Welcome to the 2015 Place to Be Nation MLB preview for the American League Central Division. This is the second part of a six-part series.
You can read Part 1 on the American League East right here.
As always, teams are in predicted order of finish.
The Detroit Tigers have been the cream of the crop in this division for quite a while now, rattling off four straight division titles, one World Series appearance, three Most Valuable Players, and a pair of Cy Young winners.
It’s pretty impressive, for sure, but … count the World Series wins in that time.
Go ahead, I’ll wait here.
So, what’s a team to do when it has an aging core, a massive payroll, a sinkhole where the bullpen is supposed to be, and a division that is catching up to you?
Well, if you’re the Tigers, you let your top pitcher (Max Scherzer) walk into free agency, trade another starter (Rick Porcello) for an outfielder (Yoenis Cespedes) that’s really not the premium talent some seem to think he is, put a mere band-aid on the gaping wound of a bullpen (Tom Gorzelanny and Joba Chamberlain), re-sign a popular, albeit aging, glove-optional slugger who promptly gets hurt before the ink dries (Victor Martinez), add a starter who’s got less than 80 big-league innings and an ERA of 4.39 in six minor-league seasons (Shane Greene), and also trade for a journeyman starter on the wrong side of his 30s, who lied about his age, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, and is, allegedly, a rapist (Alfredo Simon).
If it sounds like I’m down on the Detroit Tigers this year, I am.
Probably more pessimistic than I’ve been in a long while with my home-state franchise.
Sure, things could very go right for the team, and, as a fan, I hope they do. I really do.
If Detroit wins, it’s because Justin Verlander* rebounds from his worst season to date, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez remain healthy, Yoenis Cespedes hits a ton, J.D. Martinez repeats his career year, the team defense improves, Simon and Greene both pitch well in the rotation, and the bullpen doesn’t suck.
That’s too many ifs for me to feel positive about the team’s chances.
That said, the team still has enough talent, and the rest of the division enough holes, for Detroit to claim its fifth straight AL Central crown. Just like last year, though, it won’t be easy, and it’ll probably come down to the last week (or day, or inning, or out) of the regular season.
The Tigers still have two things that the rest of their division doesn’t. They have star-power, which can get you pretty far, especially when your best hitter is two or three times better than anyone else in the division. Detroit’s also got enough money (and owner Mike Illitch doesn’t want to die without that ring!) to go out and get whoever it needs. Along with that, despite the serious, massive, black-hole lack of depth in the farm system, let’s not underestimate general manager Dave Dombrowski’s ability to spin deals that help his club.*
*The Doug Fister to Washington deal notwithstanding. Oh, and the Simon trade. And the Porcello one too. (Plugs ears…begins humming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” …)
Prediction: 87-75; first place by one game over the White Sox. The Tigers are at Chicago for three games to conclude the regular season, but they’ll lock up the division sometime during their prior series at home against Minnesota or visiting the Rangers.
Chicago White Sox
During the off-season, Chicago was the center of the baseball hot-stove universe.
The Cubs, already awash in highly-touted prospects, proceeded to land left-hander Jon Lester, the biggest name on the pitching market.
Across town, the White Sox landed another big arm, right-hander Jeff Samardzija, in a trade with Oakland.
Coming off a 73-89 season in 2014, the White Sox made other improvements as well, taking note that, “Hey, if the Royals can do that, anyone can!”
Actually, the Sox didn’t just take note of it; they screamed it from the highest of heights with the acquisition of Samardzija, closer David Robertson, first baseman Adam LaRoche, and outfielder Melky Cabrera.
Every move made by GM Rick Hahn was guided by the principle of depth. In a 162-game season, you can never have enough quality depth.
The trade for Samardzija added a layer to the Sox’ rotation, slotting him behind bona fide ace Chris Sale, and in front of the Not-Ready-for-Primetime Pitchers Jose Quintana*, John Danks, and Hector Noesi (whose name sounds like a Key & Peele sketch). Samardzija helps fill out the rotation with quality arms, with is more than some teams can say they have.
*Quintana looks like he could be something special, though, giving the Sox a great 1-2-3 atop the staff. Heck, he might outperform Samardzija this year.
