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March 22, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Divisional offensive outlook for 1999

by Christina Kahrl

CHICAGO WHITE SOX (1998: 861 runs, .269 Equivalent Average)

Starters (with projected Equivalent Average)
C Mark Johnson .262 or Josh Paul .222
1B Paul Konerko .287
2B Ray Durham .272
3B Greg Norton .251 or Carlos Lee .255
SS Mike Caruso .244
LF Jeff Abbott .269
CF Brian Simmons .245 or McKay Christensen .252 or Tyrone Pendergrass .235
RF Magglio Ordonez .260
DH Frank Thomas .328

Bench/Alternates: 1B Mario Valdez .280, OF Darrin Jackson .220, OF John Cangelosi .252, C Robert Machado .211

Few teams are as wide-open at three positions as the Sox are right now at catcher, third, and center. They're not going to be anywhere close to where they were last year offensively, but the pain of this year's decline should lead to future payoffs, as potential stars like Konerko and Lee mature, and if Christensen or Johnson get on base enough to be driven in (assuming the Sox are wise enough to use them). Even so, with Ray Durham and Frank Thomas, the Sox have two good on-base players, and I expect Thomas to bounce back even better than we've projected. Three players who need to do it now or never? Abbott, Ordonez, and Norton. Norton's clearly a temporary solution, but between Abbott and Ordonez, one of them could easily collapse below usefulness this year, and the Sox have enough options that they'll be replaced. The worst-case scenario is if the Sox play Paul at catcher, or waste their time on Darrin Jackson or John Cangelosi in center, and the best-case scenario lets them put Konerko in an outfield corner so that they can work Mario Valdez into the lineup.

Projected Offensive Rank in AL Central: second

CLEVELAND INDIANS (1998: 850 runs, .264 EqA)

C Sandy Alomar Jr. .235
1B Jim Thome .332
2B Roberto Alomar .290
3B Travis Fryman .272
SS Omar Vizquel .256
LF David Justice .300
CF Kenny Lofton .280
RF Manny Ramirez .316
DH Richie Sexson .282 or Wil Cordero .255

Bench/Alternates: 3B Russ Branyan .306, OFs Jacob Cruz .263, Alex Ramirez .273, Mark Whiten .265, 2B/SS Enrique Wilson .261

What a lot of alternatives for that last outfield or DH slot, right? So why sign Wil Cordero? Why even consider Cordero at all, when he's almost certainly the worst offensive option they have? This is a team that at worst will be playing seven good offensive players (in terms of getting on-base, hitting for power, or both) to start off with, but they could make life simpler for their pitching staff if they made it 8 and sent Cordero away. Picking that nit aside, the Indians are still handily the best offensive team in the division, although this could very easily be the last hurrah in terms of simultaneously getting good work out of their veterans and the great Thome-Manny Ramirez tandem.

Projected Offensive Rank in AL Central: first

DETROIT TIGERS (1998: 722 runs, .250 EqA)

C Brad Ausmus .247
1B Tony Clark .290
2B Damion Easley .270
3B Dean Palmer .268
SS Deivi Cruz .210
LF Bobby Higginson .296
CF Brian Hunter .238 or Gabe Kapler .276
RF Juan Encarnacion .270
DH Gregg Jefferies .256

Bench/Alternates: 2B Frank Catalanotto .275, DH Rob Fick .274

Okay, fricaseeing the Tribe about Wil Cordero aside, the decision to perpetuate Gregg Jefferies' professional existence is even more inexcusable for a team which has Kapler, Catalanotto, and Fick all ready or close to it. On the other hand, the Tigers can brag that they have the best-hitting catcher in the division, which will be true if Mark Johnson as long as Mark Johnson, Mike Sweeney, or Matt LeCroy aren't playing for their teams. As far as the Tigers' offense, although they'll almost certainly improve, they aren't going to improve as much as they're thinking. As a lineup, this team doesn't get on-base, so regardless of whether they play Kapler or bring in Dean Palmer to hit homeruns, a good offense needs more than solo shots.

Projected Offensive Rank in AL Central: third

KANSAS CITY ROYALS (1998: 714 runs, .244 EqA)

C Chad Kreuter .223
1B Jeff King .262
2B Carlos Febles .260
3B Joe Randa .250
SS Rey Sanchez .223
LF Jeff Conine .253 or Jermaine Dye .247
CF Carlos Beltran .249
RF Johnny Damon .257
DH Jeremy Giambi .307

Bench/Alternates: Mike Sweeney .251, Sal Fasano .197, Larry Sutton .242

A work in progress would be the charitable description, as the Royals have five players to watch, supported by a bunch of guys accruing service time. We've touted the three rookies (Febles, Giambi, and Beltran), but I can't quite shake off the feeling that Johnny Damon is going to turn out better than projected. Mark Sweeney would be the answer to most teams' catching problems, but the Royals must have given in to peer pressure or greatly covet somebody in the Angels' system to decide to sign Chad Kreuter and play him. Since half of the team is part of the future, the other half has to play well enough to help turn themselves into trade bait for the Royals to acquire their replacements. They're almost certainly stuck with Randa and Sanchez, but if they could turn Jeff King into a real third baseman or shortstop or power hitter, they'd have accomplished something.

Projected Offensive Rank in AL Central: fifth, but better than Tampa.

MINNESOTA TWINS (1998: 734 runs, .247 EqA)

C Terry Steinbach .234
1B Doug Mientkiewicz .280 / Ron Coomer .245
2B Todd Walker .283
3B Corey Koskie .244 / Ron Coomer .245
SS Denny Hocking .198 or Cristian Guzman .227
LF Marty Cordova .254
CF Jacque Jones .261 or Torii Hunter .236
RF Matt Lawton .276
DH David Ortiz .280

Bench/Alternatives: C Matt LeCroy .263, OFs Chris Latham .231, Brian Buchanan .234, Mel Nieves .260

The team currently being propped up as exhibit A for why "small market teams can't compete" is finally getting serious about rebuilding. Until players like Matt LeCroy or Mike Cuddyer are ready, they'll get to evaluate who's going to be good enough to be part of the next good Twins team. Todd Walker is already in place, and Matt Lawton is a great low-profile offensive player, getting on-base and contributing some power. Ortiz and Koskie could break through this year, and Mientkiewicz should do a convincing impersonation of Mark Grace. All in all, there are things to like here, as long as you're comfortable with the idea that this team isn't being built to win in 1999. At least it isn't around just to keep Otis Nixon and Paul Molitor busy, so they're already improving.

Projected Offensive Rank in AL Central: fourth

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Paul Konerko,  Frank Catalanotto

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