Over the past six months, the AL Central has become the most competitive division in all of major league baseball. Back in October, two teams from the central, the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals, made the playoffs. The Royals even made a run all the way to the world series before losing to the San Francisco Giants and the historic Madison Bumgarner.
Since the end of last season the division has only gotten stronger with all five teams adding key players to their clubs. While it is difficult to predict any division in the MLB, the AL Central tops all six in the category of unpredictability. There is no clear cut front-runner to win this division and four of the teams have a chance to contend for the pennant and eventually make a world series run. Sadly, the only thing I am confident of is the Twins finishing last in the division for the fourth time in five years.
1. Cleveland Indians
They are the most complete team in the division and will prove it in the upcoming season. It all starts with pitching and they have the AL’s best in Corey Kluber, last year’s AL Cy Young award winner. Not many pitchers actually win the CY Young in their breakout year, but he was more than deserving with 18 wins, 269 strikeouts and a 2.44 ERA. The numbers won’t be as impressive this year, but expect him to continue to dominate opposing hitters with his deadly curveball and pinpoint location. The rest of the rotation is solid and I expect a breakout year from Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick in 2011. They also have a consistent bullpen rounded off by Cody Allen to shut the door.
Their lineup doesn’t stand out on paper, but it has some of the best depth in the AL. They have speed at the top with Michael Bourn and Jose Ramirez, power in the middle with Carols Santana and new signee from the A’s Brandon Moss who will produce more at the plate hitting as a DH this season. They will get solid all-around play from Jason Kipnis and good energy from the aging Nick Swisher.
They also have the MLB’s most underrated player in Michael Brantley. He finished third in the AL MVP race last season and can do absolutely everything in the batter’s box. The proof is in the numbers, he finished last season with a .327 batting average, 20 home runs, 97 RBIs, 94 runs scored and added 23 stolen bases.
They have the pieces to contend for the world series, and also one of the league’s best managers in Terry Francona. He will lead this team to the top of the AL Central.
2. Chicago White Sox
This year’s most active team in the off season adding two big right handers in Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson and two middle of the lineup bats in Melky Cabrera and Adam Laroche. If not for those additions I see this team as another 87-90 loss team but they now look as good as anyone in this division.
Their rotation is elite, starting with their southpaw ace Chris Sale. Despite missed time with a strained flexor muscle and so many no decisions, due to their weak bullpen, he finished third in the AL Cy Young race last season. He has the best ‘stuff’ in all of the American League and will lead the league in strikeouts. Samardzjia adds a much needed right hander to a lefty dominate rotation. They round it off with Jose Quintana, who has been good the past two seasons, and veteran John Danks.
They also have the third overall pick from 2014 Carlos Rodon at AAA right now. I expect him to be in the majors sooner rather than later and he will immediately become their third best starter turning this into the arguably the best rotation in the AL. Their bullpen was horrendous last season so the addition of David Robertson as their closer is going to have the most impact of any of their four new signings.
Their biggest strength over the past few years has been their power in the middle of the lineup. Adding Cabrera and Laroche only adds to that. They have the best hitter in baseball not named Miguel Cabrera in Jose Abreu, who put up video game numbers in his rookie season, .317 batting average, 36 home runs and 107 RBIs. He is my pick for AL MVP this year as I expect increased production with Laroche batting behind him. The back end of the lineup is their biggest concern as Tyler Flowers contributes nothing offensively and Alexi Ramirez’s numbers continue to dwindle with age.
I have them finishing second and securing a wild card spot this season. With Sale, Samardzija and Rodon as their playoff rotation, this is a team that could wreck havoc in October.
3. Detroit Tigers
It feels strange slotting them at the three spot because they have won the division four years straight. It wouldn’t surprise me if they won it for a fifth year in a row but they don’t stand out as the dominant team in this division anymore.
They no longer have a great rotation as Max Scherzer left to go to the Nationals for a seven year, $210 million contract. They also lost Rick Porcello, who won 15 games last season, to the Red Sox. With that being said, they still have one of the better rotations in the AL with former Cy Young winner David Price and former Cy Young and MVP winner in Justin Verlander. Anibal Sanchez gets forgotten about because of their stars at the top but he had an impressive 3.43 ERA last season and will play a bigger role this year with Scherzer and Porcello gone. The key will be Verlander, who had his worst season since 2008 last year. He will be starting the season on the 15 day disabled list (the first time he’s been on the DL in his 10 year career) with a triceps strain. If he cannot rebound from last year this team will struggle, especially because their bullpen cannot survive if the starting pitching is not going seven innings deep. Joakim Soria has been shaky in the past but remains their best reliever as Joe Nathan is far past his prime and has never been the same since his Tommy John surgery in 2010.
