Saturday, February 16, 2002

Damn Yankees! 2002 AL Central Preview

At long last the 2002 baseball season has arrived. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Valentine's Day, and the regular season opens on Sunday, March 31. That means that John Q. Public has a little more than a month to get back up to speed on the national pastime.

Luckily, your Uncle Craig is here to give you the lowdown on what to expect from each team in the coming season. Between now and Opening Day, I'll be previewing each of the six major league divisions.

First up, the American League Central. That’s right, the AL Central. You were probably expecting the obligatory pre-season genuflection towards the New York Yankees and the AL East. Forget about it.

Every damn baseball writer begins his season preview with the Eastern Division and works his way west. Writers are taught to lead with their best stuff, close with their next-strongest stuff, and bury the mediocre junk they don’t want anyone to notice in the middle. From the standpoint of the New York and Bristol, Connecticut-based sports media hegemony ("NYBCBSMH"), that means leading with the Yankees, closing with the Dodgers, and lumping all the ugly stepsisters of baseball (Kansas City, Cincinnati, Minnesota) in the middle.

Well, I’m from Columbus, Ohio, not Park Slope, and its about time someone stood up for the great Midwest. Sure, I suppose it's possible that the NYBCBSMH doesn’t have it in for what we right-thinking people call God’s country, and it’s possible they treat us so badly because most of the Central Division teams, well, kind of suck. But apart from my dateless adolescence, checkered job history and unceremonious removal from tour group at FBI headquarters 1996, I've had pretty good luck with conspiracy theories, and I'm the kind of guy that sticks with a winning formula.

So to hell with the Yankees. I’ll get to them when I’m good and ready. Instead, I’m leading off with teams that play in stadiums surrounded by shopping malls, auto plants, and amber waves of grain.

Cleveland Indians:

In 1890, the Cleveland Infants (look it up) of the short-lived Players League had a slugging first baseman named Henry Larkin who nearly led the league in RBI. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much else, and as a result, they finished seventh in the eight-team league’s only season. The 2002 Cleveland Indians of the American League have a slugging first baseman named Jim Thome who, since new management decided to gut the team of payroll, is about all they have left of the offense that terrorized the AL Central for the past seven or eight years. I imagine that the Indians will finish better than seventh (and not just because there are only five teams in their division) but they certainly won’t finish first.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a team cutting expensive veterans who perform no better than some hungry twenty-three year-old kid who makes the league minimum. Indeed, cutting payroll in such a way would be a great way for moribund franchises like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and the New York Mets to make their transition from mediocre to competitive all the easier. But Cleveland didn’t cut some overpaid veteran; Cleveland traded away Roberto freakin’ Alomar, who is one of the three greatest second basemen who ever lived. Alomar was certainly no hero (As you may recall, he spit in some umpire’s face a few years back), and it isn’t as if Alomar was a Cleveland institution (He gets traded by or is allowed to walk away from whatever team he plays for every three years or so -- amazing for a future Hall of Famer). But Alomar can flat out rake, and at the rate Cleveland has shed offense over the past few years, they can use all the raking they can get.

Let us also not forget the fate of every team that has let Alomar go in the past. The Padres let Alomar go in the early '90s, and soon after became a laughing stock. The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series with Roberto leading the way, but when they let him go, they slipped into a funk from which they have yet to recover. The Orioles, despite being run by a certified lunatic in plaintiffs’ lawyer Peter Angelos, managed two playoff appearances with Alomar in the mid-1990s (and in 1997 became the first and only team since Clinton’s first term to unseat the Yankees at the top of the AL East), only to ditch him and then watch as their once proud franchise turned into the support staff for the farewell tour of the corpse of Cal Ripken. If history has shown us anything it has shown us that dumping Roberto Alomar = imminent suckiness.

So you'd think Cleveland would have realized the lunacy of letting Alomar go. Of course, considering this is the city that named a beer after its greatest moment of shame, expecting Cleveland to have a firm grasp on history may be asking too much.

The Cleveland Infants, er, Indians, will pay for their folly in the form of inferior defense at the keystone, and a lack of production from anyone but Henry Larkin, er, Jim Thome. I predict uncharacteristic mediocrity as a result of the off-season mistakes made in the mistake by the lake.

