By Brent Hubbard – Senior Columnist
Today, assuming the Conficker worm hasn’t invaded all of your machines, we’ll look at the AL and NL Central Divisions.
My projected winners: Kansas City Royals, 99-63 and the Pittsburgh Pirates 116-46.
OK, so that’s a belated April Fools Day joke. Sorry to get your hopes up, Mr. Neyer and all other Royals Fans. And Pirate Fan, 116 wins would have meant an early playoff exit and a cool banner for all of your fans to see.
Oh, well … on to the real projections:
The AL Central (projected record):
1) Cleveland Indians (90-72) Building on a 34-21 record after the trade deadline last year, and some significant additions, the Indians will return to the top of the division they won in 2007. They led the AL in wins that season. This is essentially the same team, minus C.C. Sabathia. Matt LaPorta is an AL Rookie of the Year candidate if he gets the playing time. Cleveland made a couple of smart off-season decisions in adding Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa. If the rotation is solid, they’ll win the Central.
Biggest question mark: Which version of the Indians will we see? The 2007 97-game winners or the .500 team we saw in 2008?
2) Minnesota Twins (89-73) This is a good team with a deep, young starting rotation and a pretty darn good lineup, too. They have the farm system to make a major mid-season addition and will probably do it. They missed Matt Garza and Johan Santana last year, more than they thought, but Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez will be much improved in 2009. After losing the division in a one-game playoff, the Twins probably have a bad taste in their mouths … but I have them losing the division, by one game, again.
Biggest question mark: Will Joe Mauer’s injury linger? How quickly will he be back? This young staff needs him.
(Adam Dodge picks the Twins to take the division and I can’t really argue. It’s going to be close.)
3) Chicago White Sox (86-76) This is the AL Central winner from 2008, but I think they’ll step back a bit, as they have a lot of questions. The White Sox may need a complete overhaul. Who plays CF? (Dewayne Wise, apparently.) Who is the fifth starter?
Biggest question mark: To rebuild or not to rebuild?
4) Kansas City Royals (76-86) Out of the basement. But not far enough. Too many questions. Look toward year three of the Trey Hillman era, Royals fans. Is Kila Ka’aihue for real? it's too bad he won't get a chance out of the gate.
Biggest question mark: Why Ryan Shealy, then Mike Jacobs? They have Kila Ka’aihue, who sort of broke through last season with incredible power, ready to take the job; why not let him?
5) Detroit Tigers (60-102) This team is a mess and though many are predicting a resurgence for the Tigers, I think they’ll go the way of the Detroit Auto Industry. Miguel Cabrera makes $92K per game and that’s enough to buy five houses at the $18,000 average price in Detroit. And he’s stuck at 1B, though he should be the DH. Attention MLB: Possible Fire Sale come June/July.
Biggest question mark: Can they return to form? Or will they suffer and have to rebuild again?
The NL CENTRAL (projected record):
1) Chicago Cubs (90-72) One of the biggest success stories from 2008, going from 83 wins to 97. And then a flop in the playoffs. The Cubbies are a talented bunch and they’ll benefit from a weak division. Let’s average the last two seasons and say 90 wins.
Biggest question mark: How well is the offense going to do? Can they repeat last year?
(Adam Dodge) agrees with my pick here. The Cubbies are a talented bunch.
2) Cincinnati Reds (88-74) My surprise team this year. The youth movement will lead to a strong second half and a run at the wild card. I actually have them winning the wild card, but we’ll see if they can pull it off. Or if Aaron Harang’s arm will fall off with a case of Dusty Bakeritis.
Biggest question mark: Will Jay Bruce step forward to be an MVP candidate or is he going to do the whole sophomore-slump thing, like Troy Tulowitski did last season?
3) Milwaukee Brewers (82-80) They’re going to miss Ben Sheets and Sabathia, but a talented offense remains, so the Brew Crew could surprise. Most likely they’ll come up short, though. They are going to see LaPorta hitting bombs in Cleveland and wonder if Sabathia was worth it.
Biggest question mark: Starting pitching. They need it.
4) St. Louis Cardinals (81-81) Chris Carpenter is back and he, along with Adam Wainwright, will lead a good team forward; just not far enough forward. This team has too many holes outside of Albert Pujols. Troy Glaus isn’t going to contribute. The Cards’ offense is solid, but not spectacular. They need a re-vamp, but look for Carpenter to come back strong — and I mean really strong; enough to maybe vault them into contention for the division. But my gut says they’ll finish around .500. Does Colby Rasmus contribute this year or next?
Biggest question mark: Second base … Skip Shumaker. This should be interesting.
5) Pittsburgh Pirates (70-92) They will finish with one of the worst records, and their 25th consecutive losing season, or at least it seems that way. What’s up with the baby-snatching drama surrounding uber-prospect Jose Tabata? That doesn’t seem like a Pittsburgh story to me. I see some positive pieces, but not enough to avoid their 17th consecutive losing season.
Biggest question mark: 17?
6) Houston Astros (66-96) I just don’t see anything positive about the Astros. I can’t see them winning near the amount of games they did last season. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m predicting a big fall for Houston.
Biggest question mark: The offense is getting old. Which one breaks down first, Miguel Tejada or Carlos Lee?
Tomorrow, the AL and NL West previews, including the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.