The first week of Spring Training is past, and that means it is time for another Cover Those Bases division preview. Today, I will be previewing the AL Central division, a competitive division all around, featuring the reining American League champion Royals. Can they repeat their successes in 2015?
1. Kansas City Royals -- 2014 Record: 89-73; Projected Record: 91-71
To answer the above question, yes the Royals may just be able to repeat their successes from last year, and quite possibly with a similar record. Sure, they're James Shields and Billy Butler-less, but all around this roster, on both the offensive and defensive, there is talent, and young talent too. The Royals now have the experience of playing in a pennant race and are ready to go back.
Last season, the Royals had perhaps the best story in the game. After not making the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series, Kansas City put together a team that won 89 games and went into the Wild Card round. After coming back down four runs against the A's, the Royals went on to win eight postseason games in a row, including sweeps of the Angels and Orioles in the ALDS and ALCS, respectively. In the offseason, Kansas City lost "Big Game" James Shields to the Padres and Billy Butler to the Athletics. But that does not mean that they won't improve in 2015.
The Royals replaced Butler with the signing of Kendrys Morales to a two-year deal. Morales comes just one season removed from hitting 23 homers en route to a 123 OPS+ in 2013. After having a down year last year, the Royals have to hope he can rebound. Kansas City also added the likes of Edinson Volquez and Alex Rios this offseason. Volquez is a bit of a gamble, he posted a 3.04 ERA and a 4.15 FIP last season, but provides good depth to a very young and talented staff. Rios, like Morales, is a few seasons removed from a good output, but he still has upside on a one-year pact. The Royals may have had a quiet, but possibly deadly offseason to put them in great position in 2015.
2. Cleveland Indians -- 2014 Record: 85-77; Projected Record: 90-72
I am so high on the Indians roster this season. Cleveland has perhaps the most underrated staff in all of the Major Leagues, and after taking a "break" from the postseason last year, it's finally time for the Indians to begin to punch their ticket to October more regularly. Cleveland features reining Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, big league vet Gavin Floyd, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar. That rotation, while it may not be the best, or include the most star power, is up there with many of the rotations in baseball.
The Indians had a strong year last year, but were snubbed out of the playoffs, as nine of the 15 teams in the American League finished with over 80 wins. In the end, the Indians only finished three games back of the Athletics out of the the second Wild Card, but almost never counts. Cleveland did not shake up their roster majorly this offseason, but they did acquire former Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss. Moss is a strong addition to this team; over the past three seasons, he has an .844 OPS in an average 460 plate appearances. He'll slide in at right field.
The one worry I have about this Indians team is their offensive production. Their fate rests heavily on left fielder Michael Brantley, who hit .327/.385/.506/.890 last season, earning a trip to the All-Star Game. If he, along with Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, produce to where many believe they will, the Indians will be one of the most under-the-radar clubs in the American League, to the point where they could win a playoff spot out of nowhere.
3. Detroit Tigers -- 2014 Record: 90-72; Projected Record: 86-76
The Tigers are regressing. Since winning 95 games in 2011, they have won 88, 93, and 90 games since. This is the year where they begin to really step back. It's hard to know how much Detroit steps back, but they are beginning to throw big money contracts at aging veterans, much like how the Phillies did so with Ryan Howard and company. With Victor Martinez's early Spring Training injury, it makes me believe that this is the year that the Tigers really fall out of the dominant category in the Major Leagues and are no longer a contender.
The Tigers lost Max Scherzer to the Nationals this offseason. The ace of their staff, Scherzer now leaves a rotation that isn't what it used to be, with Justin Verlander falling off the table and Anibal Sanchez injured. David Price is the main "sure thing" in the Tigers rotation that also includes average big league veteran Alfredo Simon and second-year player Shane Greene, who came via the Yankees.
Offensively, the Tigers do have Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Ian Kinsler, but at ages 31, 36, and 32, respectively, it makes me wonder how healthy and productive they will be in this upcoming season. Already last year, Cabrera showed a "relative" decline following his two MVP seasons. Plus, the Tigers' bullpen, which was already one of the worst in the bigs last season, did little to improve itself for this season. When you look at this team as a whole, they do not look like absolute contenders in 2015.
4. Chicago White Sox: 2014 Record: 73-89; Projected Record: 81-81
The White Sox are a team that probably isn't quite there to be a rock solid contender, but may be emerging out of a rebuilding type of stage. I'm mixed on where they ultimately will stand at the end of the season. One part of me feels that they could be amongst the best in not only this division, but perhaps the entire league. They had a very solid offseason and rely on a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership. However, on the other hand, some parts of me feel that some of their younger players (e.g. Avisail Garcia, Jose Abreu, and Adam Eaton) will live up to the high expectations they have or the improvement many are suggesting.
The White Sox really rested in the hands of Cuban import Jose Abreu last season and he delivered quite nicely, winning the American League Rookie of the Year award with his powerful swing that netted him 36 homers and a 169 OPS+, along with a not too shabby .317 average either. Abreu, however, had a very high .356 BaBIP last year, and until he proves he can sustain that, I will be a little wary of the .317 batting average. Abreu's 2015 performance is something I'll be watching carefully and will be excited to see.
On a different note, the White Sox added to their lineup with the signing of Adam LaRoche, added to their rotation with the signing of Jeff Samardzija, and added to their bullpen with the signing of David Robertson. These three deals put the White Sox right there with the Padres and other teams that did well this past Hot Stove. If everything clicks, I'd put the White Sox' ceiling at 93 wins and their floor at 75 wins. They will definitely be improved this season and be ready to contend in the years to come.
5. Minnesota Twins -- 2014 Record: 70-92; Projected Record: 68-94
The Twins are an interesting team this season for a few different reasons. The first being Phil Hughes, the starter that had a career 4.53 ERA and a 2.68 K/BB ratio coming into last season. Hughes posted the best single-season K/BB ratio ever last season, as he averaged 11.6250 strikeouts per every walk, which easily bested Brett Saberhagen's 11.0000 mark set back in 1994. Hughes remains an interesting topic purely due to whether he can repeat his success from last season. The other interesting things about the 2015 Twins is the development of some of their top prospects, such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and others.
The Twins had a 70-92 record last season and it isn't hard to see them repeating their successes. With that said, however, every other team (maybe except the Tigers) in their division got a little better this offseason, whether it'd be by free agent signings or trades (White Sox), or by experience (Indians, Royals). The Twins pretty much stayed the same from their 2014 campaign.
The Twins brought in two free agents, though it may not really help them achieve more wins in 2015. First was Torii Hunter, who came back to finish his career off with Minnesota, a team that he spent 11 seasons with from 1997 to 2007. Hunter will be 40 in July and posted the worst offseason output last season (in OPS+) since 2008. Ervin Santana was their other free agent signing. Santana was pretty good last season with the Braves, but may do little to really make a big impact to improve their squad. Despite a high-3 ERA, he did have a very solid 3.39 FIP last season, which could mean he is ready to rebound in 2015. The Twins as a group are an interesting bunch, but they are not ready to put it all together in 2015.