AL Preview: Central States Edition
With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season. Previous previews include: TEX/HOU; OAK/LA; SEA/TOR; BOS/NYY; BAL/TB
By Bob Toth
Maybe the times are changing for the Minnesota Twins and the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals have not finished higher than third place in the American League Central Division since the 1995 season. At 70-74, they finished 30 games behind the Cleveland Indians that year. They have not finished above even since the 2003 season when they compiled an 83-79 record. Four times in the 13 seasons played in the 21st century the Royals have finished with 100 losses or more.
Minnesota has been in a funk the last two seasons. After posting winning records in nine out of ten seasons starting in 2001, including six different playoff births, the Ron Gardenhire-led Twins have faltered some, giving the skipper his first two seasons with a losing record.
Both clubs are young, built around several key offensive pieces. The Royals made far more noise in the offseason, and all indications are that their club is far closer to contending than the Twins.
The Royals (72-90) struggled to overcome the ramifications of two disastrous months during the season.
A twelve-game losing streak, including four losses to the Indians, ended late in April, quickly dropping the club seven games back in the division. The month ended with a 6-15 tally.
The Royals rebounded nicely, however, and posted winning records in May and June. The club was still six games below the .500 mark, but it showed the young team’s resiliency.
Despite what appeared to be a change in their luck, the Royals tripped into July, losing six of eight games before hosting the All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium. The rest of the month fared no better as they would not win consecutive games until the final game of the month and the first game of August, both against Cleveland during their mid-season demise.
August was the best month of the season for Kansas City, despite taking on several playoff teams or teams just out of contention, including Texas (1-2), Chicago (5-1), Baltimore (2-2), Oakland (2-1), and Detroit (3-0). September was nearly the complete opposite though, as the team finished the season on a 4-9 run against Cleveland (3-3) and Detroit (1-6). Despite the bad ending, they still finished ahead of the Indians and Twins for third place in the division.
The Royals did not waste any time in the offseason waiting to upgrade their roster. On October 31st, the team dealt minor league pitcher Brandon Sisk to the Los Angeles Angels for starting pitcher Ervin Santana.
Santana had his worst season since 2007 last year, finishing 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA in 30 starts. He did have one complete game shut out over the course of the year, but was victimized frequently by the long ball, leading all of Major League Baseball with 39. He has historically struggled in this department, finishing in the AL’s top five in the statistic in each of the last three years.
Kansas City then made one of the bigger surprise splashes of the offseason, acquiring starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, plus infielder Elliot Johnson, from the Tampa Bay Rays on December 9th. The cost was not cheap, as the club sent one of the league’s most highly touted young prospects, outfielder Wil Myers, to the Rays in return. Tampa also acquired pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery and third baseman Patrick Leonard.
Shields has been an innings eater for the Rays for each of the last six seasons and instantly becomes the Royals’ ace and Opening Day starter (announced on Friday). He has exceeded 200 innings and reached double digits in wins in each of the last six years. He followed up an All-Star season in 2011, one in which he finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting while throwing four shutouts and eleven complete games, by going 15-10 for Tampa with a 3.52 ERA. He is entering the last year of his contract, although he has a team option for 2014. Like Santana, he can become homer happy; he led the AL in home runs allowed in 2010 and has been in the top five of the league in four of the last six seasons.
Davis was used exclusively as a reliever last season after spending his first three seasons in the big leagues as a starter. After posting a 25-22 record with a 4.22 ERA in 64 career starts, he appeared in 54 games in relief for the Rays last season and finished 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA. The Royals’ intention in the Spring was for him to challenge for a role in the rotation, which it seems he has achieved.
Notable non-roster invitees, including outfielders Willy Taveras and Xavier Nady and infielder Miguel Tejada, joined catcher George Kottaras, a waiver claim from Oakland, on the roster as possibilities for 2013.
The new additions surround a core of several dangerous young Royals already established in the everyday lineup.
