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Deconstructing The Process

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I figured that Jonathan Sanchez would have outings where he bordered on horrible. His lack of command combined with his electric pitches, mean he can strikeout a ton of hitters while giving away free bases. It’s like he’s a member of the Flying Wallendas.

Sanchez entered the game averaging 89.6 mph on his fastball this year. On Tuesday in Cleveland, 89 mph was his maximum velocity as he averaged just 87.2 mph. To go along with the drop in speed, Sanchez is moving away from that pitch. Of the 115 magnificent pitches he threw, only 30 of them were classified as fastballs. That’s just 26 percent. Unreal. He’s going away from the fastball in favor of his change-up. As Hudler pointed out in the key at bat against Jack Hannahan, when Sanchez is throwing almost exclusively off speed stuff, they just wait… And wait… And wait.

Sigh. More on that plate appearance in a moment.

Not that Sanchez is any kind of great pitcher. He’s not… Because he can’t locate consistently. However, it’s baffling as to why he would move away from the fastball. Is this a coaching call? Or is this something he’s doing on his own? In the postgame, he simply said he “didn’t have his fastball.” Velocity, location… All of the above. I suppose in the grand scheme it’s accurate that he didn’t have his fastball. He didn’t generate a single swing and miss of the 30 he threw and only 12 of them were strikes. That’s just a brutal pitch. Here’s his velocity chart from Tuesday, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

That’s the profile of a starter who didn’t leave the bullpen with a full tank of gas.

So the game on Tuesday can be boiled down to two key moments. The first, I already alluded to – the Sanchez matchup against Hannahan with runners at the corners with two down and the Royals trailing by a run.

At that moment Sanchez had surrendered three walks in the inning. It was the second time in the game he had walked three batters to load the bases. Read that previous sentence again… It was the second time in the game Sanchez walked the bases loaded.

OK… So the guy can’t locate. He’s in trouble. And at this point, he’d thrown around 109 pitches and he had practically stopped throwing his fastball entirely. Aside from an Asdrubal Cabrera double in the first inning, he had scattered a few hits… but that’s largely because he wasn’t around the strike zone. Sanchez was fortunate the Indians hadn’t broken the game open by this point.

So in a nutshell, your starter isn’t throwing in a manner he which he normally pitches. He’s deep into a pitch count and losing what little steam he brought with him to the mound. He’s somehow kept the Royals in the game, with a deficit of just a single run. Do you…

A) Stick with him. It’s his jam, let him get out of it.
B) Thank your lucky stars you’re still in the game and pull him for another lefty that’s warm in the bullpen – Tim Collins.

Everyone probably chooses “B.” Except Yosty. He’s such a contrarian.

And as previously noted, a steady diet of change-ups and Hannahan hits a bases-clearing double.

Later in the game you have this situation… Royals are trailing 4-1. Hosmer walks to leadoff the inning, advances to second on a ground out and moves to third on a Moustakas single. Quintero whiffs, so we have runners on the corners and two out. All we’ve heard about is how the Royals have failed with runners in scoring position. Failing to get “The Big Hit.” Naturally, Our Mitch delivers a line drive down the right field line. Hosmer, of course, walks home. Moustakas is busting it around second and heading for third… This is a sure-fire double. And look! Shin Soo Choo – while he has a strong throwing arm – isn’t exactly flying to the corner to field the ball. This looks like a perfect opportunity to put two on the board and cut the deficit to a single run.

Screeeeeech!

Third base coach Eddie Rodriguez throws up the stop sign. Now, it’s difficult to tell from my couch, but it sure looked like Moustakas was at third the moment Choo fired the ball in from the corner. Meaning there was an outstanding chance that Moose scores. A better than outstanding chance.

Yet he was held at third.

Apparently, third base coaches get tight, too.

Unreal. The Royals have been running stupid all season and they now they back off? When they’re scuffling to score and are presented an opportunity on a silver platter? You absolutely have to send the runner in that situation. Have. To.

So in our two situations we have one where the Royals gave away two runs on a slow hook and failed to capitalize on a sure-fire run scoring opportunity. That’s a net loss of three runs.

Ballgame.

An all too familiar refrain.

The bats are still ice-cold and aside from Maier, nobody is delivering with runners in scoring position, but I’ll hang this loss on the coaching staff. Yost’s slow trigger and Rodriguez’s bizarre decision cost this team a great opportunity to break this slide. Instead it continues.

