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April 9, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Divisional defensive outlook for 1999

by Christina Kahrl

CHICAGO WHITE SOX (1998: 931 runs allowed, last in the AL)

James Baldwin, R
Mike Sirotka, L
Jim Parque, L
John Snyder, R
Jaime Navarro, R

Bobby Howry, R
Bill Simas, R
Keith Foulke, R
Sean Lowe, R
David Lundquist, R
Bryan Ward, L

Chad Bradford, R
Carlos Castillo, R
Kevin Beirne, R
Tom Fordham, L
Scott Eyre, L

Despite enduring the league's worst pitching last year, Ron Schueler and Jerry Manuel didn't really have as many choices as all those potential alternatives would lead you to believe. Until the team decides to eat or manages to trade Jaime Navarro's contract, there really wasn't a rotation spot open. The front four all earned their places in this year's rotation on the basis of what they did during the second half last year. I expect Baldwin, Sirotka, and Parque to build on that success, but the Sox have reasons to worry about Snyder's long-term durability. That and the Navarro nuisance should create two open slots at some point during the season, and first cracks will probably go to past failures like Fordham or Eyre, followed by real opportunities for Beirne or possibly Aaron Myette. The Sox have several other starting pitchers they could sort through, but for anyone like a Pat Daneker or a Jason Lakman (among others), much will depend on having a hot streak at the right time.

The Sox will enter the season with a tag team at closer, splitting the duties between Bobby Howry and Bill Simas, with Simas undoubtedly on the block and dealt by the end of July. Keith Foulke will be very effective as the main setup man. Sean Lowe and David Lundquist won jobs on the basis of what they did in camp. Both are useful as relievers, but two bad weeks from either of them will be enough to bring Chad Bradford or Carlos Castillo back up. Overall, the Sox pen is a source of strength.

Sox defense has been much-maligned in the local media, but that's the misinterpretation of defensive statistics for you. I expect serious improvement from Mike Caruso at short in his sophomore campaign, in no small part from working with the league's best second baseman, Ray Durham, in a second full season. Losing a great gloveman like Robin Ventura at third will hurt, but Greg Norton is an ex-shortstop, and should be more than adequate. The return of Frank Thomas to first will only remind folks that as bad as he's been over his career, he was still better than Wil Cordero; Paul Konerko will probably only be slightly better. Outfield defense is solid: Magglio Ordonez is an athletic and talented right fielder, left fielder Jeff Abbott could probably handle center if given the chance, and the various center fielders (notably McKay Christensen and Brian Simmons, but also Darrin Jackson) are all good defensive players.

CLEVELAND INDIANS (1998: 779 runs allowed, 5th in the AL)

Jaret Wright, R
Bartolo Colon, R
Dave Burba, R
Charles Nagy, R
Doc Gooden, R

Mike Jackson, R
Steve Reed, R
Paul Shuey, R
Paul Assenmacher, L
Ricardo Rincon, L
Jerry Spradlin, R
Steve Karsay, R

What, you need them when you're already carrying a dozen?
Jason Rakers, R
Kevin Appier, R
Mark Langston, L

The big question about the Indians rotation is which of several pregnant possibilities is going to pop out of the oven first. Are either of Jaret Wright or Bartolo Colon going to grow into top starters? Can Colon survive the workload he endured last year? Will Chuck Nagy ever bounce back? Can Doc Gooden be as good as he was down the stretch last year? Let's put it this way: if one of the bad things happens before any of the good things happen, don't bet on Jason Rakers getting an open rotation spot. Indians starting pitching is basically solid for the 162 game slogging match, being slightly better than average, which with a full-bore offense makes for a simple recipe for the requisite 85-90 wins to "run away" with the AL Central.

The bullpen is that most ungainly of animals: the seven-man pen. I don't think anyone has ever tried it and gotten good results in terms of what it means for the team or its roster, but the Indians don't rely on their bench much in the first place, and if keeping all these relievers encourages Hargrove to pull Colon or Wright in the sixth inning a little more often, it will have served a fine long-term purpose. The additions of Spradlin and Rincon to what was an already strong pen give the Tribe the league's best bullpen. Strange guess of the year: I could see Steve Karsay winning 10 games as a mopup man; he'll usually come in when the Indians are losing (or blowouts), and with this offense, that means getting onto the hook because of frequent rallies.

Indians defense is solid. This isn't a team of old veterans who've lost it afield, but neither are they a collection of players at their peaks. The infield is reasonably tight on the left side with Vizquel at short and Fryman at third, but the right side of Thome and Alomar could be a problem. I'm not sure asking David Justice to play left is a good idea, but if the alternative is Wil Cordero, I'd ask for a third choice. Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez are neither serious problems or strengths.

DETROIT TIGERS (1998: 863 runs allowed, 10th in the AL)

Justin Thompson, L
Brian Moehler, R
Willie Blair, R
Bryce Florie, R
Beiker Graterol, R

Todd Jones, R
Matt Anderson, R
Doug Brocail, R
Masao Kida, R
Sean Runyan, L
C.J. Nitkowski, L
Felipe Lira, R

Theoretically, Mike Drumright, R
or Matt Drews, R
Seth Greisinger, R (DL)
Jeff Weaver, R

Tigers' pitching will improve, but not as much as they're expecting. I'll agree with the proposition that Justin Thompson could bust out with a huge season, and that Brian Moehler may turn in an encore performance. I'll agree that Willie Blair is a great bet to crank out around 160 league-average innings. I won't buy the proposition that Bryce Florie is destined for bigger or better things, and the fifth spot of the rotation should be an open wound between now and whenever the Tigers decide top '98 pick Weaver is ready.

