CHICAGO WHITE SOX:
Record – 89-73
Improved player – Carlos Quentin (health has eluded him, even in his best season when he played just 130 games, but he is still at the beginning of his prime and a fully healthy season would yield another .900+ OPS season.)
Improved pitcher – Edwin Jackson (it was a small sample at 75 innings, but I’m buying into what I saw from Jackson after his trade to Chicago. I’m putting faith not only in Jackson’s skill, but also in pitching coach Don Cooper who has done more with less.)
Regression player – Paul Konerko (we saw some vintage Konerko at age 34, but I’m not betting on another 39 home runs or .312 batting average. Of course, I’m not expecting him to disappear either, just be around his 28-30 home run average with a .270-.280 batting average.)
Regression pitcher – Jake Peavy (my friend Andrew [@andtinez] pointed out to me how Peavy seems to want to throw his fist at the batter on every single pitch. I went back and watched some of his starts and saw the exact same thing and that kind of 110% max effort 100 times a game just isn’t a remedy for staying put together and I would be surprised if he threw more than 100 innings or posted an ERA anywhere near his career 3.36.)
Why they will win – They match an excellent lineup with a very strong, diverse (a couple lefties, some hard throws, some soft tossers) rotation that leads right into a very good bullpen making them the odds-on favorite for a very difficult division.
Why they might not win – The lineup’s excellence depends on growth from four spots and sustained quality from four of the top five. If a few pieces were to falter, things could go south quickly in a division with little wiggle room.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – There is little variance between the top three in this division and it will likely come down to health and in-season moves (whether internal or via trade). On paper they hold a slight edge, but I have been notified that they will not be playing the games on paper this year.
Record – 88-74
Improved player – Ryan Raburn (he has got to put it together for a full season this time around after two years of resurgent second halves.)
Improved pitcher – Rick Porcello (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer give Detroit a dynamic 1-2 that might be the best in the American League, but Porcello will ultimately be instrumental to the team’s fate as the most talented of their remaining three. He’s not going to become a strikeout artist, but if he can add 1-1.5 per game and rely a little less on an average at best infield defense, he can have his best season yet.)
Regression player – Austin Jackson (I guess he’s the obvious answer because of the gaudy BABIP, but I don’t think he falls off of a cliff as some seem to think. He will need to improve his skill set to hit .293 or better again, namely cutting down on the massive strikeout total, but if he stays flat then he is likely in for a .275ish season.)
Regression pitcher – Joaquin Benoit (no matter how strong his peripheral stats were last year, and they were elite, he has to come down from his 1.34 ERA/0.68 WHIP of 2010 as there’s almost no way he can strand 95% of his runners again while allowing a sub-.200 BABIP.)
Why they can win – The middle of the lineup isn’t just Miguel Cabrera as Magglio Ordonez returns from injury and Victor Martinez almost quietly joins the club from Boston as the move happened so early and so quickly that it is kind of overlooked. The rotation is deep on Opening Day with a solid prospect in Andy Oliver on hand in Toledo just in case.
Why they won’t win – If the table setters (Jackson and Will Rhymes) don’t repeat their 2010 success for the middle of that lineup, runs could be scarce. The bullpen has plenty of raw talent leading to Jose Valverde, but if they don’t convert the triple digit arms into quality innings, they could lose some leads late.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – This is a definitely a three team race, but Detroit has the star power to stick around all year. If their complementary pieces of the lineup don’t step up, they will run out of gas by September.
Record – 86-76
Improved player – Denard Span (I’m willing to bet that his talent level is more 2009 than 2010, or at the very least I’ll give him another year to prove he wasn’t a product of the Metrodome.)
Improved pitcher – Kevin Slowey (Nick Blackburn is terrible.)
Regression player – Joe Mauer (Despite being a Tigers fan, I love Mauer. He’s one of my favorite non-Tigers. He’s not a hate-able rival like Jordan or Chris Chelios [before he became a long-time Red Wing], at least not for me, so this isn’t Detroit bias. I’m worried about the knee and just the injury profile in general. It is the games played we would see regress, not the skill, he remains elite.)
Regression pitcher – Guess. Rhymes with Snick Crapchurn.
