2008 was an unpredictable year for the American League Central. Cleveland was the defending champion and Detroit made a bunch of big off-season moves, but they both underachieved for a variety of reasons and finished third and fifth, respectively. Chicago and Minnesota jumped into the void, finishing tied for first at 88-74 (the Sox won in a one-game playoff), while Kansas City emerged from the division cellar for the first time since 2003.
My pre-season predictions last year were as wrong as anybody else’s, so I’m not even going to try to predict the outcome this year. Besides, if you come to Smile Politely for your serious American League baseball analysis, you’re in the wrong place, anyway. Instead, I’m going to identify the best player named Willie in the history of each franchise, as well as assign each team an appropriate quote from Bull Durham. If you want actual predictions, links to legitimate previews will be provided at the end of the article.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
“You just got lesson number one: don’t think; it can only hurt the ball club.”
One of Crash’s many pieces of advice to Nuke goes to Ozzie Guillen, who was able to keep his team loose once again last season by keeping most of the media attention on himself. The Sox appear to have taken a step backward this offseason, but who knows? They’ve exceeded expectations enough times before that I’m not going to take them lightly this year.
Top Willie in franchise history: Willie Harris
“Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.”
After a pretty magical 2007 season, the Indians came crashing back to earth in the first half of last year. But after unloading C.C. Sabathia at the trade deadline, they rebounded with a strong second half. After shoring up the back end of their bullpen by adding Kerry Wood and upgrading at third base with Mark DeRosa, can Cleveland keep the momentum going?
Local boy in the bigs: Pitcher Matt Herges, who will turn 39 on Opening Day, is a Champaign Centennial product, part-owner of the Tumble Inn, and former Major League reliever (not necessarily in that order). Herges came clean at the start of the 2008 season after his name popped up in the Mitchell Report, then undid a solid first half pitching for Colorado by posting an 8.35 ERA after the All-Star break. The Rockies declined to pick up his $2.5-million option, and he landed in Cleveland on a minor-league deal. The Illinois State University alumnus is one of two players (the other Steve Finley) to have played for all five teams in a five-team division. (In both cases, the division is the N.L. West.) — contributed by Doug Hoepker
Top Willie in franchise history: Willie Mitchell
Top Willie in franchise history (fictional character division): Willie Mays Hayes
“I want to give him the heat and announce my presence with authority!”
To Justin Verlander, who struggled to an 11-17 mark last season, partly because he over-relied on his fastball. He continued his run as one of the most maddening pitchers in baseball, either in real life or fantasy. What kind of pitcher is he, really? Maybe we’ll find out this year. The Tigers revealed themselves to be a bunch of headcases again in ’08, and their current incarnation is running out of time to put it together.
Best Willie in franchise history: Willie Horton
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
“You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Larry!
To Jose Guillen, who spent all but one month of last season trying to prove that he didn’t deserve his three-year, $36 million contract. He did hit for that one month, but man, he looked terrible the rest of the time. At least he didn’t assault anyone, I guess.
Best Willie in franchise history: Willie Wilson
Honorable Mention: Willie Aikens
“Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls — it’s more democratic.”
To the Twins’ starting rotation, with the notable exception of Francisco Liriano. They pitch to contact, and that led to some good results last season. We’ll see how it goes in 2009.
Best Willie in franchise history: Willie Banks
Links to much better AL Central previews: