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AL Central

2015 Season Preview: AL Central

Last year, I started the AL Central preview with a picture of the Kansas City Royals’ Yordano Ventura and mentioned that the division would be looking to take home the World Series title for the first time since 2005.  I then predicted each team’s win total to within 1 or 2 games (save the Tigers who I had at 94 wins). I was close with the World Series pick as Yordano and company pushed eventual World Series Champion San Francisco to 7 Games.  Obviously, readers should pay attention to my predictions this year, since I am so good at predicting this division (/sarcasm font/).

The truth is that the case could be made for any of the top four teams, the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, or Chicago White Sox, to take home the AL Central crown at season’s end.  The Minnesota Twins, who have been at least 20 games back of the division winner in each of the last four years, should be better, but not in the mix.

The story in the AL Central this year will be pitching as defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, former Cy Young winners David Price and Justin Verlander, and top notch starters like Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija join young studs like Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, and Carlos Carrasco.  The division will come down to whose starters outshine the others.

The Prediction: 

  • Cleveland Indians
  • Detroit Tigers
  • Chicago White Sox
  • Kansas City Royals
  • Minnesota Twins

I must admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with this projection.  Picking a Royals squad that lost only James Shields and Billy Butler to finish fourth? The Indians rotation consists of no one over the age of 29, and no truly established major leaguers (Corey Kluber had exactly 214.2 MLB innings before last year).  The Tigers have won the division in each of the last four years, and the White Sox added Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, and Adam LaRoche to a team that won 73 games. I can’t help but feel I am bucking trends and industry consensus here with predictions that could fall flat on their face.

Cleveland Indians, first place, 92-70

The Cleveland Indians sport one of the best rotations in the game.  This, from last year’s season preview reveals just how surprised I am by this development:

I’m very optimistic about the 1-2 punch of Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar, but after that things look bleak.  I’m cautiously optimistic, as well, on Trevor Bauer, but the right hander will need to improve over everything he’s done at the big league level so far.  Corey Kluber could surprise me, I guess, but Carlos Carrasco, Shawn Marcum, and Zach McCallister will not.

Kluber, uh, surprised me.  He was the best pitcher in the AL last year and Carlos Carrasco posted a 1.72 ERA in nearly 80 second half innings.  Trevor Bauer took an important step forward, but Danny Salazar took a step back.  Salazar still possesses the immense potential that led him to a 3.12 ERA in 10 starts in 2013.  Each member of the rotation could conceivably take a step forward, and lead the Indians to the AL Central crown.

But this is a team with more than just a collection of starting pitchers.  Michael Brantley (legit star, Dr. Smooth), Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis and Brandon Moss (legit at exactly one thing) make up a good, supremely underrated core. Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher will look to regain the form from their 20’s at ages 33 and 35, respectively.  Each has struggled the last two years, since signing as free agents in Cleveland in the winter before the 2013 season.  If the club is to compete and win the division, as I have predicted, these two veterans need to produce as they are capable.

The bullpen is decent with Cody Allen, an underrated reliever who has posted sub-2.50 ERAs in each of the last two seasons, serving as the closer.

Detroit Tigers, second place, 88-74

Detroit lost starting pitcher Max Scherzer to the Nationals via free agency, breaking up the the headed mobster triumverate atop the Tigers rotation.  That rotation should still be good, but isn’t the force it was.  David Price and Justin Verlander still throw hard and are hoping to regain their form in 2015.  The early indications of Verlander are that he’s looked good, and Kate Upton is sure to agree, but I’ll believe it when the season starts.  Behind Price, Anibal Sanchez, who outperformed his 3.42 ERA last year and additions Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon round out a good/very good staff.

This team will be hit with Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, and JD Martinez in the middle of the order. But Jose Iglesias, Anthony Gose, and Alex Avila need to contribute more than they have in the past.  It’s a solid, deep lineup that for some reason just isn’t that exciting.  Maybe Yoenis Cespedes is better (and more fun) than I give him credit, but Nick Castellanos certainly will not be riveting television.

The bullpen has held Detroit back in recent years and seems en route to the same fate in 2015.  Reports are that Joe Nathan simply doesn’t have velocity and Joakim Soria isn’t what he used to be.  Joba Chamberlain is down there, too, and after seeing him in Baltimore last year, I like him as a human.  I’ve seen Al Alburquerque in three seperate Spring Training games over the years and I’m not sure how he ever gets hit.  At age 29, I think this could be Al’s year.

On the whole, this team just doesn’t excite me.  I realize the talent they have and how high the ceiling could be for the rotation, but these are not young studs.  The excitement around the Tigers centers on the revival of veterans.  And I’m of the opinion that once a pitcher begins to lose his luster, it rarely comes back.

