Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The AL Central Shift

We're quickly gearing up for spring training and then eventually Opening Day of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. The AL Central is looking like it will be one of the most closely contested divisions in all of baseball. Home to the reigning World Series champs, and the Minnesota Twins, there's plenty of intrigue for Twins Territorians. What's interesting is the shift that the division is already watching take place.

Going into 2016, the Kansas City Royals have to be considered the favorite to win the division. I have them tabbed for 86 wins and another pennant. Much of the team has remained the same from a year ago, and Ned Yost's club seems like they may have another run in them. That said, much like the Detroit Tigers, the Royals also seem to be toying with fate.

After having some legitimate questions about the quality of their starting pitching, the Royals addressed the issue by signing Ian Kennedy to a five-year deal worth $70 million. Kennedy owned a 4.28 ERA and a 4.51 FIP. His 2015 was actually worse than unsigned free agent Yovani Gallardo, and essentially equal to former Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey (who signed with the Tigers for two years and $16 million). Kennedy was the 4th place finisher in Cy Young voting during the 2011 season, and has been mediocre to bad since. For a Royals rotation that projects to have Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, and Kennedy as their top three, things could be much better.

Therein lies part of the problem that the Royals are likely facing. Coming off of a World Series victory, Kansas City is looking to continue to capitalize on a window it forced open last season. With Eric Hosmer looking like an MVP type talent, and Mike Moustakas finally putting things together, the Royals are no doubt doubling down on that production. The unfortunate side to it is that the farm system offers little to no value when it comes to top tier talent, and the pitching in the system is either far off or questionable at best.

Of course in a win now mode, the Royals are doing what they can to hide their deficiencies, but a move like Kennedy's seems more band aid than actual answer. Dayton Moore is trying to push a franchise used to losing into contention for a handful of years, and while the ultimate prize has been reached, the window shouldn't remain open too much longer.

Similar to the Royals in direction, but maybe not so much in application, is the current trend of the Detroit Tigers. After finishing in the cellar of the AL Central a season ago, the Tigers again have decided to spend this offseason. Despite having no youth or farm system to speak of, Mike Ilitch has paid for the big league club to be competitive.

Jordan Zimmerman was given a five-year, $110 million deal, and just recently Detroit followed that up by paying Justin Upton $132.75 million over the next six years. Both players are no doubt necessities for the Tigers, but they may not push them to the heights they had imagined.

For Zimmerman, leaving the National League could pose problems. Although a very nice rotational piece, he is probably just shy of being referred to among the realm of true aces. On a Tigers staff that features an old Justin Verlander, oft-injured Anibal Sanchez, and little else however, Zimmerman is a must. With Upton, Detroit fills an obvious corner outfield void and gives them some pop that was vacated by the departure of Yoenis Cespedes.

Looking at what Detroit is doing though, the fall could be an ugly and unfortunate one. While not a free agent, Miguel Cabrera's extension with the club kicks in during 2016. He now begins to make $240 million paid out over the next eight seasons. Albert Pujols was given that same number over ten years at the age of 30, and it was looked at somewhat hesitantly (and has ended up being less than ideal). Cabrera is entering his age 33 season, and has already started to succumb to injuries over the past year. While he remains one of the best hitters in the game when healthy, it will be his downfall that begins to spiral the Tigers out of control.

The state of the Royals and Tigers depict a change in powers soon coming for the AL Central. The 2000's saw the division owned by the Minnesota Twins, and once again that should be an era we are close to revisiting. Cleveland has put together a nice pitching staff, and the White Sox are somewhere treading water in the middle, but it is only the Twins that have built an incredible farm system, along with some solid major league talent.

Although the Twins are probably realistic candidates to take a step back during 2016, the next two to three years could see the AL Central flipped on its head once again. With the Royals taking over for a brief period of time, Minnesota actually looks like the team best positioned to compete at the top during the course of the foreseeable future. The waiting for prospects to develop, arrive, and contribute is starting to pay off, and Minnesota should continue to see that reality grow in the years to come.

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