Why they can win – …because they are a well-run organization able to make deft moves to fill holes as the season progresses. Of course their history as a smart franchise is what boggles my mind so much with the Blackburn/Slowey saga and even the fact that Scott Baker had to fight for a spot. If Delmon Young continues to ascend as I believe he will, they’ll have three superstars in the heart of their lineup.
Why they won’t win – …because their two superstars are two of their biggest question marks from a health concern and they seem to hate their best pitcher (Francisco Liriano, not Slowey this time!) to the point that they are rumored to have him on the block. Bizarre moves with their pitching from an otherwise stable franchise.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – I refuse to count them out as I think the talent will win out in their rotation and they have the makings of a really strong lineup especially if Tsuyoshi Nishioka steps right into the fold. For now, they are a tick below the other two because of bigger question marks.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS:
Record – 69-93
Improved player – Alcides Escobar (predominantly from a fantasy angle as I believe he will run a ton improving his value at a thin position, but I also think we’ll see this 2-time top 20 prospect start to hit closer to the .293 figure he posted in the minors.)
Improved pitcher – Jeremy Jeffress (watch him emerge into a dominant 7th/8th inning guy with blistering heat and a devastating breaking pitch.)
Regression player – No one. (their older guys are stagnant and I don’t see any of their younger guys falling off.)
Regression pitcher – Bruce Chen (no way this crazy luckbox has another 4.17 ERA rabbit in his hat.)
Why they can win – …because the lineup really isn’t awful as currently constructed and if Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain were up to supplement it by mid-May, they’d have something. Of course the pitching would need a total makeover and Mike Montgomery and the entire AA-Northwest Arkansas staff would need to come up and take over for their current staff.
Why they won’t win – …because they aren’t really playing to win in 2011, nor should they. Debut a few of the blue chippers from the jump (Jeffress, Tim Collins and Aaron Crow), pull a few more up as the season rolls along and then a few more in Spring Training of 2012 and see if this is going to come together as many suspect it might.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – This is a historically great minor league system, but not all of them are going to pan out, certainly not to full potential anyway. Some are going to bust completely, some are going to be average everyday regulars (which isn’t necessarily a failure), some of the heralded starters are going to fail there and shift to the pen and succeed.
It’s going to a be a smorgasbord of success and I just hope the fans realize that instead of expecting Hosmer to be Adrian Gonzalez, Mous to be Evan Longoria and the top arms to be the second coming of Philly’s 2011 rotation. My biggest concern is whether Dayton Moore can adequately surround these prospects with the right major league pieces as they do become ready.
I wouldn’t bet on it, so KC fans might want to hold off on those 2014 playoff ticket deposits for now (note that despite my negativity re: Moore, I’m actually pulling for this class to perform at or above expectations, even though it’ll make life harder for my Tigers).
Record – 65-97
Improved player – Lonnie Chisenhall (not yet with the big league club, but it won’t be long and I think he hits the ground running.)
Improved pitcher – Carlos Carrasco (well-chronicled love for C2 this year, but in case you missed it, check out my favorite 2011 SP piece.)
Regression player – No one. (It was Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana and a bunch of flotsam. I don’t see the former two regressing so that doesn’t leave anything.)
Regression pitcher – Fausto Carmona (I just don’t trust that flimsy skill set. He had no business with a 3.77 ERA and he’d have to get pretty darn lucky to do so again with those peripherals.)
Why they can win – Umm… hmm… OK, let’s try this: Grady Sizemore only misses a little bit of time in April and then comes back and plays like his old self, Travis Hafner has one more excellent season hitting 30 bombs and driving in 100, Michael Brantley displays great plate patience atop the lineup with a near-.400 OBP and Matt LaPorta finally does something with his life and smacks 25 home runs. Those four combine with Asdrubal Cabrera, Choo & Santana for a helluva lineup.
Why they won’t win – …because none of the above is going to happen.
Conclusion/Bottom Line – Their farm isn’t as heralded as KC’s, but it is pretty good and this is a team on the rise, too. Their young major league parts (Carrasco, Santana, Brantley and Cabrera) will be the core supplemented first by Chisenhall in ’11, but then Jason Kipnis, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Jason Knapp and Nick Weglarz soon whether it’s late ’11 or next spring. Depending on how the current trio atop this division holds up in the near future, this could become a ridiculous 5-team race soon.