Diamond Mind: AL Central

Incredibly, it was just 2003 in which this division was so weak that the Kansas City Royals rode a hot April to contention in September, and the Tigers, despite having just endured a 119-loss season, could think that the addition of Pudge Rodriguez and a few other bona-fide players might actually put them into contention.

No more. The AL Central is now the deepest, strongest division in baseball. It produced the AL wild card in 2006, and looks set to do so again in 2007, although four of the five teams in the division are legitimate contenders who will be banging on each other incessantly throughout the season.

Cleveland Indians
Projection: 1st, 91-71, division title 41 percent, wild card 17 percent

On March 22 in Lakeland, Fla., the Indians turned six double plays against the Tigers, all of the 6-4-3 and 4-6-3 variety, providing a strong indication that the addition of Josh Barfield at second and the rejuvenation of Jhonny Peralta at short could pay dividends this season. The thing is, they lost the game, 5-4.

As we said in our 2006 season projections, "The 2005 Indians [93-69] did everything right except win the close games. They outscored their opponents by 206 runs and outproduced them by 497 total bases and walks, far exceeding the next-best team in the majors, and leaving the rest of the AL Central in their dust. Unfortunately, a 22-36 record in one-run games left them behind the White Sox and out of the action in October."

So, what happened in 2006? They did everything required to meet, or even exceed, our 88-win projection for them -- everything, that is, except actually win games. Their 78 wins was a whopping 12 fewer than the Pythagorean projection based on their +88 run differential.

Following each season we've taken to writing an article entitled, "Measuring team efficiency." This year's article details the historic inefficiency the Indians displayed in 2006. TBW refers to total bases + walks, and looking at a team's won-lost record compared to its TBW for/against differential is another way of gauging a team's over- or under-achievement. In the AL in 2006 the Indians "were second in TBW differential, fourth in run margin, and tied for 10th in wins. That's not easy to do. Cleveland's TBW differential of +276 is in the top 12 percent of all teams in the past third of a century. Fully 90 percent of those teams won at least 90 games, and the 2006 Indians are only the third team in that group to lose more games than they won."

An incredible run of ill-fortune? Or is there something about this team that defies conventional analysis? The warning signs were there in our 2006 season simulations, because their projected +91 scoring margin normally would have been good for 91 wins, but they averaged only 88.

The bony finger of blame was pointed squarely at the bullpen in 2006, although the Indians actually reduced their negative won-lost differential in one-run games last year from -14 in 2005 to -8 (18-26). Nevertheless, seven games lost in which the team was leading after eight innings, 27 losses of record in relief, 21 blown saves in 45 opportunities, and 45.9 percent of inherited runners scoring, is very, very bad. It just doesn't seem to me that free agents Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz are a potent enough remedy for this malady, nor do our season simulations suggest otherwise. (Borowski's projected record as the Indians closer is 4-8 29/38 4.46.)

Perhaps, however, with this team's starting rotation, near enough is good enough out of the pen. The Indians project to allow the second fewest runs in the AL, improving from 782 in 2006 to 738, led by C.C. Sabathia (15-8, 3.50), Jeremy Sowers (14-8, 3.60) and Jake Westbrook (14-9, 3.78), while the Tigers and Twins are projected to regress from the miserly 675 and 683 runs they allowed in 2006 to 763 and 740, respectively, in 2007.

2007 may indeed prove to be the Indians' year. If, however, they produce yet another season of underachievement in the won-lost column, skeptics may be called upon to reconsider whether an ability (or inability) to win, independent of conventional measures of performance, does in fact exist. As Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) said to "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman) in "The Hustler" (and I paraphrase from memory), "This isn't football. They don't pay you for yardage. At the end of the game you count up your money, and that's how you know who's best."

Detroit Tigers
Projection: 2nd, 89-73, division title 31 percent, wild card 15 percent

Although for 2006 we projected the Tigers to win just 79 games, we did observe that they could be one of the season's pleasant surprises, and even contend if three or four things went their way.

At least that many things went their way in a season full of positives. Here's the thing, though: Apart from the addition of Gary Sheffield (not to be underestimated), this team hasn't changed much, and with all the great performances last season, there may be more downside than upside potential.

