AL Central Hot Stove preview: Tigers look to strengthen grip
The Tigers were two ALCS extra-inning losses away from a trip to the World Series this year and won't lose any major pieces from the nucleus of the 2011 club. Thus, they should to be back in the mix just by bolstering their depth to go along with superstars in first baseman Miguel Cabrera and ace starter Justin Verlander and fellow All-Stars like catcher Alex Avila, closer Jose Valverde and shortstop Jhonny Peralta. That list doesn't even include Victor Martinez, a four-time All-Star who will be the Tigers' full-time designated hitter next season.
So what's missing? Detroit could use one more starter to finish the rotation alongside Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello and another strong relieving arm or two to slot in front of Joaquin Benoit and Valverde, especially if Al Alburquerque, who showed signs of fatigue in the postseason, can't replicate last year's 1.87 ERA.
With the Tigers likely to bring Delmon Young back to join Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch as the starting outfield trio, two lineup spots in definite need of improvement are second base and third base. At third base, in particular, Detroit had a .617 team OPS, which ranked 27th out of 30 MLB teams. Brandon Inge has one year and $6 million remaining on his contract but could be supplanted in the starting lineup as the team did with free-agent-to-be Wilson Betemit.
Because there are more available second baseman in free agency -- Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson are the headliners, with Jamey Carroll and Mark Ellis as other viable options -- Detroit would do well to target one of them, which would allow infielders Ryan Raburn and Santiago to support Inge at third.
That all could change, of course, if the Tigers make a run at the undisputed top available third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The exits of Guillen and Ordoñez do free up $23 million in payroll flexibility, which is more than enough to ink Ramirez, provided he doesn't demand too many years, with 19-year-old prospect Nick Castellanos tearing up the minors.
Could the Indians have been halfway done with their offseason before it really began? Cleveland already traded a minor league pitcher to the Braves for veteran starter Derek Lowe, adding a third sinkerballer to the rotation, alongside Justin Masterson and Fausto Carmona, whose option the club exercised for $7 million. Former Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez headlines the starting staff that is completed by rising third-year starter Josh Tomlin, meaning the Tribe already had their five-man rotation before free agency commenced.
The one remaining area of need for the Indians is a power bat. Thus far first baseman Matt LaPorta has not come close to meeting expectations and, save for a September power surge from Shelley Duncan, the club has also lacked pop in leftfield. The team declined the 2012 option on Grady Sizemore, opening the door for Michael Brantley to become the full-ltime centerfielder, which leaves leftfield wide open for a player not prohibitively expensive and who can hit for power. In other words, Josh Willingham ought to expect a phone call from a 216 area code.
Cleveland's front office has long been creative in making trades -- who saw them landing Jimenez, for instance -- so don't put it past them to conjure a move out of nothing, but with a good bullpen and a young core of position players led by catcher Carlos Santana and infielders Asdruba Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, few moves appear imminent, unless the team decides to pull the plug on the LaPorta experiment at first base.
On the day the White Sox announced new manager Robin Ventura, general manager Kenny Williams acknowledged that the club needed to "retool," a more PR-friendly version of the standard sports verb, "rebuild." With the creative and aggressive Williams at the helm, this offseason on Chicago's South Side could be anything from dull to hectic.
The more likely scenario is on the lower end of activity. If Alexis Rios and Adam Dunn live up to their contracts Gordon Beckham plays up to his high draft status (Beckham), then the White Sox will already have turned around an offense that scored its fewest runs in a full season since 1988 and that ranked 11th in the AL. With manager Ozzie Guillen having left for Florida and hitting coach Greg Walker having departed for Atlanta, the White Sox will have a pair of new voices working with their struggling offensive players.
