Win Total Bets - AL Central
March 29, 2014
By Bruce Marshall
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Maybe we're missing something, because we can't figure out why the Chicago White Sox (75½) are being priced more than 12 wins above their abysmal 63-99 finish, which was even three games worse than the crosstown Cubs. Windy City fans will thus likely have to keep themselves preoccupied with the Blackhawks and Bulls until the Bears open camp at Bourbannais in July. We suspect the propped-up wins projection is a remnant of the 85-win team of 2012 that pushed the Tigers into the last week of the season before surrendering in the Central. Make no mistake, however, the 2014 Chisox are in full rebuild mode. GM Rick Hahn got active in the offseason, shelling out more money for Cuban defector 1B Jose Abreu than the Dodgers did two years ago for Yasiel Puig, while also hoping that a pair of ex-Diamondbacks added in a three-way trade with the Angels, 3B Matt Davidson and CF Adam Eaton, will shine more brightly at The Cell than they did in Phoenix, where they failed to live up to expectations. Early returns are not necessarily encouraging, especially for the once-ballyhooed Davidson, who was beaten out by holdover Conor Gillaspie for the 3B job at Camelback Ranch. Much of the returning lineup saw its production tank in 2013, and how much longer manager Robin Ventura can endure DH Adam Dunn's strikeouts and slumps, and LF Dayan Viciedo's maddening inconsistencies, remains to be seen. Another of those who regressed last summer, 2B Gordon Beckham, likely opens the season on the DL with a strained oblique. And beyond ace lefty Chris Sale, there are nothing but question marks with the staff, where one-time ace John Danks has yet to fully recover from shoulder surgery two years ago and eats up almost $15 million in salary...for the next three years. Meanwhile, with Addison Reed shipped to Arizona in the Eaton-Davidson deal, new projected closer Nate Jones dealt with a strained muscle in his lower torso all spring. We don't even think Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone can bluff about being excited for the prospects on the South Side...it's an "under" for us at The Cell.
Lost in all of the talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates and their 20 straight losing campaigns heading into the last year, the Kansas City Royals (82½) had a streak of futility almost as bad, with only a brief uprising in 2003 breaking a near 20-season sub.-500 slump at Kauffman Stadium. And while the Royals' playoff drought endures (since the memorable '85 "Show Me State" World Series vs. the Cards), K.C. did break through with its first winning season in a decade in 2013, hanging in the wild card race until late September while finishing a very respectable 86-76. So, do the Royals back up this season, or contend? We suspect the latter, especially if a big bat emerges from within after no Royal hit more than 20 homers a year ago. Most likely to erupt is 3B Mike Moustakas, who regressed in 2013 after seeming on the verge of a breakout in 2012, and showing more confidence at the plate in March at Surprise after a productive winter playing ball in Venezuela. Meanwhile, a couple of shrewd trade additions, ex-Brewer CF Norichika Aoki (a capable leadoff hitter) and ex-Oriole 3B-DH Danny Valencia (who can mash lefties), plus FA ex-Tiger 2B Omar Infante (though nursing a sore elbow at the end of spring training), give skipper Ned Yost some improved lineup options. The talk of the Cactus league, however, was 22-year-old flamethrower Yordano Ventura, who hits triple digits on the speed gun and so impressed that he broke camp as the likely number two starter in the rotation behind James Shields, while Greg Holland emerged as one of the AL's most effective closers last season, at one stretch converting 31 save chances in a row. Lots to like in K.C. this summer besides the burnt ends at Arthur Bryant's BBQ, and the entertaining commentary of Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler on Royals TV...it's an "over" for us at the Big K.
