American League Central Preview

Detroit seems like a lock for this division but that, of course, is what everyone said about the Red Sox in the AL East last year. There are reasons to think the Tigers could be had by the tail. In order of last year’s finish:

Detroit Tigers:

Good: Man, can they hit! Miguel Cabrera was already a wrecking machine and they’ve added Prince Fielder. There’s also Delmon Young, Alex Avila, a suddenly rejuvenated Jhonny Peralta, and emerging talents such as Clete Thomas, Ryan Rayburn, and Don Kelly. Jose Velarde saved all 49 chances last year and seldom had to when Cy Young winner Justin Verlander pitched.

Bad: Knee surgery will sideline Victor Martinez for the season. Rick Porcello doesn’t inspire as a number three (14 wins, but an ERA of almost 5), and there’s not much beyond him. Cabrera moves to third; he’s bad at first and will be worse on the hot corner.

Hot Seat: Doug Fister needs to repeat his Motown Mojo (8-1 after leaving Seattle last season), or the Tigers will need to club their way to victory. Austin Jackson fell to earth last year (.249) and needs to dust himself off. Fielder has to prove the money wouldn’t have been better spent on pitching. (It would have!)

Prognosis: Keep the runs down and the Tigers can be tamed. Even with Verlander Detroit was just 17th in team ERA last year and there’s no reason to think that will improve dramatically. To me this looks like a team that will get you through September, but not through October.

Cleveland Indians:

Good: Derek Lowe is a good pick up who will help Justin Masterson, another one that Red Sox allowed to get away. Asdrubal Cabrera is an All-Star shortstop. Travis Hafner still has power and Shin-soo Choo is vastly underrated.

Bad: Sad = bad: Grady Sizemore is hurt once again. There are lots of holes in this line up and the staff is thin.

Hot Seat: Carlos Santana has a big bat, when he makes contact, which isn’t frequently enough. Ditto Matt LaPorta. Fausto Carmona isn’t himself; in fact, he’s actually Roberto Heredia and is at least three years older than he claimed. Plus he’s on the restricted list. The Indians may void his contract. The sudden decline in effectiveness has some wondering who Ubaldo Jimenéz really is.

Prognosis: Help awaits on the farm, but the Tribe is likely to take a few steps backward this year.

Chicago White Sox:

Good: Addition by subtraction–no more Ozzie at the helm. Danks and Floyd, if they stay, is a good top of the rotation. Alexis Ramirez is stable at short. Paul Konerko and Hall of Fame should start appearing in the same sentence.

Bad: The staff isn't deep enough. Pierzynski couldn’t throw out David Ortiz. Subtraction by subtraction–losing Buerhle, Carlos Quentin, and Sergio Santos. Matt Thronton is untested as a closer.

Hot Seat: Dylan Axelrod is being asked to become a top starter and Phil Humber simply must live up to his promise, or the ChiSox are going nowhere, especially if Jake Peavy has physical setbacks. There are no less than four players who are in their make-it-or-break-it years: Gordon Beckham (.230), Alex Rios (.227/12/44), Kosuke Fukadome (.262 but no power), and Adam Dunn (who hit a record-setting low of just .159 last year).

Prognosis: This may be the hardest team in baseball to predict. The ChiSox could win 88 games or lose 100; neither would surprise me.

Kansas City Royals:

Good: Picking up both Joanthan Sanchez and Yuniesky Betancourt were good moves. Billy Butler is scrappy and Alex Gordon finally put up great numbers (.303/23/89). Eric Hosmer and Luke Hochavar have big upsides. Few realize this, but the Royals were 4th in league in average and 6th in RBIs.

Bad: And they were 27th in ERA. Therein lies a tale. It didn’t help that the highly touted Joakin Soria blew 8 (of 35) save chances. Then he blew out his shoulder and will miss 2012.

Hot Seat: The entire pitching staff. To a lesser extent, Jeff Francoeur. He had a fine year last year (.285/20.87) but his track record is that a bad year follows a decent one. At some point patience is exhausted.

Prognosis: Every spring we hear that the Royals are “turning it around” and so it appears–until May becomes June. They play in Missouri and I say, “Show me!” They should improve, but they could be the 2011 Orioles of the Midwest.

Minnesota Twins:

Good: What’s good is what’s bad: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. If healthy, the Twins do better; if not, way too much rides on guys such as Denard Span and Josh Willingham. (The latter is a nice pick up, though not for $6 million.)