Robertson, while probably overrated and overpaid (like most closers), provides a good anchor to a Sox pen that never had one last year (mid-season closer fill-in Jake Petricka led the club with 14 saves). Zach Duke, Dan Jennings, and Matt Albers should all give quality innings out of skipper Robin Ventura’s pen. While the Sox likely won’t emulate the Royals’ Bullpen Tower of Doom, they should feel pretty good about handing late-inning leads over.
The ChiSox lineup isn’t amazing, but newly-extended Adam Eaton does a good job setting the table for the big bats, which include Cabrera, LaRoche, Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramriez, and Avisail Garcia. The Sox have to hope for good seasons out of those six, because the other three spots in the everyday lineup range from questionable (third baseman Conor Gillaspie) to sketchy (catcher Tyler Flowers) to unknown, second base is still up in the air as of this writing.
Still, with all of their improvements and added depth, the White Sox will need some luck to contend for a division crowd and/or wildcard berth. Fortunately, with all of the question marks surrounding the other competition in this division, a little luck may be just enough.
Prediction: 86-76, second place, Wild Card Berth.
The 2014 Cleveland Indians had the expectation of contending for the division title, but a series of sub-par performances from key cogs in the machine had the Indians, with 85 wins, staring up at the division champ Detroit Tigers and wild card winning Kansas City Royals when it was all done.
Injuries, advancing age, contract woes, and just general suckiness plagued Cleveland for most of the season, and it’s likely that a good season from just one or two of the following players could have pushed the Indians into the playoffs last year.
Jason Kipnis: An All-Star in 2013, Kipnis followed up that season with a six-year, $52.5 million contract, signed last April, that he believes helps explain his awful 2014. The 27-year-old second baseman put together .240/.310/.330 line with just six home runs. A bounceback year from Kipnis, a potential Cleveland cornerstone, could go a long way in boosting the team’s outlook this season.
Nick Swisher: When I attended a Cleveland-Detroit game at Jacobs Field in late-May, no player was more catcalled, scorned, derided, jeered, or booed than this guy. For all of his “Dude-Bro” charm, Swisher’s best days are clearly behind him. The 33-year-old only got into 97 games for the Indians, batting a pitiful .208/.278/.331. Add in bad defense at first base (and a few games in the outfield) and it’s pretty clear that Swisher should be anything close to a regular presence in the Cleveland lineup in 2015.
Michael Bourn: A speed-and-defense center fielder, Bourn’s always been a bit over-rated, and prior to the 2013 season, Cleveland fell for it, tossing a 4-year, $48 million contract at Bourn, despite the fact that aging speedsters on long-team deals is a really bad idea. In his age 30 season in 2014, Bourn hit .263/.316/.360 with 21 doubles, six triples, six homers, and 23 steals in 130 games. Not a great season, by any means, but it wasn’t bad. In 2014, Bourn hit pretty much the same: .257/.314/.360 with 17 doubles, 10 triples, three homers, but just 10 steals (against six caught stealings!). Bourn did all this in 106 games, missing significant time with injuries to his legs. So, while he hasn’t been all that bad for the Indians, Bourn is still a 31-year-old center fielder whose primary weapon is deserting him. Buyer beware, Cleveland fans.
All three of these names will be returning to The Jake in 2015, as will most of their supporting cast from last year. Rebounds from any of these three, along with progress from several others, will go a long way in rebuilding the Indians’ playoff odds.
Bourn and Kipnis will likely sit atop the Cleveland order again, setting the table for 2015 All-Star Michael Brantley, on-base machine/iron-glove Carlos Santana, new addition Brandon Moss, and standout catcher Yan Gomes.
Brantley built on his solid 2014 to emerge as Cleveland’s best player last year. He hit .327/.385/.506 with 200 hits, 45 doubles, 20 home runs, 97 RBIs, and 23 steals. Brantley ended up winning his first Silver Slugger, making his first All-Star team, and finishing third in the AL MVP race behind more-proven commodities Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Brantley’s continuing development will be a great thing to watch in the Cleveland outfield.
While Cleveland’s rotation was not spectacular last year, it held good promise, as Corey Kluber came seemingly out-of-nowhere to win the AL Cy Young award and youngsters Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar* showed flashes of potential that has many Indians’ fans dreaming of a three-headed rotation monster to lead the team to its first division crown since 2007, and its first pennant since 1997.
