By Dustin Parkes
Being a baseball fan is a visceral experience. From Minneapolis to Miami, Boston to San Francisco, supporters of every club celebrate victories and commiserate over defeats. Until recently, however, this phenomenon was held to the field of play. That’s changed.
Now we cheer and boo for all sorts of things that fans of generations past didn’t even consider. Advances in technology have granted us accessibility to far more information than fans attending the first World Series could ever imagine. This has allowed us to journey deeper into baseball fandom than it was ever thought possible. The visceral experience that comes from cheering for a baseball team has been extended from the field of play to the front office.
There’s no true offseason for baseball fans, at least not as there once was. Instead, after the World Series has been completed, we enter into a different type of competition: the hot stove season. While every team, sharks and suckerfish alike, must wade through these uneasy waters between the final out of one season and the first pitch of another, for the purpose of this piece, we’ll focus on the smallest of baseball’s ponds: the American League Central Division.
There are two ways of looking at the Tigers in 2012: 1) They went all the way to the World Series; or 2) They had the 11th-best record in baseball, and barely won their division -- despite a $130-million payroll and three teams in their division with 90-plus losses.
Which of these two approaches you give more credence to likely says a lot about your proximity to Detroit.
What They Have: The Tigers are a good team. Three members of their lineup are excellent: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson. They have four members of their lineup that could be capable of providing excellence: Alex Avila, Victor Martinez, Andy Dirks and Jhonny Peralta. Then, with all due respect to Omar Infante, they have two deep and dark holes.
Their pitching staff is constructed in a similar all-or-nothing manner. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer represent one of the best one-two punches in baseball. Doug Fister isn’t too shabby either, but after that, the rotation is full of question marks, and the bullpen is full of answers that no one would like to hear.
What They’ll Lose: Fortunately for Detroit, the only departures from its AL Central-winning roster are Delmon Young, Jose Valverde, Gerald Laird and Anibal Sanchez. This is addition by subtraction for the most part, as Young and Valverde represent areas that need to be improved upon anyway. As for Laird, backup catchers don’t exactly cost a premium. The only true loss here is Sanchez, who pitched well for the Tigers after a bumpy few starts immediately following his trade out of Miami.
Key Targets: The team could do a lot worse than trying to bring Sanchez back. While Infante is no prize at second base, the position is especially weak on the free agent market this winter, so Detroit would do well to focus on its bullpen, and on finding a corner outfielder who can consistently provide value.
There are a number of value players on the market for bullpen help in Mike Adams, Jason Frasor and Matt Lindstrom, but if I’m the Tigers, I go after Koji Uehara before anyone else. It might seem ridiculous that Detroit would target Josh Hamilton as an option after spending a lot of money in consecutive offseasons, but consider this: Mike Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 for $82 million. This past spring, the franchise was valued by Forbes at almost $500 million -- and that was before the World Series appearance.
Dark Horse Addition: The Tigers will add a cigarette-free manager. Ilitch will purchase a nicotine patch manufacturer, and in a moment of synergy, insist that all managers, coaches and players on his team must wear one at all times. The patch acts as a fountain of youth for 67-year-old manager Jim Leyland, who kicks his cigarette addiction. Ten years are taken off Leyland’s appearance, which means he’ll finally look his age. Unfortunately, he’ll still bat a speedy guy with bunting skills over a player with a high on-base percentage in the No. 2 spot in the batting order.
Chicago White Sox
The 2012 White Sox were maddening. They were that person you were romantically interested in during high school who would occasionally show signs of interest, but more often than not acted withdrawn. They’d act differently in front of you, but you weren’t sure if it was because they were interested in you, or if they recognized your interest.
After dealing away some assets and locking up others, the White Sox flirted with first place throughout the past season. Their motivation was difficult to understand in our binary-leaning minds. Were they going for it? Were they rebuilding? Evidently, they were nuanced, neither all in nor all out, picking up players who filled immediate holes for the lowest of costs. It was a patchwork team, but the measure of success that they found should be encouraging.