The rotation, meanwhile, may lose mainstay Mark Buehrle to free agency but still has Philip Humber, who had a breakthrough season, as well as Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd and John Danks, all three of whom had ERAs higher than 4.30 last season. Each member of that trio had strong strikeout-to-walk ratios -- in fact, the club's 2.78 K/BB was the best in AL by a wide margin -- suggesting future success if the defense behind them can improve on its ranking of fourth-worst in the majors, according to Baseball Prospectus' park-adjusted defensive efficiency.
Chicago spent $128 million in 2011, the fifth-most in baseball, and isn't likely to make any big splashes in free agency this offseason, but it's in the trade market where things could get interesting. With no club projecting to be a prohibitive favorite in 2012, Williams may choose to stand pat and try to make a run at a division crown, but if his confidence falters at all -- and many have noted that hiring a rookie manager suggests a longer-term approach -- then he could easily re-stock the deck with young talent by trading his in-their-prime arbitration-eligible players, Danks and rightfielder Carlos Quentin, or Floyd, who is signed through 2012 with a club option for '13.
Sure, the Royals may want to tinker with their roster and perhaps swing a trade or two, but the prevailing principle guiding this year's offseason ought to be inertia, of which the baseball corollary is that young players in development tend to continue developing. That means management shouldn't meddle too much with veteran free agents who will stunt the growth of the many other promising youngsters by taking away at bats or innings.
Kansas City was the talk of spring training last year, as many of its historic wealth of top prospects received major league invites. At the time the farm system was almost a curiosity, still three years or so away from paying serious major league dividends. But now with the first wave of prospects -- Aaron Crow, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Johnny Giavotella and Salvador Perez -- having logged significant time with the parent club, the tone should be less about the awe of the distant goal and more about the reality of making it happen.
But the area that indisputably still needs help is the rotation. The Royals could lose Chen and/or Francis in free agency and lost one of top pitching prospects, John Lamb, for most of the year due to Tommy John surgery. While Crow will likely audition for a potential move from the bullpen to the rotation, the club could still use a high-end starter or two. With a paucity of free-agent options, the price on pitchers such as C.J. Wilson and Edwin Jackson will be steep. The Royals' best bet will be to trade a few of its bevy of prospects for a starter.
The fortunes of the Twins changed dramatically in 2011, as they regressed from perennial better-than-you-think Central contenders to how-could-they-be-this-bad divisional doormats. Some of that decline was due to problems beyond the team's control (injuries, such as those suffered by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Denard Span, which contributed to a league-leading 27 trips to the disabled list) and some was due to players who simply had a bad year, may never develop as planned or will never show consistency in their careers. The trick is in determining which category each player -- Alexi Casilla, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Danny Valencia, Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing -- falls into.
Management has said that payroll will likely remain in the vicinity of last year's $112 million, which gives the club some $25 million to spend this offseason -- enough to fill some holes but probably not enough to add, say, Jose Reyes to play shortstop without sacrificing in a few other spots.
The four primary needs are corner-outfield pop, a middle infielder, a strong presence at designated hitter -- or, relatedly, an everyday catcher or first baseman to allow Mauer or Morneau to serve as DH -- and some bullpen help, as only Glen Perkins remains as a viable late-inning option. (Minnesota has already claimed Jeff Gray and Matt Maloney off waivers but could stand to add another bullpen arm or two, which could mean bringing Capps or Nathan back at reduced salaries.)
The corner outfield and DH decisions could simply be to retain Cuddyer and Kubel -- if everyone's healthy, that lineup looks pretty good one through seven, though it wouldn't do anything to improve what was the worst fielding team in the majors, according to BP's park-adjusted defensive efficiency.
The middle infield -- primarily manned last year by Casilla, Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert -- was an offensive disaster last year, collectively hitting for a .610 OPS at second base, which was the worst in the majors, and a .612 OPS at shortstop, which ranked 26th. It wouldn't seem to be the team's style to make a big splash for Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, but there are several less expensive veterans (Rafael Furcal, Yuniesky Betancourt, Jack Wilson) who could provide some short-term stability.