Chicago White Sox (First Place, 2000)
Last year the White Sox came out of nowhere to win the AL Central title, but they then floundered in the playoffs. This year they should field another solid team.
The White Sox have a thunderous lineup. Frank Thomas is the most recognizable name on the team, and deservedly so. After struggling through much of the previous two seasons, Thomas returned to his MVP form, batting .328 with 43 home runs and 143 RBI. Unfortunately, Thomas has found a new way for fans to dislike him, and his play could suffer. Thomas made the ridiculous assertion that he is underpaid-he makes upwards of $9 million per year-when he reported to spring training. If Thomas is a distraction, the Sox will suffer.
Around Thomas is a group of solid young sluggers. Magglio Ordonez was an all-star and received a Silver Slugger Award last year. He belted 32 homers and batted .315, and was one of seven Sox players to hit 20 home runs. Carlos Lee, who hit 24 homers in his first full year in the bigs, joins Ordonez in the outfield. Ray Durham was an all-star last year, and he sparked the offense with 121 runs scored on the season.
In the offseason the White Sox made an upgrade to their pitching staff, but it was a dubious trade that helped them pull it off. As anyone who has followed the ongoing saga of the David Wells-Mike Sirotka trade knows, something is not right with the deal. Apparently Sirotka has a torn labrum in his shoulder, and it is possible that he will not pitch this season. The Blue Jays clearly didn’t
anticipate this when they traded away their ace, but buyer beware is the rule regarding trades. Wells is an unconventional staff ace-he gets wins, but he doesn’t post particularly good stats-and he will help the Sox.
The White Sox bullpen will be good again, led by Keith Foulke. Foulke exploded onto the scene in the major leagues last year, and this year he will be the Sox full-time closer.
Last year the White Sox surprised many teams and jumped out to a tremendous lead in the division. Don’t expect the same from the Sox this year, but they will compete for the division title again.
Cleveland Indians (Second Place, 2000)
After years of dominance in which they had the division title wrapped up by Memorial Day, the Indians were caught flat-footed by the White Sox last year, but they will rebound this season.
The Indians made two big moves in the offseason, acquiring Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks, but they also made one enormous subtraction, Manny Ramirez. If Gonzalez and Burks are both healthy for a full season, which is unlikely given their history, they can easily compensate for the loss of Ramirez. Gonzalez, a two-time MVP, has been troubled by back problems throughout his career but when healthy has been one of the most dominant run-producers in the game. Burks has knee problems, but his veteran presence and strong offensive play will help the Tribe.
Surprisingly, these two aren’t the most important players in the Indians lineup, which will be downright scary this year. The top three of Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar set the table for the sluggers in the middle of the lineup-better than any trio in the league. Jim Thome and Travis Fryman are both dangerous offensive players, and they will be followed by Russ Branyan in the eighth spot. Branyan has been projected to be a 40 home run hitter, but along with those 40 jacks would come about 230 strikeouts.
This season also looks better for the Indians pitching staff. At the top of the rotation are Bartolo Colon and Chuck Finley. Colon is beginning to show the dominant performance that was expected of him in the major leagues. Finley is a former star of the Anaheim Angels, but he was acquired by the Tribe to combat the lefty-heavy Yankee lineup, which he never got to face in the postseason.
The Indians are still a team dominated by their offense, and their offense will carry them to the postseason again this year.
Detroit Tigers (Third Place, 2000)
In 2000 the Tigers got off to a horrible start and then regained respectability by having a decent second half.
The Tigers got burned in a big trade, and they hope that this won’t happen to them two years in a row. Last year Juan Gonzalez showed up hurt and disgruntled, and the Tigers received very little value in their blockbuster trade. This year the Tigers shipped Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz to the Houston Astros in return for Roger Cedeno, Mitch Meluskey and Chris Holt. This trade appears to be a more equitable one for the Tigers, and they should experience a better return on this move.
The only true bright spot for the Tigers last year was the play of Todd Jones. Jones led the AL in saves last year, which is surprising considering that he didn’t get many opportunities. The starting rotation for the Tigers lacks any true ace, so the consistency and production out of their bullpen is that much more important.
The Tigers have to look to their future, because the present isn’t that bright. They may make a run at .500 this season, but even that may be too much for them. They lack any true stars, and unless they can develop some in house, they will struggle.
Kansas City Royals (Fourth Place, 2000)
The Royals are another one of the many teams that are a victim of their market. Without the fan and television support to make money, the Royals are unable to keep the star players that they develop, eventually shipping them out of town just so they can receive some value in return.
Johnny Damon was one of the best players in the AL last year-he was on fire after the All-Star break-and he was traded in the offseason. He went to Oakland in a three-way trade, and the Royals shored up their bullpen with the addition of Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez is a good closer, but a player such as Damon should receive much more in return.
While the Royals bullpen has been horrendous over the last few years, its offense has been on the upswing. Jermaine Dye was an All-Star starter last year, Mike Sweeney is becoming a great offensive first baseman, and Joe Randa is a vastly underappreciated third baseman. If the Royals were able to lock up these players to long-term deals and then build around them, they would have a chance to become a good organization. As it is, they don’t have much of a chance.
Minnesota Twins (Fifth Place, 2000)
Not much can be said about the Twins that hasn’t been said before. The Twins are another team that has been hurt by the present day economics of major league baseball. With the revenue structure as it is, the Twins are one of the teams that cannot hope to win the World Series each year. While the organization as a whole is floundering, there are some solid players that they can hope to build on.
The Twins have three starters to build their rotation on. Brad Radke, the constant focus of trade rumors last year, was re-signed and will be the staff ace. He had a disappointing season last year, but he should rebound in 2001. Eric Milton is a consistent number two starter and Mark Redman emerged last year with 12 wins.
In the bullpen, Latroy Hawkins was a perfect 14 for 14 in save opportunities last year, and the converted starter should only get better in the closer role.
Offensively the Twins don’t show much pop, but they do have a few good players. Rightfielder Matt Lawton disappointed many with his play in 1999, but he returned to form last year. The only other truly intriguing player on the Twins is Olympic hero Doug Mientkiewicz. Mientkiewicz was demoted to AAA ball in 2000, where he performed well. He then shined with the Olympic team, and if he can build off his experiences, he gives the Twins another legitimate hitter.
In the end, the story will probably be the same for the Twins. The best thing that happened to the team in the offseason was the induction of Kirby Puckett to the Hall of Fame, but that won’t do anything to improve the team. The Twins will probably finish in last place again this season, and they will continue to look back on the good old days of the late 80s and early 90s when a small-market team like theirs could compete.