*Salazar has been sent to the minors as of this writing, but he should be up early on in the season, probably right around the time most teams begin to need a fifth starter.
As well as the rotation living up to its potential, the Indians will also require a repeat performance out of their bullpen. Closer Cody Allen, who took over the role in May, piled up 91 strikeouts in 69 ⅔ innings, while his supporting cast performed capably and the Indians were fifth in the AL with an ERA of 3.56. It’s a fool’s errand to depend on a bullpen year in and year out, but if the top of the rotation performs well enough, a bit of regression from the Cleveland ‘pen won’t matter.
Expectations can be a dangerous game to play. Potential is a scary thing, too. Luck, well, that’s just a dumb thing to count on.
But Cleveland will need all three in order to perform in 2015.
Prediction: 84-78, third place
Kansas City Royals
The defending American League Champions.
The Most Fun Team In the History of the Universe.
Last October, the baseball world fell in the love with the Kansas City Royals, a rag-tag group of players that could have come from Hollywood.
What a story!
We open to an overhead shot of downtown Kansas City (well, it’s really Vancouver in summer, but who cares?!?)
A quaint little city in the middle of the United States.
Nothing here to say much about, really. Just folks helping each out with life and enjoying the simple things.
Well, except for baseball, that is.
Years of mediocrity (or worse) have sucked the life out of the local team, the Royals. No one comes to the ballpark anymore.
(Wide shot of the exterior of Kauffman Stadium. A gust of wind blows dust — and somehow, a tumbleweed — past the open front gates, a lone, depressed ticket-taker, and down the empty street.)
People had stopped coming to games. They had stopped caring. They had stopped …(dramatic pause) … dreaming.
Fade to opening credits of “A Royal Dream”, starring Chris Pratt as Eric Hosmer, Zach Braff as Mike Moustakas, Donald Faison as Salvador Perez, Channing Tatum* as Alex Gordon, Tom Berenger as Ned Yost, and Bradley Cooper as James Shields.
*Or John Krasinski. Whatever.
Yeah, too bad it’s not really like that.
So everybody loved what Kansas City did last year.
Can they do it again?
The Royals lost a few significant pieces over the off-season, as Shields parted his perch atop the pitching rotation for his hometown San Diego Padres, right-fielder Norichika Aoki, a defensive wiz and on-base gnat in the leadoff spot, joined the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, and long-time DH Billy Butler split for Oakland.
Shields got replaced by Edinson Volquez, who is coming off a good season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It remains to be seen if Volquez can handle the American League, having only pitched parts of his first three seasons in the junior circuit, all with the Texas Rangers. Volquez is not expected to duplicate the 227 innings, or the clubhouse leadership, that Shields did last year, but if the rest of the starters (particularly youngsters Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy) step forward, the starting corps should be alright in KC.
So should the bullpen, which was the biggest edge the Royals had during their 2014 run. Closer Greg Holland, along with setup men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera were absolutely dominant last year. Can they be that good again? Regression says no, they probably cannot. However, even a step back for the trio is probably just making them one of the A.L.’s best bullpens, rather than THE best.
Kansas City’s offense, which wasn’t a strong point last year anyway, will probably miss Butler and Aoki, but the defense should remain strong, since Alex Rios is a fine outfielder and Kendrys Morales will probably use his glove as a pillow more often than its intended purpose.
Overall, Kansas City should still be in the hunt, since speed and defense tend not to regress, and the Royals’ offense can really only go up from last year. The bullpen stayed intact, so it really all depends on the rotation.
With a combined 36 years in the big leagues, that quintet has produced a .482 winning percentage, with a 4.19 ERA in just over 4,330 innings.
So, probably not enough magic for another turn at being Cinderella.
Prediction: 79 wins, fourth place
In preparing to write up this preview, I pulled up the Minnesota Twins’ page at Baseball Reference. On said page, there is a pictorial display of the top 20 players for the franchise, including its time as the Washington Senators (1901 – 1960).
The players are ranked by the Baseball Reference version of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR). The top name on the list is Walter Johnson, inaugural Hall of Famer, and possibly the greatest pitcher of all time. He’s at 165 bWAR, while the No. 2 guy on the list, another Hall of Famer in Rod Carew, has 65 bWAR.
