No, they don't have the Devil Rays, but the AL Central boasts the game's only twinned 100-loss towers of power. They've got the ruins of a mini-dynasty in Cleveland, the lost opportunities on Chicago's South Side, and America's team in the land of Jesse the Mind.
As competitive landscapes go, the AL Central might summon up images of the Rust Belt: ruination and retooling. It's fun, but it isn't likely to inspire the 2050 best-seller "The Summer of '02," a classic on the serious duelling between the White Sox and the Twins and the Indians, and how a mostly-absent pennant race shaped a generation of minds in the Midwest.
In the here and now, we can focus on what the Twins can do to continue to rule the roost, what the White Sox can do to get back on track, and how quickly the Indians, Royals and Tigers can all get back to making some noise. Because if there's one lesson the Twins offer their AL Central brethren, it's that you can do it yourself ...
ESPN.com's Rob Neyer already sort of tackled the problems the Twins are faced with this winter just a couple of weeks ago, but there's nothing wrong with riffing on a similar theme ...
1. Can GM Terry Ryan shake things up?
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Between Doug Mientkiewicz, Jacque Jones, Bobby Kielty, Dustan Mohr, Matt LeCroy, David Ortiz, Mike Restovich, and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins have eight guys for the four power slots (outfield corners, first, and DH). They are all either established big-league hitters or good enough to take a long look at to let them become established big-league hitters. This isn't a laundry list of bodies; about the only guy I wouldn't take a chance on as an everyday player is Mohr, and he's not too shabby either. You could keep three or four of these guys waiting another year and ape the often-boggling depth of the '50s Yankees, but most of the National League needs a first
baseman. Ryan can afford to go shopping.
2. Will the rotation go back to being the Big Three of 2001?
You can't really call Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays question marks despite their 2002 seasons, but they're not exactly made men either. Johan Santana gives you all sorts of reasons to believe he'll be a major part of the team's future, but there are questions about both Kyle Lohse and Matt Kinney. Again, the Twins have depth, and some of it might turn into premier talent. Let it ride, or take a risk and trade up?
3. What do you do with Rick Reed?
You might notice a theme here. Ryan has lots of stuff and a chance to beat the division to pulp, especially as long as White Sox GM Kenny Williams is operating without adult supervision. So why take that for granted, when you could package Reed and some of the excess offensive talent for a top-shelf starting pitcher? It might not add that many wins in-season, but in October, if you've got an ace, you can pull a Diamondbacks '01 or a Marlins '97 over those teams that worry about winning 100 games a year. But paying Reed $8 million for 2003 and risking his $8 million option for 2004 vesting is a financial burden you'd rather off-load on somebody else, because Reed is never going to be the starting pitcher you lead off a postseason series with.
By contrast, Bartolo Colon will cost the other 29 teams only $6 million to pitch for the Expos. Since the Twins already have the financial commitment on the books, why not acquire somebody actually worth this kind of money? Unfortunately, the organizational memory about this sort of thing might not help; they tried it before in 1992 with John Smiley and they didn't win. That doesn't mean it's not worth trying again. After all, they acquired Bert Blyleven for four warm bodies, one of which turned out to be a very young Jay Bell, and that did work.
4. Torii Hunter, to pay or not to pay?
He's arbitration-eligible and a plus defender at an important defensive position, so he's going to be expensive whether the Twins keep him or peddle him. He's also in his prime right now. Giving him a multi-year contract would be easy, and would defray criticism of the organization by potential season-ticket buyers, voters, and anybody who might buy this team. Beyond simple considerations of his talent, which is considerable, he's being singled out as the closest thing to a marquee player the Twins have, so there are political considerations to take into account as well. Paying Hunter while peddling Mientkiewicz and/or Reed and whoever else would keep
the Twins from looking merely cheap.
