For the last few years, one of my spring training traditions was to look for the key players around baseball. That is, the bellwether players, the canaries in the coal mine, the players whose fortunes would be inextricably tethered to the fortunes of their teams. I would write things like, "If Nelson Cruz has a great season, that probably means the Mariners are having a great season." It was a bad idea, mostly because individual players can't affect their teams' chances that much. They can't control the successes and failures of the other players on the roster.
This is the same idea, just rebranded and less nonsensical. Really, all I wanted in the first place was to talk about specific baseball players. Have you noticed these baseball players? They're fascinating, all for different reasons. Here are the most interesting player on each team in the American League Central.
Chicago White Sox: Carlos Rodon
It's a big league. You watch a lot of your team's games, but maybe you don't watch as many of the games around the league as you would like. Your stupid work keeps making you come in and work, day after day after day, so you can't just wake up and watch baseball for 12 hours or so. This world is a mess.
All this means that you might not have seen Rodon pitch. Have you seen this slider? Look at this slider and cower in fear (Hawk Harrelson warning):
So, so, so good. At it's best, it's a pitch that's up there with Mr. Snappy, the pitch that got Randy Johnson to the Hall of Fame. It's obscene and unfair.
Rodon also had the highest walk rate in baseball of any pitcher with 20 starts or more. Probably because the slider travels through different zip codes, but still. He's a work in progress.
The White Sox had a decision to make this offseason, having to figure out if they should act like reloaders or rebuilders. They chose to reload, albeit not as forcefully as some of their fans would have liked, and it's a decision that absolutely would not have been made without Rodon's promise. An ace and a solid No. 2 is a solid start to any rotation, but even the '08 Royals had that. Two well-above-average pitchers doth not a contender make.
Three outstanding pitchers in a rotation? Yeah, that's probably a contender. Even if the lineup is rubbish, which it doesn't have to be, we've seen teams contend with less. Now all that needs to happen is for Rondon to make that leap from intriguing to outstanding.
Considering that he has just 34 innings of minor league experience, you can forgive his bloated walk rate. He's the same age as your typical Class-A prospect, except he was pitching in a miserable park for pitchers with an abominable defense behind him and holding his own. If he doesn't improve at all, he's still a quality pitcher. If he becomes the pitcher we're all expecting, the White Sox could absolutely surprise in the AL Central.
Cleveland Indians: Lonnie Chisenhall
Where were you when you heard the news that the Indians signed Juan Uribe? You certainly won't forget that sort of thing. The Indians have four new starters in the lineup (at least, until Michael Brantley returns), but it still seems like they've had a very, very quiet offseason. The biggest reason for it is probably because in a market saturated with outfielders, the Indians committed to continuing their Chisenhall experiment in right field. Defensively, it's been a success. Offensively, it's a work in progress.
Consider this list of the worst hitters in baseball last year among players with 300 at-bats or more. It goes something like this catcher, catcher, second baseman, shortstop, utility player, center fielder, center fielder, 40-something, Sam Fuld, shortstop, catcher, utility player ... you get the idea. There aren't a lot of right fielders on the list. Of the right fielders with a worse adjusted OPS, one was a 41-year-old Ichiro, and the other was Alex Rios, who is still a free agent. Chisenhall in right is a bad start to the middle of the lineup.
Oh, also, there's a chance that Chisenhall will hit in the middle of the Indians' lineup.
He's been an average hitter for his career, though, with some worthwhile peaks. And it's worth noting that his defense (and defensive versatility) has made him a contributor even in the years he didn't hit, so that's part of the Indians' thinking, most likely. Still, it's a gamble to put this much trust in a 27-year-old coming off a last season. If he can hit, even a little bit, the team will look awfully smart.
Detroit Tigers: Anibal Sanchez
It made so much sense for the Tigers to commit to Sanchez after the 2012 season, especially after they parted with a huge prospect haul to get him (Jacob Turner!). The following season, he rewarded them with a career year, in which he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. The five-year, $80 million contract looked like a steal.
