Thursday, January 14, 2016
2016 AL Central Division Preview
A season ago, I released the AL Central Division Preview in March, this year we're doing it a bit earlier. Prior to spring training, injuries have yet to take their toll, and suspensions (ahem Ervin Santana) have not been handed out. What has happened however is the free agency dust has begun to settle. Many of the big names have found their new homes, and barring some unforeseen moves, teams are beginning to look forward.
While meaningful baseball is still a few months off, pitchers and catchers report to their respective spring training sites in short order. As position battles take place, and teams gear up for the season, here's how I see the AL Central finishing up this fall:
Kansas City Royals 86-76
After winning the World Series, the Royals will have the target on their backs in 2016 and get everyone's best shot. While they have some significant issues in the rotation, it's fair to argue they did for much of 2015 as well. I think the loss of Greg Holland is mitigated by the addition of Joakim Soria. That bullpen is for real, and even if Wade Davis isn't the 2015 version (he won't be) he still incredibly good.
I'm not worried about the regression of guys like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. I think they've entered their prime and 2015 is more a sign of things to come than what once was. Getting Alex Gordon back was huge, and the emergence of prospects makes for interesting supplements. I have a hard time believing Yordano Ventura won't rebound, and Kyle Zimmer is an intriguing option that shouldn't be too far away. Until further notice, the Central should remain the Royals division.
Cleveland Indians 84-78
A season ago, Cleveland finished a single game above .500 at 81-80. That record ended up being odd for a multitude of reasons. Despite being the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber was awful as April turned to May (posting a 7.43 ERA from Apr 22-May 7). He finished with good-not-great numbers on the season though, and was backed by the emerging Carlos Carrasco. The Indians got just 99 games of Francisco Lindor, who arguably became their best player. There's also the fact that they had a plus 29 run differential, despite winning just one more game than they lost.
Many picked the Indians as a darkhorse World Series candidate a season ago. I don't see them being that good in 2016 either, but they've definitely got the pieces to contend in the jumbled AL Central. I'm not as high on the staff as others, and I think they've got some outfield questions, but they're the team I feel least comfortable projecting.
Minnesota Twins 81-81
Last season, the Twins burst onto the scene and made a playoff push despite no one picking them to do anything but finish at the bottom of the division. With an 83 win season, Minnesota trailed only the Royals in the Central. Unfortunately for Minnesota, much of it was based upon situational excellence. With a minus four run differential and inflated numbers with runners in scoring position, the Twins generated a large amount of clutch runs.
This season, Molitor's squad will be looking for more consistency. The Twins aren't going to do anything at an exceptional level, but they have the opportunity to be good enough across the board. Pitching depth is there, even if top tier quality is not. For the club to challenge for the division and playoffs once again, Byron Buxton will need to emerge, Miguel Sano continue his growth, and Byung Ho Park be as good as billed. More than any other Central team in 2016, the Twins have the pieces to win the division just as much as they do to lose it miserably.
Chicago White Sox 79-83
Much like the Indians, the White Sox will go as their pitching does this season. They scored a division worst 3.84 runs per game a season ago, and the offense hasn't exactly been transformed. Chris Sale, Carlos Rodon, and Jose Quintana are legit starters. They have back end of the rotation and bullpen questions however. Offensively, the addition of Todd Frazier is nice, but I expect some of his numbers to decline. They still need another outfielder, and with Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes on the market, targeting one would be a good idea.
For the South Siders, spending hasn't often equated to wins. Now with a revamped infield bringing in both Frazier and Brett Lawrie, Robin Ventura's squad will once again have a new feel to it. If they can make one more big splash, pushing towards the top of the division isn't out of the question. Without that though, they look like a very middle-of-the-road type club.
Detroit Tigers 77-85
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Tigers finished at the bottom of the AL Central a season ago. I expect them to be better in the year ahead, but their positioning shouldn't change. The roster is getting older, and the farm system really isn't any good. Signing Jordan Zimmerman was as much a necessary move as it was a nice deal, but asking him to be an ace could be a bit much. Justin Verlander isn't what he once was, Anibal Sanchez is a walking injury, and youth resides after that.
The bullpen has been the Achilles Heel of the Tigers for what it seems like years. Francisco Rodriguez should help, but he's not going to cure the issue completely. J.D. Martinez is a great success story, but he's also almost exclusively what is going right for Detroit in the outfield. An again Cameron Maybin, and young Steven Moya are likely going to be relied upon more than they should be. Detroit probably isn't going to be bad, but Brad Ausmus is going to squeeze what he can out of his squad wherever he can.