5. A house, a house, my kingdom for a house.
Mr. Pohlad, if you build it, they will come. Now sure, in an economy that's in stall mode, big public works projects might be somewhat attractive to governments as a way to subsidize the local construction rackets. Nevertheless, that's only going to go so far given that just about everybody knows stadium projects are shakedowns that profit the very few in exchange for warm fuzzies amongst a small segment of the voting public. Nobody's going to give in to extortion, especially not in this market, and it's obvious that contraction was a cynical gambit whose bluff was called. Invest in the product and reap your own rewards. If you don't, and an angry Congress repeals the anti-trust exemption because of your new Portland Twins, you'll find several of your brother owners more than happy to dump their markets for the one you just ditched in a fit of greedy pique.
Chicago White Sox
1. Can we get a do-over?
The plan was simple. Add some veteran chrome to the home-grown steel, and rollick your way into October clover. But for the second year running, Kenny Williams gave away good stuff for well-aged dross, and it killed the Sox for the playing time and cash wasted. The key to this offseason is not to bring in this year's Royce Clayton or Todd Ritchie. Picking up expensive low-end
vets is not the ticket to contention.
2. Can these kids play?
Life after Frank Thomas has its financial advantages should someone else coax him into leaving (at his option) by Pearl Harbor Day, but one thing his departure would do is create playing time for the team's young talent. Rather than field a true DH, the Sox can now alternate between players to make sure everyone gets at-bats. Carlos Lee (who might be off of the trading block if the Big Hurt becomes Somebody Else's Problem), Joe Borchard, Aaron Rowand, and Jeff Liefer can shift around in the outfield in the non-Magglio Ordonez spots. Joe Crede should finally have the job at third base to himself, and second base should belong to Willie Harris and/or D'Angelo Jimenez. Jimenez might get playing time at short if it isn't given to Jose Valentin, but there's enough offensive talent here to look at to use the at-bats created by Thomas' departure.
3. Can Jerry Manuel just chill?
This is really the Keith Foulke question, since Foulke didn't really do anything wrong last year. He nevertheless had his job as the high-leverage reliever in the pen taken away from him, mostly after giving up a total of nine runs in two blown saves in the first two months. At the time, Foulke complained of a sore arm, and it seemed as if Manuel couldn't forgive and forget and remember that Foulke was one of the best relievers in baseball the previous couple of years, and he continued to be that valuable for the rest of the season. Foulke's often said he'd like to go back to starting, and that may well provide both parties with a way to patch things up and get back to the business of using their best players instead of spiting them.
4. Is Jose Valentin finally going to get to be a shortstop again?
Is Valentin a bit prone to the old E-6? Yes. Your point? He still has outstanding range, and he's still excellent at initiating or turning the deuce, and he's still an offensive asset at a position where offensive talent still isn't that common despite A-Rod and the non-Rod trinity of powerhouse shortstops. If Williams can learn from the mistake of hauling in Clayton and learn to accept the occasional muff instead of knuckling under to talk radio complaints, the Sox will be the better for it, offensively and defensively.
5. Will the Sox have an '03 rotation to conjure up visions of '83 or '93?
Mark Buehrle looks like the lonely effective starter, but things aren't really that bleak. If he isn't traded, Foulke might be part of the
equation. Jon Garland looked pretty good over the final couple of months, Danny Wright had a useful second half, and Jon Rauch was excellent in Triple-A Charlotte after fully recovering from his shoulder problems. There's still plenty of room to go out and add a worthwhile journeyman or two to create some depth, but this isn't quite as dire as trying to live with Ritchie.
1. Will Jim Thome be a wearing an Indians cap on Opening Day 2003?
If Thome really wants to go to the Phillies or Braves, there's nothing Cleveland can do. The Indians could take the easy way out and deliberately bid low to test Thome's resolve, and since he's already 32, giving him six years could be frightening. This is almost the opposite of the Andy Van Slyke situation that condemned the Pirates to misery for years: the Tribe has shed everyone but its most popular player, and now has to decide whether or not to hold onto him to have some reminder from the good times to show off.