What They Have: Most encouraging of all for the White Sox: They have Chris Sale under team control for the next four seasons. Thanks to a bit of last-minute wrangling, they’ll also have Jake Peavy under the terms of a very team-friendly deal. Add to that a (presumably) healthier John Danks, Gavin Floyd entering the last year of his deal, and the quietly successful Jose “That Creep Can Roll” Quintana. That’s a pretty good rotation in any division, but in the AL Central, it’s likely the best in terms of consistency and depth.
If only the lineup, beyond Paul Konerko, could boast the same characteristics. While offensive production out of Alex Rios and Adam Dunn was nice to see, it would be nicer if it could come on a more reliable basis. The same holds true for Alejandro De Aza, who was an unexpected three-win player for Chicago in 2012.
What They’ll Lose: The White Sox stand to lose a good chunk of their low-cost rental players from last season in Francisco Liriano, Orlando Hudson and Brett Myers. Easy come, easy go. They might also lose Kevin Youkilis to free agency, which likely isn’t as horrible as it sounds, given his coming decline. What will hurt will be losing the surprising amount of production that A.J. Pierzynski provided during a career season with the Pale Hose, should the catcher sign elsewhere.
Key Targets: Replacing Pierzynski and Youkilis will be priority No. 1. The lack of quality names at those positions on the free-agent market is the reason the team has expressed interest in bringing both players back. Truly, though, given the amount of money that Chicago has already committed, plus the raises due through arbitration, it’s unlikely the White Sox will be very big players this offseason, at least without a massive increase in payroll.
Dark Horse Addition: The White Sox will add a reformed broadcaster. Major League Baseball’s umpires and good taste will conspire to muzzle Hawk Harrelson, placing a curse on the noted homer and television commentator (similar to the one millions of Americans did not see in Eddie Murphy's recent flop, "A Thousand Words"). As a result of Harrelson’s new less-is-more approach, television ratings will soar, and the White Sox will become America’s favorite baseball team.
Kansas City Royals
Imagine a film that has a lengthy running time, but stars all of your favorite actors and is directed by your favorite auteur. Through the first hour of the movie, you see a lot of potential for the storyline to go somewhere interesting and the setup is in place for the actors to showcase their impressive talents. However, in its second hour the film becomes increasingly disappointing, with plot holes emerging in the storyline, and a cast that’s simply not living up to your expectations.
It’s still possible the movie could redeem itself because of the talent involved in the production and a couple of bright spots, but with each minute that passes, fulfillment of your hopes grows increasingly less likely.
You are watching the Kansas City Royals.
What They Have: The Royals have been listed among the top franchises in organizational rankings by prospect gurus for a couple of years now. However, the team hasn’t finished higher than third in its division since 1995. These things take patience, but it’s frustrating to watch highly touted sophomores take steps back from their rookie seasons.
Nonetheless, Kansas City has a ton of cost-controlled talent, including several players who have had their arbitration years already bought out, and many whose salaries are still in the pre-arbitration stage. As of very recently, the Royals also have Ervin Santana … because the Jonathan Sanchez pick-up from a year ago had such a positive impact.
What They’ll Lose: Jeremy Guthrie, whom they smartly acquired for the aforementioned Sanchez, and Joakim Soria, whom they’ve expressed some hope in bringing back after a season wasted via surgery, are the only players lost due to free agency.
Key Targets: Overpriced meatball tossers aside (ahem, Ervin Santana, ahem), the young Royals figure to improve in 2013 without much in the way of additions. However, if general manager Dayton Moore & Company wish to speed up the process, they have the assets to deal in exchange for major league-ready talent. The team isn’t just a trade or two away from competing with the Tigers, though.
The Royals could improve drastically by simply rounding out a severely lacking starting rotation. Bringing back Zack Greinke is likely too lofty an ambition, but pitchers like Joe Blanton and Joe Saunders are the type of underappreciated starters that could look good in a Kansas City uniform. Shaun Marcum and Francisco Liriano are out there as well.
