AL Central preview: It's wide open
The Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox are the stylish selections to win the Central Division.
Which will come as interesting incentive— snub even — to the Detroit Tigers, who have ruled the house the past four seasons.
Detroit is a little older. True. They have lost Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. But, boo-hoo, they’ve still got David Price and if Justin Verlander pitches to form, that’s still a nice start to a decent rotation.
True the bullpen, fourth-worst in the league with a 4.29 ERA, has Joe Nathan and the usual Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum returning, but this is still an offence that can overcome treachery at the back end of a pitching staff.
What it amounts to, with a vastly improved Chisox, an exciting, developing roster in Cleveland, and if the Royals can again play above expectations, is a four-team race in a division — while not the best in baseball — is one of the most highly competitive and evenly matched.
Only the Twins, destined for another season in the basement, appear out of their depth.
The White Sox made huge off-season changes while the Indians are so highly regarded they’ve made the cover of Sports Illustrated. But both have to show they’ve improved enough to catch a Tigers’ team that many believe slipped a notch in the off-season.
Chicago general manager Rick Hahn reshaped the roster with free agents Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, adding depth to an offence led by Cuban star Jose Abreu.
The addition of Jeff Samardzija gives the Chisox an interesting 1-2 punch with Chris Sale, (12-4, 2.17 ERA last season). Hahn bolstered the bullpen, adding David Robertson and Zach Duke.
If all goes to the best plans, this could be a powerful group. The issue with rebuilds is that they rarely go according to a best-case scenario, as the Blue Jays around these parts can tell from past experience.
Sale is coming off injury. Suppose LaRoche falls short of expectations. Robertson, who signed a four-year, $46-million deal, is the closer. At least that was the plan. But he has missed time this spring with soreness in his forearm and has allowed four runs on six hits, four walks, and a hit-by-pitch over just 42/3 innings. This team is better than the 73-win misfits of a year ago.
But, how much better? Which is pretty much the same question being asked of the Indians.
Cleveland hasn’t won a world championship since 1948 but boasts loads of talent, with left-fielder Michael Brantley, first baseman/designated hitter Brandon Moss, first baseman Carlos Santana and reigning AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, who went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 269 strikeouts last season.
Fans are so full of anticipation, tickets for opening day sold out in 11 minutes. The rotation behind Kluber includes Carlos Carrasco, who had a scintillating second half with league-leading 1.72 ERA over 782/3 innings. That starting staff is rounded out by Trevor Bauer, TJ House and Zach McAllister, who won a job this spring striking out 24 and walking four in 19 innings.
This is a team that, hobbled by injuries last season, still finished just five games behind the Tigers. It means even a slight slippage in Detroit will be enough for the Indians to end the Tigers’ championship run.
The Royals had an autumn run for the ages. Then they lost ace James Shield to free agency. Reliable Billy Butler is gone. Ditto outfielder Nori Aoki.
The hope is Yordano Ventura will become the new staff ace. But this was a mediocre team living on a high last season — and, they didn’t do enough to improve over the winter. Even if newcomers Alex Rios and Kendreys Morales live up to expectations there is enough evidence to show everybody else — except the Twins — should pass them by.
Minnesota, with new manager Paul Molitor, remains in transition. That will make for long, frustrating weeks. Second baseman Brian Dozier signed a four-year contract worth $20 million this spring and is one of their emerging stars. He scored 112 runs last season, the second most in the majors behind only Mike Trout. He finished second in the majors with 112 runs scored last season while also leading the Twins in home runs (23), stolen bases (21) and hits (145).
The only other Twins with at least 20 homers, 20 steals and 100 runs were Kirby Puckett in 1986 and Corey Koskie in 2001.
An influx of talented young prospects are around the corner, but until then the Twins are hoping Joe Mauer can bounce back from a career low .277 average. Even then, a pitching staff of Phil Hughes/Ricky Nolasco/Ervin Santana may not — in a tough division, prevent the Twins from joining the 100-loss club.
The Indians have five starters under the age of 29 and have so much young talent that they have sent shortstop of the future Francisco Lindor to the minors and will go with Jose Ramirez (.258/.300/.354), hitting in the No. 2 slot.