Detroit Tigers:

The Tigers have never really been a good team. Oh, sure, they used to win a World Series once every 15-20 years, but they have never had the kind of success that their fellow charter American League teams like the Yankees and Red Sox had. In my lifetime, they had one brief run of success in the mid-1980s, and that was about that. Nevertheless, despite all the fair-to-middlin’ baseball taking place on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull over the years, Tigers fans at least had the luxury of watching games in one of the best parks in baseball. Tiger Stadium had double-decker bleachers. Tiger Stadium had irregular dimensions. Most importantly, Tiger Stadium had those old horse trough-style urinals in the men’s rooms, and nothing says baseball like peeing in a trough. Those little touches made the mild-mannered Michigan baseball fan’s life much sweeter as they sat through the inevitable 79 win-83 loss seasons.

Since 2000, the Tigers have played in shiny, new Comerica Park, which is really more of a carnival midway than a ballpark, complete with an operating carousel and Ferris wheel to go along with their overpriced concessions. And judging by the Tigers' complete failure to develop a decent farm system over the past couple of years, it would appear that Mike Ilitch, the pizza baron who owns the club, was more interested in off-the-field entertainment than quality between the lines.

Things may soon be changing in Detroit, however. Even if it came half a decade too late, Ilitch effectively replaced the inept General Manager Randy Smith this winter (Smith, you may recall, traded away half of the teams prospects for an ailing and sulking Juan Gonzalez two years ago) with veteran baseball man Dave Dombrowski, who was named team President. Smith has yet to be fired, but he is obviously no longer making final personnel decisions, which is a good thing. Dombrowski’s track record with his previous employers does not suggest that he is the Messiah, but at least he knows the difference between talent and the flotsam that Smith had been bringing to Motown for the past five years.

So far, Dombrowski has added a needed bat (Dimitri Young, in a decent trade with the Reds), locked up budding ace Jeff Weaver and fireballer Matt Anderson to long-term contracts, and made the faithful feel good by hiring Tiger legends Al Kaline and Willie Horton as his special assistants. Nice moves, all, especially hiring Horton, a man who, in addition to swatting massive home runs in the 1960s and '70s, was instrumental in helping putting a stop to the riots that rocked Detroit in 1967, and probably saved Hall of Famer Kaline’s life by performing on-the-field CPR after a violent outfield collision in 1970. Detroit has never treated its heroes well, and its good to see them start now.

Make no mistake, it’s gonna be 95-loss ugly this year in Wayne County as the Tigers try to generate runs in perhaps the worst hitters’ park in baseball. However, with the demotion of Randy Smith, at least Tigers fans now have a glimmer of hope for the future. After a decade in which they had only the dulcet tones of broadcasting god Ernie Harwell to calm them, a glimmer is enough.

Minnesota Twins:

There was a great deal of hubbub this off-season about contraction. All of it, however, focused on what a crime it was to contract the Twins, with very little complaint about contracting the Montreal Expos. I, for one, think contraction is a pretty lame idea on the part of the owners (as do they apparently, having recently shelved the plan until next year) but if it is ever going to happen, I don’t see why we should shed tears about the Twins getting the axe.

Though most people don’t remember it, the Twins began as a franchise when Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators to Minneapolis in 1961 in order to take advantage of a sweet stadium deal. While Griffith’s robbery of the original Senators was partially absolved by the expansion version of the Senators that started playing in D.C. that same year, Minnesotans obviously got the better end of the deal. After all, while Washington got ten seasons of terrible baseball played by stiffs like Coot Veal and Gene Greene (again, look it up), Minnesota got Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and the 1965 World Series. They got their good deal by screwing another city, so they should have known that they were due for some Karmic vengeance eventually, right?

Ok, maybe even Karma has a statute of limitations, and 41 years is too long. Maybe they have already paid their price by having to watch games in a stadium that looks like a giant trash bag for the past twenty years. I'm no theologian, so I can’t say for sure. In any event, thanks to litigation and the fecklessness of Commissioner Bud Selig, talking about contracting the Twins is a moot point for now, so let’s just see how last year’s surprise team stacks up this year.

Eh. I can’t say that I am impressed. Last year, as the severely under-funded Twins mounted their improbable run at the division title, they made a trade they thought would put them over the top. They shuffled leadoff hitter Matt Lawton to the Mets in exchange for pitcher Rick Reed, best known in organized labor circles as scab valedictorian during the 1994-95 strike.

