If not in 2014, the American League Central is bound to get exciting in short order. The Detroit Tigers have been to the ALCS in each of the last three seasons. The Cleveland Indians are looking to get back to the postseason after winning the first Wild Card in 2013. The Kansas City Royals hope to be playing meaningful games in October for the first time since 1985. 2013 was not a good year for the Minnesota Twins or the Chicago White Sox, but both teams have up and coming talent worthy of note. Some very good players are housed in the AL Central.
So who then are the best players by position in the AL Central? Check out this segment of our MLB preview content:
Catcher: Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals: Hmmm, let’s see. Joe Mauer has moved on to first, Carlos Santana is in the mix to be Cleveland’s starting third baseman, Alex Avila has missed a lot of time and is not the All-Star catcher he was in 2011 and Tyler Flowers needs more work to do. That pretty much leaves KC’s young back stopper by default.
He’s quite good. He showed last season he could be a terrific hitting catcher. He was an All-Star, won the Gold Glove and finished 22nd in MVP voting. Given the fact he’s only 23, it should be exciting to watch him as he matures.
1B: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers: Poor Mauer is a mere honorable mention here. Mauer has the argument to one day be a Hall of Famer and has been a treat to watch, but he’s not on this list because the best hitter in the game has moved back to first base.
If Cabrera did not suffer that groin injury last year, there’s a very good chance he could’ve won a second straight Triple Crown. With Mauer having a good Cooperstown argument, it’s all but certain one day Cabrera will be there and not many people can call themselves a Hall of Famer at the age of 30, but barring a scandal or a failed drug test, Cabrera is bound for a plaque. It seems like he just gets better and better every year.
2B: Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians: It’s hard to go wrong with three time All-Star Ian Kinsler, who has what it takes to pour on to an already very good Tigers lineup.
With that said, Kipnis is having a better spring and has shown to be a better defender than Kinsler. Cleveland’s second baseman finished 11th in AL MVP voting in 2013. There’s no denying Kinsler has enjoyed a nice career. However, if he wants to become the best second baseman in the division, he’ll have to overtake Kipnis.
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland Indians: The two time All-Star had a down season at the plate in 2013, but he did improve defensively. If he can keep that defense from a season ago and be the type of hitter he was in 2011 and 2012, he’s bound to have a share of teams calling for his services once the offseason rolls around. It seems likely he won’t be in Cleveland too much longer with Francisco Lindor waiting in the wings at shortstop, but for now, Cabrera has put together some nice years in an Indians uniform. That could continue this year. Jose Iglesias is currently battling a shin injury and Alexei Ramirez hasn’t had a bad career, but Cleveland’s shortstop reigns atop the AL Central.
3B: Trevor Plouffe, Minnesota Twins: Let’s face it, third base is not deep at all in this division. It’d be hard to put Lonnie Chisenhall here since it’s not sure he’ll get Cleveland’s starting third base job and his numbers are not as good as other third basemen in this division who don’t have the greatest stats themselves.
Even though Plouffe’s stats are nothing to write home about, his numbers at the plate were consistently better than the likes of Conor Gillaspie and Mike Moustakas last season. According to a March 10 ESPN Chicago article from Doug Padilla, Gillaspie is winning the competition at third base over Matt Davidson. It’s not like Plouffe has the greatest numbers in the world, but Miguel Cabrera’s shift back to first base leaves him as the best at the hot corner in the division going into 2014.
Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: New life has been breathed into his career with his transition to the outfield. Gordon made the All-Star team last season and has won three straight Gold Gloves. He also received a 21st place finish in the 2011 AL MVP voting. If he had started his career at left field rather than third base, then who knows where he would be now?
Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers: Offensively speaking, Alejandro De Aza held his own last year, but Jackson and Michael Bourn are more established at the plate, not to mention better defenders. Jackson’s plate discipline is getting better. He’s striking out less. In addition, he’s a speedster who should run more with the Brad Ausmus-led Tigers. He finished 2nd in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010 and is still relatively young. 2014 could be the year he makes the All-Star team.
