It's three weeks until baseball. And since it is Saturday, that means it is time for another division preview. After taking a look at a competitive AL East last week, I delve into the American League Central, home of the defending World Series champion Royals. This is a competitive division that may end up producing two playoff teams.
1. Kansas City Royals -- 2015 Record: 95-67; Projection: 93-69
Here we go again. After winning the American League in 2014 but losing the World Series to the Giants in seven games, most analysts thought coming into 2015 that the Royals just weren't that good. I, however, predicted them to win the division but never thought that they'd get back to the World Series, let alone win it. Now this season, many analysts are again picking against the Royals, but I just cannot get myself to do it.
The biggest move the Royals made this offseason was the re-signing of Alex Gordon to play left field. Outside of his good statistical season in 2015 (120 OPS+), Gordon is the heart and soul of this Royals team, and their front office recognized the need to pay him what he deserved. They also added Ian Kennedy to their rotation and Joakim Soria to their bullpen, but lost Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, and others.
The Royals' lineup does something very few lineups do: put balls in play. Their refusal to strike out makes them so dangerous and definitely helped them win the World Series last year. They have built many stars through their organization, including Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Gordon. The depth of their lineup is matched by very few American League team, and it should help them a very fair share of games in 2016.
As for their rotation, the loss of Cueto hurts. I, unlike others, like the signing of Kennedy. With the Royals' stellar defense, the team should be able to get plenty of value out of the starter. I would not be surprised if he had a really solid season. The lack of an ace in their rotation does hurt, and if they aren't at the top of the division at the end of the season, it is because their pitching faltered at some point or another.
2. Cleveland Indians -- 2015 Record: 81-80; Projection: 91-71
While the Royals' pitching may be their downfall, the Indians' pitching could be the reason they win this division. The team made a few modest moves this offseason, but when you have a rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Josh Tomlin, you can't help but be excited. Indians' starters posted the fourth-lowest ERA in the American League.
The Indians helped fix their woes at third base with the signing of Juan Uribe this offseason. He is getting up there in terms of age, but has still proved to be a valuable asset over the past few years. Three other signings-Will Venable, Rajai Davis, and Mike Napoli-could all find themselves in the lineup come Opening Day. They add to the already-existing nucleus in Cleveland of Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Michael Brantley, who is expected to begin the season on the disabled list.
A full season of Lindor should be huge for the Indians offense, which, even in 2015, was one of the better offenses in the AL. The loss of Brantley for an extended amount of time due to shoulder surgery definitely hurts, though. However, the Indians are in prime position to make the postseason in 2016 thanks to pitching alone. I would not be surprised to see the Indians in the Wild Card game, and if everything goes right, they may be able to overtake the Royals as American League Central champions.
3. Minnesota Twins -- 2015 Record: 83-79; Projection: 85-77
The Twins have the brightest future of any team in the American League Central. Their turnaround almost began in 2015; the Twins were in the Wild Card hunt for most of the year, and they finished above .500 for the first time since 2010. Three stud consensus top-100 prospects (per Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus)-Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, and Max Kepler-should find their way into the big leagues this season. Miguel Sano, who had the sixth-highest HR/FB ratio in the Majors (min. 300 PA), has his first full season at baseball's highest level. The stars appear to be aligning for the Twins.
But in 2016, they're still a bit away. The rotation has questions. Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Ricky Nolasco, and Tyler Duffey probably won't be able to hold their own against some of the staffs just inside their own division. The bullpen is good, and Glen Perkins remains one of the most underrated closers in baseball. Again, though, I don't see their bullpen keeping pace with the Royals' bullpen, per se.
The lineup was given a boost with the signing of Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, who projects out as their designated hitter. Park, who has looked good in Spring Training, could end up being a fantastic one-two power punch with Sano. Add in Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer (who's still a fairly solid contact hitter), and the Twins are looking at a formidable and deep lineup.
