The Kansas City Royals reigned supreme in the American League Central in 2015, riding that division crown all the way to a World Series title, the team’s first since 1985. After winning a wild card in 2014 and getting within a Madison Bumgarner of the Commissioner’s Trophy, the Royals confounded most 2015 preseason pundits with their AL-best 95-67 record. With a strong bullpen, good defense, and a lot of contact hitting, the boys in KC should look strong again this year.
Elsewhere in the Central, the Detroit Tigers look to rebound after finishing last, while the Chicago White Sox made a series of low-risk moves to try and make good on last year’s all-in. The Minnesota Twins are betting on some kids to keep getting better and build on a surprising second-place finish, while the Cleveland Indians have a rotation that could dominate all the way to a division crown too. It’s another year of crazy unpredictability in the AL Central.
Detroit Tigers (2015 record: 74-87, 5th in AL Central)
Manager: Brad Ausmus
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
2B Ian Kinsler
LF Justin Upton
Blaine Hardy (Note: Will start the season on the DL)
Alex Wilson (Note: Will start the season on the DL)
The general buzz is that Detroit is merely propping their window of contention open for a couple more seasons before all those bad contracts become unbearable anchors. Most scribes around the web think this is still a last-place club. However, those reviewers seem to forget that Detroit plays in the most bizarrely unpredictable division in the entire sport.
In the AL East, you can make a good case for almost every team, save for maybe Baltimore (not enough pitching). In the AL West, you can argue any team except Oakland, but Seattle and the Angels will also have detractors, too. And in the National League? Half the league will win 100 games and the other half will lose 100, according to most scientists, including Batman!
The reality is that Detroit did an admirable job in seeing how wildly unpredictable this particular division will be, and the Tigers should be recognized for their willingness to go for it again. Sure, it’s getting a little creepy with that “Let’s win one before our owner goes to that big pizza joint in the sky,” but you have to admire Mike Illitch’s commitment to keeping a good baseball town happy, and admire new GM Al Avila for the way he addressed the team’s 2015 shortcomings (well, most of them. Brad Ausmus is on the hottest of seats.)
Last season, the team stunk, with the bullpen as the prime culprit. Of course, that’s nothing new for Detroit fans, who had to endure Jim Leyland’s archaic pen management during the team’s renaissance, and are now facing the same issues with Ausmus. While Brad is bright and articulate, he’s a dinosaur in terms of his bullpen views and it has hurt the team during his first two seasons. Avila gave him some new bullets this season, though, adding Rodriguez to close out games, while the rest of the pen will be lefties Wilson and Hardy, righties Wilson and Lowe, along with some combination of holdovers Rondon, Farmer, VerHagen, and Ryan filling the swing role. It’s an improved group from last year, but so much of bullpen success is about how the pieces are managed; it’s a true chess match, and thus far, Ausmus has proven pretty bad at it. Hopefully, the improved personnel will mask the manager’s shortcomings here.
The bullpen should have a good amount of leads to protect, as the Tigers rebuilt their rotation as well, centered of course around nominal (as opposed to regular) ace Verlander. JV is entering the downswing of his career and while he missed some time due to injuries and posted a 5-8 overall record, there is a lot of optimism surrounding his second half, where he limited opponents to a .218/.259/.327 slash line with 95 punchouts in 103 innings. Not quite vintage JV, but still front-of-the-rotation numbers.
Verlander will be backed by offseason add Zimmermann, who signed a 5-year, $110 million dollar pact early in the winter. While Zimmermann is not an ace-in-waiting, he’s a solid second starter who should provide quality and quantity for the Tigers. Sanchez is the number three arm. Coming off a 10-10, 4.99 season, Sanchez needs to get his home run tendencies under control and remain healthy to stabilize the top half of Detroit’s rotation. Norris, the van-living, cancer-surviving prize in last July’s David Price trade, will be the fourth or fifth starter, while offseason grab Pelfrey fills the other spot. Norris’ innings will be monitored closely, but big things are expected from the already-fan-favorite.* As for Pelfrey, his two-year, $16 million deal may have been a bit of an overpay, but for a fifth starter, he should be fine. He doesn’t miss bats, but he eats innings and the infield defense should help him post respectable bottom-of-the-rotation numbers.
*Note: Norris will start the season on the DL with back issues; Shane Greene is penciled in as the replacement for now.