Ok, not fair. Reed has been a pretty damn good pitcher for the past few seasons (a poor man’s Greg Maddux if you believe the scouts, but I don’t believe the scouts when it comes to comparing palooka pitchers to deities), and having him on your team is not a liability no matter what the shop steward says about it. Still, Reed didn’t help them down the stretch last year, and at nearly $7 million this season, his salary could pay for a lot of cheap spare parts the Twins actually need.

Management couldn’t move Reed in the off-season, and they didn’t bring in any spare parts, so the Twins -- who are not going to sneak up on anybody this year like they did last year -- are going to have to count on their fellow AL Central contenders to regress in order to have a chance this year. As previously noted, Cleveland has accommodated them in this regard, however, the same cannot be said for the . . . .

Chicago White Sox:

The White Sox were the Minnesota Twins of the 2000 season. Actually, they were better than that, winning more games and actually making the playoffs. And unlike the Twins, the White Sox didn’t rely on smoke and mirrors. They broke the Indians' five-year stranglehold on the division with good young talent, the resurgence of Frank Thomas (a man who, until 1998 looked like a first-ballot Hall of Famer), and the guidance of their vastly underrated manager, Jerry Manuel.

Last year, some bad pre-season signings and trades and an early season-ending injury to Frank Thomas caused the Sox to fall from grace. Instead of sticking with the live young arms that pitched them to the 2000 playoffs, the Sox traded for the often injured and seriously overweight David Wells who, to no one’s surprise except White Sox management's, broke down midway through the season. (This is a man who has been on the disabled list for gout. More than once.) In addition, rather than give a chance to the young prospects who helped them win it the previous year, last year’s Sox signed fossils Harold Baines and Sandy Alomar, Jr., and wasted precious at-bats on the punchless Royce Clayton. The party line was that these players were brought in to add the "veteran presence" that general managers like to talk about. What they forgot was that "skilled baseball players" beat "veteran presence" every single time.

This year looks to be better. Thomas will presumably be back, and if he posts an average-for-him year, the lineup will be dramatically improved. Hoagie-eater David Wells is gone, replaced by innings-eater Todd Ritchie, recently acquired from Pittsburgh. Add to that the maturation of the kids who played so well in 2000, and the White Sox look to be the class of the AL Central. Heck, given the direction of the Indians and the sorry state of the other teams in the division, let’s just pencil the White Sox in as division champs for the foreseeable future. Now, if they would only bring back those 1970s uniforms with the clam digger pants, real progress will have been made.

Kansas City Royals:

It is ironic that the Royals, who are owned by Wal-Mart CEO David Glass, know very little about how to shop on a limited budget. Indeed, the Royals are perhaps the best example of a team that cries poor to the newspapers and then wastes its money on overpaid and overrated veterans, all the time wondering why its best players leave and its record never improves. As frustrated Royals fan and excellent baseball writer Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus has recently noted, over the past two years, the Royals have committed over $17.5 million a year to players whose talents the Royals didn’t need, or who don’t have any talent to begin with.

At the same time, the Royals have allowed two of their best players -- Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye -- to walk away because they allegedly cost too much money to keep. Dye and Damon, however, recently signed contracts that lock both of them up for several years at a combined annual cost of $ 18.42 million. Keeping in mind that Dye and Damon are both much younger and vastly more talented than any of the stiffs they’ve brought in, it is clear that Royals’ management doesn’t know what in the hell it is doing.

Important to note here is that when the Royals unloaded Dye and Damon (as well as valuable role-player Jeremy Giambi in 2000), the team on the other side of the trade was the Oakland A’s. With the help of the Royals’ castoffs, the A’s won over 100 games last year and look to do the same this year. The A’s are under more serious salary constraints than the Royals, but still manage to field a winning team. The difference is that the A’s scouts and front office know how to evaluate talent and price it accordingly; the Royals do not.

The Royals have one certified stud left in their stable, and his name is Mike Sweeney. Sweeney is getting to the point where the Royals have to decide whether to sign him to a long term deal or trade him for some residual value before he walks away as a free agent. I would not bet against (a) the Royals claiming that they cannot afford him sometime around June of this year; and (b) Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane placing a call to Kansas City soon afterwards. If I were in the Kansas City front office, I would consider screening my calls. Fooled once, shame on you. Fooled twice, shame on me. Fooled repeatedly, you’re the Kansas City Royals.

Projected Finish: Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City.