Welcome back to the bellwethers of baseball, a series that looks at the players whose successes or failures could be a simple way to determine their team's successes or failures. We move on to the AL Central, which was voted "The Division You Pay the Least Amount of Attention To" by me for the fifth year in a row. Which players in the Central are especially important to their team's fortunes?
Royals - Ervin Santana
James Shields could also fit, but he's more of a known quantity. He's vacillated between okay and outstanding, but he's usually a valuable pitcher. Santana is more of an enigma, and he was expensive both in terms of salary and opportunity cost. The Royals picked him up early in the offseason, and he was their equivalent of a substantial free-agent move. Which meant that after the Jeremy Guthrie re-signing, they were done with real free-agent moves. Which was a big, big vote of confidence for Santana, who probably didn't deserve it.
A reminder of Santana's 2012:
Thirty-nine home runs. That's a three and then a nine. In 178 innings. In one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in the league last year. In a division that allowed for several games against the Mariners.
So far this spring: five innings, six strikeouts, one walk. That means about as much as Santana's favorite breakfast cereal, but a good outing or two is better news than him getting totally obliterated. And because the Royals' stadium -- Surprise! -- has PITCHf/x, we have velocity readings. Santana started at 90, worked his way up quickly to 92, and was sitting at 93 in his final inning. The pitches were moving quite a bit, too.
That's where Santana has been for the last few years, but considering that he was dealing with shoulder wonkiness last year, the absence of a noticeable decline is good news. The Royals are sorta due one of these -- a trade that shouldn't work out, but does -- and a healthy Santana would go a long way toward realizing the Royals' wacky offseason vision and making fools of us all.
Twins - Justin Morneau
The Twins aren't going to have a good season. There's nothing Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau can do to stop that. Dan Gladden is still the projected leadoff hitter, and they're counting on pitch-to-contact guys after trading away their two best outfielders.
But what Morneau can do is prevent the season from being abjectly horrible. A rebound season from one of the team's most popular players would be something to make unexpectedly fond memories. I'm not sure why the thoughts of concussions affecting player performance make me ill when hamstring tears are just a part of the game. It feels like the brain should be off-limits when it comes to career-threatening injuries, and Morneau's never been the same since sliding into second and taking a knee to the helmet.
He was much better last year than in 2011, at least. And while he's at an age where it might be the body instead of the head keeping him back, he doesn't turn 32 until May. He's not that old, so there could be a renaissance left in him. And while Morneau is the bellwether player for the touchy-feely stuff, if he goes off and the Twins can actually get a prospect for him at the deadline, that would be more helpful to the organization than anything he could do on the field.
Indians - Ubaldo Jimenez
How bad would Jimenez have had to be in order for the Indians not to exercise his $5.75 million option? I'm not sure if there was a magic ERA that would have made the Indians abandon ship, as Jimenez was one of the very worst pitchers in baseball last year, yet it didn't seem like it was ever a consideration to set him free. Too much has been invested, and too much potential remains.
At least, there could be potential left in there. It's hard to see, though. Every single indicator spells doom for Jimenez. His walk rate shot up, his strikeout rate dipped below the league average, and his velocity continued its perilous decline. He averaged 96 m.p.h. and touched 100 when he came over from the Rockies, but he averaged 92.5 m.p.h. last year. That's still good for a starting pitcher, mind you, as Jimenez still has a fastball in the top 25. But it's not how he became successful in the first place, and he was never superfine with his command.
The Indians were busy in the offseason, and they fancy themselves contenders now. But they didn't get a lot of help for the rotation, mostly because there wasn't a lot of help to get. The improvements have to be internal, and there isn't a pitcher on the staff with more risk and reward than Jimenez.
White Sox - Alex Rios
In retrospect, wasn't it kind of savvy of Kenny Williams to pick Rios up for the price of his contract? After a season like last year, Rios would have commanded more on the open market than the two years, $26 million he's still owed. Williams saw a young player with a chance to reclaim his lost talent, and had a rare chance to pick up a mid-20s hitter without giving up anything in trade. Pretty savvy, no?
No, it was still insane. The Blue Jays owed Vernon Wells and Rios about $151 million from 2011 through 2014, and they'll end up paying $5 million of it. That's one of the greatest magic tricks in recent baseball history.
But forget about the contract and look at Rios as a player. The White Sox were something of a surprise last year, fighting for the Central to the last week of the season. A big reason for this was Rios being good. Do you realize how bad he was in 2011? He was worth negative-two wins, which was one of the worst seasons of the past decade (and he was doing it when Adam Dunn was having the worst season of the past decade). Rios improving to about four wins meant the Sox enjoyed something like a six-win swing from one player. That would be like a team replacing a minor-league scrub with Chase Headley last season.
Can he do it again? No idea. What sort of on-again, off-again poisonous toadstool did the Blue Jays serve their outfielders? Pretty shady to make outfielders that confusing, lock them up for tens of millions, and then donate them to other teams around the league. But if Rios is awful again, the White Sox won't have much of a chance. That's how bad he can be, and it's also how adverse the team is to sitting him when he's that bad.
Tigers - Bruce Rondon
It's amazing how much of a difference the following four things make when it comes to preseason expectations for the Tigers:
1. Victor Martinez coming back
2. Torii Hunter replacing Delmon Young, et al
3. Anibal Sanchez being around for a full season
4. Andy Dirks morphing into a reliable corner outfielder
It adds up to a roster that's mostly free of bellwethers. Martinez is hurt or ineffective? The Tigers won the pennant without him last year. Hunter succumbs to age-related decline? He's essentially taking over for Delmon Young. Sanchez is a bust? Drew Smyly is a pretty good fallback option, and the other four starters should be good to great, so it's hard to make too much about the importance of a single pitcher.
The bellwether, then, would be the bullpen. We'll pick Rondon because he's the nominal closer, but he's just a proxy for the bullpen as a whole. It should be a good bullpen -- between Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal, Octavio Dotel, and Joaquin Benoit, they should have enough depth to weather a potential storm caused by a shaky rookie closer. But it's still the biggest unknown for the Tigers, and a couple of early blown saves could be the difference in a tight AL Central.
Not that I'm expecting the Central to be tight. But if it is, I'd bet the Tigers' bullpen is something of a culprit.
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