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Baseball picksApril 1, 2005

2005 MLB Baseball AL CENTRAL Preview

American League Central

Chicago White Sox

Mark Buehrle already has been declared the team’s opening day starter, although he doesn’t have classic ace-hurler stuff. Buehrle can locate four pitches — the cutter, sinker, curve and change-up — and is absolutely fearless on the mound in terms of throwing any pitch at any time. Buehrle has the confidence to give up a few hits and still pitch out of tough situations. But he plans on working with pitching coach Don Cooper during the spring to focus on staying out of the strike zone as much, decreasing his hits allowed but not increasing his walk total.

Jose Contreras could be the X-Factor in the White Sox starting rotation. The big righthander has the talent to win 15-to-18 games, but he must focus on his wide array of pitches instead of relying too heavily on his devastating split-finger and plus-fastball.

Catcher Chris Widger, who played for Camden in the independent Atlantic League during 2004, was given a non-roster invite to spring training. Widger only has a chance to make the team if Ben Davis and his $1 million contract were moved and he could beat out Jamie Burke for the back-up spot behind A.J. Pierzynski.

Although the White Sox drastically changed their overall offensive approach, the team still has to prove it can execute all phases of small ball with the game on the line. Manager Ozzie Guillen announced on the first day of spring training that his team will be working on drills for bunting, hit-and-running and defensive situations to avoid the same mistakes made last season. Having talented hitters such as Scott Podsednik and Japanese import Tadahito Iguchi at the top of the order should provide great help, not to mention the speed they bring as table setters for the solid middle of this lineup.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians started camp with a logjam of arms. The addition of RHP Paul Shuey complicated the bullpen situation for RHPs Matt Miller and Rafael Betancourt, and the readiness of LHPs Brian Tallet and Billy Traber, both coming off Tommy John surgery, might put pressure on LHP Cliff Lee to hold down his spot in the starting rotation. But the pitchers who might be the real threat to grab spots on the staff are RHPs Kaz Tadano and Fernando Cabrera, whose hard stuff can dominate.

LHP Jason Stanford (arm) and OF Jody Gerut (knee) will remain in Winter Haven, Fla., for extended spring training. Both are coming off surgery.

Veteran RHP Jason Bere, sidelined the past two seasons with arm problems, will try again to prove he’s sturdy enough to hold up as a major league pitcher. Bere will have a hard fight to break into the Indians’ rotation, but if he’s healthy, he gives the Tribe an insurance policy in case one of its starters falter The loss of Omar Vizquel to free agency looms over the Tribe’s middle infield like a thundercloud. The problem is not that 2B Ronnie Belliard can’t hold up his side of things; he can. But he’ll be partnered with either Jhonny Peralta or Brandon Phillips, two prospects with no major league credentials to speak of. Peralta and Phillips will fight for the starting job in a winner-take-all affair. Both have talent aplenty; neither is the next Vizquel, which raised concerns within the organization. Team officials tried to lessen those concerns with the offseason signings of veterans Jose Hernandez and Alex Cora. They are not Vizquel clones either, nor are they long-term solutions. So shortstop belongs to either Peralta or Phillips. The winner, however, will face pressure from Cora and Hernandez to keep it.

Detroit Tigers

Though Kyle Farnsworth and his scorching fastball earned closing and setup opportunities for several years with the Cubs, his presence is expected to shore up the seventh and eighth innings in Detroit behind Ugueth Urbina and Troy Percival.

On the surface, Farnsworth’s arrival doesn’t help ex-closer Fernando Rodney’s chances of making the club because Farnsworth seemingly would fill whatever void was left for short work. However, of the pitchers fighting for the only opening in the bullpen, Rodney and Chris Spurling best fit into middle and long work because of their ability to change speeds.

Carlos Guillen reported to Lakeland early and has been fielding ground balls and taking batting practice for several days without pain in his surgically repaired left knee. Although the Tigers will still hold him out of early spring games, his progress reinforces the belief that he’ll be ready for opening day.

SOFT SPOT: The Tigers have ranked last in the league in errors and fielding percentage in each of the last three seasons. As much as that bothers manager Alan Trammell, it’s just as bad for pitching coach Bob Cluck as he tries to build staff confidence. Though the Tigers will have plenty of drills in the early days of camp to address it, Trammell admits much of the problem comes down to making the right decisions in game situations. Though a set lineup should help teammates work together, missing key defensive players Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez from many spring games could cost them in continuity.

Kansas City Royals

The biggest battle of the bench will be for an infield spot. If the Royals keep 12 pitchers, which is likely because LHP Andy Sisco is a raw Rule 5 draft pick, two catchers and five outfielders, there’s just room for one backup infielder. That assumes 3B Chris Truby, SS Angel Berroa, 2B Tony Graffanino and 1B/DH Mike Sweeney and Ken Harvey (or Calvin Pickering) fill five spots. Chris Clapinski, who hit .312 for Class AAA Buffalo, is the front-runner. But he’ll be chased by Denny Hocking, who was a long-time Twins utilityman, and Luis Ugueto, once a hot shortstop prospect for the Mariners.

One of pitching coach Guy Hansen’s projects will be to whittle down the assortment of seven or so pitches thrown by RHP Ryan Jensen. A former rotation regular for the Giants, Jensen even throws a pretty good knuckleball. But Hansen believes Jensen has “too many keys in the piano” and needs to rework his sheet music. A non-roster starting aspirant, Jensen might end up in the bullpen.

SOFT SPOT: Pitching was the most glaring weakness of 2004, and there are no real horses to lead the rotation now. RHP Zack Greinke had fine moments as a rookie but must show he can survive the second time around. RHP Runelvys Hernandez was brilliant in early 2003, but he missed last season after elbow surgery. Hernandez, though, could be the driving force. Back is RHP Jose Lima, who is coming off two good seasons. Behind them come LHPs Brian Anderson and Jimmy Gobble, who both took their lumps last year. There are some backup choices including RHPs Kevin Appier and Mike Wood, but the rotation, however it turns out, will have an awful lot to prove.

Minnesota Twins

By signing LHP and A.L. Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana to a four-year, $40 million contract, G.M. Terry Ryan has capped a productive offseason. Ryan also signed RHPs Brad Radke and Carlos Silva to two-year deals earlier in the winter, which means the top three of the rotation will remain intact through at least 2006. Signing a pitcher for four years can be risky, but the club thinks Santana is a lesser risk because of his age (25) and makeup. With the exception of minor elbow surgery after the 2003 season, he’s been healthy.

After his arbitration win, RHP Kyle Lohse said there were no hard feelings from the difficult process, and he will be looking to move forward. Lohse is looking to rebound after a poor 9-13 record and 5.34 ERA in 2004.

SOFT SPOT: Shortstop could be considered a soft area because it isn’t yet clear who will win the job among IFs Nick Punto, Juan Castro, Augie Ojeda and rookie Jason Bartlett. The biggest criteria for shoring up this position will be a steady glove, which the three veterans already have a reputation for having. Castro is known for making all the plays defensively. Punto’s hustle and work ethic has drawn admirers on the coaching staff, and Ojeda has shown ability to make spectacular grabs. Bartlett has the best hitting skills among the four players and has been working to improve defensively. However, he has limited big league experience.

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