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ESN: Key questions in AL, NL Central

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foxsports admin

 
   
 
In our weeklong review of the most frequently asked questions in Florida and Arizona, we turn our attention to the AL and NL Central.

AL Central

Will the Indians hit enough?

The previous sentence is not a misprint, nor is the following: The Indians will rely on their pitching staff to get by this season.

Whether Cleveland leaves Winter Haven feeling comfortable with its offense depends largely on Brady Anderson, Matt Lawton and Milton Bradley. The trio will be largely responsible for replacing 362 runs — the combined 2001 production of departed Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez and Marty Cordova.

There are no C.C. Sabathias this spring, either, although the Indians still have the surprise from last spring: C.C. Sabathia.

In fact, the very mention of Sabathia's name should further emphasize the Indians' current plight. Think about it, how many of the rookie's 17 wins would have been losses or no-decisions last season had the 20-year-old not received rotisserie league-type run support?

Will Cuddyer cut it?

He could probably hit 20 homers in his sleep, has .300 potential, gets on base and has a right fielder's disposition and just happens to play right field, where the Twins have an opening this spring.

So why hasn't Michael Cuddyer already been named the starter by rookie manager Ron Gardenhire?

It may actually be a matter of days before Gardenhire gives the rookie the nod over holdovers Brian Buchanan and Bobby Kielty.

The Twins may not have anything to lose. They have the depth in the pitching staff and — surprise! — ample power in the lineup to absorb a learning curve. And they could be downsized before the 2003 season, anyway.

Can the young and old come together in Chicago, Part I?

If Frank Thomas hits like the young thumper who appeared to be a lock for Cooperstown a few years ago and at least a couple young pitchers step to the fore, the White Sox will get back to the postseason.

Thomas' health will be monitored closely in March because the Sox are banking on nothing short of the Big Hurt. A healthy Thomas will make middle-of-the-lineup hitters Magglio Ordonez and Paul Konerko all the more effective.

The second part of the equation consists of Jon Garland, Rocky Biddle and Danny Wright. If the White Sox can get solid production out of two of the three young hurlers, it might not matter if Mark Buehrle and Keith Foulke come back down to Earth, as some people expect them to.

Will anyone get on in Detroit?

In Lakeland, the Tigers are scrambling for someone to prove they are capable of getting on base regularly. The Tigers will place more than the usual blasé spring training emphasis on their Grapefruit games because of the impatience up and down the Detroit lineup.

Hitters like Damion Easley, Bobby Higginson, Dean Palmer and newcomer Dmitri Young aren't known for their willingness to take a pitch.

New team president Dave Dombrowski will be on the case in Florida, scouring his own roster for OBP-minded hitters. But don't be surprised to see him take on a buck or two in outside salary (the Tigers have some budget flexibility) if he doesn't find the solution from within.

Arms race or arms strong?

The question in Royals camp isn't only who will pitch but can they pitch?

Check out these names: Chad Durbin, Paul Byrd, Darrell May, Chris George.

Sure, Jeff Suppan is in the mix, in fact, he's the staff ace, but the identity of the Royals' entire staff -- not just their starters -- could best be characterized with two words:

ROBERTO HERNANDEZ

And Hernandez ranks with the LaTroy Hawkinses of the world.

So, in short, it makes no difference what effect Chuck Knoblauch has on the Royals' lineup, how much on the rise Carlos Beltran really is, or whether Mike Sweeney drives in 192 runs.

If you can't pitch, you ain't winning.

- Bryon Evje

NL Central

What's in a name?

Well, at least their home park won't be called "Enron Field." With that out of the way, the Astros can get to wondering whether Daryle Ward can become this year's Lance Berkman, the homegrown product who explodes in everyday duty and allows the always-thrifty Astros — who have opened the wallet only for Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio — to remain in contention. If Ward produces, maybe we can wonder again in October whether the Astros are ever going to hit enough to win a postseason series.

Are they productive AND well behaved?

The Cards were baseball's hottest team in the second half of last year and hope to finally get back to the World Series with the addition of free-agent first baseman Tino Martinez and free-agent closer Jason Isringhausen. But can Martinez, who bounced back at age 33 in 2001 after three down years, remain as productive as he was a season ago, and can Isringhausen, long known for his off-field carousing, stay focused as he moves back home (he's from nearby Brighton, IL)?

Can the young and old come together in Chicago, Part II?

It's been three decades since the Cubs put together back-to-back winning seasons. Can the Cubs' brilliant young talent — pitchers Kerry Wood and Juan Cruz, second baseman Corey Hill and centerfielder Corey Patterson — develop quickly enough or, in Wood's case, stay healthy enough, to augment the veterans who are trying to fend off Father Time — Sammy Sosa, Fred McGriff and Moises Alou?

Can the Brew Crew show even though management hasn't?

Does anyone here have a clue what he/she is doing? Dean Taylor was utterly fleeced in the Jeromy Burnitz trade, manager Davey Lopes is busy losing games (183 in two years) and making idiotic comments (after he whined last year about Rickey Henderson swiping a base late in a blowout, it was revealed Lopes was prone to doing the same thing as a player) and owner Wendy Selig-Prieb is guilty by association. Answer: No one has a clue here, so make it 20 years without a playoff berth for the Brewers, the longest streak in pro sports.

Who let the dog out?

The Ken Griffey Jr. of old — the one who smiled constantly and acted like a kid in a candy store — is long gone. But can the gruff Griffey return to some semblance of his previous form? The eternally cheap Reds, with an almost-nonexistent pitching staff, need Griffey to return to his 50-homer ways and anchor a young and promising lineup that also features 2001 phenom Adam Dunn and reliable first baseman Sean Casey. The Reds would also profit greatly if Barry Larkin proves he's not washed up at age 38.

How long before kickoff?

How much longer will cornerstones Brian Giles and Jason Kendall want to remain with this sinking ship? The hiring of GM Dave Littlefield appears to be a step in the right direction, but the Pirates' farm system is still bereft of talent and, aside from Giles, Kendall and rising third baseman Aramis Ramirez, the major league roster is saddled with the likes of Kevin Young, Derek Bell and Pat Meares, three of the most overpaid players in baseball. Until the Pirates unload those contracts and begin to churn out some homegrown prospects, the baseball season will continue to be a nice warmup to football season in Pittsburgh.

- Jerry Beach

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