The bullpen is an interesting collection of talent. The worst pitcher of the lot (leaving a relative unknown like Kida aside) may be the team's closer of the moment. How long Jones holds the role is an open question. But as is, the Tigers look like they have two of the best setup men aroung in Brocail and Anderson, and a pair of handy lefties in Nitkowski and Runyan. It's a potentially outstanding bullpen.

Tiger defense isn't a strength. The right side of the infield (1B Tony Clark and 2B Damion Easley) is adequate, and 3B Dean Palmer is a liability. A lot will depend on whether or not Deivi Cruz stays healthy and improves, because he has the potential to be the best defensive shortstop in the league. Brad Ausmus will be handy enough behind the plate, helping to control the running game. In Tiger Stadium, that's about as important as giving people on ground zero umbrellas. Outfield defense is weak. Bobby Higginson, Juan Encarnacion, and Gabe Kapler have all been little better than adequate recently, and Brian Hunter isn't a good enough centerfielder to justify getting his weak bat into the lineup.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS (1998: 899 runs allowed, 13th in the AL)

Kevin Appier, R
Jose Rosado, L
Jeff Suppan, R
Brian Barber, R
Jim Pittsley, R

Jeff Montgomery, R
Scott Service, R
Jose Santiago, R
Matt Whisenant, L
Jay Witasick, R
Don Wengert, R

Glendon Rusch, L
Hipolito Pichardo, R (DL)
Orber Moreno, R
Chris Fussell, R

The Royals' rotation is an interesting collection of parts. Appier is there for show, in the hopes that he yields somebody or something that contributes to the next good Royals team. Rosado and Suppan will have every opportunity to be parts of that team, while Barber and Pittsley are hanging on to resurrect once-promising careers derailed by injuries before they ever really got started. I wouldn't be surprised to see Barber fashion a respectably mediocre little multi-year run, but I don't like the odds of both Suppan and Rosado breaking through, and Rosado's been abused in the past.

The bullpen is an equally amusing strange brew, even if it's currently lacking the epitome of near-mediocrity, Hipolito Pichardo. If Jeff Montgomery ever manages to have his hot streak in the first half instead of the second, the Royals could potentially get some tempting offers for him. At 37, there's literally no chance that he's in that fuzzy future image of a good Royals team, so they should entertain the offers. Scott Service quietly demonstrated that his years of toil in the minor leagues were proof of his effectiveness, and Matt Whisenant was a suitably wild and frightening lefty. Jose Santiago has a good chance of being the new Hipolito Pichardo: the Royals love him for no good reason, and seem committed to keeping him around. Jay Witasick could end up being a handy pickup, either in the pen or in the rotation; he's definitely in the right place to finally fashion a career. As for Don Wengert, his career is a perfect example of professional inertia. He's been lousy for a long time, but he's done it for several major league teams, and they're professionals, so his carcass gets dragged in for one more spin with a team that would be better off using the roster space on Herschel Krustofsky.

Royals defense will probably be a zoo this year, as several players on vaguely familiar with one another learn how to play as a unit. For some, like Los Dos Carlitos, Beltran and Febles, that means keeping their heads above water and logging major league experience. For others, like Rey Sanchez or Jeff King, the decks of their careers are already awash as they founder under their limitations. For guys like Jermaine Dye or Joe Randa, the sun is a white spot you see from the sea floor. Expect collisions, missed signals, angry speeches by Tony Muser, and eventual improvement.

MINNESOTA TWINS (1998: 818 runs allowed, 8th in the AL)

Brad Radke, R
LaTroy Hawkins, R
Eric Milton, L
Mike Lincoln, R
Benj Sampson, L

Rick Aguilera, R
Mike Trombley, R
Eddie Guardado, L
Joe Mays, R
Dan Perkins, R
Boomer Bob Wells, R

Doghouse King Frankie Rodriguez, R

Twins pitching was an unheralded success last year, and although much of the credit goes to departed veterans Bob Tewksbury and Mike Morgan, 1998 was also a year where LaTroy Hawkins and Eric Milton got to make regular major league starts, and I expect both of them to improve, Hawkins slightly, and Milton potentially much more than that. Those two now back up staff ace Brad Radke, but the concern here is that with four rookies on the pitching staff, Tom Kelly will ask for or expect Radke to hand in 260 innings, which would be dangerous. This rear's rookie tandem at the back end of the rotation is Lincoln and Sampson, at least for now, since they could flip-flop them with bullpen rooks Mays and Perkins. I'm not a strong believer in any of them, with the possible exception of Sampson, but there's little consensus on whether any are what you would consider good pitching prospects.

The bullpen situation is essentially four veterans and whichever rookies Tom Kelly's mad at. Aguilera is a serviceable major league closer, but the window of opportunity for trading him (again) for good stuff has almost certainly passed. Trombley and Guardado make an adequate righty-lefty pair of setup men. Bob Wells is batting practice fodder, and should inspire fond memories of Keith Atherton for indoor bleacher creatures.

Twins defense will suffer from some of the same communications problems the Royals will have, but Kelly's crew is made of better clay. Several of the outfielders (Lawton, Hunter, Jones) are talented glove men, and Cristian Guzman should be a big improvement over Pat Meares at short. Todd Walker will never contend for the Gold Glove at second, but neither will he end up sporting the honorary Tim Teufel lead model. None of the various platoon partners and part-timers on the infield corners are excellent defensive players, although Doug Mientkiewicz could turn into a good first baseman.

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

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