Bad: The health of the M & M boys. Losing Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel won’t help this lineup. When Carl Pavano (9-13/4.30) is your “ace,” pitching is a problem. No one on the staff broke double digits in wins last year. The lineup is filled with lots of young guys–read cheap–who probably ought to be in AAA ball.

Hot Seat: General Manager Terry Ryan is listed as “interim;” need to know more? Matt Capps is being asked to take over Joe Nathan’s spot as closer. The B & B boys (Baker and Blackburn) may be more important to the Twins’ fortunes than the M & M boys. Alas, they’ll have to elevate their pitching to reach mediocre. Francisco Liriano is atop the most-likely-to-be-traded list and nobody is going to bid high.

Prognosis: It was shocking how bad the Twins were last year, but nobody should be surprised in 2012. It would take a meltdown for any team to boost them from the basement this year.


1. Tigers (but they don’t make the World Series)

2. White Sox (predicted with little conviction)

3. Royals (a hunch)

4. Indians (too many missing pieces, but could climb if Sox and Royals don't)

5. Twins (too little of too much)


American League West Preview

This one is a two-team race between the Rangers and Angels. With the AL East so loaded with teams likely to beat up on each other, it’s highly likely that whichever team doesn’t win the West will get one of the Wild Card berths.

Texas Rangers:

Good: They are reigning AL Champs and, even after losing C. J. Wilson, still have plenty of arms: Holland, Harrison, Lewis, Feldman…. They also have big hitters: Napoli, Béltre, Cruz, Kinsler, Michael Young, Hamilton, Cruz, and the very underrated David Murphy. I, for one, love Alexi Ogandi’s arm.

Bad: The pitching is solid, but it’s not world beating. It’s typical AL West--lots of number two and threes looking for a one. Joe Nathan as the closer? Yeah, three years ago.

Hot Spot: Yu Darvish will either make people forget about Wilson, or bring out their best Hideki Irabu analogies. Josh Hamilton is running out of second chances. Will he be an MVP or just another drunk? Elvis Andrus is supposed to superhuman, not mortal. He can run, but gets thrown out 1/3 of the time and 25 errors is a lot. I’d personally give up a bit of range and play Michael Young (.338) at short.

Prognosis: If Darvish is the real deal, they repeat; if not, Wild Card.

Los Angeles (which is really Anaheim) Angels:

Good: They got Albert Pujols and there simply isn’t a better player. Nor is there a better manager than Mike Scioscia.There are lots of young players on the cusp: Trumbo, Trout, Bourjos…. Howie Kendrick is a very useful and versatile player. The pitching staff has the potential to be solid: Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Dan Haren, and newly acquired C. J. Wilson.

Bad: It also has the potential to disappoint, as it so often has. The catching isn’t great. There are lots of off-the-hill payroll drains, starting with Wells and Hunter. The closer is Jordan Walden, who blew 10 of 42 chances last year.

Hot Spot: Bobby Abreu is already complaining about a diminished role (righly so in my view). Where does Kendry Morales play? Not many guys cross the diamond from first to third. Erick Aybar… There’s something about this guy that bothers me. (Maybe it’s a seeming lack of baseball sense.)

Prognosis: If the chemistry is right, the Angels can supplant the Rangers. A lot must go right, though.

Oakland A’s:

Good: Frankly, not much. If healthy, Dallas Braden. If he plays to potential, Brian Feuntes. if the scouting reports are correct, Yoenis Céspedes.

Bad: When you turn to a rookie and to Manny Ramirez (after his 50-game suspension) for salvation, that speaks volumes. The A’s gave away Gio Gonzaléz, who led the staff in all categories last year. They didn’t resign Josh Willingham, who led in homers and RBIs, or Cliff Pennington, who led in average. The starting outfield might be Crisp, Gomes, and Josh Reddick (whom they acquired for giving up their closer). That can’t be good.

Hot Seat: General Manager Billy Beane. Look, if this team finishes close to .500 I’ll reevaluate my opinion that his Moneyball image is mostly hype. Brandon McCarthy. No one can figure out why this guy isn’t a great pitcher. Céspedes comes with a lot on his plate.

Prognosis: This looks like a last place team to me. Maybe Manny will have a change of heart and help this club, but smart money is that it’s Tampa redux.