Torii Hunter, Detroit Tigers: The man is 38, going on 39, but don’t tell him that, seeing as he’s hitting .367 through Sunday this Spring. Oh, and he found himself on the All-Star team last year with a Silver Slugger Award and finished 19th in MVP voting. His defense has always been superb. If the Tigers want to win the World Series, Hunter can play a pivotal role in that.
DH: Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals: 2012 was a career year for the man they call Country Breakfast. He was an All-Star for the first time in his career. Butler also won a Silver Slugger Award and reached a career high in home runs, RBIs, hits, and OPS+. Most of his numbers did drop off last year, but they were hardly terrible. He has a club option for 2015 with a $1,000,000 buyout. So he could hit the free agent market. Regardless, here is his chance to do something special this year.
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: There may not be anybody in the game last year who got a more unfair shake than Sale did. The man went 11-14, yet pitched brilliantly. 214.1 innings pitched, 4 complete games, 226 strikeouts against 46 walks an ERA+ of 140 and 1.073 WHIP. He finished 5th in AL Cy Young voting and even got a first place vote. He also finished 6th the year before. If he were on a playoff team last season instead of a team which went 66-99, then it’s possible he would’ve finished even higher.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: The incumbent Cy Young winner in his respected league has a good chance of being on a list like this.
Scherzer was a solid pitcher before last year, but he took it to a whole new level in 2013. He led the AL in WHIP with 0.970. He had a 145 ERA+ and 214.1 innings pitched in what was by far his best season yet. Sure, he was 21-3, but he also pitched extremely well. Scherzer earned his spot on here.
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers: Many pitchers could’ve had the numbers Verlander had last year and called it a nice season. For the 31-year-old Tigers righty, however, it was a knockoff from his 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young season and narrowly missing a second straight Cy Young in 2012. After he had the numbers he had those two seasons, it was disappointing. Still, he was fantastic come playoff time, and it’s hard to come up with five pitchers in this division who are better than Verlander. One may wonder how Verlander will do in 2014 and if he can return to his brilliant 2011/2012 form.
James Shields, Kansas City Royals: Though not to the extent Sale was, Shields had some tough luck moments himself last year. He led all AL pitchers with 228.2 innings pitched and had his best season since finishing 3rd in the AL Cy Young race in 2011.
Royals General Manager Dayton Moore probably would’ve liked to have had AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers in his lineup last year. However, seeing as he was able to get Shields in return, it was a very good trade. With what he did last year and just how good he’s been in Spring Training this year, Shields is easily one of the best starters in the AL Central.
Anibal Sanchez, Detroit Tigers: Winning the American League ERA title is quite good (he accomplished this in 2013). He found himself in 4th place in the AL Cy Young voting. Had he pitched more than 182 innings, he may have placed even higher. Sanchez was also superb against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. If he can get 200 innings under his belt like Verlander and Scherzer can, then he may be able to add a Cy Young to his resume up there in Detroit, too.
Setup: Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians: It’s really disappointing Luke Hochevar is going to miss the entire season after doing a very nice job out of the bullpen a season ago. It happens. Allen finished 6th in AL Rookie of the Year voting last season with a 155 ERA+. Marc Rzepczynski was nearly unhittable when the Tribe acquired him from the St. Louis Cardinals last season. They also signed John Axford, who pitched quite well for the Redbirds down the stretch in 2013 and pitched brilliant relief in the postseason for the most part. A bullpen with Rzepczynski, Allen and Axford relieving at their best could help Cleveland see playoff baseball this year.
Closer: Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers: If there’s one position in this division which is deep in talent, it’s closer, with only Nate Jones of the White Sox having yet to show what he is made of as a full-time closer. It is hard to go wrong with Glen Perkins in Minnesota and very, very hard to wrong with Greg Holland in Kansas City. Going off of last year, Holland had the better numbers, but with the exception of 2011, Nathan has been truly special since becoming a full time closer in 2004. It’s unknown when Nathan may hang it up, but a plaque in Cooperstown may be waiting for him one day. He certainly has an argument and is the best closer in a division that’s very talented at the position.