2. Brother O, Where Art Thou?
Peddling Omar Vizquel might be dangerous, since it might honk off Thome if it's done artlessly or in conjunction with promises about providing Thome with a good supporting cast, but it needs to be done. But more basically, this also has to be done in light of GM Mark Shapiro's nifty acquisition of Brandon Phillips, arguably the best shortstop prospect in the game when he was added in the Bartolo Colon trade. Vizquel's 2001 and 2002 seasons were not especially valuable, he'll be 36 next April, and his defense isn't the major asset it used to be. If the Indians had the gumption to cash in Roberto Alomar at the right time, they should do the same now with Little O on the heels of his little power spike.
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3. What's Danys Baez for this week?
The Tribe has gone back and forth on what to do with Baez. I didn't think he'd turn out too well as a starter; I was wrong, and fully believe the Indians should stick with what has worked. It has always been easier to scare up an adequate closer than it is to find somebody who can give you 30 starts. Baez isn't so young he needs to have his arm protected in a relief role, and the Indians need the starting pitching. Why turn him into a liberally compensated roster trophy who will get just about the same number of saves whether the team wins 60 or 80 games?
4. Einar Diaz or Victor Martinez?
This one should wait until spring training, unless there's an offer at the Winter Meetings that bowls Shapiro over. Diaz is more useful than his miserable 2002 season would make you think, and there are teams that appreciate catch-and-throw types with cost certainty locked in through 2005. Victor Martinez is coming off an outstanding season in the Double-A Eastern League (.336, 22 HR), and should be the team's backstop of the very near future. There's no point in dealing Diaz now, not while his value is low and while nobody's
desperate because everyone's shopping on the Hot Stove League. Shapiro can afford to wait for spring training and the inevitable injuries that will force somebody's hand, and meanwhile see if Martinez has a good winter and an impressive camp to help force his own.
5. Who's in the outfield?
Matt Lawton's shredded and now repaired shoulder almost certainly will not have healed by Opening Day. That leaves new manager Eric Wedge with angry cypher Milton Bradley, injured cypher Alex Escobar, Karim Garcia trying to show he's not the new Chito Martinez, and Ben Broussard if they stick with the experiment of making him a left fielder. The odds are good they'll haul in another
veteran on an incentive-laden deal like they did with Brady Anderson last year.
Kansas City Royals
1. Can they keep Paul Byrd?
To be totally unfair to the Royals, if Branch Rickey was alive, he'd say something along the line that it's better to pay a year early than a year late, and nothing illustrates that better than Byrd. The Royals could have inked him to a low-end multi-year contract after 2001, but to be fair, he'd only given them a half-season after his struggles with the Phillies. Even though this is the team throwing money at Chuck Knoblauch, Michael Tucker, Roberto Hernandez, and Neifi Perez, it would have been strange to have offered Byrd a multi-year deal last winter. But now it looks ugly, since Byrd has 17 wins and his freedom. This should be a frosty market for free agents, and there are several top-shelf starters out there, so the Royals might be able to get him back at a mutually agreeable price.
2. Will the Royals ever have a corner outfielder who can hit ever again?
Raul Ibanez had a great second half, but also spent less than a third of the season in the outfield. So will they finally give Dee Brown a shot? Will Mark Quinn stop worshipping at the altar of the Church of Azocar, assuming he ever gets healthy? They're stuck with Tucker for another season. Basically, they've got a nifty center fielder and space. Creative spelunking on the minor-league free agent market would be a very good idea, certainly moreso than digging up the next Knoblauch. Ken Harvey's great Arizona Fall League might get him the DH job and subsequently push Ibanez into the role of outfield regular, which would certainly help the lineup.
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3. Can you ever have too much Neifi?
If the Royals don't non-tender Perez, he'll be a Royal, because as his agent will explain to him, he'll make more in arbitration than he will in the open market. Anybody who hits .236/.260/.303 is too expensive at any price significantly over the minimum. If GM Allard Baird doesn't bite the bullet and non-tender Perez, he's not learning from experience.