While their pitching will be a concern, they still posses the most dangerous offense in the division and arguably in the entire AL. It all starts with Miguel Cabrera, baseball’s best hitter has to continue to produce monster numbers in order for this team to succeed, and that shouldn’t be a problem for him. Victor Martinez was an unexpected bright spot in this lineup last year after Prince Fielder left for Texas. He finished second in the AL MVP voting after having a career year hitting .335 with a .409 on base percentage and striking out only 42 times, an astonishing feat in today’s game.
The addition of Yoenis Cespedes gives this team the most dangerous middle of the order in all of baseball. After that their lineup doesn’t get much weaker either, with last year’s breakout star J.D Martinez batting in the six spot after Cespedes. One downfall though is their lack of left handed hitting as seven of their regular starters are right handed.
This team will underachieve this year because I expect Verlander’s struggles to continue. They have a chance at the second wild card spot, but I have them missing the playoffs because they will not be able to survive the gauntlet of the AL Central.
4. Kansas City Royals
This is one that could come back and haunt me. I see them losing around 84 games this season, but they could easily go on to win 90+ and take the division title.
Their pitching is consistently good, especially the bullpen which is the best in the league. The loss of James Shields will hurt this rotation, but they are smart for letting him walk for $75 million as “Big Game James” did not live up to his nickname last postseason posting a 6.10 ERA and getting only one win in his five starts.
Yordano Ventura will lead the way this year for this rotation with his dominating fastball that has been clocked at 102 mph. They will get solid contributions from Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie along with new addition Edison Volquez who is coming off a solid comeback year in 2014. If their starters can get them six solid innings, that will set up the most dominating bullpen in all of the MLB. With Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, better known as HDH, they won’t let many games get away in the late stages.
Offense is a real concern with this team. In the offseason they lost their most complete hitter in Billy Butler to the A’s, which will have a large impact on this team. They added Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales to fill the void, but they are both far past their prime and I would rather have one Billy Butler than those two in the middle of the lineup. They still have dangerous bats in Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer, but none of them are good power hitters. They finished 30th in the league last season in home runs and I expect the same this year. Where they lack in power they make up for with speed and fielding. Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar are extremely aggressive on the base paths and Cain gets to everything in center filed. They also have the best defensive catcher in the American League, Salvador Perez and great range at third in Mike Moustakas.
Despite a lack of power, the Royals are one of the most fun teams to watch in all of baseball. Their run to the world series last year was magical, but expect a downfall in 2015.
5. Minnesota Twins
Last and unfortunately least are the Twins. They are better than last year, but they are still far and away the least talented team in the most talented division in all of baseball.
Even though they play in a pitchers’ park, their pitching remains the biggest concern. Phil Hughes was a pleasant surprise last year winning 16 games, although most knew he could be a great pitcher if he got out of Yankee Stadium, one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league. Ricky Nolasco signed for four years and $49 million last offseason but did not live up to that contract posting a 5.38 ERA and a 1.516 WHIP.
This offseason the Twins signed Ervin Santana to a four year $54 million deal, making him the largest free agent signing in the team’s history. Santana will be suspended for the first 80 games of the season after testing positive for stanozolol, a performance-enhancing substance. At the moment it seems as if the Twins have wasted another big contract on a starting pitcher for the second consecutive offseason. This puts much more pressure on Kyle Gibson to be more consistent with his control and it will force Mike Pelfrey in the rotation for the first half of the season.
The bullpen was surprisingly good last year, but I expect a step back this year. Glen Perkins will continue to shine in his home state, but his supporting cast of Casey Fien, Brian Duensing will have to build on last year’s numbers.
The lineup won’t wow anyone, but they have solid hitters at the top of the order. Danny Santana will look to build upon a stellar rookie season and will fit much better in the lead off spot than Brain Dozier. Dozier will also look to build upon a career year where he hit 23 home runs and drew 89 walks, while Joe Mauer will try and bounce back from his worst statistical year as a pro hitting only .277. Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia will add some much needed power in the middle of the lineup, each with the potential to hit 20+ home runs. Kurt Suzuki adds good contact at the end of the lineup and will look to build off his all-star appearance last season.
The addition of Torii Hunter helps in a few ways. He has proven that he can still help offensively hitting 17 home runs and 83 RBIs last season. He will be a great leader for the young talent on this team and a good way to get fans to come to games. At 39 (he’ll turn 40 in July) he hurts the outfield defensively, especially with Arcia in left as he has no range.
Overall, it will be tough for the Twins to improve on their 70-92 season considering how good this division is. First year manager Paul Molitor is already highly respected by the players and loved by the fans, we’ll see if he can exceed expectations or if the Twins continue their losing ways for the fifth year in a row.