Billy Butler has been the leading source of power and reliability for Kansas City for the last several years. The designated hitter has missed no more than four games per season in each of the last four years. He posted career-highs in several offensive categories, including home runs (29), runs batted in (107), hits (192), games (161), plate appearances (679), slugging percentage (.510), and OPS (.882). He was rewarded halfway through his spectacular season with an All-Star appearance. He owns a lifetime batting average of .297 against the Indians, but hit just .263 last year against them.
While left fielder Alex Gordon saw a drop in power and run production, he still found his way into a game 161 times last year, giving the Royals a second consistent element in their lineup. He batted .294 over the season and led all of baseball with 51 doubles. He earned his second consecutive Gold Glove award for his efforts in left field, an honor for the converted third baseman. He led the AL in putouts, assists, and range factor per game as a left fielder in each of the last two seasons.
The Royals will need continued growth from first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas to compete within the division. Both are young and have showed power and the ability to drive in runs, but have struggled to reach base consistently.
The rotation, upgraded with the additions of Shields and Santana, also returned free agent Jeremy Guthrie. Acquired midseason from the Rockies, he finished 5-3 in 14 starts with a 3.16 ERA in Kansas City. Prior, while in Colorado, he was 3-9 in 19 appearances and had given up 21 home runs in 90 2/3 innings of work, helping to contribute to a 6.35 ERA in the National League.
The Royals bullpen has been a strength of recent, but will have to replace former closer Joakim Soria. The ‘pen is composed of several hard throwers, including new closer Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, and Kelvin Herrera, and left-hander Tim Collins, who pitched for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
The Indians and the Royals have squared off 591 times. The Indians own a 303-288 advantage, but the Royals took the season series in 2012, ten games to eight. Both teams were 4-5 at home, but the Indians outscored the Royals by eleven on the season.
The Royals had a handful of former Indians in camp this spring, in addition to Guthrie. Reliever Dan Wheeler, who spent last season between Cleveland and Columbus, and Zach Jackson, the starting pitcher acquired by the Indians from the Milwaukee Brewers in the CC Sabathia trade who has not appeared in a Major League game since 2009, both have appeared in relief for the Royals in Spring Training. Spring invitee Taveras spent time in the Tribe minor leagues. Former Royals infielder Mike Aviles is on the Cleveland roster.
The improved starting rotation could make the Royals a more legitimate contender in the AL Central, but beyond Shields, none of the pitchers brought in have had consistent success in their careers. Santana had fallen out of favor in Los Angeles and Davis could not maintain a rotation spot while in Tampa. Several of their pitchers are prone to the home run, which could hurt quickly. The offense should be fine with their core in the middle of the lineup, but their season will depend on the ability of the rotation to perform on all cylinders.
For the Minnesota Twins, it has been a tough few seasons.
In 2010, they won the AL Central, leading the division and finishing with the third-best record in the AL. In each of the last two seasons, the Twins found themselves in last place in the Central with the league’s worst record overall.
No doubt, the brass in Minneapolis hoped that the Twins (66-96) showed more than a three-game improvement in the win department after acquiring Josh Willingham to provide an offensive spark to their lineup. Instead, the club struggled immediately out of the gate and was never able to become a legitimate threat.
Several lengthy losing streaks in April put the Twins well behind and at the bottom of the division with a 6-16 month. They doubled their win output in May, but still lost another 16 games to fall ten and one-half games out of first place by the end of the month.
June would be the only winning month on the season for Minnesota, as they would finish 14-13 for the month. But July would send them right back to the losing column. The highlight of the month may have been sweeping a three-game set against the Indians at the end of the month, when they outscored Cleveland 28-6 and climbed out of the cellar. They would progress, however, no higher than fourth place and would ultimately fall back into the bottom of the division to wrap up the season.
The Twins made no substantial offseason additions, a strange notion for a team trying to return to winning ways. Instead, they traded their starting center fielder Denard Span to the Washington Nationals for a minor league pitcher, Alex Meyer, and then traded their best replacement for Span, Ben Revere, to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Vance Worley and another minor league pitcher.
Worley was 6-9 for the Phillies last season in 23 starts. He worked a 4.20 ERA over 133 innings pitched. He may very well be the Twins Opening Day starter against the Tigers.