We do see a modest increase in scoring for the Tigers in 2007 to 842 runs, up from 822 in 2006. Interestingly, they got there despite just nine HR and 35 RBI from LF Craig Monroe (28/92 in 2006), with Marcus Thames, the subject of trade rumors throughout the winter and spring, taking playing time from Monroe and belting a team-leading 37 HR.

It's on the other side of the scoring ledger that we project the team's vaunted pitching to slip, allowing 763 runs compared to last season's major-league low 675. And the fact is that 2006 ROY Justin Verlander has struggled this spring, Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers (who will miss half the season) are a year older, Jeremy Bonderman still hasn't come up with a consistent changeup, and Jamie Walker took the money and moved to Baltimore (those canny Orioles!)

Still, the Tigers have a lot of pitching. Key veterans with past injury histories, like Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez, remaining healthy and productive throughout 2006 were a key to the team's success. Similar good fortune may be even more crucial in 2007.

Minnesota Twins
Projection: 3rd, 87-75, division title 24 percent, wild card 10 percent

The Twins came to spring training with four spots up for grabs in their starting rotation. As in 2006, when they opted to open the season with veterans Tony Batista and Juan Castro manning the left side of the infield, the Twins signed retread starters Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz for 2007 to fill two of those vacancies.

The team's remarkable turnaround last season began when Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett replaced Batista and Castro. We didn't wait that long for youth to be served in our 2007 simulations, going with a rotation behind Johan Santana of (projected 2007 records): Boof Bonser (10-11, 5.05), Carlos Silva (11-12m 4.83), Matt Garza (11-10, 4.63) and Scott Baker (10-11 4.86).

Ponson and Ortiz actually pitched reasonably well this spring, and will open the season in the rotation with Santana, Bonser, and Silva (who pitched poorly), but the likelihood that either will do any better (assuming they keep their jobs) than Garza and Baker did in our simulations seems pretty small. Rather, whether the Twins (who, after all, have won the division four of the last five seasons) can once again survive the AL Central fray to capture a postseason berth, will rest squarely on the shoulders of their Big Four of Santana, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer (and the "stress reaction" in Mauer's leg is worrisome). There's no room for error in the Central, and little prospect that the Twins could replace what these guys give them if they don't each put in a top season again in 2007.

Chicago White Sox
Projection: 4th, 78-84, division title 3.8 percent, wild card 1.9 percent

It's no mystery what has happened to the White Sox since 2005. The 2005 team was all about pitching, scoring a modest 741 runs but allowing just 645. They didn't stand pat after their Series win, adding Jim Thome to the lineup and Javier Vazquez (at the cost of CF prospect Chris Young) to the rotation. And the offense took a huge leap forward, scoring 865 runs in 2006. But the gain in scoring was more than offset by the struggles of the pitching staff, which allowed 794, with big drop-offs by the four holdover starters.

We see the rotation as a group performing in 2007 more like it did in 2006 than 2005. In fact, we project another jump in runs allowed by the White Sox, to 870 (exceeded in the AL only by Kansas City and Tampa Bay), with runs scored easing to 827. It looks like it will be all about the pitching for the White Sox again in 2007, but unlike 2005, that may not be a very good thing.

Kansas City Royals
Projection: 5th, 66-96, no postseason appearances

White the Royals may not be that much better this year than last, they are at least more interesting.

Positives for the Royals include:

• the arrival of top prospect Alex Gordon;

• the return of Zach Greinke;

• a new unwillingness to tolerate underachievement, evidenced by the axing of Jeremy Affeldt, Ambriorix Burgos, Angel Berroa (a move that occurred after our simulations were run), and others;

• a new willingness to commit substantial money to a player (Gil Meche) that (rightly or wrongly) they judge to have some upside (as opposed to putting-a-professional-product-on-the-field-type free agent signings like Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek); and

• 2007 being the final season of Mike Sweeney's five-year, $55 million contract extension.

The biggest negative, of course, is that they are on the bottom of the Central, looking up at the Indians, Tigers, Twins and White Sox.