Major League Baseball 2017 Preview: American League Central

Today we tour the American League Central, home of the AL Champion Cleveland Indians, a team favored by many to win it all again this year after coming within one lucky break of toppling the Chicago Cubs in the 2016 World Series.

Teams are listed in predicted order of finish. To check out yesterday’s thoughts on the AL East, click here.

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Cleveland Indians

2016 Record: 94-67, 1st in AL Central, Won American League Central, lost 4-3 in World Series to Chicago Cubs

Big Questions: 1. Can bullpen uber-weapon Andrew Miller repeat his insane run with the Tribe (4-0, 1.55 ERA, 46 K in 29 regular season innings, 1.40, 30 K in 19 1/3 playoff innings)?

2. Can the Tribe count on good health from its highly talented rotation, especially Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar?

3. Will Edwin Encarnacion provide enough offensive thump to help Cleveland overcome potential pitching slumps or injuries?

Synopsis: The new owners of America’s longest title drought made a fine run to the World Series last year, and would’ve been America’s Sweetheart if not for, you know, that whole Cubs thing. Despite some spring injuries, a few questions about the health of the starting pitching, and a couple of offensive holes (catcher, probably center field, perhaps at third base), Cleveland still has enough talent to win the whole damn thing. Any good-to-great team managed by Terry Francona has that.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Carrasco & Salazar. Without these two in the rotation, the Tribe’s talent and depth takes a major hit. The deep bullpen only works if it has leads to protect and is not worked to death compensating for poor starts.

2. Jose Ramirez. Last year, he hit .312/.363/.462 in 152 games and stabilized the hot corner. A repeat would go a long way toward giving Cleveland the best infield in the AL.

3. Michael Brantley. Rookie Tyler Naquin is a pretty good bet not to bat .296/.372.514 again (a .411 BABIP and a 31% strikeout rate make that a near-lock), so Brantley returning to his pre-injury form would be a nice boost for the Indians’ outfield bats, and the offense as a whole.

2017 Predicted Finish: 1st place

After an out-of-this-world postseason run for Cleveland, relief ace Andrew Miller hopes to get the Tribe back to October.

Detroit Tigers

2016 Record: 86-75, 2nd in AL Central

Big Questions: 1. Can this group win a World Series before its impending blow-up/fire sale in the offseason?

2. Can Jordan Zimmermann (still owed $92 million over the next four years) stay healthy and be a solid mid-rotation arm for a team that desperately needs that?

3. Will a center field patchwork quilt of Tyler Collins, Mikie Mahtook, JaCoby Jones, and/or Anthony Gose be enough, or does the team need to go shopping?

Synopsis: The Tigers have to be motivated to win this year, given how late owner Mike Ilitch dedicated so much of his last few years to getting them to the World Series. With his passing in February, the players have to know this is probably their last good shot at a ring together. The re-emergence of ace Justin Verlander was big last year, as was the progress shown by young arms Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer. With Zimmermann pitching up to his contract, it could be a very dangerous front five in Motown. Miguel Cabrera and Co. always provide a good offense, so a lot hangs on those very young arms.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Zimmermann. If he’s not 100%, the rotation relies on youth and uncertainty way too much.

2. J.D. Martinez. He missed time with an elbow injury last year, and it hurt the offense. Now, he’s dealing with a foot issue. His bat extends the Tigers’ lineup well when he’s in there. Key word is “when”.

3. Justin Upton. Same deal as Martinez re: extending the lineup. Another thing to keep in mind is that if J-Ups has a good-to-great year, he can opt out of his deal and save the Tigers some money. But a bad year probably means four more years of a contract this team really cannot afford to carry beyond 2017.

2017 Predicted Finish: 2nd place

After an award-winning freshman campaign, Michael Fulmer hopes to pitch in the playoffs for Detroit in 2017.

Kansas City Royals

2016 Record: 81-81, 3rd in AL Central

Big Questions: 1. Can the Royals win one more Commissioner’s Trophy  before big guns Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain hit free agency, and most likely leave KC behind?

2. How much of hit will the vaunted bullpen and outfield defense each take with the departures of, respectively, Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson?

