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Wednesday, January 15
Updated: March 13, 5:12 PM ET
A challenger for the Twins

By Rob Neyer

Look at the 2002 standings in the American League Central, and it's not hard to make a prediction for 2003 ...

Twins       -
ChiSox   13.5
Indians  20.5
Royals   32.5
Tigers   39

Most of us would agree that neither the Royals nor the Tigers are likely to win more than 65 or 70 games in 2003. And while the Indians boast an impressive collection of talent, for the most part it's young talent that's not likely to come together in a meaningful way until 2004 at the earliest.

So that leaves the Twins and the White Sox. And considering how far the Twins finished ahead of the White Sox, that leaves only the Twins, right?

Well, maybe not. Here are some "standings" that never showed up in the newspapers:

        Scored Allowed   Expected W-L
Twins     768    712        87-74
ChiSox    856    798        87-75

As you know, a team's record generally corresponds pretty closely with its runs scored and allowed. When it doesn't, the largest factor -- and to a significant degree -- is usually luck, good or bad.

It's my understanding that when fewer runs are scored, then each run is slightly more important, which would make the Twins' run differential slightly more impressive than the White Sox' run differential. Still, it's safe to say that on a fundamental level -- even more fundamental than wins and losses -- the Twins were not significantly better than the White Sox last season.

And if we accept that proposition, don't we also have to accept the proposition that in 2003 the Twins will face real competition in the Central? That just because the Twins went 29-16 in one-run games last year and the White Sox just 15-21, it won't necessarily shake out that way again?

So if you want to know who's going to win in 2003, don't just look at the final standings, because in this particular case they're not particularly instructive. Instead, look at how the Twins and the White Sox have changed from 2002 to 2003.

The White Sox have lost Antonio Osuna and Keith Foulke -- two of their three best relief pitchers -- but they've gained Billy Koch and Bartolo Colon. Now, it's true that Koch and Colon are both a trifle overrated, but it's also true that they're both very good pitchers, and so the White Sox pitching staff should be better in 2003 than it was in 2002. The Sox should also benefit from a full season of Joe Crede at third base, with Jose Valentin taking over at shortstop. This is a team that scored 856 runs in 2002 -- third most in the league -- and might well score 900 in 2003.

The Twins have lost David Ortiz, but they've gained ... nbody. The Twins have a young team that won 94 games, and they're standing pat.

And there's a good chance it'll work for them. All those good young players with another year of experience, better health for their starting pitchers, a full season in the rotation for Johan Santana ... this is a team with some serious upside.

But you know, relievers J.C. Romero and LaTroy Hawkins aren't going to combine for 15 wins and a 2.00 ERA, and starter Kyle Lohse isn't going to win 13 games again. Rick Reed's a fine pitcher, but he's 37. And the Twins' old Big Three -- Eric Milton, Brad Radke, Joe Mays -- doesn't include anybody resembling a Cy Young candidate.

The Twins are a good team, and they've got a chance to be great. But they are not invulnerable. And as a fan, I'm happy to see somebody else in their division make a real effort to compete.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason.

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