The offense is still led by Cabrera, arguably the best pure hitter of this generation. Cabby missed some time in 2015, but still hit .338/.440/.534 in 119 games. He’s the key cog in this lineup. Second baseman Kinsler actually led the team in bWAR last year at 6.0, combining sharp defense with good pop (35 doubles, 11 homers). On the other side is Iglesias, a defensive standout who hit well enough last year (.300/.347/.370) to register a 100 OPS+ and rank as one of the better two-way shortstops in the game. Third baseman Castellanos made some strides in the second half (.478 SLG compared to .372 in the first half). The 23-year-old posted career bests in nearly everything last year, and while he’s still rotten on defense, the team is hoping his bat can settle in as above average while his glove makes some progress in 2016. If that happens, Detroit boasts one of the best infield in baseball. If not, three out of four ain’t bad.
Right fielder J.D. Martinez built on his amazing 2014 to post a 140 OPS+ last year, leading the Tigers with 38 home runs. His breakout adds depth and danger to an already-potent lineup, as does the addition left fielder Upton, who slugged 26 home runs in San Diego last year. Upton should produce something similar to his .271/.352/.473 career line while playing for the Bengals, giving them more firepower. Gose and Maybin will likely platoon in center field. While Maybin will never live up to the potential he had as a top draft choice years ago (by these same Tigers), he and Upton coming abroad pushed Gose and Tyler Collins into depth roles, something that was sorely lacking in Motown’s 2015 outfield.
Sophomore McCann impressed a lot with his leadership qualities, and overall performance last year, as he hit .264/.297/.387 as a rookie backstop. He’ll need to improve the on-base numbers a bit to stick around, but the team also added Jarrod Saltalamacchia as a left-handed compliment.
Victor Martinez returns at DH and Detroit has to be hoping for a bounceback, as V-Mart started 120 games at age 36, but managed just 11 home runs and a .245/.301/.366 slash. While Martinez probably will not match his 172 OPS+ of 2014, a reasonable facsimile of his career line of .302/.367/.467 would be a nice touch.
Overall, this team has the talent to win another division crown. However, given the age and mounting injury histories, another last-place finish is certainly possible. Given the unpredictable nature of this division, neither finish would surprise. I’ll take the optimistic view here, but add that if the Tigers win the division, it could be with a different manager than they start the year with.
Prediction: The retooling pays off and keeps the window open. Avila proves to be a reactive GM and Illitch gives him open access to make any deals necessary to promote another winner. First place, AL Central.
Kansas City Royals (2015 record: 95-67, 1st in AL Central, won World Series)
Manager: Ned Yost
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
LF Alex Gordon
2B Omar Infante
CL: Wade Davis
The 2015 World Series champions are once again getting pooped on by projection systems and pundits. Hell, Scott, Dr. G. and myself all doubted the Royals last year, and look what happened. This year, I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt in a positive direction, but I think regression is due, so KC will have to get in as a wild card rather than a division champion in 2016.
Kansas City’s has three overwhelming advantages as presently constructed, two of which are much more reliable than the third. First, the team has a great ability to make contact, as shown in its league-low 973 strikeouts and second-place .269 average. While batting average is typically frowned upon as an evaluative metric today, and strikeouts mean less and less (hell, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year whiffed 199 times!), those things still matter over the course of a season, as runners on base is the name of the game. More runners on base and more contact means a greater chance to bring those runners in. Contact-hitting is a skill like anything else. The Royals retained that element from their 2014 surprise all the way through last year. With most of their hitters still in their primes, that should continue.
The Royals’ second strength is their defense. While it’s hard to fairly evaluate team defense, a case can be made that KC features a solid (or better) glove at every post. In particular, they have the best fly-catchers in the game, with — left to right — Gordon, Cain, and Orlando. Defense decays with age, but these Royals are still spry, save for 32-year-old Gordon, who happens to be in the least-demanding corner spot.
KC’s third advantage, and the least predictable, is their bullpen. While relief performances are still among the most erratic concepts in baseball, KC’s bullpen is SO exceptional, that even with expected regression, it should still be great. Davis has been beyond dominant since moving to the bullpen while Herrera and Duffy provide solid support, along with returning Royal Soria and Hochevar. The Death Star of bullpens is fully armed (sorry) and operational (sorry).