Last year, the Indians finished seventh among American League teams in runs scored and ninth in home runs so dealing for Brandon Moss, whose 55 homers over the past two seasons rank 11th among AL hitters, should help the offence. They desperately need a right fielder unless Nick Swisher can come back from knee surgery and a season in which he batted .208.
Chances are Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley don’t have quite the seasons they had last year. But there does seem to be another five wins in this roster. And, that might be enough to overtake a Tigers’ team minus Max Scherzer — and a Tigers’ team that even with Sherzer only out-scored opponents last year by 52 runs.
What has been their strength in the past appears to be one of their major weaknesses. The starting rotation could still be pretty good — or it could be a disaster. Much depends on Justin Verlander.
The Cy Young and MVP winner in 2011 after he posted a 24-5 record, with 250 strikeouts will skip his last spring start Friday and has been bothered by a sore forearm.
He is also coming off a disappointing 2014 when he went 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA. He allowed more hits per nine innings than he has in any other season in his career. His strikeout rate — 6.9 per nine innings — was his lowest since his rookie year in 2006.
Price starts opening day. Then the questions start. Which Verlander shows up — if he shows up. Anibal Sanchez has yet to prove he can be effective an entire season. And, can Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene come close to filling the gap left by Rick Porcello, who they dealt to the Bosox for slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes?
There’s no question about the bullpen. It’s a mess. As usual. Nathan was anything but the answer to Detroit’s woes, posting a 4.81 ERA, a 1.53 WHIP, and blowing seven saves. last season, and results this spring aren’t inspiring. Joba Chamberlain has returned. The numbers aren’t pretty. An 8.22 ERA this spring. He has allowed 15 hits and five walks in 7 2/3 innings for a 2.609 WHIP. Chamberlain has more wild pitches (three) than strikeouts (two).
Just three seasons ago the Chisox were one of the major league’s worst teams. This year, they are one of the most improved. But they have to come from a long way back.
The addition of Carlos Rodon was supposed to be a plus to the rotation. Instead he’ll start the season at triple-A, which is what happens with a team that has lots of “promise” but been short on results. Chris Sale broke a bone in his foot but is expected to miss only one start. Oh, and Jeff Samardzija? The Cubs ripped him for four homers in a spring training game last week.
Not the kind of start the White Sox were hoping for while heading into a season that is supposed to be all about retribution.
Still, there’s time to work out the wrinkles. And the lineup is impressive with a terrific one-two in Adam Eaton and Melky Cabrera, providing protection for Adam LaRoche with the real possibility of an Avisail Garcia breakout campaign.
Garcia will bat fifth, getting a chance to prove his injury-plagued 2014 season is a fluke. Alexei Ramirez won’t have to be concerned about situational hitting in the No. 2 spot and gets to do what he does best — swing away from the six hole.
Overall? Better. But not yet best.
The Royals still have speed, and should lead the league in stolen bases again. Greg Holland, Jason Frasor, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis are a lights-out bullpen. Defensively they are a wonder to witness.
But it’s a bit much to expect another magical run that took them all the way to the World Series, where they got the tying run to third base in the ninth inning of Game 7.
The Royals rotation will be headed by Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, emerging as a No. 2. Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie will contribute and Edinson Volquez slips into the back end. Ventura caused a sensation with seven innings of three-hit shutout ball in Game 6 of the World Series but as Shields replacement he still must prove he can do that kind of thing throughout the season.
That’s a big expectation from a 23 year old.
Kansas City’s lineup lacks the depth, with an inferior on-base percentage and no power. The Royals ranked last in the majors with a 6.3% walk rate in 2014 and also hit just 95 homers, fewer than every other major league club.
It doesn’t add up to a playoff team.
The Twins have averaged 96 losses in each of the past four seasons. And, in a competitive division, they could hit 100 this season.
Twins’ hope for the future lies with top prospects like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Nick Gordon in the minor leagues, and the development of young major leaguers like Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia. The 23-year-old Arcia had 20 home runs in just 410 plate appearances last year. But he’s raw, also fanning in more than 30% of his at-bats, ranking ninth in the majors in strikeouts.
According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat, only the Indians fared worse defensively than Minnesota. Torii Hunter is back in the house. But he’s 39 and past his prime and won’t help this team field much better.
Still, as a franchise hero, he brings tender memories. Which, until the young talent can make new memories, is about all that Twins’ fans will have to fall back on.