Saturday, December 15, 2012
The AL Central's strong offseason
By Jim Bowden
Royals GM Dayton Moore rebuilt his rotation and expects his team to contend in 2013.
Consider the following about the American League Central:
- Its division champion, the Detroit Tigers, won just 88 games.
- It was the only five-team division with three teams with losing records.
- The second-place Chicago White Sox won 85 games despite its lowest attendance since 2004.
- The Minnesota Twins won 66 games -- actually an improvement on 63 in 2011.
- The Cleveland Indians have not had a winning record in five years.
- The Kansas City Royals last won the division in 1985.
The AL Central was the weakest division in baseball last season, and it has been for some time. The Royals haven’t had sustained success since the days of Dick Howser, George Brett and Bret Saberhagen. The Indians fired manager Manny Acta and long for the days of Mike Hargrove, Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, while the Twins can’t seem to shake the injury bug.
When the best days of three of its teams are in the rearview mirror, there’s a problem.
Though it might be the weakest division in baseball, it's had arguably the strongest offseason. Each team has made significant progress toward heading back to respectability and, in the Tigers' case, perhaps back to the World Series.
Here is a quick look at how the AL Central teams have already improved this offseason:
After nine straight losing seasons, the Royals have had enough.
They knew they had to do something drastic to compete for the division title or a wild-card berth. The cost did not matter -- in dollars or prospects. With GM Dayton Moore’s contract expiring after the 2014 season, he and his administration needed to make sure that all the hard work of their player development and scouting departments over the past half-decade would finally see the fruits of their labor. The only way to accomplish this was to go out and overhaul the starting rotation.
After trading for Santana and signing Guthrie, the Royals had committed $38 million, including Santana’s $13 million option, to two underachieving pitchers and the rotation quite frankly didn’t look much better than it was before they signed them. As back-of-the-rotation pitchers, they were slightly better than Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen.
Thus, Moore bit the bullet and traded top prospects Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard to the Tampa Bay Rays for Shields and Davis. The rotation should be able to pitch deeper into games and allow the Royals to win with their bullpen, which is one of the best in the league.
The Royals’ core position players have World Series-contending talent offensively and Gold Glove-caliber talent defensively. After committing more than $66 million to Shields, Davis, Santana and Guthrie, they better be contenders for a wild-card berth, if not more.
The Indians' main goal this offseason was to improve their starting rotation with a long-term answer. For most of the offseason, they felt the only way to accomplish this would have been to trade two-time All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who is arguably their best player, and Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers was interested.
When Towers told the Indians he had shifted gears and eyed a younger shortstop like the Reds’ Didi Gregorius, it led to a deal that sent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati and brought Bauer to Cleveland. The Reds had attempted to acquire Choo last season, and Cleveland GM Chris Antonetti revisited that interest to get the deal with Arizona done and add the power-hitting Stubbs to boot.
The Indians improve their power with Reynolds, who had 26 doubles, 23 home runs and 69 RBIs last season, but it was his above-average defense at first base that caught the eye of Indians scouts. However, Reynolds and Stubbs combined for 325 strikeouts last season. Francona must monitor that closely.
Now the Indians infield of Reynolds, Jason Kipnis, Cabrera and Lonnie Chisenhall is set. Most importantly, they’ve added a potential future No. 1 starter in Bauer, who they control for six years, by trading an outfielder that was six months away from leaving for free agency. Call it a heist or Antonetti’s best trade of his career -- either way it’s clear the Indians are heading in the right direction.
As general manager of the Reds, I used to say, “If you don’t have pitching, you don’t win.”
Twins general manager Terry Ryan recently told me, “If you don’t have pitching, you don’t play.”
His phrase is actually much closer to reality than mine.
It was clear Ryan’s club did not play last season, as it lacked starting pitching at the major league level and minor league depth. Ryan came out of the gates this offseason wheeling and dealing, trading outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere and signing Correia.
For Span, the Twins acquired Meyer, a 6-foot-9 former first-round pick out of Kentucky who always had put-away stuff but not the command and control to match. This past year, the command and control started to come, and most in the industry think he will end up as a top-of-the-rotation starter. For the Twins, it was the first big move toward being competitive again.
For Revere, Ryan bolstered the major league roster with Worley, who gives them a solid No. 4 starter. In the 23-year-old May, the Twins added another legitimate top pitching prospect to the minor league system along with Meyer. May profiles as a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter in time.
Ryan acquired four starting pitchers in less than a month, and suddenly the Twins are on their way back to rebuilding a rotation and a competitive team. They aim not to just play this season, but to win.
With designated hitter Victor Martinez returning from a knee injury, the Tigers had an offensive boost already waiting for them before the offseason started. But the Tigers quickly deepened their lineup and improved their outfield defense with Hunter.
Hunter is still a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder who hit .313/.365/.451 with 16 home runs and 92 RBIs last season. He should be able to duplicate that hitting in the No. 2 hole for the Tigers. Hunter was instrumental in the development of the Angels’ Mike Trout, and the Tigers can expect that type of leadership for youngsters Austin Jackson and Avisail Garcia next season. He brings vocal and positive energy to the Tigers’ clubhouse.
Rookie Bruce Rondon and his overpowering 102 mph fastball will take over the closer role from Jose Valverde, which should improve Detroit's ninth-inning save efficiency. Despite his inexperience and youth (22 years old), most scouts think he’ll be a rookie of the year candidate.
Some viewed the Tigers as an underachieving bunch, but that did not sway Tigers owner Mike Ilitch’s commitment to winning a World Series. Like he did last year with Prince Fielder, Ilitch swooped in at the last minute to re-sign Sanchez, which preserved one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league.
Key moves: Hired Rick Hahn as GM; signed IF Jeff Keppinger (3 years, $12 million); re-signed RHP Jake Peavy (2 years, $29 million/player option)
Promoting Hahn to general manager after the season was a well-deserved move. His first move was to re-sign Peavy to keep the starting rotation intact. Hahn’s reasoning for the quick signing was simple:
"We like how we match up against anybody one through five," he said.
After losing Kevin Youkilis to free agency, the White Sox replaced him with the super utility player Keppinger, who they hope can play good enough defensively at third to be their everyday answer to replace Youkilis. A.J. Pierzynski also is a free agent, and Hahn has said he is prepared to let Tyler Flowers take over the position.