My target date for the Twins' next postseason team is 2017 or 2018. I still leave the door open for a run in 2016, but that would be based upon perhaps unrealistic development from top prospects that have yet to see even a cup of coffee in the Majors (Berrios, Kepler). Let's just say this: What Carlos Correa did in 2015 by coming up to the Majors and succeeding right out of the gate is the exception to the rule. Twins fans, 2016 isn't your year, but you are on the up and up.
4. Chicago White Sox -- 2015 Record: 76-86; Projection: 81-81
The White Sox confuse me. Do the White Sox confuse you too? They were easily the hardest team to predict in this division. The team has some good pieces, but I just don't like the fact that five of their projected starting nine were not in the organization last season. Brett Lawrie, Todd Frazier, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, and Jimmy Rollins are all new additions to the club, and I don't know how they will mix together.
The biggest move that the White Sox made this offseason was the acquisition of Todd Frazier from the Reds. The 30-year-old Frazier did hit 35 home runs last season, posting a .806 OPS (117 OPS+) in 678 plate appearances. However, his career OPS is almost 100 points lower outside of Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. I'm not sure how he'll do out in the South Side of Chicago. The only real staple in the White Sox' lineup is Jose Abreu, who, even in a season considered a down year, hit 30 home runs and posted a 135 OPS+. As a whole, though, I have my doubts in the fluidness of the White Sox' lineup and how they will fare over the course of a season.
I do, however, like the White Sox' pitching staff. Chris Sale is dominant. Jose Quintana's and Carlos Rodon's best days may still be ahead of them. John Danks is an innings eater. And Mat Latos may have a bounce-back season and be a valuable asset as well. In the bullpen, the Sox have a nice group of arms in David Robertson, Matt Albers, Nate Jones, and Zach Duke. The team had one of the better bullpens in terms of xFIP, and with no significant losses there, they should be just fine in 2016 too.
Overall, the White Sox just don't appeal to me as a team destined for contention in 2015. I'll give them credit where due, though. They do appear to have a plan, but I'm just not sure if they will have strong enough chemistry to win the division in 2016.
5. Detroit Tigers -- 2015 Record: 74-87; Projection: 77-84
I hate to say it, but the Tigers may just be falling down a 2012-2014 Philadelphia Phillies path. The team is trying to piece together free agent signings with their aging core, something the Phillies did to no avail during that time period. The team didn't get what they wanted--a World Series title--with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez closer to their primes, and there is no reason to believe they will do so now, even after the additions of Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and a whole new back-end of the bullpen.
The Tigers had five hitters-Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Yoenis Cespedes, and J.D. Martinez-who posted a 100 OPS+ (considered league average) or higher last season. Cespedes is gone, but is basically replaced with Upton. Victor Martinez will hopefully be 100 percent in 2016. I'll admit: the Tigers lineup is very good. They were among the best offensive teams in baseball last year, adjusted for park factors. But offense is nothing when there is no pitching to support it.
Even with the addition of Zimmerman, who I wouldn't consider an ace, the Tigers have lots of unknowns in their rotation in 2016. Anibal Sanchez had an awful year last year with a 4.99 ERA, and his peripherals (Ks and BBs) were equally as bad. Justin Verlander was decent, but still only made 20 starts and missed time due to injury. Daniel Norris is a promising young starter, and he could have a really good year. But then the Tigers brought in Mike Pelfrey, an innings eater at best, to round out the rotation. As for the bullpen, the Tigers brought in Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson this offseason to attempt to improve on the third-worst bullpen in baseball last season by fWAR. The Tigers are notorious for building bad bullpens, but maybe they'll be better this season with a new regime in the front office.
The overarching theme of this preview, however, is age. The Tigers' main guys are getting up there and that might not bode well for them. The best case scenario for Detroit is that 2015 was a fluke, everyone stays healthy, and they challenge the Royals for the AL Central title. But I just don't see that happening.
Next up: AL West.