Apparently the oddsmakers were none too impressed by the Cleveland Indians (80½) and their return to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, projecting a drop of almost 12 wins from a 92-70 breakthrough for then-new manager Terry Franciona. While some in the media might lament the recent inability to ink staff ace Justin Masterson to a long-term deal, the Tribe probably can't afford the price tag Masterson will command. And before Masterson walks after this season, we suspect team prexy Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti will be better served getting a combo of serviceable vets and/or solid prospects at the trade deadline (Cleveland could use another couple of young arms anyway) after getting 20 or so quality starts from Masterson into July. The staff already took a hit in the offseason when Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir left in free agency, and a return to playoff contention will be difficult unless sorts such as Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco prove they belong in the rotation. Ex-Brewer John Axford also replaces Chris Perez as the closer. But adding glue guys such as 1B Nick Swisher and vet DH Jason Giambi did wonders for the team in the clubhouse a year ago, and the wear-and-tear on Carlos Santana (to be used at 3B and DH) will lessen now that the promising Yan Gomes has taken over full-time catching duties. True, the Tribe could indeed regress, but Francona is as adept and mixing and matching his lineup as well as any manager, and Cleveland likely stays above .500 if the staff doesn't implode. It's an "over" for us at Progressive Field.
The bar is still being set rather low for the Minnesota Twins (69½), whose years as a serious contender seem longer ago than they were for the hometown NFL Vikings. Local hero Joe Mauer is about the only recognizable face left from the playoff years, and it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where it has gone pear-shaped for the Twins, especially last season. Pitching, or lack thereof, has been the culprit, as last year's unsightly 5.26 ERA (the worst in the majors) suggested that skipper Ron Gardenhire did well to avoid 100 losses in 2013. But an upgrade to mere serviceable from the staff could trigger a modest ascent, and to that end GM Terry Ryan added a couple of potentially-useful pieces in the offseason--Ricky Nolasco (double-digit win totals in five of last six seasons) and Phil Hughes (two years removed from a 16-win campaign with the Yankees, and now far, far away from New York)--to affordable deals and as anchors for the rotation until some of the young arms at the lower levels mature. There are still lots of questions with the staff, including bridges in the bullpen to closer Glen Perkins (effective when he gets the chance), but adding Nolasco and Hughes at least seems a move in the right direction. Of equal importance could be the short-term rental of C Kurt Suzuki on a one-year deal, which will allow Gardenhire to experiment with Mauer at 1B in hopes of reigniting Joe's potential HOF career that has stalled recently due to wear-and-tear associated with catching duties. A bounce-back season from LF Josh Willingham, who posted career numbers in 2012 before an injury-plagued 2013, will also be crucial. The youth movement should also gain steam sometime this season with touted sorts such as CF Bryan Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano possibly arriving in the summer. We suspect the Twins have bottomed out the past few seasons, and climbing back above 70 wins is not asking too much, so we look "over" at Target Field.
Solid starting pitching can cover a multitude of sins, an old baseball axiom that the Detroit Tigers (89½) hope holds true again this season. But we have plenty of questions elsewhere on the roster beyond the long-term consequences of inking Miguel Cabrera (now at 1B after Prince Fielder's trade to Texas) to a staggering mega-deal, which at some point in the next decade might come back to haunt the Tigers. There were other issues exiting Lakeland, including the shin injury that likely has projected starting SS Jose Iglesias on the DL to start the season, as well as bridges to new closer Joe Nathan, with key set-up reliever Bruce Rondon on ice for the season after Tommy John surgery and the erratic ex-Yankee Joba Chamberlain now counted upon to pitch in the eighth inning. Even the lights-out starting rotation has a few questions, with Max Scherzer thus far resisting offers to re-up in his contract year and Justin Verlander, who has lost a bit of zip on his fastball, not quite as dominant in 2013 as in past seasons. Moreover, this will be Brad Ausmus' first stab at MLB managerial duties as the former catcher replaces the shrewd Jim Leyland, whose presence in the dugout neatly coincided with the Tigers' ascent since 2006. Slight upgrades from the White Sox and Twins, and the emergence of the Royals, also suggest the Central is a bit tougher neighborhood than in recent years. A trip to Comerica Park is worth it just to get a couple of coneys from Leo's behind home plate, or for a post-game drink at nearby Hockeytown or Chris Chelios' Chili Bar adjacent to the stadium, but we're still thinking "under" in Motown.
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