Among the blessings of a great bullpens is that it can cover your ass when you do something like nominate Volquez (career 4.29 ERA) as your ace, or you depend on Young to provide stability in your rotation, or you sign Kennedy* (who gave up 31 home runs playing half his games in San Diego!!!) to a five-year deal. Flags fly forever and all that jazz, though.
*I love poking fun at ballplayer names, as you may have noticed. Here’s one more: Ian Patrick Kennedy. It’s as if his parents couldn’t afford to tattoo “IRISH” on their newborn child’s forehead, so this was their only other option.
Anyway, back to KC’s lineup. The outfield looks great, as does the infield. While none of Hosmer,
Ben Zobrist, Escobar, or Moustakas will ever win an MVP (well, Hosmer could, I guess), it’s a solid unit on both sides of the ball. Escobar’s a garbage bag hitter, but he makes contact and is a solid fielder, which qualifies him as a good shortstop. The best thing about this infield though, is that with Zobrist at second, we won’t have to worry about .220-hitting Omar Infante nearly causing a riot about the All-Star voting process.
EDIT: I forgot Zobrist signed with the Cubs, but I like my Infante joke, and I think he’ll probably lose lots of playing time to Christian Colon this year, so I’m leaving it in. That’s my trenchant analysis of Omar Infante. I apologize if I disappointed all of his fan.
Prediction: The bullpen stays great, the defense stays excellent, but a few bats slip just a little and the starters struggle a bit more. The team still contends all year. Second place, AL Wild Card winner.
Chicago White Sox (2015 record: 76-86, 4th in AL Central)
Manager: Robin Ventura
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
RF Adam Eaton
1B Jose Abreu
3B Todd Frazier
2B Brett Lawrie
CL: David Robertson
Well, the ChiSox started the drama portion of our program in mid-March when 1B/DH Adam LaRoche decided to retire rather than let the team (read: GM Kenny Williams) dictate how often LaRoche could have his 14-year-old kid hang around the clubhouse. I’m sure you’ve all read about and formed strong, hard opinions on it by now, so I will just say this: there are no bad guys here. There are also no good guys here. It’s an issue that the vast, vast, VAST majority of work-a-day fans cannot relate to.
If the Sox play well, it will be referenced as a galvanizing, watershed moment and LaRoche will be hailed as a martyr who sacrificed (something?!?!?) in order to be a true leader (somehow ?!?!) and inspiration (again, somehow?!?!?).
If the Sox play poorly, it will be viewed as the moment when Williams lost the club for good and allowed mayhem to reign. He’ll be viewed as an ineffective executive whose bad decision-making will cost him his job (and maybe that of GM Rick Hahn and Manager Robin Ventura too). “LaRoche-gate” (Kid-gate? Drake-gate? Overuse-of-gate-gate?) will define this season for Chicago one way or another. And that’s too bad, because this team’s got some talent.
Offensively, the Sox are deeper than last season, adding second baseman Lawrie, third baseman Frazier, shortstop Rollins, catcher Avila, and center fielder Jackson. Those additions will lengthen the lineup, but only Frazier can be considered a potent threat. Holdovers Cabrera, Eaton, Garcia, and Abreu should add to a decent batting order, and in the homer-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field, the team should be a definite rise from its 2015 worst-in-the-AL total of 136 home runs. While the Sox offense still is not great, it’s better. Middle of the pack, most likely.
Chicago should fare well enough on the pitching side of the ledger that the offensive upgrades end up worthwhile. The rotation in particular looks strong with ace Sale entering his prime along with Quintana and 23-year-old Rodon both approaching ace-status themselves. Sure, it might be a little early for Rodon, but the No. 3 overall pick in the the 2014 draft put up a 9-6 record last season with a 3.75 ERA in 23 starts, with 139 strikeouts in 139 ⅓ frames.
Danks and Latos fill out the rest of the rotation as innings-eating bodies. Neither one is all that flashy, although Latos has put up solid numbers in the past. If he can shake his reputation as a immature jackwagon, maybe there’s hope, but with that shaky defense and hitter’s park behind him, I’m not counting on it.