Chicago White Sox, third place, 83-79

The White Sox are an enigma.  They consistently buck industry expectation and continue to field mostly competitive teams though their farm system is consistently ranked among the worst in the game. They hit it big in their bets on Chris Sale and his “reliever’s delivery,” and Jose Abreu with a “slow bat,” and appear to have hit big on Carlos Rodon despite the fact  that his slider usage led some to think he was destined for Tommy John.

Chicago has paired these decisions with sound trades that have led to what looks like, on paper, to be a competitive team in 2015.  The rotation is what jumps out at you here.  Chris Sale is among the best starters in the game and Jeff Samardzija continues to improve after his two-sport Notre Dame lifestyle. Jose Quintana is one of the most underrated starting pitchers in the game (200 innings, 3.32 ERA in 2014) and Hector Noesi is capable of getting people out.  Carlos Rodon is the reason that I’m so excited about this team and rotation.  The number 3 overall selection in the 2014 draft appears ready to get hitters out at the big league level.  This spring has seen him post 19 strikeouts in just 12.1 innings.

The offense should be better, too, following the additions of Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche.  LaRoche represents a massive upgrade over Adam Dunn as the compliment to Jose Abreu and Melky should be a real step up from Alejandro De Aza.  Throw in a full season of a more mature Adam Eaton and the top of the lineup starts to look solid.  The back of the lineup could have some serious issues, but the White Sox were wise to bring in supersub Emilio Bonifacio to cover whichever fringe regular proves too fringe-y.

The White Sox have real potential to be a good team led by a strong rotation, but the club could also stumble if Chris Sale’s foot injury holds him back too long (see what I did there?). Further, a club that starts Tyler Flowers, Connor Gillaspe, and Micah Johnson just doesn’t feel like it’s destined for the playoffs.

Kansas City Royals, fourth place, 78-84

Kansas City won the AL pennant last year; they forced a Game 7 in the World Series and were one call from a third base coach away from potentially tying that Game 7 in the 9th inning.  And through all that, I never really believed in them.  Their style of speed, defense, and bullpen dominance without a single 20 home run bopper in the lineup and a team-OBP that might hover around. 300 will be re-run in 2015. I still don’t believe in it, especially given the loss of their best starter, and long-time DH.

The lineup is deep with capable hitters throughout, but lacking any player on whom opposing pitchers will focus. Alex Gordon and Alex Rios will team with Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer to make an athletic, talented middle of the lineup.  If Kendrys Morales provides more than a cool breeze for the first base dugout as the DH this year, the lineup could be pretty good.  But it does rely on young players producing.

Kansas City’s rotation is fun at the top, if nothing else.  Yordano Ventura is a young Ace in the making and Danny Duffy posted a 2.53 ERA over nearly 150 innings in 2014. After that, Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are three veterans who aren’t anything more than number 5 starters.

The bullpen was the best in baseball last year and returns that three headed monster for which us bloggers have yet to come up with an adequate nickname.  Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera each had an ERA under 1.50.

Minnesota Twins, last place, 69-93

The Twins were 70-92 last year and signed Ervin Santana to a four year deal.  They have some promising young players in Danny Santana and Brian Dozier to compliment Joe Mauer. They’ll still be bad and need to trade Glen Perkins while he still has value.

My favorite line of the offseason baseball analysis came from (I believe) Dan Syzmborski who pointed out that in 2014 the Twins overpaid for an overrated veteran right handed starter who was born in the second week of December, 1982 (Ricky Nolasco).  In the winter heading into 2015, the Twins overpaid for an overrated veteran right handed starter who was born in the second week of December, 1982 (Ervin Santana).

The future doesn’t look terrible for Minnesota.  Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are two position players who rank among the best prospects in the game.  But as long as the Twins are paying Joe Mauer $23 Million per year to be a 1.5 WAR player, they cannot truly contend.

 

Bold Predictions: 

  • Alex Gordon plays for the Diamondbacks in July.
  • Yordano Ventura has a sub-3.00 ERA and pitches in the All-Star game.
  • Jeff Samardzija pitches for his fourth team in two years (Miami) in August.
  • Joba Chamberlain has greater than 5 saves.
  • Joe Mauer films greater than 5 Head and Shoulders commercials.
  • Danny Santana appears in at least one of Joe’s Head and Shoulder’s commercials.
  • Avasail Garcia hits more homeruns than Joe Mauer.
  • Trevor Bauer wins more games than Corey Kluber.
  • Brandon Moss leads the AL Central in homers.
  • Jose Abreu finishes second in the MVP voting.

-Sean Morash

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