MLB Divisional Preview: AL Central

In this week’s edition of the MLB divisional preview I will be previewing the American League Central. Much like the AL East, the AL Central should be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball. Spots one through four are all up for grabs, and each team could be interchangeable in those spots. The Detroit Tigers have ruled this division since 2011, but with the improvements some of the other teams have made, we could see a different team at the top in 2015.

5. Minnesota Twins

Manager – Paul Molitor

General Manager – Terry Ryan

Home Ballpark – Target Field

2014 Record – 70-92

Key Departures – None

Key Additions – Ervin Santana, Torii Hunter

Key Returners – Joe Mauer, Phil Hughes, Kurt Suzuki, Glen Perkins, Ricky Nolasco, Tommy Milone, Kennys Vargas, Trevor Plouffe, Brian Dozier, Eduardo Escobar

Pitching Staff

The Twins made a minor splash in the offseason by signing Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes, who had an outstanding 2014 campaign. The Twins should have a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the rotation is full of some mediocre veterans (Ricky Nolasco) and unproven youngsters (Tommy Milone, Kyle Gibson). The Twins might not have the horses to win right now, but they have some coming soon. Minnesota has two of the top pitching prospects in baseball with Kohl Stewart and Alex Meyer. Meyer could see big league action as soon as this season. The Twins do have one of the better closers in baseball in Minnesota native, Glen Perkins. The Twins don’t have enough in the rotation to be a contender, but they could be a team that plays spoiler late in the season. The Twins should be a team to keep your eye on in the years to come with all the talent they have in their farm system.

Lineup

Joe Mauer’s production fell off quite a bit last season when he moved to first base, but expect a bounce-back season from one of the best hitters in baseball. The Twins had a plethora of young players come up and perform last season with guys like Danny Santana, Eduardo Escobar and Kennys Vargas. If those guys can continue to develop at a positive rate, the Twins will have a solid core of young players to build on for the future. Brian Dozier was an All-Star last season, and he will return to man second base for the Twins. Dozier, along with Pittsburgh’s Neil Walker, led the majors in homeruns for second basemen with 23. The Twins not only have solid pitching prospects, they also have great position player prospects. Byron Buxton is regarded by many as the best prospect in baseball, the next Mike Trout. Miguel Sano is one of the best third base prospects and could see action in the big leagues this season. While the Twins may have some great prospects in their farm system, they don’t have enough in the majors to avoid last place.

4. Kansas City Royals

Manager – Ned Yost

General Manager – Dayton Moore

Home Ballpark – Kauffmann Stadium

2014 Record – 89-79 (American League Champions, Wild Card)

Key Additions – Edinson Volquez, Alex Rios, Kris Medlan, Kendrys Morales

Key Departures – Billy Butler, Nori Aoki, James Shields

Key Returners – Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Alceides Escobar, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas

I know a lot of you are thinking, “How can you pick the American League champs to finish fourth?” I’ll tell you why right now.

Lineup

The Royals were a team that had trouble scoring runs last season, and they’re losing Billy Butler and Nori Aoki. Butler had been a staple in the middle of the Royals lineup since 2007 and was a major run producer for KC. Aoki was only in Kansas City for a year, but he was a valuable on-base guy and a great two-hole hitter. Yes, KC did replace Aoki with Alex Rios and Butler with Kendrys Morales, but I’d argue Rios is not really an upgrade over Aoki. Rios had a terrible year in terms of run production and power numbers in 2014. He hit .280 with four homeruns and 54 RBIs. His numbers have declined over the past three seasons, and I just don’t see him being able to match Aoki’s production. Morales does provide some pop in the middle of the order, but did not have a very good season in 2014. He just has not been the same player since he broke his leg in 2009. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer are legitimate studs in the Royals lineup, but I don’t think they stack up against other middle of the orders in the division. Mike Moustakas had a great postseason with many clutch hits, but his overall stats from last season were not very good. He hit just .212 with 12 home runs and 54 RBIs and he even got sent down to the minors last season. He needs to prove he can do it over a 162 game season.

