The countdown to Opening Day is getting smaller. The Opening Series is well over, and there is only one day to Opening Day. Every day, from now to the beginning of the season, I will be previewing at least one division, leading up to my postseason picks on Opening Night. After doing all three NL divisions (E C W) and the American League East, we will continue with the American League Central today.
1. Detroit Tigers -- 2013 Record: 93-69; Projected Record: 95-67
The Tigers are one of the best teams in the American League, and are my pick to win the league and head to the World Series. They have it all; offense, defense, and pitching. Their offense, led by Miguel Cabrera, is one to be feared. Their defense, with new acquisition of Ian Kinsler, is much better. And their pitching staff is one of the best, even following the trade away of Doug Fister. They've still got Justin Verlander, who is going to have a rebound season, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez at the top of their rotation. This looks like a contending team.
The Tigers made two big trades this off season: the trade of Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, and the trade of Doug Fister to the Nationals for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and a minor league pitcher. Both trades may seem like head scratchers, but this opened up some cap space for the recent extension of Miguel Cabrera. The move of Fielder also benefitted Cabrera in that he can move to first base, a positions where injuries are less likely. It also allowed for the call up of Nick Castellanos, a top third base prospect. And, they got All Star Ian Kinsler in return. A triple win.
The outlook for the Tigers looks really good in 2014. They have a fantastic team, one that can take them very deep into October, something that they have been able to do for three straight seasons.The worst-case scenario for the Tigers is if Verlander cannot find his grove, and the back of the rotation cannot hold up. They still might be able to win a Wild Card even if that occurs. Their offense is just too good for most teams to handle. It looks really positive for the Tigers this season.
2. Kansas City Royals -- 2013 Record: 86-76; Projected Record: 88-74
The Royals will be partying like it is 1985. That is the last time that they have been in the playoffs, beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in seven games. Following the Pirates playoff appearance in 2013, the Royals playoff drought is the longest active in Major League Baseball. This season, it is finally time to turn that around. They played well down the stretch last season, finishing the year 17-10 in September, and winning 18 of their final 30 games. A horrid (8-20) May likely kept them out of the playoffs. They'll make sure that does not happen again.
The Royals have an underrated pitching staff, with James Shields (131 ERA+ in 2013), Jeremy Guthrie (102 ERA+), and newly added Jason Vargas (94 ERA+) leading the way for the club. Their rotation is backed with Alex Gordon (103 OPS+ in 2013), Billy Butler (116 OPS+), and Eric Hosmer (118 OPS+) who all are hungry for their postseason appearances. These six players are the ones that will take this team from a pretender to a contender in 2014. Overall, the Royals have a good team. They just need some good production from these six players.
There is a lot to like for the Royals in 2014. This is their year, and they will prove that they are one of the best teams in the American League by contending for the second Wild Card spot, after some great production from their pitching staff, one that will be feared down the stretch. The Royals are a slam dunk, so beware a slump in a specific month. That could be their one issue from making the postseason this year.
3. Cleveland Indians -- 2013 Record: 92-70; Projected Record: 85-77
The loss of Ubaldo Jimenez will be too tough to handle for the Cleveland Indians this season. Their rotation, although still decent, just is not stable enough to take this team back to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. They still do have a young team, and while young teams make the playoffs, they can have a hiccup while they still are blending. The Indians might just feel too much pressure to get back to the playoffs, or might believe the loss of Jimenez is just too big of a hole to fill.
The Indians have a ton of young talent, particularly in their lineup, where they boast some of the game's youngest, and underrated, stars in Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Asdrubal Cabrera. Last season, they blended these guys with proven veterans Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and unsung hero Jason Giambi. That is how they built such a good clubhouse, while keeping the team on the field healthy 100% of the time. They did not add to that this off season, but were able to retain Giambi by re-signing the slugger.
The Indians still have a good roster, but a young pitching staff does not always initially translate into wins. The presence of Ubaldo Jimenez in the rotation last season really helped these young guys ease into the club. Now, the training wheels are off, and the one concern is, "Are they still able to do it?" The Indians fate lies in the hands of their young rotation.
4. Chicago White Sox -- 2013 Record: 63-99; Projected Record: 70-92
The White Sox are still a few years from contention, along with many other teams that have stockpiled their farm systems. They signed Cuban first base slugger Jose Abreu to a contract, and he looks to be on the team beginning this season. He is one of the players (Jose Quintana and Chris Sale among others) that White Sox fans will get to look forward to during the next few years. But for now, they've got an inexperienced lineup, a decent pitching staff, and low expectations for their upcoming season.
The White Sox have done a good job stockpiling young talent, acquiring the likes of Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks and Avisail Garcia from the and Tigers to go along with Abreu. But, they also have Alexi Ramirez, Adam Dunn, and Paul Konerko lining up to take the field, three players who are aging and might be close to the finish of their careers. (Konerko is retiring this season.) They still have some work to do, but all rebuilding projects are works in progress, and their's is moving along nicely. Baseball fans will have to see if the talent can translate into big league success.
While still in a rebuilding mode, you can rarely expect success from a ball club, which is why the White Sox are fourth in my American League Central rankings. If you take a look at the teams above them, they are all in the "win-now" phase, some may be closer to the beginning (Royals and Indians), while some are right in the thick of it (Tigers). Those teams are the ones that will have continued success, while the White Sox continue to build for years to come.
5. Minnesota Twins -- 2013 Record: 66-96; Projected Record: 68-94
This prediction probably won't come as a shock to people, but to justify the Twins are not as far along in their rebuilding as the White Sox. Sure they have the number one prospect in all of baseball and some young guys on their team, but the White Sox have all around talent on their team. The Twins still have yet to show me that they have young talent on their current roster. Sure, they have young players such as Oswaldo Arcia, Brian Dozier, and Trevor Plaouffe, but they (except for Dozier) do not have as much talent as some of the White Sox players have. However, I see a slight increase in the Twins' win total because they attacked their starting pitching needs with Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.
The Twins signed Hughes and Nolasco this off season, due to the fact that they finished dead last in the Major Leagues in starting pitcher's ERA. In order to reach 70 wins, that number has to come further down from the 5+ mark it was in 2013. Sure the Twins can do it, but their rotation is not their only problem. Justin Morneau will be gone for the full season, and Joe Mauer will no longer be calling games behind the dish. He has moved to first base. Yes, it will keep Mauer healthier, but it will not be helping the pitching staff, their main issue.
In general, the Twins have very little to look forward to. Probably the most exciting thing that could happen this season is the arrival of Byron Buxton to the Major Leagues sometime this summer. the Twins are known to keep players in the minors a little longer, but Buxton has something special about him, which is why he will be up in the bigs this season.