Thursday, March 31, 2011
Posted 2:45 PM
By Brett Ballantini
CHICAGO Everywhere you look, theres talk of the AL Central Division race being a three-way thriller, surely undecided until late September. The defending champion Minnesota Twins appear weakened, but rarely pull their dogs from the fight until the last day of the season. Motown went loco, spending even more crazily than the Chicago White Sox, who appear to have the best balance in the division.
But no offense to the Bengals, this division will come down to the Chisox and Twinkies, as it has in two of the last three seasons.
So, how weakened are the Twins, and is the retooled White Sox offense and bullpen enough to make up the six games the team trailed Minnesota by in 2010? What follows is by no means a definitive outlook, but an educated projection, position by position, on how the two clubs stack up. (Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is the standardized figure Im using to compare players and teams.)
A.J. Pierzynski is unlikely to have as poor a year as he did in 2010, but then, he did little this spring to inspire confidence, so lets chalk him up with the same 1.8 WAR performance as a year ago. Joe Mauer is all-world, of course, and with his knee woes likely behind him, its safe to predict a few more games played in 2011 and thus an uptick in WAR to 5.5.
Advantage: Twins (3.7)
Its still a question mark for Minny, as Justin Morneau continues his tentative return from the concussion that knocked him out of the second half of 2010. He may play more games this year, but his production is likely to take a dip (4.9 WAR). Still, Paul Konerkos gilded 2010 season is unlikely to be duplicated, so chalk him up for an even bigger WAR drop (to 3.1).
Advantage: Twins (1.8)
The Twins bring another question mark to the season, with Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka manning the position full time. How his game will translate to the majors is hard to determine, but his skill set obviously fits the pesky Twinkies tendencies, so Ill project him a notch above Akinori Iwamuras strong debut in Tampa (2.9). On the Sox side, Gordon Beckham is poised for a breakoutdefensively settled at second, renewed confidence on the basepaths and seeing a steady diet of fastballs hitting in front of Adam Dunn means Bacon is due for a large jump in his production (to 3.1 WAR).
Advantage: White Sox (0.2)
Without a significant uptick in on-base percentage, its going to be hard for Alexei Ramirez to substantially add to his WAR numbers, but with continued stellar defense and perhaps a stronger running game, lets nudge him to 3.9 this season. Minnesotas similarly-monickered shortstop, Alexi Casilla, has little of Ramirezs ability or breakout potential (1.1 WAR).
Advantage: White Sox (2.8)
Brent Morel is an X-factor for the Chisox this season, figuring to be a plus-WAR player based on defense alone, so with regular time on the diamond as anticipated, he earns a 1.3 projected WAR. Danny Valencia was a 2010 surprise for Minnesota, playing at a 2.7 WAR clip. In a sophomore season, expect a modest step back for Valencia, to 2.4.
Advantage: Twins (1.1)
Juan Pierre just keeps on ticking for the White Sox. Its easy to expect some sort of stumble from the 68 stolen bags and a .341 on-base percentage, so his WAR will drop to 1.5. On the Minnesota side, Delmon Youngs defense alone could see him drop in WAR as well, an equal amount as Pierre (to 1.6).
Advantage: Twins (0.1)
Alex Rios had an incredible comeback year in 2010 (to 3.7 WAR), and the White Soxs success this season is predicated on him coming close to matching that strong campaign. With all the tools in his box, dont expect much of a fall-off from him (3.6). Denard Span just keeps getting better for the Twins, so another jump in WAR (from 2.9) is far from guaranteed, but to be on the safe side, lets pencil him at 3.8.
Advantage: Twins (0.2)
Two plodding players populate right for these two teams, Carlos Quentin on the South Side and Michael Cuddyer in Minny. Quentins durability and defensive weaknesses keep him from ever being an elite WAR player, but hes a safe bet to jump to 1.0 this season, and Cuddyer could easily match that.
This ones tricky, as Jim Thome was dominant (3.6) a season ago, largely subbing for Morneau, but hes not only due for fewer at-bats, but has been supplanted at DH by Jason Kubel, who will be lucky to double his WAR in 2011 (to 0.6). The White Sox have imported Dunn, who will find it almost impossible not to duplicate his National League WAR of 3.9 in the bandboxy U.S. Cellular Field.
Advantage: White Sox (3.3)
Lineup Advantage: Twins (0.5)
Core Four on Bench
White Sox: Ramon Castro (0.6), Omar Vizquel (0.0), Mark Teahen (0.2), Lastings Milledge (1.2). Total: 2.0 WAR
Twins: Thome (1.8), Jason Repko (1.0), Drew Butera (0.5), Matt Tolbert (0.5). Total: 3.8 WAR
Bench Advantage: Twins (1.8)
The White Sox run out a strong first five, with the only real potential limitation being Jake Peavys injury, which earns him an overly conservative 2.8 WAR for 2011. John Danks should emulate 2010 (4.2), Mark Buehrle will take a slight hit (3.4), and Gavin Floyds predicted drop to 3.4 is well offset by what Edwin Jackson will bring to the rotation for a full year (3.5). Total Rotation: 17.3 WAR
Minnesota is more riddled with question marks, although many pundits dont seem to note it. It will be nearly impossible for Francisco Liriano to match 2010s 6.0 WAR, so he bumps down to 5.5, still the best on either team. I have doubts about Carl Pavanos ability to duplicate his 3.2 of last season, but well hold him steady there. Brian Duensing should benefit from a full season of starts, so he hops to 2.4, while Nick Blackburn also will benefit from a full season of starting and bump to 1.4. It may be overly generous, but Scott Baker should also see a WAR hop, to 3.2. Total Rotation: 15.7 WAR
Rotation Advantage: White Sox (1.6)
Matt Thornton is as steady as can be, whether as a closer or setup man, so he sticks at 2.2 WAR. Sergio Santos is in line for more responsibility, thus seeing his WAR double to 1.0. Chris Sale will encounter a sophomore slump or two, but his electric arm earns a 1.0. New acquisitions Jesse Crain and Will Ohman should also mostly duplicate past performance, Crain holding steady at 0.8 and Ohman dropping a tick in the AL, to 0.1. Long reliever Tony Pena should have a more productive season with the bullpen better settled, so well jump him to 0.4. Total Bullpen: 5.5 WAR
Joe Nathan had a poor spring but should be relied on to nearly duplicate his last healthy season WAR (1.9, 2009), so hell slot at 1.3. Kevin Slowey has been bounced from the rotation and into a Pena role, so his past WARs (2.2 in 2010) are no measure for his 2011 production (1.0). Matt Capps is taking on a new setup role and should see little room to improve on his poor 2009 WAR, so he hops to just 0.9. Jose Mijares, Jeff Manship and Glen Perkins are all pitchers of little distinction, so I forsee small ticks back for the two former hurlers (0.1 apiece) and a slight uptick for Perkins, also to 0.1. Total Bullpen: 3.5 WAR
Bullpen Advantage: White Sox (2.0)
Final WAR Tally
White Sox 48.1, Twins 46.8
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Sox information.