Is this the year the Tigers run atop the division ends? It just may be. Here’s my predictions for the AL Central this year:
1) Cleveland Indians
Give Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti (or as they’re called in Cleveland, “Shaponetti”) a little credit. While they’ve struggled to rebuild the minor league system to stabilize the franchise moving forward, they’ve done an admirable job keeping the big league club competitive. In his first two seasons, skipper Terry Francona hosted a WC game and came 1 game short last season of qualifying for the postseason again. This year, nearly the same squad returns with the addition of southpaw slugger Brandon Moss, who was acquired via trade. Moss provides another power bat in the lineup for an offense that struggled with inconsistency down the stretch last year. Moss joins Michael Brantley, an MVP canidate last season, and Michael Bourne to form the best outfield on paper in the division. After a disappointing 2014, 2B Jason Kipnis will look to regain his 2013 status where he hit 17 homeruns with 84 RBI’s.
But perhaps what Tribe fans should be most excited about is the pitching staff. Cory Kluber came out of nowhere last year to win the Cy Young, among stiff competition as well. Kluber is backed by a young, talented group that all have one quality year of experience under their belt. While their northern rival Detroit is regarded as having maybe the best starting rotation in the AL, digest this for a second. Cleveland’s top 4 starting pitchers this season (Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar) combined to strike out 672 batters last season. Detroit’s top four starters (Justin Verlander, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, and newly acquired Alfredo Simon) combined for a total of 659. The average ERA for the same 4 guys for Cleveland was 3.36. The 4 guys for Detroit? 3.67. The average age for Cleveland is 26. The average age for Detroit’s top 4? 31.25. Cleveland is bringing back a younger staff that already out performed what Detroit is bringing to the mound this season. “Shaponetti” could look to add another arm to the staff, and could use DH Nick Swisher as trade bait to add it. The one thing the staff does not have is a southpaw. Keep an eye on Travis Wood of the Cubs. The Cubs are relying a lot on young talent to produce offense and if that fails to meet the expectation, they could look to add offense. Having a guy like Swisher in middle of the lineup could do a lot for a young group and the Cubs wouldn’t have any trouble picking up the rest of Swisher’s contract. Wood is a proven left handed arm well within Cleveland’s price range that would fit in well a young staff. Regardless, Cleveland has positioned themselves well to make a run at a Central division crown
2) Kansas City Royals
Easily the hardest team to predict in 2015. The Cinderella story of last season and by far the most fun team to watch. Who knows how many sports writers the Royals put out of work last season by overcoming one obstacle after the other and taking the Giants 7 games before falling in the World Series. Every baseball camp counsellor this spring is showing clips of what the Royals did fundamentally on the field last fall because that’s the best anyone has played the game in a long time. But where does that put them heading into this year?
They lost ace James Shields and long time fan favorite Billy Butler in free agency. They replaced them with Edinson Volquez and Kendrys Morales. On paper that seems ok. But this team barely even made it to the post season, then needed an Angels in the Outfield comeback against Oakland to make it past the WC game. Can all that go right again in 2015?
In addition to the names mentioned above, the team also added Alex Rios to replace Nori Aioki in right field, which should add more power to the middle of their lineup. Part of the reason the Royals barely made the postseason was because of their offensive struggles through the heat of summer. Rios should add shade from that heat this season. 1b Eric Hosmer and LF Alex Gordon proved in the playoffs they can be relied on to produce in the middle of the lineup. With their ability to hit behind the base runners, I expect the offense to be more of a strength this season.
Other than Russell Martin, I have not seen a catcher impact a young pitching staff more than Salvador Perez. Perez’s defense and ability to call a game are what put the Royals in position to work their magic in the late innings last fall. Catcher’s like that are rare and always undervalued in the national eye. Perez will look to help flamethrower Yordano Ventura take over the top of the rotation, despite being just 23 years old. And while replacing Shields seems like a difficult task, Volquez, who was signed to shoulder that load, might fill in better than people think. Volquez pitched almost 35 innings less than Shields last year, and managed 1.37 strikeouts per inning pitched, which was higher than Shields who had a 1.26 average. The Royals have the best bullpen in the division, maybe in all of baseball. Headlined by Kevlin Herrera and Brandon Finnegan, that’s one phone call Ned Yost can always look forward to making this summer. Much like Cleveland, this team could use another proven starter. An injury here could devastate KC more than most teams.
3) Detroit Tigers
I have nothing personal against Detroit, and GM Dave Dombrowski has done a great job giving the team a chance to win a championship the past few seasons. But at what point does he stop sailing the ship against the current? The Tigers have dominated the regular season, winning the division the last 4 years. So far they have one trip to the Word Series to show for it, in which they were swept by San Francisco. Motown has been plagued by two glaring problems the last four years, and they have yet to address them. If you know them, shout them out with me, “Base running and bullpen pitching!”
JD Martinez broke out last season to give Detroit another power bat, which is scary when you think they also added Yoenis Cespedes (who helps a little with the base running). But overall, this team still lacks speed on the bases and that has hurt them in the playoffs.
Yes, despite the stats above about Cleveland, you can still argue Detroit has the best starting rotation in the division. After acquiring David Price at the deadline last year, Detroit had the last 3 Cy Young winners on their staff, along with Verlander and Max Scherzer. That’s insane. Some teams don’t even have a Cy Young arm in their franchise history. Detroit’s rolling the last 3 guys to win the award out every series! Scherzer has since moved on, which still leaves Price and Verlander, along with Anibal Sanchez and Alfredo Simon, who was an all-star last season with the Reds before tailing off the second half of the season. What hurts this rotation more than anything is the bullpen behind them. Brad Ausmus does not have a reliable bullpen to go to which forces the starters to eat more innings than they likely can digest. Detroit has failed to address these needs and this is the season it costs them October baseball.
4) Chicago White Sox
As I’m doing these predictions, I’m coming to realize this division may have the best starting pitching in baseball. Chris Sale was one of the finalist along with Kluber for the Cy Young last season. Chicago’s southside added former Cub ace Jeff Samardija in free agency, giving them a nice 1-2 punch atop the rotation. They also Zach Duke to the bullpen, giving them a reliable, long inning arm to help manage the back of their rotation.
Jose Abreu had a huge breakout rookie season last year at 1B, hitting .317 with 36 homeruns and 107 RBI’s. The club was smart to go out and sign Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche in order to give Abreu some protection in the lineup. This team is still young and inexperienced. Not having long time captain Paul Konerko in the clubhouse this year will certainly have its moments on the club. I expect the Sox to struggle mightily out of the gate, but then put together a strong August and September.
5) Minnesota Twins
This team is in that awkward transition phase of out with the old, in with the new. Brian Dozier and Oswaldo Arcia are up and becoming the new face of the Twins, but hometown legend Joe Mauer is still on 1B and now Tori Hunter is back in the outfield. This almost like watching Kobe Bryant take the court with 4 guys born the year he was drafted. However, for the younger guys coming up, there’s not many better veterans you can have in the clubhouse than those two. And with the #2 rated farm system in baseball, there will certainly be more young faces for them to mentor.
When I look at their starting rotation, there’s some recognizable names on there, as the Twins have been active in free agency the last 2 years signing new arms while their prospects continue to develop on the farm. Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco; all good arms that can still pitch in this league. But I can’t help but think that their staff is just one audition for other teams who are in search of an arm (KC you reading this?). This staff could certainly have its moments, but nothing to be excited about in the Twin Cities.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Charlie Duggan