Pitching Staff

The Royals may have lost their ace in James Shields, but they have a few young guys that could develop into an ace. Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy have as good of stuff as anyone in baseball. Ventura’s fastball sits at 97-98 MPH and hits 100 MPH often, while he has a curveball that snaps off the table. Duffy is a hard-throwing southpaw who has gone through some injury trouble his first few years in the league, but I expect him to take a big leap forward in 2015. Edinson Volquez had a great year for Pittsburgh last season and it will be interesting to see if he can continue his success with Kansas City. The well-documented Royals bullpen stayed intact over the offseason and again should be among the best bullpens in baseball this season. There are no better setup men in the game than Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Both guys can run the ball up at 100 MPH. Then you give the ball to one of the best closers in the game in Greg Holland. If the Royals can get the ball to their bullpen with a lead, they can win a lot of games again. The problem is that they won’t be able to get enough leads. They have the pitching staff to compete and win, but I don’t believe in their lineup’s ability to score runs.

3. Cleveland Indians

Manager – Terry Francona

General Manager – Chris Antonetti

Home Ballpark – Progressive Field

2014 Record – 85-77

Key Additions – Brandon Moss, Gavin Floyd

Key Departures – None

Key Returners – Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Bourn, Yan Gomes, Danny Salazar, Nick Swisher.

Lineup

The Indians have a nice young core of everyday players in Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana. Brantley was a finalist for the AL MVP last season after his breakout performance in 2014. I like the Indians lineup even more with addition of Brandon Moss. Moss should fit nicely into the heart of the Indians lineup and should provide some power behind Brantley. Jason Kipnis had a bit of a down year in 2014 after his 2013 breakout campaign. When he’s on his game, he has shown he can be one of the best second basemen in baseball. I expect big things out of the Indians’ catcher, Yan Gomes. The Brazilian had 21 home runs and 74 RBIs last season and was quietly one of the best offensive catchers in the game. For the moment, the Indians have a question mark at shortstop. It looks like they are planning to start the season with Jose Ramirez at short, but they have Francisco Lindor waiting in the wings, and he is one of the best shortstop prospects in the game. I don’t expect the Indians to have many problems scoring runs, especially if Brantley continues his success and Jason Kipnis has a comeback year.

Pitching Staff

Corey Kluber came out of nowhere to win the AL Cy Young award last year, and the Tribe looks to him to anchor this rotation. However, here is not much behind him in terms of proven pitchers. Danny Salazar has very impressive stuff but has not been able to put it together into a full season yet. If he can develop into the guy the Indians think he can be, he would be a dangerous No. 2 starter behind Kluber. Trevor Bauer was the No. 3 pick in the draft in 2011 and has yet to pitch up to those expectations. Bauer was acquired by the Indians two seasons ago and finally saw some regular action at the big league level last season. If Bauer can develop, the Tribe will have a solid 1-2-3 at the top of the rotation. The Tribe also has some question marks in the bullpen. The John Axford experiment did not work out last season, and the Indians are left without a closer. Cody Allen is a hard-throwing right-hander and he could step into the closer role, but you never know how a guy will respond to being a closer. Those are three big ifs with Salazar, Bauer and the bullpen. Consequently, the Indians will have the ability to compete throughout the year, but I doubt they can win the division unless they acquire another starting pitcher or reliever. I can see them fighting for a wildcard spot, though.

2. Detroit Tigers

Manager – Brad Ausmus

General Manager – Dave Dombrowski

Home Ballpark – Comerica Park

2014 Record – 90-72 (American League Central Champs)

Key Additions – Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Greene, Anthony Gose, Alfredo Simon

Key Departures – Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Torii Hunter, Joba Chamberlain

Key Returners – Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, JD Martinez, Justin Verlander, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Joe Nathan, Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias

We could be looking at the last run for the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers are filled with aging veterans and not much in the way of top prospects in their farm system.

