Thursday, March 19, 2015

AL Central Division Preview

Last season, the AL Central was dominated by two teams for the majority of the season. With their overpowering starting pitching, the Detroit Tigers laid waste to their divisional foes. Hanging near the top with them was the Kansas City Royals. A late season push closed the gap, and had the Royals in possession of the division lead for a time as well. Although the Cleveland Indians finished just five games out, they weren't seen as a threat for much of the year. As 2015 comes around, expect the script to be flipped on its head.

A year ago, the Tigers took home first place in the division winning 90 games. The Royals boasted an impressive 89 wins on their own, while both the White Sox and Twins hovered around the 90 loss mark. This season, I think it's fair to expect 90 is not a number seen on either side of the equation. Looking at the AL Central, I think the division winner will clock in somewhere around 85 wins, with the worst team in the division having around 85 losses. If that holds true, there's no doubt that the Central will be one of the most competitive divisions in all of baseball.

Now getting into specifics, let's break it down from first to worst.
1. Detroit Tigers (85-77)

Full disclosure, this is not at all a ringing endorsement of the Tigers. Detroit has one of the worst bullpens in all of the major leagues, and it would be crazy not to believe that it's going to cost them at some point. Joe Nathan is only getting worse, and those in front of him struggle to hold leads on their own. That all being said, the offense still should remain one of the best in baseball. If Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera can hold up over the course of the season (those are big ifs), the Tigers should be just fine. Expect Brad Ausmus to get just enough out of his squad, even when he may have to piece things together.

2. Chicago White Sox (83-79)

A season ago, the White Sox lost Avisail Garcia before things even got going. While not a major cog in their lineup, he still represents a valuable piece of the offense. With Chris Sale being on the shelf to start 2015, the White Sox are going to have to rely on their new acquisition in Jeff Samardzija, and the young arms to bolster their rotation. Expecting Jose Abreu to follow up his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign shouldn't be too lofty, and the addition of Melky Cabrera is another offensive boost. The White Sox should have plenty of pop in their lineup to score runs, and if they can get strong pitching out of young arms once again, they'll be in a good place. Expect David Roberston to hold onto wins with a much stronger grip than Ronald Belisario did a season ago.

3. Cleveland Indians (81-81)

At this point, I'm still not a believer in the Indians and think the expectation could even be a little high. I very well could see them finishing fourth in the division with a sub .500 record instead. Corey Kluber is a stud, and should be again in 2015, but behind him Cleveland has plenty of questions. T.J. House and Carlos Carrasco are still relatively unproven, and you never know what you'll get with Trevor Bauer. Brandon Moss will add pop to the lineup, but expecting Michael Brantley to repeat his 2014 seems like a long shot. I think a lot of the Indians success hinges on whether or not Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis can offer anything offensively to the club.

4. Minnesota Twins (79-83)

Probably a best case scenario, the Twins will have to have almost everything break correctly to win 82 games. There's no doubt that the pitching staff is better, and the offense is already there. Outfield defense is probably going to be an issue, but to the extent it is being billed is somewhat overblown. Expect Torii Hunter to provide plenty of value with his bat (maybe even moreso than his mentorship) and expect Minnesota to have a handful of homerun hitters fill the lineup. As always, the Twins will live and die with their pitching, and this year they should see plenty more positive than negative from it. As prospects head to Target Field, 2015 should provide chances for them to help a fighting club instead of just a cup of coffee.

5.  Kansas City Royals (77-85)

A year after falling short in the World Series, the Royals are looking up an extreme hill to make it back. While I don't think losing James Shields was the end of the world, replacing him with Edinson Volquez may be. Yordano Ventura is still very young to put such an importance on, and the back end of the Royals rotation could be ugly. The bullpen is going to shine, but regression over time should probably be somewhat expected. On the offensive side, adding Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales may actually be a net loss, and the Royals are going to need to score for their pitchers sake. There is no doubt that the defense, specifically in the outfield, is going to be spectacular. The problem for the Royals is that Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain both can't play at the same time.

AL Central baseball is no doubt going to be amongst the best in the big leagues this season. The division from top to bottom should be competitive, and expecting someone to run away with it shouldn't be counted upon. Gear up, we're in for a fun ride.