rockies. That doesn't bode well.
Beckham is the White Sox top prospect according to Baseball America, but he's naturally a shortstop. Shortstop is far more difficult than second so he should be able to handle the transition fairly easily, but it's gonna take at least some time to learn the nuances.
Brent Lillibridge came over from the Atlanta Braves in the Javier Vazquez trade, but he's already amassed 23 strikeouts in 80 at-bats. Yuck. I say it's Getz (also a top prospect and at his natural spot) to open the season and Beckham eventually takes the job.
In a totally unrelated matter, can someone please explain how MLB can complain about the economy when Ben Broussard is making almost $4 million. That's outrageous.
Ace—Mark Buehrle (L)
Second spot—John Danks (L)
Third spot—Gavin Floyd (R)
Fourth spot—Clayton Richard (L)
Fifth spot—Jeff Marquez (R)
The starters are actually a lot better than they look. I'm not a fan of Buehrle (partly because his last name is impossible to spell), but you can't argue with his career numbers especially coming from a southpaw. Danks (23 in April) and Floyd (26) burst on the scene last year and, while Danks has better stuff and probably a higher upside, Floyd had arguably the better season.
Richard is a 25-year-old phenom who's the No. 3 prospect in the ChiSox system. He got off to a rough start after his debut in '08, but he's a ground ball pitcher with good stuff and decent control so there's a lot to like.
The fifth spot could be a huge problem. And by huge I mean fat—Bartolo Colon fat because he was apparently the plan until another injury (mercifully) forced him down.
Now, the White Sox are giving spring starts to Jack Egbert (I've got nothing), Lance Broadway (let's hope not), and Marquez. Marquez came over from the New York Yankees and will only be 25 in May so he might be a good bet for the spot as Chicago hopes to see another Danks/Floyd-type arrival.
The No. 2 prospect, 22-year-old lefty Aaron Poreda, is also in camp. He's not getting starts and has never thrown above Double-A ball so he should start the season in the minors.
The $10 million man, Jose Contreras, is also working his way back from his Achilles' injury. Who the hell is offering these contracts?
Closer—Bobby Jenks (R)
Set-up—Octavio Dotel (R)
Set-up—Matt Thornton (L)
Set-up—Scott Linebrink (R)
Set-up—Mike MacDougal (R)
You can see why baseball observers are looking for a good race out of the AL Central. The defending champs' armor looks about as stout as a chain link fence.
On offense, they've really only got three sincerely frightening bats—Jermaine Dye, Carlos Quentin, and Alexei Ramirez.
Dye is the eldest of the trio at 35, but his '08 campaign was actually better than his career average so the years don't seem to bother him much. He hit .292 with 41 doubles, 34 home runs, 96 runs scored, 96 runs batted in, a .344 on-base percentage, and an .885 OPS. Jermaine is quickly losing his legs in the outfield and that won't matter in the slightest if he keeps scorching like that.
Quentin was well on his way to the AL Most Valuable Player award before ending his own chances with that freak-but-stupid injury. He'll turn 27 in August so there's no reason to believe he won't rebound from the wrist ding and continue to produce up to his vast potential, as he did in '08—a .288 average, 26 doubles, 36 HRs, 96 runs, 100 RBI, a .394 OBP, and a .965 OPS in only 480 ABs.
Ramirez burst on the scene much like Quentin except with less power and more speed—a .290 average with 22 doubles, 21 bombs, 65 runs, 77 RBI, 13 stolen bases, a .317 OBP, and a .792 OPS. In only his first season at the age of 27, the Cuban Missile should build on those numbers when given the starting job from day one.
But that's where the really good news ends with the bats.
Jim Thome is still good for 30+ big flies, but his days of contributing elsewhere are over. Paul Konerko will give you less power with a bit more average and A.J. Pierzynski gives even less power with even more average (but still not north of .300).
And we've covered the three youngsters at the other positions since they are all potential with not much history to project.
If somebody goes down, Chicago's in trouble because the bench is even less proven and lacks the potential. There's nobody even worth discussing (having already mentioned Broussard's salary).
Luckily for the Pale Hose, the pitching staff is in much better shape otherwise even its status as defending AL Central champs wouldn't earn Chicago the benefit of my doubt.
Nobody in the starting rotation will dominate you with stuff, but the front three—Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd—all keep their WHIPs right around 1.30 and earned run averages under 4.00. That means they miss their share of bats and don't walk too many batters.
And that is the recipe for success for any pitcher. Doubly so for one working in the more potent Junior Circuit. Even the homer totals aren't too bad considering the home park isn't a pitcher's haven.
The back-end of the rotation is in limbo, but that's the case for most teams and Chicago's got an ace or two up its sleeve in the young prospects Clayton Richard and Aaron Poreda.
The bullpen is rock solid, led by one of the better closers in baseball.
Bobby Jenks blew only four saves in 34 chances last season while holding opponents to a WHIP of 1.10, ERA of 2.63, and surrendering only three taters in 61+ innings. His Ks were way down (38) due to back issues, but even that speaks to Jenks' effectiveness.
Laboring with an injury that obviously cost him a lot of oomph off his heater, the guy still outperformed most closers in the game. Jenks is a keeper.
And, as is usually the case with great closers, the bridge to him is sturdy as all get-out.
Matt Thornton is dynamite for the South Siders as a southpaw—1.00 WHIP, 2.67 ERA, and 77 whiffs against only 19 walks in 67+ innings. To boot, the lefty only suffered five ding-dongs.
Octavio Dotel is meant to be a set-up guy. He doesn't have the mentality requisite to shut the door, but he's got it in spades to be the guy before the guy—1.21 WHIP, 3.76 ERA, 92 Ks against 29 walks in 67 innings pitched, and 12 HRs.
Scott Linebrink, Mike MacDougal, and even a guy like D.J. Carrasco all keep guys off base and/or runs off the board while possessing strikeout stuff.
When all is said and done, this is a team that fits into the San Francisco Giant mold of using pitching to ride into contention. The problem, of course, is the Chicago White Sox don't play in the National League West. They don't even play in the National League.
And that's a problem.
Even with a very good pitching staff, you're probably gonna have to score four or five runs to win most nights in the Junior Circuit. That's what the designated hitter does for you—ups the offensive ante while making life harder on the hurlers.
If Jermaine Dye or Carlos Guillen goes down for an extended period, if the youngsters at key positions don't pan out, or (really) if any offensive expectations aren't met, four to five runs will be a lot to ask from what's left.
If more than one of those things happen, stick a fork in 'em because the ChiSox will be done.
Too bad, because that staff could do some damage with the right offense.