And I adjust the doomsday clock one minute closer to midnight.

Kyle Davies left the game last night in the first inning with anterior shoulder soreness and will undergo an MRI today to determine the severity of the injury. In related news, karmic retribution rains down upon Royals fans rejoicing at an injury to one of their own in the form of a 19-1 annihilation at the hands of the Cleveland Indians.

I don’t believe in karma or any other type of supernatural phenomenon, but last night’s game certainly gave me a bit of skepticism. The much-maligned pitcher Kyle Davies is removed in the first inning, only to be replaced by a parade of pitchers surrendering an unprecedented number of runs. It was the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” moment.

Before anyone could utter the phrase “Does this mean we’ll see Danny Duff..” the scoreboard was being changed so fast it looked like the dashboard of Doc Brown’s DeLorean. I think any Royals fan began to instantly question whether or not wishing for the downfall of Davies was in reality the best course of action.

I’ve long argued that while Kyle Davies isn’t a great pitcher, he’s a fine back of the rotation guy on a large swath of Major League teams. Yes, I know that Craig posited that he was the worst pitcher in history, and the numbers do bear that out. However, what I took away from those numbers is that he’s just been given a significantly longer opportunity than most back of the rotation guys. Part of that has to do with getting to the big leagues at such a young age that, combined with his above average stuff and ability to stay healthy lets him rack up a large number of innings.

I believe that a lot of the anger directed towards Kyle Davies and the resulting wishes for “someone, anyone else” are due to wanting something different. We know what Kyle Davies is, we can no longer project something onto him and as fans we want to project. Guys we don’t know, players we’ve barely seen are people we can project onto. We can dream them into a diamond in the rough, or a future ace. We know so little about them that anything is possible. With Davies, we know too much.

Last night, his health failed him and with it went his stuff. Over the past few outings, Davies had been keeping the Royals in games. Three of his last four starts were of the quality variety. Beyond that, he had completely changed his approach. He was posting career high strikeout numbers and career low walk numbers. He was finally trusting his stuff and pitching in the strike zone. It lead to a significant increase in the number of hits he allowed, but that’s to be expected. With an improved defense behind him, it was the right decision for Davies.

It’s unclear now whether he will get to prove he was a new pitcher, that will all come down to what the doctors say. Initially it was announced that he would be replaced by Robinson Tejeda, but that was premature. We’ll know more today.

But what of Vin Mazzaro, the pitcher that came to the Royals from the Oakland Athletics and was thrown to the wolves that had taken the form of Indians? In the ultimate insult added to injury, he was demoted to Omaha.

There’s little question over whether or not a Major League pitcher should be able to do better than Mazzaro did last night. He was already sitting in the bullpen, so it’s almost certain he knew he was coming into the game at the first sign of trouble from Kyle Davies. That trouble did come, and then Nate Adcock entered the game to give Mazzaro some extra time to get ready.

The game was inching out of control before Mazzaro even got in, but once he toed the rubber he threw grenades on a bonfire. Or did he? The two and a third innings he pitched didn’t really seem as bad while it was happening. The Indians didn’t crush every pitch they saw, there were lots of bloop hits and seeing eye singles –the bad-luck portion of the Batting Average on Balls in Play statistic (BABIP). The Royals weren’t making errors either, there were a few balls hit to the outfield that a speedier player might have gotten. I can remember one to each of left, center and right that someone like Jarrod Dyson would have ran down. But those happen all the time.

What I believe we witnessed last night wasn’t just a pitcher being dominated. It was a combination of bad luck, poor pitching and poor preparation. It just compounded in a historic way.

As human beings we want to try and make sense of these things. We ask ourselves what all of this means. Does it mean that the Royals are the team we thought they were before the season? Does it mean that Kyle Davies is better than we thought? Does it mean that the Dejesus trade was a bad one?

The questions are numerous, interesting and what makes baseball discussion so great. But in the end, they’re kind of pointless. The 19-1 loss to the Indians means one thing: there is one more L on the record book. I guess it also means that Kyle Davies might be on the D.L. and there will be some roster movement to get a starting pitcher. But all in all, it’s just one loss. As fans we can project whatever we want on that historic loss last night, that’s just what we do.