Lineup

The Tigers success on offense will depend on the play of Victor Martinez, JD Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes of all whom are expected to hit behind Miguel Cabrera. You can almost pencil in .300 batting average, 30+ homers and 100+ RBIs for Cabrera. Except him to have a great year, but the guys behind him need to pull their end of the rope. Victor Martinez is coming off the best season of his career at his age 35. He hit .335 with 32 homeruns and 103 RBIs. He was rewarded with a four-year, 68 million-dollar contract in the offseason, but ee is only getting older. Can he continue to hit the way he hit in 2014? JD Martinez came out of nowhere last season when he was released by the Houston Astros in spring training and the Tigers picked him up. He started the season in Triple-A ball and tore it up down there. The Tigers called him up in May, and the rest was history. But can he be more than a one-year wonder? Yoenis Cespedes was acquired in a trade that sent Rick Porcello to Boston this past offseason. Cespedes possesses light tower power, but he strikes out an awful lot. He has a strong throwing arm but overall is not a great outfielder. I don’t know if you can say he is that big of an upgrade over Torii Hunter in right field. Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias form a great double-play combo up the middle. The Tigers also expect to replace Austin Jackson in center field with Anthony Gose. This seems risky as Gose was nothing more than a bench player for the Blue Jays. I just don’t see it. If the Victor Martinez, JD Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes threesome performs the way the Tigers hope, the Tigers will have one of the best lineups in baseball. The Tigers won 90 games last season, and they did not get any younger in the offseason. Can they win more than that this season? Time will tell.

Pitching Staff

I think the pitching staff will be the Tigers downfall this season. David Price will replace Max Scherzer and be the ace of this rotation. Justin Verlander’s time as the ace is long gone. Price will be great, no doubt about it. It’s the other four guys that will be the problem for Detroit. Verlander had the worst year of his career last season. The once-flamethrower is not a flamethrower anymore. Verlander’s fastball now sits at about 92 MPH. He used to depend on be able to run it up to 98-100 MPH. He’s getting older and losing velocity. I don’t see him being able to be a guy you can depend on to win 17-18 games anymore. Anibal Sanchez is great when he’s healthy, but that’s the problem. He doesn’t stay healthy. He has yet to throw 200 innings in his career. Alfredo Simon came out of nowhere to have an All-Star season in 2014 for the Cincinnati Reds, but he really fell off in the second half of the season. Can he repeat his success in 2015? The rotation fills out with Shane Greene. Greene was acquired this offseason from the New York Yankees. Greene is a nice prospect, but has only 78.2 career big league innings under his belt. To put it nicely, the Detroit Tigers bullpen was terrible last season, and they did very little to improve it. Joe Nathan proved he’s not the Joe Nathan of old last season. Joakim Soria was not very good after coming over to Detroit in a midseason trade. Bruce Rondon is a young hard-throwing righty who I think they’ll depend on a lot this season. But again, he still must prove he can throw strikes.  Finally, the Tigers lost probably their best bullpen guy in Joba Chamberlain. There are just too many question marks and holes in the Tigers pitching staff for me to pick them to win the division. If Verlander returns to being Verlander and they somehow come up with a decent bullpen, the Tigers will compete and capture a wildcard spot.

1. Chicago White Sox

Manager – Robin Ventura

General Manager – Rick Hahn

Home Ballpark – US Cellular Field.

2014 Record -73-89

Key Additions – Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Zach Duke, Emilio Bonifacio, Gordon Beckham

Key Departures – Paul Konerko, Matt Lindstrom, Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo, Marcus Simien

Key Returners – Jose Abreu, Chris Sale, Alexei Ramirez, Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Jose Quintana, Conor Gillaspie, Tyler Flowers, Jake Petricka, Zach Putnam, John Danks.

