In addition to his tremendous athletic talent, Curtis Granderson is one of the most charming, charismatic, and well-spoken players in the major leagues - he occasionally sits in for commentary and analysis on Baseball Tonight and, until last year, ran a blog for ESPN.com. Despite a drop in his batting average (.302 to .280 to .249 over the last three seasons), Granderson maintained his usually impressive totals of home runs and steals. Some fancy pants analysts say that the drop in his average is due to a lower line-drive percentage; he's hitting more fly balls, which accounts for the home runs. Obviously, flyballs are more likely than line drives to turn into home runs, but they are also more likely to turn into outs. Judging by these findings, Granderson should benefit greatly by his recent acquisition by the Yankees, where he'll get to swing for the shortest fences in the game.
David DeJesus's selection as starting left fielder gave me no end of anxiety because, quite frankly, he didn't have a great season. Much better was the season of Denard Span, who split his time between all three outfield positions for the Twins. But seeing as Span spent most of his time in center and played about half as many games in left as DeJesus, the Royals' leadoff man is our guy. DeJesus did hit for some average power and played pretty good defense, but there was just no speed on the basepaths. Left field just had a weak year for this division - the only other contender for the position was Indians castoff Ben Francisco, who ended his season as a defensive replacement for the Phillies.
Catcher Joe Mauer is the heart of this offense, as he would be the heart of any offense of which he might be a member. The AL MVP had an unprecedented offensive season, more than doubling his home run totals and winning his second batting title in a row. In fact, he led the AL in all three rate stats of note: batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444), and slugging percentage (.587). He also won a gold glove behind the plate, playing arguably the game's most crucial defensive position. The guy that finished second wasn't too bad either: Victor Martinez who split his year between the Indians and the Red Sox.
Miguel Cabrera has continued to benefit from his full-time switch to first base - 2009 was the first year in which he didn't man any other position in the field. His on-base percentage made a good recovery from when it dipped below .300 in 2008, for the first time since he was old enough to drink. He's just an offensive powerhouse, no two ways about it. Other first basemen of note in the division: Kansas City's Billy Butler, whose career appears back on an upward trend, and Minnesota's Justin Morneau, who reached the 30-100 plateau for the third time in his career despite missing the tail end of the season with an injury.
Korean Right Fielder Shin-Soo Choo turned in a great season (.300 average, 20 home runs, 20 steals) in his first campaign with regular playing time. He was one of the few bright spots on the Cleveland Indians roster that didn't get shipped out partway through the season. His runner-up in right field, Michael Cuddyer, ended up earning a spot on the team as the DH. The solid outfielder hit topped 30 home runs for the first time while also spending some time filling in for his injured teammate Justin Morneau at first.
I had to give a lot of thought before handing the DH job to Cuddyer, rather than treating the DH as an actual position and only considering players who spent significant time designatedly hitting. In that case, the spot would have gone to Cuddyer's teammate Jason "The Future" Kubel, who had a pretty good season with the bat in his own right, topping 100 RBI and continuing his impressive career path. In the end, I went by the numbers, and Cuddyer got the nod.
Mark DeRosa, one of those Indians castoffs gets the job at third base, despite playing only a little more than half his season in the AL Central. Some might call this practice unfair and claim that the job should belong to Brandon Inge, who toiled away for the entire season with the Tigers and enduring a heartbreaking last-game-of-the-season loss. But DeRosa had a better season overall, and I can't see another alternative that wouldn't punish the player for circumstances outside of his control. I know, those circumstances also could have contributed to his having better numbers than he would have otherwise. It's not a cut and dry issue. But my solution is the best I could think of at the time.
The last two guys in the lineup - our middle infielders - are relatively young contact guys. Cabrera moved to shortstop full time when DeRosa's departure kicked off a game of musical chairs that saw Cleveland's regular shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, shift to the hot corner. Callaspo took over at second base when it became apparent that third baseman Mark Teahen wasn't going to cut it as the keystoner. Cabrera has slightly better speed on the basepaths and defensive capabilities, while Callaspo has shown better power and plate discipline. But taken together, their skill sets are pretty similar. Callaspo beat out veteran Placido Polanco (for whom their might be a defensive switch in the future) while Cabrera finished ahead of another youngster Alexei "The Cuban Missile" Ramirez.
Out of this entire exercise, this AL Central team might have the strongest one-two punch in terms of pitchers. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander certainly rival the NL West with Lincecum and Haren. Greinke led the league in ERA and WHIP while Verlander led the league in wins, innings, and strikeouts. How dominant was Greinke this year? He won the AL Cy Young award despite pitching for a last place team and finishing with well fewer than 20 wins (16 to be exact - the lowest win total of any Cy Young award winner, I believe). And to top it off, they're both just approaching the primes of their careers: Greinke is 25 while Verlander is just one year older.
Pitching third is Cliff Lee, another one of those dudes traded away by the Indians. We all know how well he pitched for the Phillies after the deal and how embarrassingly he dominated the Dodgers in the post-season, so we won't harp too much on that. He'll be facing some new competition next year as a member of the Seattle Mariners. But he's shown his ability to thrive in a variety of situations, so I don't think he'll have much trouble.
Another guy who'll have a change of scenery next year, Edwin Jackson, is the fourth pitcher. Jackson was supposed to be a hot prospect for the Dodgers, but he never really panned out until 2008 with the Devil Rays. And how has he been rewarded for all his success? By pitching for his third team in as many years. Twins' ace Scott Baker rounds out the rotation with a solid season - nothing spectacular, aside from the 15 wins. He missed out on pitching in the postseason due to injury, and he was sorely missed against the Yankees.
Pretty much the entire White Sox rotation missed the cut, but not by much. Mark Buerhle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd were all bunched together right behind Baker's swp total. I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of that bunch return to pitch for the Wild Card team.
Joe Nathan will close games, and it shouldn't come as any surprise. Not only has he been the best closer in the division for several years running - he earned a career-high 47 saves despite his ERA creeping over 2.00 for the first time in four seasons - but his competition wasn't anywhere close. The extremely talented Joakim Soria was his runner up, but something must have been up with him this season, because he pitched significantly fewer innings than last year when he surely gave Nathan a run for his money.
A couple of Matt's lead off their bullpen: Chicago's lefty Matt Thornton and Minnesota's righty Matt Guerrier. Another very rich reliever follows them: Brandon Lyon who just signed a three year $15-million deal with Houston. All three of these dudes posted ERAs under 3.00 in 2009. Longman D.J. Carrasco is next: despite only starting one game for the White Sox, he averaged nearly two innings per game. And last but not least, we have Twins LOOGY Jose Mijares. As for the swingman, it would have been nice to have Minnesota's Brian Duensing on the squad, seeing as he started Game 1 of the Division Series against the Yankees, but Kansas City's Robinson Tejeda just struck out batter after batter, earning him the last spot on the relief corps.
AL West to follow