Update: It’s being reported that Danny Duffy will be promoted and make the start for the Royals on Wednesday.

Nick Scott hosts the Broken Bat Single Podcast and writes a blog for the Lawrence Journal World. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

This is the second post in a series of articles looking at the 2010 Kansas City Royals position by position.  In the first post, on catchers, I had an introduction which you can read here.

Below is the list of guys who had more than 20 plate appearances for the Royals while playing first base. Willie Bloomquist, Alex Gordon and Mitch Maier combined for 7 plate appearances.  I left them off this chart, but their numbers are included in the combined position table below.

Click to Enlarge

Not a gigantic surprise here.  Billy Butler got the bulk of the duties with Kila Ka’aihue coming in second.  I really liked how much time they gave Kila at first base after his call up.  I think that we already know what Butler has defensively, and it gives him the opportunity to spend some time learning the role of designated hitter.  For Kila, it was a chance to see what he could do as an every day player in the Big Leagues.  I don’t believe that 34 games is enough of a sample size to really tell what he can do and I expect him to be a regular in 2011. I heard some worries about whether or not Ned Yost would stick with Kila even if he struggled, but those questions were answered.  I think his willingness to understand sample size and to give guys an extended look are some of the best attributes of the Royals Manager.

As for Billy Butler, well I think he might be one of the most underrated players in the American League.  More than that I believe he is the most underrated player amongst Royals fans.  Usually a guy will get respect locally but not as much run nationally as he should (see Shin Soo-Choo), however Butler gets a lot of grief from the local fan base.  I don’t know exactly what to ascribe that to.  Maybe it’s that he plays at best average defense, or that he hasn’t hit for as much power as some people had projected, he certainly got a lot of heat for hitting into a ton of double plays.  But what he does well, he does extremely well.  Which brings me to the heat chart.

Red = highest in category, Green = lowest

As a group the Royals first basemen were 5th best in the American League offensively.  A couple of things jump out at me from this chart.  First, the AL Central has some really good first basemen.  Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau and Paul Konerko are certainly no slouches.  Maybe that is why Butler gets the Rodney Dangerfield treatment, his peers in the division are world-class.  Using the heat chart, the strikeout rate for Royals first basemen really jumps out.  It’s the lowest in the American League.  Royals first basemen struck out 90 times all season, the next team on the list, the Detroit Tigers struck out 112, or 24% more often.

Billy Butler is just getting to arbitration and Kila Ka’aihue should get another long look at first base next year.  With the results put up in 2010, there doesn’t seem to be any need to improve the position offensively.  Eric Hosmer and Clint Robinson are the guys knocking on the door from the minors, but I’d figure the earliest either make it to Kansas City barring injury is September 2011.  The production at first could drop in 2011 if Butler gets more time at designated hitter and Kila plays more at first.  It’s my preferred setup because Kila is the more polished defender.

Nick Scott writes about the Royals for Royals Authority, podcasts about the Royals at Broken Bat Single and writes about the Chiefs for Chiefs Command. You can follow him on Twitter @brokenbatsingle, on Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

Avoiding 100

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Hooray for 63 wins!

It’s come to this.  A celebration of avoiding 100 losses.

Sigh.

Don’t blame me if I kept the champagne on ice last night.  The Royals have never really been in danger of hitting the century mark this season.  In fact, the Royals will really have to go into the tank if they are to match last season’s total of 65 wins.

For a quick refresher, here are the team winning percentages since Dayton Moore took over:

2007 – .426
2008 – .463
2009 – .401
2010 – .414

For the team to match ’07, they will have to win six of their last ten.  Come on, boys!  Or something.

– Sean O’Sullivan got the “win” (which if you’re spending any time on the baseball internets these days means he pitched a better game yesterday than Felix Hernandez) but wasn’t exactly sharp.  He put the leadoff man on base in five of the seven innings he started and threw a total of 92 pitches in six innings.  His final line:

6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 3 SO

O’Sullivan was bailed out by an inept Indian offense.  Philip Humber came on in relief and allowed both of his inherited runners to score.  Of course, it would help if Billy Butler could catch a pickoff throw.