The bullpen is solid but unspectacular, led by closer Robertson. Chicago got good production out of most of its bullpen last season, with just one pitching that appeared in over 30 games carrying an ERA over 4.00. (Putnam was in 49 games with a 4.07 ERA.) Overall, it’s not a flashy group, but a reliable set of arms that should support the starting staff pretty well if everyone stays healthy and approximates their 2015 performances.
Overall, Chicago’s a better team on the eve of the 2016 season than they were when 2015 closed. However, it’s still a team with holes up and down the lineup, and outside of Frazier and Abreu, no true impact bats. The starting staff looks promising in the front, but middling in the back, and the bullpen, while solid, needs everyone to maintain — easier said than done with relievers. It’s not an 86-loss club, but still not a legit contender on the South Side.
Prediction: The front three in the rotation are solid, but there’s just not enough here to justify an sort of real threat, with a lack of power bats in the outfield and not a lot of depth in the infield, either. Third place.
Cleveland Indians (2015 record: 81-80, 3rd in AL Central)
Manager: Terry Francona
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
2B Jason Kipnis
1B Mike Napoli
3B Juan Uribe
CF Tyler Naquin
CL: Cody Allen
Tommy Hunter (Note: will begin season on DL)
A slow start last April doomed the Indians, as they were 7-14 during the season’s initial month and were never able to make up for it. The team was just as inconsistent as the springtime weather at the Jake, following an abysmal April with a 17-12 May, then an 11-15 June. July, the team was dead-on .500 at 13-13. August 16-12 and 17-14 in September and October. It was a rollercoaster. A very frustrating rollercoaster that sputters and jerks you around before stalling at the top of a steep drop. You know, all of them.
A reverse of their April record — to 14-7 — makes the Indians an 88-73 team, good enough for a wild card berth. The team has to hope the defensive changes they made midway through last season — the lone bright spot of the team’s up-and-down first half — helps them make that progress.
The pitching staff is exceptional, as Kluber has solidified himself as an ace, working 222 innings last year with 245 strikeouts and a 3.49 ERA. His 9-16 record is more a function of early-season struggles (blamed on the injury absence of catcher Gomes). He’s a good bet to replicate his workhorse stats again in his age-29 season.
Second starter Salazar could be an ace for many other teams, as the 25-year-old posing a 14-10 mark with 195 Ks in 185 innings, while Carrasco was even better, punching out 216 in 183 ⅔ frames. It’s a front three that can match up with any other group in the game, and is ideal for a short series in October. Fourth starter Bauer is still figuring out his potential as he turns 24. He seems to alternate good starts and bad most of the year, but because of their top three, the Indians can afford to be patient with the former first-rounder.* Ditto whoever winds up as the team’s fifth starter. They may go with placeholder experience in Tomlin or youth in Anderson. Flip a coin.
*In a late spring surprise, Bauer has been ticketed for the bullpen, perhaps in a swing role. Either way, it should deepen that unit. Anderson and Tomlin are the fourth and fifth starters, respectively.
The Cleveland pen looks good, with closer Allen back for a second year as the stopper. The 26-year-old saved 34 games last year with 99 strikeouts in 69 ⅓ innings. He’s clearly got good stuff, but the 3.2 walks per nine (and five losses) need to be contained if he’s going to truly be an asset. The rest of the Indians’ relief corps is fine, if not dazzling, with righties Shaw and McAllister in there with offseason additions Otero, and (eventually) Hunter. There’s depth here, but the team will need career years out of several of these arms to make it quality depth.
The Indians’ offense will not remind anyone of the glory years of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Kenny Lofton. Not even close. All winter, the buzz was that Cleveland needed Brantley in order to have a productive offense. When one player of Brantley’s caliber — he’s a star, but not elite — is the lynchpin of your offense, maybe you need to make some changes. If Brantley is recovered from his shoulder surgery, then the top of the order looks solid, with shortstop sensation Lindor, second baseman Kipnis, and Brantley.
Santana is fine as the cleanup hitter/DH, although he’s arguably the weakest number-four hitter in the division. New signee Napoli had an up-and-down season split between Boston and Texas, but he should play a better first base than Santana ever did, and will add some decent thump to the order. Catcher Gomes is fine on offense and should slot in nicely behind Napoli. Cleveland also added third baseman Uribe to the hot corner, and while he’s 36-years-old, he can still hit a handful of homers and provide quality defense.