And then, well, Sanchez reverted to form. He threw only 126 innings in 2014, and while he was healthier in 2015, he was also much worse, putting up the worst numbers of his career. He's 32 now, and he's still looking for the first 200-inning season of his career. You wouldn't be blamed if you shorted your Anibal Sanchez stock right now.
However, please remember that Sanchez allowed more home runs than anyone else in the American League. On the surface, it would seem that would be an issue, something that would carry over to his 2016 season. However, he allowed home runs at more than double his career rate, while his strikeouts and walks remained static. When you see a weird home run rate mixed in with typical strikeout and walk rates, get skeptical. Sanchez just might be fine.
That would be good news, considering the Tigers are absolutely counting on Sanchez to be a formidable pitcher again. The Jordan Zimmermann signing was reasonable and well-timed, and the renaissance of Justin Verlander will hopefully continue for the foreseeable future. But like the White Sox up there, you can do only so much with a two-man starting rotation. They'll need that third boffo starter.
I mean, Mike Pelfrey could step up and be that third horse.
It could happen.
But Anibal Sanchez is clearly the Tigers' best chance at improving last year's disappointing record.
Kansas City Royals: Ian Kennedy
One of the most common mistakes that teams make is to pay a premium for what a free agent has done in the past, not for what he'll do in the future. The Angels signed a 32-year-old Albert Pujols at 25-year-old Pujols money, and now it's looking like a few more years of 32-year-old Pujols performance is a best-case scenario.
Kennedy is the opposite of that. He allowed 31 homers last year, despite pitching more than half of his games at Petco Park. That's like an impossible Xbox achievement that no one really expects to get. He should be proud, really. But the Royals aren't paying for that. They're paying for what Kennedy can be, what his improved strikeout rate hints at. They're also paying for the durability, sure, but they're mostly paying for what they think Kennedy can be.
Laugh if you want, but first remember that Edinson Volquez was the Game 1 starter for a World Series-winning team. The Royals -- and their defensive wunderkinds around the diamond -- seem to have a knack for finding slightly worn pitchers at the yard sard and restoring them to their former luxuriousness. Even though Lorenzo Cain can't help bring the home runs back in the park, there's no question that an improved defense will help Kennedy dramatically. He's moving from one of baseball's worst fielding teams to one of the best, so this is almost like an experiment in a laboratory setting.
We'll see if the Royals' risky speculation was prescient or foolish, and I'm kind of hoping for prescient because I haven't stopped getting a kick out of the Royals making all of us look stupid.
Minnesota Twins: Byung-ho Park
After a decade-plus, baseball has a pretty good handle on scouting players with Nippon Professional Baseball experience. Gone (or humbled) are the scouts who loudly proclaimed Ichiro would never make it. Gone are the bargain contracts for solid regulars like Norichika Aoki. It's not an exact science, not even close. But it's not the alchemy it used to be, either.
We're not quite there yet with Korean Baseball Organization players. Consider last year's modest projections for Jung-Ho Kang, which made sense considering it only took a $5 million posting fee to get him. He was supposed to be a utility player, not a potential All-Star. Now he looks like one of the biggest bargains in baseball. Kang's 1.198 OPS in his final year didn't translate over, but his career line of .298/.383/.504 wasn't drastically different from his rookie performance.
Park is a different hitter. There's a lot more swing and miss in his game, and while he hit .343 with 53 homers last year, his KBO strikeout total would have been a single-season record for the Twins. So, the contact is worrisome even if you assume his strikeouts will come over with him on a one-for-one basis, but they're more likely to increase against the Chris Sales of the MLB world.
On the other hand, you don't hit 53 homers for the Ramapo Roadrunners, much less in one of the top professional leagues in the world, without ridiculous raw power. Unfathomable, league-changing power. And the Twins are doing the right thing with him, plopping him down in a DH role and hitting him sixth or seventh in the order. It's a low-risk, high-reward gamble, and we'll know in a couple months if he's the steal that Kang was. If so, it would be the death of low-risk, high-reward KBO gambles. The money would push future contracts into medium-risk territory, then high-risk.
Park is a glorious experiment, and the possibilities range from a poor man's Mark Reynolds to a mid-30s Jim Thome. I'm guessing it'll be the latter. ZiPS happens to agree. Either way, it'll be fascinating.