– Why did it take 12 days to get Humber some work?  Is it any wonder he struggled to find his rhythm? Of course, he’s not that good to begin with, but still…

– If you’re looking for something to do today, head to Royals Prospects and check out some of the videos Greg uploaded from his recent trips to Northwest Arkansas and Burlington.  Watching guys like Johnny Giavotella and Eric Hosmer, you can’t help but get excited.

– Minda Haas at Royal Blues had an interesting post where she looked at the Royals win to save ratio and found it to be the highest in the majors this season.  I’m not surprised.  The Royals have one of the top three closers in the game in Joakim Soria.  And they have been involved in 55 one-run games, which is the most in baseball.  For awhile, they had the most wins in one-run games, but a late season run of futility has dropped them to fourth – behind the Rays, Twins and Rangers.

– In Dutton’s Friday notes article, he reports the Royals won’t make any changes to their coaching staff with the exception of replacing first base coach Rusty Kuntz who resumed his role as special advisor to the GM for player development.  Following GMDM for the duration of his tenure, this doesn’t come as a shock.  He values loyalty and continuity on his staff.  Obviously, the coaches (particularly the Kevin Seitzer and Bob McClure) haven’t had a ton of talent at their disposal.

Seitzer’s accomplishments this year would include leading the league in total hits and finishing last in strikeouts.  Their 84% contact rate (a percentage of swinging strikes that are either fouled off or put in play) is the best in baseball as well.  On the negative side of the ledger would be the fact Royal batters see an average of 3.73 pitches per plate appearance, which ranks them 26th and their 7.5% walk rate is 27th.

As for McClure, this year has been kind of a disaster.  Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister have been stagnant in their development.  Royals pitchers posted a 1.85 SO/BB ratio, second worst rate in baseball, their team ERA of 5.04 is the highest in the AL and the same goes for their ERA+ of 84.  Looking for positives there were some minor individual success stories… Luke Hochevar was showing improvement before he missed most of the second half of the season with injury.  Kyle Farnsworth improved to the degree GMDM was actually able to get value in a trade.  Bruce Chen became a serviceable starter.

We all know the influx of youth will begin next season and will roll into 2012 and beyond.  GMDM obviously has confidence in his staff and their ability to work with young players.  I’ve seen enough from the pitching and hitting coaches to think they at least deserve a chance. The successes were limited this year because the talent was limited.  This is an area where we will simply have to trust The Process.

Well, that was bound to happen sooner rather than later.  Frankly, I’m surprised Blake Wood hasn’t coughed up more leads.  Thursday was only the fourth blown “save” in 40 appearances this year.

(I put save in quotes because we all know Wood isn’t the closer, so it’s not up to him to earn the save.  Although by pitching late and in close games, he often enters the game in save situations.  Thus, the blown save stat.)

A couple of things stood out to me about his appearance:

-  That was only the third time all year Wood appeared in three consecutive games.  The  other time was way back in Trey Hillman’s last game and carried into Ned Yost’s first two games in charge.  Perhaps not so surprisingly, Wood gave up two hits and a run in blowing a lead in that third game.

To be fair, it wasn’t like he had been overworked the previous two appearances.   He threw 10 pitches on Tuesday and just two pitches on Wednesday.  Still, something has to be said for getting a pitcher up three days in a row, warming him up in the bullpen and then bringing into a game.  There’s a certain amount of stress involved in this routine, pitch counts be damned.

–  In the match-up against Asdrubal Cabrera (which tied the game), Wood threw eight pitches – all fastballs.  The fastest was clocked at 98 mph and the slowest was 96 mph.  These eight pitches were essentially identical.  The result was predictable.

For some reason, Yost trusts Wood in these high leverage situations like the one we saw on Thursday.  Here are the Royals leaders in Leverage Index who are currently on the roster according to Baseball Prospectus:

Joakim Soria – 1.97
Jesse Chavez – 1.68
Blake Wood – 1.44
Bryan Bullington – 1.01

In many ways, it’s good to see Soria at the top of the list.  It underscores the importance of the closer – something I have mocked in the past.  Of Soria’s 35 saves, 19 have been of the one run variety while eight have been in games with two run margins.  Pretty tight.

It’s a little surprising to see Chavez so high.  However in his seven appearances, he’s entered with the game tied twice, with the Royals ahead by one or two runs three times and with the team down by a run twice.  He’s not coming into the game in blowouts.  That’s not going to end well, either.  Chavez just doesn’t possess the command to be reliable late in close games.