Dark Horse Addition: The Royals will acquire a time machine this offseason, and systematically pluck older versions of their prospects from the future where they’ve become fully developed superstars. Yes, it sacrifices future success, but as their division rivals in Detroit will tell them, flags fly forever.
In many ways, the Indians act as a foil to the Tampa Bay Rays: Both are armed with great intentions in a small market, but everything that the American League East franchise touches turns to gold, while Cleveland wades through a constant mire of disappointment and unmet expectations.
What They Have: Carlos Santana is great and Jason Kipnis showed a ton of promise, while Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo played the slightly-above-average baseball that we expect from them. After that, there’s Justin Masterson and not a heck of a lot more. The good news is that a lack of current talent on the roster translates into less than $20 million committed to the present payroll. That’s not a lot of money locked up, but the Cleveland front office would have to do a whole lot of convincing to make the Indians a free-agent destination of choice.
What They’ll Lose: Say goodbye to Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore. Nothing represents a changing of the guard quite like longtime members of a franchise being sent to pasture. It’s difficult to even imagine these two players in a uniform other than that of the Cleveland Indians. However, letting them go is the smart move -- this team, like much of the division, is best off starting over.
Key Targets: There are few positions on this team that can’t be improved upon. So, as long as they're keeping an eye to the future without getting locked up in a long-term commitment, the Indians should be all right delving into the free-agent pool. Most importantly, the team would do well to stock up on starting pitching, a particular area of weakness. Names like Dallas Braden, Scott Feldman, Edwin Jackson, Francisco Liriano, Carlos Villanueva and Anibal Sanchez should all be in play.
Dark Horse Addition: Cleveland will land a less offensive brand. The Cleveland Spiders will adopt a new/old team nickname -- no more “Indians” or the caricature of Chief Wahoo. Protecting the tradition of what a sports club has been called in the past pales in comparison to offending people in the present, and the only thing that should be offensive about baseball in Cleveland is the play on the field.
Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
The Twins were awful in 2012, and they will probably be worse in 2013. As they look to rebuild, their contract with part-time catcher and full-time albatross Joe Mauer appears likely to be an obstacle to those efforts for the remainder of its existence.
Minnesota was able to build excellent teams in the past through a dependence on developing young and talented players from within its organization. In comparison to the rest of the teams entering the hot stove season, the Twins are in a unique situation. They desperately need to fill several holes, but their best bet is to likely stay the course, or perhaps swoop in on reasonable contracts like they did last year with Josh Willingham.
What They Have: Shhh. I think I heard something. Never mind. It was just Mauer washing his hair ... Or maybe it was Willingham doing everything else. Looking at the roster from last season, it’s increasingly difficult to understand how this team paid $100 million in payroll or how the Twins already have more than $65 million committed to their payroll in 2013.
What they have is awful, and it doesn’t figure to get much better anytime soon.
What They’ll Lose: The Twins will bid adieu to Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and not much else at all, after having traded everything that could be taken this summer. They’ll have to wait a year until they’re rid of Justin Morneau’s contract, unless they can deal the first baseman this winter, which should be the team’s No. 1 priority. Unfortunately, given his decline in value, it’s difficult to imagine Morneau giving much of a return to the Twins beyond salary relief.
Key Targets: For the sake of their fans, the Twins would do well to acquire some semblance of talent for the starting rotation. Without looking, tell me which starter in Minnesota put up the highest wins above replacement total in 2012. Seriously, no peeking.
Are you sitting down? Are you ready?
Yeah, it was Scott Diamond.
Any and all starting pitching talent available on the free-agent market would be welcome. This includes most of the names we’ve already gone through, but also Jeremy Guthrie... and let’s not overlook the fact that the Twins might be interested in bringing back Scott Baker.
Dark Horse Addition: Patience. There will be a lot of teams looking to acquire Patience for the fan bases this offseason, and as we’re all well aware, going after a much-sought-after virtue on the open market can be a dangerous pursuit, often resulting in overpayment. However, I doubt that there’s a team in baseball more in need of Patience than the Minnesota Twins ahead of the 2013 season. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, and no cost is too great for this team to land Patience.
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