For those out there who know me, you probably think I’m being a White Sox blinded by bias. Well this pick isn’t because I am a Sox fan, it’s because of the moves Rick Hahn and the White Sox have made the past two seasons. They are really setting themselves up for success for not only this year but years to come. It should be a fun summer on Chicago’s south side.

Lineup

The White Sox have one of the best leadoff men in baseball with Adam Eaton. Eaton hit over .300 last season and had .362 on base percentage. He will be the table-setter for what should be a good lineup. Melky Cabrera should finally provide a guy in the two spot who can hit, get on base and move runners over. He is definitely an upgrade in leftfield over Dayan Viciedo. Then the White Sox have one of the best hitters in the game in Jose Abreu. The 28-year-old burst on to the scene last season after being signed out of Cuba in the offseason. Abreu ran away win the Rookie of the Year award by hitting .298 with 36 home runs and 107 RBIs. He finally has some guys around him to offer some protection. Adam LaRoche will fill in as the White Sox DH and should provide some left-handed power behind Abreu. White Sox fans are looking forward to a full season with Avisail Garcia in right field. Many regard Garcia as a five-tool player who can hit, hit for power, run, field and throw. He saw limited action last season as he tore his labrum in the first week of the season, although he managed to return in mid-August. If Garcia can play a full season and perform to expectations, the White Sox will have a scary heart of the order. Alexei Ramirez returns as the shortstop for the White Sox and is one of the most underrated shortstops in the game. He ranks in the top two in almost every offensive statistic among AL shortstops since he started playing the position in 2009. Conor Gillaspie had a nice 2014 campaign and can be a compliment to the rest of the order if he can continue his success. The only question marks I really have for the White Sox are at catcher and second base. We know by now what we’re going to get with Tyler Flowers: some power but a lot of strikeouts. If the rest of the lineup performs to expectations, he doesn’t need to be Johnny Bench. He just needs to be serviceable. The White Sox look look like they’re going to go young at second base with either former IU Hoosier Micah Johnson or Carlos Sanchez. In an ideal world, you’d like to see Johnson win the job. He provides a ton of speed having led the entire minor league in stolen bases in 2013. He would a great guy to hit in the nine-hole as the lineup would turn over to Adam Eaton. The White Sox have some guys that can play multiple positions off the bench with Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham.

Rotation

The Chicago Cubs have garnered all the attention in Chicago this offseason with the signing of Jon Lester, but the White Sox have the best rotation in town. Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana are as good as any 1-2-3 in baseball. Sale is a top-five pitcher in the game and can be counted on to go at least seven innings per game. He was a finalist for the Cy Young Award last season and should anchor one of the better staffs in the game. Lifelong White Sox fan Jeff Samardzija is finally home. The Northwest Indiana native should serve as one of the better No. 2 starters in the game. Jose Quintana is probably not known to the casual baseball fan, but you better get to know him this season. He finally has a good offense to score him some runs and should have a good defense behind him to prevent runs. He does not have many wins under his belt, but if you look at his other stats he is one of the better starters in the game. He just hasn’t got much pub because he’s been on two pretty bad teams the past two seasons. That should change this season. Much like the Tigers, the White Sox bullpen was terrible last season. One of the worst in the league. That should change this season with the additions of David Robertson and Zach Duke. Robertson saved 39 games after taking the spot of Yankee legend Mariano Rivera last season. He will step into the closer role for a team that had trouble closing out games last season. Zach Duke, Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam are nice pieces that will serve as setup men to Robertson. Lastly, Carlos Rodon, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft last year, is quickly rising through the White Sox system and could be either in the rotation or in the bullpen for the White Sox this season. Reports say his fastball sits in the mid 90s and is suppose to have a Chris Sale-like slider.

Overall, the White Sox have mightily improved their lineup and pitching staff this offseason. They have improved more than anyone else in the division. This team should win the division and is one you should keep your eye on this summer.

Follow Bobby on Twitter @RENorrell_III