Seattle Mariners:

Good: Even an aging Ichiro is a great hitter. Miquel Olivo is a serviceable receiver, which Jesus Montero will not be. What the latter will be is the next coming of Jay Buhner. Brandon League is satisfactory in the pen. Expect Hector Noesi to be decent (but not spectacular). And, of course, there is Félix Hernández, one of the game’s best hurlers.

Bad: This team simply doesn’t hit. Losing Franklin Guiterrez to injuries won’t help. The M’s questions this year will be the same as those of the team that lost 95 games last year: After Ichiro, can anyone hit the broad side of a barn? After King Felix, who can close down the opposition?

Hot Seat: General Manager Jack Zduriencik traded his number two starter (Pineda) to the Yankees. He’d better be right about Montero. Justin Smoak simply must do better than last year’s .234/15/55. It may already be too late for Chone Figgins.

Prognosis: The Mariners will probably avoid the basement for the simply reason that they, unlike the A’s, actually have a few premier players. But it isn’t going to be pretty.


1. Rangers

2. Angels

3. Mariners

4. A’s


Hugo a Visual Treat

Hugo (2011)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Paramount, 126 mins. PG

* * *

If you missed it in the theater, Oscar Best Picture nominee Hugo is now on video. Although its superb lighting suffers a bit on the small screen, you won’t miss anything by not seeing it in 3D. In fact, it’s probably a better film not seen in 3D as the gimmicks would detract from the film’s surface beauty.

Hugo marries two unlikely genres, adolescent movies and early films. The movie is set in 1931, and centers on 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), who lives high above a Paris railway station and meticulously cares for the elaborate clocks that once dominated the grand edifices from the age of steam. (Think of the clock in D’Oursay, now an art museum, though the station is supposed to be Montparnasse.) Hugo must stay out of sight for several reasons. His widowed master clockmaker father–played in flashback sequences by Jude Law–is tragically killed in a fire and all that stands between Hugo and the orphanage is the guardianship of his drunken uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who has been AWOL for months. The station is patrolled by a gamey-legged but eagle-eyed inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), who delights in apprehending miscreants and homeless boys and sending them off to the children’s’ home. Hugo has to be doubly careful, as he’s also been stealing food to survive and nicking machine parts from the station’s toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley) in the hope of restoring an antique automaton that his father was working on when he died.

Scorsese does a lovely job of filming the small prosaic dramas that take place inside the station: the station’s hustle and bustle, the fading elegance of a café where Django Reinhardt plays and Salvador Dali sips coffee, the inspector’s shy courtship of a flower seller, and their autumn-of-life counterpart--the rotund Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) and the snippy-dog-toting Madame Emilie (Francis de la Tour). In the hands of a lesser director, Hugo could have easily degenerated into sentimental mush; especially once Hugo strikes up an unlikely friendship with the toyshop owner’s daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) and the two embark on a series of misadventures. Luckily, Marty Scorsese is behind the camera, not some paint-by-the-numbers Disney hireling. The film won five Oscars, three of which were for its stunning visual effects (including best cinematography). Whereas Disney might have bathed this film in lurid colors, Scorsese is not afraid to paint from a dark palette. The interplay between shadow and light is very effective, especially when Scorsese contrasts the darkness of the clock gears and loft spaces with the well-lighted and more sumptuous interiors of the station.

And then there’s the film’s other drama. Like The Artist–a far superior film–Scorsese pays tribute to the silent film era, though he reaches even further back in time. The toyshop owner, as is often the case of movie sad sacks, harbors a secret: he’s none other than Georges Méliès, the pioneer magician and filmmaker whose Trip to the Moon (1902) is regarded as one of cinema’s earliest gems. It’s Scorsese’s turn to engage in boy-like wonder once the Méliès back story comes out and we see–also in flashback–early films being made and their dreamlike but cheesy sets being transformed by the camera. There are also numerous references to numerous old films for devoted cinema buffs, including a pretty obvious take on Harold Lloyd in Safety First.

It would be fair criticism to argue that the film’s two halves often feel like a forced fit. There are times in which Scorsese can’t seem to make up his mind if he wants to make a wholesome family picture or a historical detective movie. It’s also abidingly clear that he’s indulging his lifetime passion for the childlike magic of movies. There were times, in fact, in which I wanted to yell, “Marty! Cinema Paradiso has already been made! That said, even with its flaws, Hugo is a charming little film. And because it’s Scorsese, you know it will look good.