A handful of veteran Twins were let go after the season, either through free agency (starting pitchers Scott Baker and Carl Pavano and closer Matt Capps) or via waivers (second baseman Alexi Casilla).
Several minor free agent signings, including pitchers Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Rich Harden, Scott Elarton, and Rafael Perez, might provide the young team with some veteran depth on the roster or in the minor leagues. Correia and Pelfrey may immediately factor into the starting rotation, especially with the team’s most consistent starter from 2012, left-hander Scott Diamond (12-9, 3.54 ERA), starting the season on the disabled list while recovering from the removal of a bone chip from his pitching elbow.
At the plate and in the field, the Twins do return several legitimate threats, several of whom have made it a habit of destroying Cleveland Indians pitching over their careers.
Catcher/first baseman Joe Mauer led the AL with a .416 on-base percentage last season while playing in a career-high 147 games. He earned his fifth All-Star appearance. He has on three different occasions led the AL in batting average and two of those times he led all of baseball. He has a career .339 batting average against the Indians.
First baseman Justin Morneau was finally healthy and in the lineup. While his numbers were not quite what they had been in the past, he was still good for 19 home runs and 77 runs batted in. He has hit more home runs and driven in more runs against the Indians than any other team he has faced in his career. He feasted on the Cleveland pitching staff last season, hitting six of his home runs and 20 of his RBI against the Indians in 15 games.
Left fielder Willingham punished the league while establishing a new high in games played (145). He led the Twins with 35 home runs and 110 RBI, both career bests. He decreased his strikeout rate slightly and improved his walk rate. Like Morneau, Willingham salivated at the sight of an Indians jersey. He drove in 19 runs against the Tribe and had four home runs in 17 games, his highest home run output against any team except the Oakland A’s, whom he had played for the previous season.
The center field job has come down to two players, Darin Mastroianni and Aaron Hicks. Mastroianni batted .272 with 21 stolen bases in 24 opportunities in 2012. He spent time at all three outfield positions, but played the fewest number of innings in center. Hicks has led the team offensively throughout Grapefruit League play so far in 2013, leading the team in batting average, home runs, runs, and RBI, and placing second in stolen bases. But Hicks has yet to play above Double-A in his minor league career. He batted .286 there last season with 32 stolen bases in 129 games.
Both Ryan Doumit and Trevor Plouffe provided the Twins with solid bench/utility options and had surprise 2012 seasons. Doumit saw regular playing time at catcher, designated hitter, and as a corner outfielder. In his first season in the AL, he batted .275 with 18 home runs and 75 RBI. Plouffe, in his first season with regular playing time, bounced all around the field, making appearances at every position but pitcher, catcher, and center fielder. The Twins benefited with his bat in the lineup thanks to his 24 long balls in 119 games, but his batting average hovered in the .230’s. He led the AL in errors overall and errors as a third baseman.
Minnesota is the third-most played opponent in the history of the Cleveland organization. In 2,051 games, the Indians have been on the winning end of the box score 1,086 times. The Indians have fared much better at home (599 wins) than on the road (487 wins). The Indians were stymied repeatedly by the Twins in 2012, losing 12 of the 18 games against Minnesota. Both teams posted 3-6 marks at home. The Twins dominated the scoreboard as well as the win column, outperforming the Indians 108-73.
Former Indians infielder Jamey Carroll remains on the Twins’ roster as a utility infielder. Reliever Perez was brought in as a potential bullpen option. Elarton appeared in Cleveland in 2005 and again in 2008, his last regular season Major League work. He pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, last season. Former Twins closer Matt Capps was brought to camp by the Indians.
The Twins, at best, only seem to be marginally better than they were last season. They removed three players (Casilla, Span, and Revere) who accounted for over half of their stolen base figures on the season. The offense that was powered by Mauer, Morneau, and Willingham presumably loses much of the table setting done by Span and Revere. They filled holes in the starting rotation with castoffs from other organizations who may only be slight upgrades from the inexperienced arms the team threw onto the center of the diamond last year.
Next week, we take a final look at the AL with a preview of the AL Champion Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox.
Photo: Getty Images