And Bullington is now in the rotation.

Yost doesn’t have a ton of options in the bullpen.  Maybe that’s why he keeps turning to Wood.

By the time Yost turned to Dusty Hughes (who couldn’t get the left handed hitting Travis Hafner out) and by the time the inning was over, a three run lead turned into a two run deficit.  Ballgame.

It’s too bad because Kyle Davies awesome through seven innings.  Not being able to see the game (not on TV?  What’s up with that?  Maybe that’s a good thing… The Indians commit five errors, but win with seven runs over the last two innings?  It’s possible I would have chucked my Boulevard through the screen.) but knowing Davies threw only 84 pitches entering the eighth and had surrendered only four hits, it was probably the correct call by Yost to send him back to the mound.  According to Pitch f/x, his velocity was fine at that point and he had been effectively changing speeds all evening.  Plus, as  the fact he didn’t walk a batter all evening will attest, he was working in the zone.

And with the current state of the Royals bullpen, why not see if Davies can go eight before turning it over to Soria in the ninth?

Unfortunately, when Davies got into hot water, Yost didn’t have a reliable Plan B waiting in the bullpen.

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– Yuniesky Betancourt came to the plate four times and saw a grand total of nine pitches.  Stop with the “Betancourt is pretty good” talk.  Please.

Yes, it’s great he’s hitting for power.  That’s something no one saw coming this year.  And his home runs have been timely – seven of his 12 have given the Royals the lead or tied the game.  There have been times where I have been surprised at his ability to deliver in key situations.  Although I think Betancourt’s positive moments stand out because they’re infrequent and expectations couldn’t be much lower to start.  When the D student turns in an A paper, it kind of gets noticed.

What I fail to understand is how certain people around the Royals seem to delight in pointing out his offensive “excellence” while ignoring the fact his .290 OBP is the fifth lowest in the league this year and he continues to exhibit next to no discipline at the plate.  Last night was Exhibit A. The guy goes up there hacking, with no feel for the situation and with no ability to employ strategic situational hitting.

However, his defense is still in the bottom of the league among shortstops.  And don’t forget to factor Betancourt’s defense into his overall performance on the season.  He remains terrible by any metric you choose – UZR, +/- – you name it.  According to the Fielding Bible’s plus/minus system, Betancourt is currently a -9 on fielding plays.  Not good.  Especially for a shortstop.  Going a step further, the Bible has Betancourt at -7 for runs saved with his glove.  Again, not good.  That ranks him 32nd out of 35 shortstops.  Plus, his double play efficiency has really declined this year.  After converting about 62% of all double play opportunities over the last couple of seasons, he’s converting roughly 45% of all double play opportunities.  That ranks him 35th.

Of course, looking at (less than) a single season while using defensive metrics is sketchy.  Those in the know say you need to look at at least three seasons of defensive data before you draw a conclusion.

Going back to 2008, Betancourt has ranked dead last in the AL among shortstops in UZR.  My eyes see a lack of mobility and range.  While Betancourt can occasionally make a stellar play, for every one Web Gem, he neglects three or four makable fielding chances.  The numbers back this up.

Focus on the big picture.

You may look at the box score and see that Zack Greinke gave up one run in six innings and think he had a good game.  Hmmmm.  Certainly, it’s good anytime a starter hold the opposition to one run, but this felt like a battle almost every step of the way.

Three walks against just four strikeouts and Greinke needed every ounce of the 105 pitches he threw in the six innings.  Greinke just didn’t have his command.  Of the 105 pitches he threw, only 57 of them were strikes.  That’s 54%, a percentage is far too low, given our ace starter normally throws a strike 64% of the time.

His fastball showed some life and averaged 94.6 mph, which is above his seasonal fastball average of 93.2 mph.  That’s a relief. (Although I remain skeptical about the Kauffman Stadium radar gun.  Seems like it still runs a little hot.)  While the velocity was there, the swing and misses were… Missing.  He threw 61 fastballs and got only four swing and misses.

Of course, we all know the slider is his out pitch, but the Indians showed patience in not offering.  Of the 23 sliders Greinke threw on Tuesday, only 11 were strikes.

