The Twins’ offseason strategy thus far has consisted of holding their 2008 roster largely intact, keeping both additions and subtractions to a minimum. Call me an optimist, but I feel that even with a lack of substantive moves, the Twins figure to be an improved team in 2009, if only moderately so. However, fielding a better team than they did in 2008 will not necessarily equate to a higher win total in 2009. The Twins' success will be tied to luck to some degree, and to an even greater degree it will be tied by the quality of competition, particularly within the AL Central.
Having weighed the offseason decisions of the White Sox, Royals and Tigers, I’ve seen no drastic steps forward and I am fairly confident that the Twins can be comfortably viewed as favorites over these three clubs. This, of course, leaves us with one remaining division opponent: the Indians.
The Cleveland Indians: Looking For Some Luck
The Indians entered this offseason with a set of needs similar to those of the Twins. Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro was seeking to shore up a bullpen which finished the ’08 campaign with a 5.13 ERA that ranked second-worst in the AL, and also looking for improved offense from a third base position that yielded a 704 OPS -- worse than the Twins.
Unlike the Twins and the rest of the AL Central clubs, Shapiro took an active, focused approach to solving these problems and managed to do so without surrendering a whole lot in terms of money or talent. The Indians were seemingly side players in the blockbuster J.J. Putz trade, but they may have come out of that deal better than either of the other teams involved, having acquired a quality young bullpen arm in Joe Smith and a promising infield prospect in Luis Valbuena while parting with nothing they couldn’t afford to lose. The Tribe also managed to pry Mark DeRosa from the Cubs in return for three expendable minor-league pitchers, a move I was quite upset that the Twins hadn’t made themselves.
Shapiro’s biggest move of the offseason was signing Kerry Wood to take over as the team’s closer. The deal is somewhat risky considering that it’s a pricey two-year commitment to a guy with a long history of arm problems, but Wood was healthy and dominant for almost the entirety of the ’08 season and can help lift the Cleveland bullpen in a major way if he repeats that performance this year.
The additions of Smith, Wood and DeRosa figure to effectively fill some glaring holes on what wasn’t a bad team to begin with. The Indians finished in third place and 7.5 games out of first last season, but when you consider that they’d been in last place and 14 games away from the division lead in mid-August, that’s not necessarily an unimpressive finish. The Indians surged late in the year, going 31-17 over their final 48 games and looking like quite clearly the Central’s best team over the final two months of regular-season play. And that was without C.C. Sabathia and Paul Byrd, a fact that helps temper arguments that they’ll miss those two in the upcoming season.
Back in the intro paragraph of this article, I mentioned that a team’s success was dependent to some degree on luck. Few teams exemplify this better than the Indians, who scored 805 runs while allowing 761 last season, which means -- according to the Pythagorean Winning Percentage theory -- that with neutral luck they’d have gone 85-77. With a bit of good luck, the Indians could have darn well been right there with the Twins and White Sox at the top of the division. This was nothing new; the Indians experienced similarly bad luck in 2006, when their actual record of 78-84 was 11 wins below their Pythagorean record of 89-73.Yet, in 2007, when the Tribe actually played up to its potential, they came within a game of the World Series.
The Indians are a young team that underperformed last year, finished strong, and has made some savvy moves to improve weaknesses during the offseason. They enter the 2008 season with the reigning Cy Young winner leading their rotation and a perennial MVP candidate patrolling center field. Bill Smith’s laid-back approach this offseason may have worked to keep his club in front of some other gun-shy general managers around the division, but Shapiro’s proactive approach looks to have propelled his club past the inactive Twins and thus prevents our hometown club from entering the season as division favorites as things currently stand.
In order to come out on top of the Indians this year, the Twins are going to have to exceed expectations, or else hope that Cleveland is once again bit by the bad luck bug.