Outfielders Davis and Byrd will fill out the rest of Francona’s lineup card. It’s not an imposing lineup by any means, but there’s enough speed and occasional pop here for the lineup to be taken seriously.
With their excellent starting pitching, respectable bullpen, a good lineup, and an improved defense, the Indians are a strong sleeper pick in this topsy-turvy, whirling dervish of a division. It’s probably still not enough, but if everyone stays healthy, maybe we get a better April and then we can talk about the Tribe in October.
Prediction: The stellar pitching and suspect offense are just not enough. At least two Cleveland pitchers end up in the top ten for the Cy Young, but the Indians are left home in October. They give Tampa Bay a run for best fourth-place team in baseball.
Minnesota Twins (2015 record: 83-79, 2nd in AL Central)
Manager: Paul Molitor
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
2B Brian Dozier
1B Joe Mauer
RF Miguel Sano
CF Byron Buxton
CL: Glen Perkins
The bad news is that the Twins weren’t very good in 2016, despite their feel-good, surprising season. (Yes, we marveled at a team finishing just over .500. The AL Central’s depressing most of the time. It’s all corn and snow in the Midwest.)
The Twins went 20-7 in the month of May, outscoring their opposition 130-104 in those contests. However, Minnesota was outscored in every other month save September. Overall, the team scored 696 runs, while allowing 700, which should have had the Twins at precisely 81-81. So, they overachieved by two games.
Thankfully, the team did not misread its 2015 performance and flood the free agent or trade market with reactionary moves. Instead, the Twins played it cool (Daddy-O), adding Korean slugger Park to DH, John Ryan Murphy to split catching duties with Kurt Suzuki, and grabbing reliever Abad to fill out the bullpen.
The team is hoping that growth from its farm system begins to bear fruit, with strong seasons from center field uber-prospect Buxton, right field experiment/slugger Sano, Park, and some combination of good production from the left field mismash of Rosario and Oswaldo Arcia. If those bats come along as hoped, the Twins have a core to build around for years to come.
Meanwhile, second baseman Dozier put up the quietest 28-homer season in recent memory (although a .236/.307/.444 line will do that for you). Former Mr. Minnesota Mauer is a shell of himself at first base, as concussions and age have caught up with him, reducing his bat from an asset to a something approximating that sweater that your Aunt Viola knitted for you on your 18th birthday. His .265/.338/.380 is well below average for the position, and his contract running through 2018 is one reason the Park signing was a bit baffling.
As a side effect of the Park deal, many assumed third baseman Plouffe would be traded to allow the team to shift Sano to his natural position. That didn’t happen, of course, so Sano will be out-of-position in right field, with the team hoping their best power hitter doesn’t hurt himself (or the team) while learning a new phase of the game. If it works out, the Twins will have a nice deep lineup. If not, it could make for a few tough decisions regarding Plouffe or Mauer. Stay tuned.
There are four things you can count on in this world. Life, death, taxes, and the Twins NEVER striking people out. It’s called “Brad Radke Syndrome” and it only affects 1 in 30 teams every 20 years. Radke of course, was a mainstay of the Twins’ staff from 1995 through 2006 and often viewed as a team leader and all-around nice guy. His inability to strike batters out (5.4 K/9 career) led to this concept that the Twins should always, always, ALWAYS target low-strikeout arms in trades, free agency, and drafts. It never works; when Minnesota wins, it’s usually because the Twins have enough defense to cover for all the balls in play.
Minny’s rotation this year will be led by Santana, a “remarkable” talent who averaged 6-8 K/9 last season. Yeah, he’s just average. Get used to that. After that will be Hughes (5.4), Gibson (6.7), Nolasco (8.2. in 9 games) and Duffey (8.2). That lack of K power will probably not help the Twins much this year, as none of their defenders outside of Buxton stand out as above average. The offense should pick up some of the defense’s shortcomings, but the Twins are betting a lot on the speedy development of Buxton, Sano’s acclimation to new position, and Park’s adjustments to a new league and nation. It’s a bit too much of a gamble. Fold.
Prediction: The talent here is either unproven (Buxton, Park, Sano) or past-its-prime (Mauer) or just not there. The staff doesn’t notch enough strikeouts and the defense is not good enough for them to get away with that. Fifth place.
Next, we will explore what is perhaps the most top-heavy division in MLB, the National League Central!