It was just a grind last night.  One of those games where I was on the edge of my seat because I was just waiting for Greinke to give up a string of hits and basically throw in the towel.  Fortunately, his defense bailed him out more than once.  That’s something you don’t hear everyday.

So Zack is still scuffling.  He pitched a great game in his previous start in Los Angeles, but couldn’t really find the rhythm or his comfort zone last night.  That’s kind of been the story of his season.  We’re all waiting for that “eureka” moment, but I’m not sure we’re going to get that.  Instead, we may have to settle for inconsistency.

That’s a bummer.  I want the 2009 version of Greinke back.  On a consistent basis.

– I can’t possibly be the only person who, when watching Kila rip a couple of fastballs to right, thinks, “Slider bat speed, my ass.”  The guy can flat turn on a pitch.  I have absolutely no idea where the myth developed that he doesn’t possess the bat speed to handle a fastball.  Looked fine to me last night.

– Speaking of Kila, he turned in a pair of nice defensive plays at first last night.  And both came in key situations.  The first was with two down in the second with a run already in and two runners on base.  Jason Donald hit a weak grounder to third and Wilson Betemit had to rush his throw.  Kila made a nice stretch to get the out.  That was a fine play, but the one that really stood out was in the ninth.  Asdrubal Cabrera hits a grounder to the hole between short and third.  Yuniesky Betancourt ranges to his right and makes a strong throw, but Kila really saved the day with another excellent stretch.  Billy Butler is much improved defensively at first, but I’m not sure he makes that play in the ninth.

– Maybe the opposition will begin to respect Kila.  An intentional walk to Butler in the fifth?  This really is a rivalry.

– Betemit put a charge in his home run, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone crush a pitch this year like Jim Thome did last night in Minnesota.

– It makes me incredibly sad that Yuniesky Betancourt is second on this team with 11 home runs.  This sudden burst of power is the only thing keeping his OPS+ hovering around the 90 point mark.  Ugh.

– The Royals bullpen will provide antacid moments for the rest of the season.  Guaranteed.  No clue what Jesse Chavez was doing in the seventh.  And Blake Wood in the eighth only works because the Indians are a woeful offensive team.

– Did the Indians have a legitimate beef at the end of the game regarding Kerwin Danley’s strike zone?  Perhaps.  However, Danley was calling the high outside strike all night – that was the pitch that sent Shin-Soo Choo packing in the ninth for the second out.  The cutter Soria delivered a couple pitches prior was in almost the exact same location and it was called a strike.  Having said that, it would appear Travis Hafner has a legit reason to complain.  That final strike was way off the plate.  Here’s Danley’s called pitches for the night.  The final pitch of the game is easily identifiable:  It’s the red square way off the plate.

The battle for fourth place rolls on…

With about a week remaining until camps open, now is as good a time as any to take stock of the AL Central and see how the Royals rivals have done this winter. We know all about the Royals additions Scotty Pods, Ankiel, the South Side duo of Getz & Fields (or Fields & Getz) and the Punchless One behind the plate. How do the Royals moves stack up against their division rivals? Has anyone done enough to run away with the title, or will it be another close one?

And most importantly, how will everything shake out once the dust settles in October.

What follows is a brief capsule of each team in the Central and how the moves they’ve made effect their title chances. At the end of the article, you’ll find my current (in other words, subject to change) picks for the order of finish.

Chicago White Sox

This is where the strongest rotation in the Central lives. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and a healthy Jake Peavy will be difficult for any other division rival to top. Hell, that could be the best rotation in baseball. Plus, those four can rack up the innings so if the Sox can get some quality work out of newcomer JJ Putz in the eighth and Bobby Jenks in the ninth, they’re going to get some wins no matter how bad the offense is.

Speaking of the offense, what exactly is going on here? Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel are all newcomers who will certainly have some impact on the team, but it s not going to be positive. Pierre will have the most opportunity to do some damage as he figures to slide into left and will certainly bat leadoff. He s a player only Ozzie could love. Jones and Vizquel are backups although it s not difficult to imagine Jones could get some playing time if Alex Rios can t rediscover his stroke.