4. In a Neifi-less Royals universe, who's in the middle infield?
Angel Berroa is coming off of a really ugly season at Triple-A Omaha (.215), but he's the default replacement at shortstop and the organization's prize from the Johnny Damon deal. Carlos Febles is on his third or fourth last chance, but the Royals don't really have an internal alternative beyond pushing Brian Harris up from Double-A Wichita. Ruben Gotay is looking good, but he still hasn't gotten past A-ball; nevertheless, a Gotay-Berroa keystone combo by 2004 isn't out of the question. In the meantime, it wouldn't be shocking if the Royals tried to sign a journeyman middle infielder or three.
5. Will they be the worst non-Devil Rays franchise in the league?
Hey, at least the Tigers are in bad shape, too. But losing Byrd would certainly give them a leg up on the competition. At least they've got their own young pitching to sort through these days, and there's a good amount of talent below Double-A. Things are grim for the time being, but the system is stronger than it's been since ... well, since they developed a bunch of good players who were on good teams this year, plus Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran.
1. Can new manager Alan Trammell build a bullpen?
One area where a manager can make everyone's life easier is to identify specific talents he wants in his bullpen, identify who has those skills, and put them to work. With an assist from GM Dave Dombrowski on the cheap talent acquisition front, Trammell has a chance to help his team quickly and easily, especially if he puts in some time this winter and picks up the phone to talk to people who have been able to assemble pens on the cheap. Tom Kelly, for instance, had rotations flop or poke along, but he'd always scrape together a good pen. The Tigers' young rotation will have plenty of bad days at the office, but how Dombrowski and Trammell pick and choose from amongst the inevitable rogue's gallery over the winter and into next spring can make a difference.
2. Which kid gets to be shortstop, and which one gets to catch?
Only in this pizza baron's magic kingdom could Shane Halter's gimmick of playing nine positions in a game turn into an actively shared mass delusion that he could be a regular shortstop. That particular sandcastle in the sky went down hard, but it's for the best. The Tigers have two interesting young shortstops in the organization: Ramon Santiago is probably the better all-around hitter, while Omar Infante is gifted with the 'inside baseball' little man's game. Both are considered good gloves, and although Infante's the younger one (he'll be 21 next season), Santiago isn't especially old at 23.
As for the kid catchers, there's the same choice the Tigers futzed around with last season: Brandon Inge or Mike Rivera. Rivera has some sock, and Inge has been handed a great defensive reputation. It could make for a nice offense-defense job-sharing arrangement. If Mitch Meluskey returns to the tools of ignorance, it'll be a major upset.
3. Will Dombrowski find anyone to take any veteran salaries off of his hands?
Dean Palmer, Craig Paquette and Halter, they'll all be cashing checks next year. Damion Easley's under contract through at least 2004. Dmitri Young? Might be an adequate DH, but he's signed through 2005 for a godly chunk o' change. Bobby Higginson might be the designated team star, but he's also making a king's ransom ($8.85 million) starting in 2003 (and through 2005), he's already 32, and he's already not hitting well enough to justify the expense. If anybody wanted any of these guys, they could have been had last summer. Better that the Tigers start cutting bait on some, try to deal Young or Higgy the next time the Yankees panic and decide they have to have another
Raul Mondesi, and run with the Hiram Bocachicas and George Lombards to see if they'll be able to turn into anything of value.
4. Is relevance on the horizon?
Sure, they have to play the games, don't they? The organization has basically been lost at sea since they brought in Bo Schembechler, so letting Dombrowski take some time to reflect on what's here will resemble improvement if only because it can't get any worse. As long as the club's biblical plague of free agents slowly fades away, and the Tigers sort out whether or not Carlos Pena, Inge and/or Rivera, either shortstop, and any of their young pitching can be part of the next relevant Tigers franchise, they're headed in the right direction.
5. Will Trammell make Carlos Pena his cleanup hitter?
Pena seems to be the logical choice, but only because there isn't much else to choose from in the current lot of players. Given a full season, Pena should produce average, if not better, numbers (in the 25-homer, 80-RBI range). On a team with a good supporting cast, Pena would probably best fit in as a No. 5 hitter.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Chris Kahrl can be reached at email@example.com.