3. With no clear ace in the KC rotation, can Danny Duffy (12-3, 3.541 ERA, 188 K in 179 ⅔ innings) realize his full potential and claim that title?

Synopsis: The 2015 World champs were hit hard during the season last year, sputtering along with injuries, ineffectiveness, and well, just bad luck on the way to an 81-81 season. With better health, and some good luck, Kansas City has the talent for one more good October run, but it does not seem likely. Dayton Moore and company best prepare for a rebuild.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Jorge Soler. While KC also added Brandon Moss and Billy Burns to its outfield mix, Soler had the highest cost (closer Davis) and has the best ceiling too. A breakout would help KC contend, while a bust merely confirms what many Cub fans already thought.

2. Jason Hammel. He’s only in KC because of the tragic death of Yordano Ventura. Heck, Hammel even said so in his introductory presser. Hammel needs to help provide quality innings to a team that sorely needs them.

3. Moustakas & Hosmer. Both of them are overrated to varying degrees, but that won’t stop either from making bank as free agents next fall. Huge 2017s put them both in line for the pay windah (baby!) while getting KC that much closer to a 2015 repeat.

2017 Predicted Finish: 3rd place

First baseman Eric Hosmer is lined up for free agency after the season, so he could be waving goodbye to KC soon.

Minnesota Twins

2016 Record: 59-103, 5th in AL Central

Big Questions: 1. Will the new front office duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine bring a new mindset to a team that has been putting contact-friendly pitchers with terrible defenses for far too long?

2. Can Byron Buxton follow up his strong late-season showing (.653 SLG, nine homers in 29 games)?

3. Will Minnesota’s other kids–Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios–take big enough steps forward to make legit 2018 contenders (and 2017 spoilers) out of the Twinkies?

Synopsis: Minnesota is all about the kids and their development. While Buxton finally showed some promise after getting bounced back-and-forth his first couple of professional seasons, he displayed good power in his cup of coffee last year. His plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired (118 Ks in 298 ML at-bats). In his age-24 season, the same as Sano (.236, 25 homers), this year is critical for Buxton and the Twins.

When the largest external free-agent position player contract you’ve ever doled out is this winter’s three-year, $24.5-million deal to catcher Jason Castro, you need a strong pipeline to contend. With Minny’s farm system graduating its bumper crop, it’s now-or-never for the kids to show some big-league promise.

Most Important Player(s): 1. Buxton. The kid could be the next Torii Hunter or the next Donavan Tate.

2. Brian Dozier. The 42-homer second baseman needs to produce again this year, so Minny can flip him to replenish the farm or supplement its burgeoning talent.

3. Sano. He and Buxton are the new heart of this lineup.

2017 Predicted Finish: 4th place

While the Twins are still a couple years away, this is a crucial year for uber-talented Byron Buxton.

Chicago White Sox

2016 Record: 78-84, 4th in AL Central

Big Questions: 1. When the rest of the Sox’ veterans (Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, and David Robertson) get traded?

2. Will the uber-prospect Yoan Moncada be up, and will he stay up for good?

3. How bad will it actually get on the South Side?

Synopsis: The White Sox are in teardown mode, hoping to emulate their North Side rivals with a rebuild that could bring sustained success. Rebuilds are the New Black, and with the additions of several key prospects in a pair of deals this winter, the White Sox will be focused on continuing to trim the roster over the course of 2017. The only intrigue for the Sox this year is who they will trade, who they will get in return, and how quickly they can rebuild. At least the North Siders should keep fans buzzing.

Most Important Player: 1. Quintana. The southpaw pitcher is young (28) and cheap ($7 million this year, $8.85 next). There is no doubt he will be traded, and given the Sox’ great haul for lefty Chris Sale, it seems likely Chicago will get a great return for Quintana too. The return for him will be essential to the turnaround time for the White Sox organization. All the other veterans could bring good talent, but Quintana’s the last good hope the team has for a significant haul.

2017 Predicted Finish: 5th place

The hottest issue on the South Side is when will trade winds blow this guy out of town?

Join us tomorrow for a look at American League West, followed by the National League in our weeklong lead up to Opening Day!