Once upon a time, I had a man-crush on Rios. I really bought into the hype that he was going to be one of the best young outfielders in the game. Now? Not so much. That’s what back to back underwhelming seasons will get you at Royals Authority – no more respect. And since Rios was downright horrible last year after his move to the South Side (.199/.229/.301 in 154 plate appearances) he s the leading candidate for Ozzie Guillen s Dog House. How great would it be if Jones reports to camp fat and Rios continues to forget how to hit? Imagine the quote gold we’d get from Guillen. And that it would be happening to the White Sox would be a bonus.

Cleveland Indians

We’ve said it before, but it just has to suck to have surrendered CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and gotten so little in return. Matt LaPorta will get an opportunity to start, as will Lou Marson, so it’s probably still a little early to completely trash the trades, but still… Quite a bummer for Indian fans.

There’s still hope for Cleveland fans that Grady Sizemore will bounce back and Shin-Soo Choo can build off his breakout year. And maybe Travis Hafner can hit 20 bombs. Although he hasn’t done that since 2007. They picked up Austin Kearns and Shelley Duncan on minor league deals, which I suppose could help at some point. Other than that, their big major league move was to sign Mike Redmond. In this case, big is a relative term.

But the pitching even with Lee for half the summer the Indians had the second worse staff in baseball. And now they tentatively have Jake Westbrook penciled in as their number one starter with Fausto Carmona as their number two. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer someone else at the top of the rotation other than a guy who hasn’t pitched in a year and a half after undergoing the Tommy John surgery. And with Kerry Wood at the back of the pen, this staff looks like it will once again flop to the bottom of the AL.

Oh, the Indians will likely have the lowest payroll in the division come Opening Day.

Detroit Tigers

The Verlander extension got a ton of ink, but that masks a simple fact about this team: They are extremely unbalanced with old players (Magglio Ordonez, Adam Everett, Brandon Inge) and newcomers (Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore are currently listed at the top of the Tigers depth chart in center and second, respectively.) That’s a potentially combustible mix.

I see some similarities with the Royals here: A lockdown top of the rotation ace (Verlander for the Tigers and Greinke for the Royals) and a big bat in his prime in the middle of the order (Miguel Cabrera and Billy Butler.) The Tiger veterans are a little better than the Royal veterans, but that just means they cost more.

Further, it will be interesting to see where Max Scherzer figures into the Tigers pitching mix. For now, he’s slated for the rotation but many feel his future lies in the bullpen. One thing is for sure, with Verlander and Scherzer in the rotation the Tigers will be making a ton of hitters look foolish. While Porcello doesn’t pile up the strikeouts, he is developing into a talent. Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks for the rest of the staff. For Tiger fans that’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins overhauled the middle of their infield by trading for JJ Hardy in November and then acquiring free agent Orlando Hudson just last week. Both players represent upgrades from the players they are replacing. Hardy is superior with the glove and is a prime candidate for an offensive rebound from his dismal 2009. He has 20 home run power, but before we project any power numbers, it will be interesting to see how the Twins new outdoor stadium plays. Hudson is solid with the glove, with better range to his left than back up the middle. Offensively, this is a huge win for the Twins. Last summer, their 2B hit a combined .209/.302/.267. Yuck. That s Royals designated hitter territory. (Memo to Dayton: Check on the availability of Matt Tolbert!) Hudson will have no problem improving upon that production.

Last year, the Twins had an extremely productive offense – one of the best in the league. Their 5 runs per game was the fourth best rate in the AL, behind the other three playoff teams. (Yankees, Angels and Red Sox were one, two and three respectively.) I suppose we can expect a little less from MVP Joe Mauer and the Twins still are going to give some at bats to Delmon Young. Still, you have to admit the Twins have improved their offense.

The big mystery is the aforementioned Target Field. Past years, the Twins held a distinct home field advantage and knew exactly how to tailor their club to the Metrodome. Now, it’s anyone s guess.

Quick Summary

The division still belongs to the Twins who were able to upgrade an already solid offense. The Sox could pose a threat with their rotation, but haven’t replaced the power they lost when Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome left as free agents. It feels like the Tigers are looking toward the future and the Indians are hoping a pitching staff cobbled together with spit and duct tape holds up.

The Royals haven’t done much to improve their team but it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where they finish third. That’s an optimistic, if everything goes right, best-case scenario finish.

So here’s my predicted order of finish in the Central. I ll revisit this about a week before the season starts and make changes as necessary before submitting my final selection just prior to Opening Day.

1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Tigers
4. Royals
5. Indians