Chicago singing Oscar, pennant

Mar 11, 2003 2:30 AM

The American League Central looks like baseball’s weakest division, especially since Cleveland is back in its cost-cutting mode.

Losing Bartolo Colon last year and dealing Jim Thome during the offseason has created a huge gap between the top two and bottom three.

The division could come down to the recovery of Minnesota lefty Eric Milton, who opted for preseason knee surgery that could sideline him for six months. If the Twins can hang in until Milton returns, they could manage a Wild Card berth. Right now, it appears that the White Sox have the upper hand starting with our mercenary hero Colon.

CHICAGO (81-81): The White Sox played themselves out of the race early last year and fought hard to finish at .500.

The pieces are there for a huge season. Magglio Ordonez is an MVP candidate. Frank Thomas is due for a big year, if he can stay healthy. Paul Konerko has established himself as a dependable 40-homer guy. Adding the power-pitching Colon alongside lefty Mark Buehrle gives Chicago a 1-2 punch that can compete with any starting duo in baseball.

The White Sox must improve on a 34-47 road record. Brian Daubach comes over from Boston and should give Thomas the chance to spend the full year at DH.

The Sox finished $1,155 in the hole for bettors spending $100 per bet, but should wind up in black figures this year. We like the White Sox to get out of the gate fast in order to avoid any thought of repeating last season’s collapse.

MINNESOTA (94-67): The Twins came up just short in a cinderella season that ended gallantly at Anaheim. The talent is abundant and homegrown. Minnesota rewarded bettors a total of $2,352 last year per $100 bet, trailing only Oakland and the Angels in the majors.

Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones are signed, which is significant for a team that was set to be disbanded last year. The task at hand is to repeat the heroics, now that both the fans and opponents will expect another strong campaign.

Losing Milton puts heat on a pitching staff that was brilliant in 2002. Brad Radke, king of the UNDERS, will have to carry the bulk of the load. Two years ago Radke meant certain victory for the UNDER. We hope he returns to that form in 2003.

The Twins were an awesome 54-27 last year at the Metrodome. It’s a team built for turf ”” combining speed, defense and pitching. The hunger should be there for a return to the playoffs, at least.

CLEVELAND (74-88): Can you blame Indians fans for going on the warpath? The salary cap dismissed Colon, Albert Belle, Roberto Alomar, Richie Sexson and now Jim Thome. Jacobs Field now shows a few empty seats, something not seen since the days of the Mistake By The Lake.

It would be nice if Shane Spencer puts up big numbers after leaving the "hated" Yankees. Lefty Brian Anderson could help the pitching staff, but he’s no Colon. Eric Wedge, at age 35, fits the attitude of going young in what figures to be a rebuilding year. Translation -- losing record.

The Tribe struggled last year, costing bettors $665. That may not sound too bad, but Cleveland was expected to win the AL Central. This year, losing $665 might be considered a positive season.

DETROIT (55-106): We’ll give new manager Alan Trammell enough credit on his own to move ahead of Kansas City in the standings.

Of course, that’s not saying much.

Trammell hired Kirk Gibson as a bench coach, as the franchise tries to gather as many former Tigers as possible who know what it takes to win. The problem is that Gibson, Trammell, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich and Rocky Colavito are no longer able to play.

Still, the competitive nature of Trammell and Gibson should spark an improvement. And, Detroit’s spacious Comerica Park can cause problems for some opponents. We’re still trying to figure out why the Tigers let Jeff Weaver get away to the Yankees.

Detroit was the worst betting team in the AL last year, losing $3,057 for every $100 wager. The key to improvement will come at home, where the Tigers’ anemic 3.4 runs scored per game was the worst in the major leagues. Detroit was a horrible 26-60 outside the division, just slightly better than Tampa Bay and Kansas City.

But, we do like Trammell and hustler Bobby Higginson so playing progressions on Detroit at home may not be a bad play. Especially, against the Yankees.

KANSAS CITY (62-100): The Royals lost 100 games last year and then did virtually nothing in the offseason to fix the situation. In fact, the Royals lost their ace pitcher, All-Star right-hander Paul Byrd, to Atlanta.

CNNSI graded the Royals an F for their offseason manuevers. Heck, if KC hero George Brett supposedly wants nothing to do with the Royals, why should we as bettors care? Of course, this does make KC a logical bet-against team.

The problem is KC will be a heavy dog most of the time. Last year, the Royals cost bettors $2,293 for every $100 wager. It doesn’t figure to get any better this season.

Can you name any Royals? Well, there’s Mike Sweeney, a fine hitter but hardly a household name. Heck, when he hear Royals we think flushes. The Royals were 29-57 outside their division and 25-56 on the road. Sounds like a flush to us.