Maybe there are gaps like that for other teams too; I don’t know, I didn’t check. Sorry.
But, wow, what would the current-day Twins give to find a gem like “The Big Train” now?
Alas, that’s not happening.
While Minnesota did add Ervin Santana to its rotation this off-season, and the Twins do appear to have a respectable rotation for the first time in a while, it’s the lineup that will leave fans at Target Field wishing for more Hall of Famers.
Minnesota faces an uphill climb in the AL Central this year as the only team that’s clearly in rebuilding mode. While it’s not a true rebuild, it’s obvious the team is attempting to do something more than reshuffling of the deck chairs; something the team got far too comfortable with during the last few years of manager Ron Gardenhire’s 13 years at the helm.
Not that it’s Gardy’s fault, really. The team found a formula (strong offense, good defense, and a rotation full of innings-eating slop-ballers) that seemed to work, leading the team to six division titles, and what’s the saying about if something’s not broken?
Well, things finally reached a breaking point last season, as very little went right for the Twins. So, in the offseason, the team was relatively quiet, aside from dumping Gardenhire for Hall of Famer Paul Molitor in the manager’s chair*.
*Do manager’s really have chairs? Don’t they usually sit on the bench? Is “manager’s chair” a valid idiom? Oh … it’s so late….
Anyway, first-year skipper Molitor is not going to have a team that’s a whole lot different than the one that got his predecessor canned. The only notable moves by the Twins were the Santana signing from Atlanta, importing reliever/swingman Tim Stauffer from San Diego, and reuniting with Torii Hunter, most recently seen impersonating a statue in right field for Detroit last season.
The Minnesota rotation has a decent duo at its head, led by Phil Hughes, who escaped the ill-fitting confines of Yankee-dom and found a better home. The righty ended up posting the best numbers of his career, while Santana should slot in at No. 2 after a pretty standard “Ervin-not-Johan” year in 2014.
The rest of the rotation gets pretty ugly, but there’s possibility if you squint. Ricky Nolasco had the exact opposite of a Phil Hughes season, while youngster Kyle Gibson profiles as the next slop-balling innings junkie the team has gainfully employed since the heyday of Brad Radke.
The fifth and final rotation spot will probably be a dumpster fire again this year, but the Twins hope prospect Alex Meyer eventually settles in sometime this year.
The Twins’ pen is alright, mostly because of how many failed starters it has in there. Closer Glen Perkins had a solid season, but it ended prematurely due to some arm issues — which the team says he’s over. Other late-inning options for the Twins include the following no-names/ideal rock star aliases: the aforementioned Stauffer, Brian Duensing, Casey Fien, Caleb Thielbar, and A.J. Achter.
Despite a rag-tag bunch of misfits on the pitching staff, Minnesota should support them with a pretty good lineup. While the offense is not amazing (just 11th in the AL with 128 home runs), there’s reason for optimism. The team ended up fifth in runs scored (715), sixth in slugging percentage (.389), and second in doubles (316), walks (544) and on-base percentage (.324).
While erstwhile offensive leader Joe Mauer continued his slide down the relevancy pipeline, there were a lot of bright spots for the Twinkies. Mauer, in his concussion-reducing transition to first base, hit a career-low .277/.361/.371 with just four homers. Picking up the slack were third baseman Trevor Plouffe, outfielders Oswaldo Arcia, second baseman Brian Dozier, and young up-and-comers Danny Santana* and Kennys Vargas.
*And super-mega prime regression candidate, for what that’s worth.
And still more offensive potential remains, as highly-touted prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano could see the Show in 2015 and add depth to the Twins’ offense. Both need more minor-league seasoning, particularly Buxton after he missed nearly all of 2014 with injuries. Still, with the No. 1 and No. 12 MLB.com prospects on the way, it could mean the Twins don’t need the second coming of Walter Johnson taking the mound for them.
Still, it couldn’t hurt.
Prediction: 70-92, fifth place
Next up is the AL West, where the Mariners are fishing for Trout, the Angels are hoping for some heaven-sent luck, the Oakland A’s are hoping their new look makes the grade, the Astros get ready to rock, and the Rangers … can’t catch a break (or a reasonable article-ending pun).