We’ve already previewed the AL East. Now it’s time for the Central Division:
This is the deepest division in baseball. Detroit has been the gold standard in the Central for years and no doubt they’ll be gunning for a fifth straight division title. But they’ll have to contend with a much-improved White Sox team after the offseason additions of Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Zach Duke. The Indians are on the rise, too, bolstered by one of the best young pitching staffs in the game and a dynamic offense built around MVP candidate Michael Brantley. And that’s to say nothing of the pennant-defending Kansas City Royals. Only the cellar-dwelling Twins have no realistic claim at contention this summer.
Let’s begin with the Tigers. If everyone is healthy, this is the best lineup in the division, rivaling Boston and Toronto as one of the best starting nine in the league. Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes, and J.D. Martinez make for quite an imposing #2-6 spots. But that “if healthy” tag is important: VMart is still recovering from meniscus surgery; and Cabrera’s foot issues might linger past Opening Day. Expect plenty of production from these two, but don’t be surprised if they struggle out of the gate. The rotation will miss departed ace Max Scherzer, but the key is Justin Verlander. If he can bounce back from last year’s dead arm and diminished velocity, he and David Price will form a dynamic pair at the front of the rotation. If his performance continues to hover at league replacement level, however, the Tigers could be in trouble. Without a lights out bullpen, the Tigers success will likely hinge upon the performance of Verlander and fellow starter Anibal Sanchez.
Look for the White Sox to be among the most improved teams in the league. On the heels of last season’s 73 win performance, the Sox aggressively added pieces to put them in a position to contend. Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche, Avisail Garcia and Alexi Ramirez give the Sox a solid core of veteran production. Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana anchor a good rotation. But the real problem areas are the bottom of the lineup and the back of the rotation. If phenom Carlos Rodon wins a starting spot this spring, the Sox rotation could be dominant. The bullpen was last year’s Achilles, but the addition of Robertson should shore up the late innings. If Rodon contributes meaningful innings, I could see the Pale Hose hanging around in this race for a long time.
But my pick for the division is Cleveland. I hate that they’re the trendy pick; I just saw that Sports Illustrated picked them to win the Series. But I was bullish on them before reading any of that. Begin with Terry Francona. If you didn’t appreciate what he was able to accomplish during his tenure with Boston, his two seasons in Cleveland have proven that the guy is a great manager. He operates with a fantastic rotation fronted by reigning A.L. Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, followed by young power arms Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, T.J. House, Danny Salazar, and Zach McAllister. Brandon Moss, who came over in the A’s bizarre winter retool, brings another power bat to a deep lineup. Expect Jason Kipnis to rebound after struggling with an oblique injury last summer. With a stable full of flamethrowers and no discernable holes in the everyday lineup, Cleveland could boast one of the best records in the league, giving Indians fans something to be excited about.
It seems odd to project the defending A.L. champs to finish fourth in their division, but that’s the reality in KC this summer. The loss of James Shields, while a foregone conclusion, really changes the dynamic of the pitching staff. Young flamethrower Yordano Ventura — he of 198.3 career innings pitched in the regular season — is the de facto staff ace. Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas, and Jeremy Guthrie provide veteran (if unspectacular) depth behind Ventura. The wild card is the offseason signing of former Brave Kris Medlen. Prior to his second TJ surgery, Medlen was one of the most productive starters in the National League. If he returns to form, he could provide an incredible midseason boost to the Royals pennant defense. In the offseason, the Royals bid adieu to longtime DH Billy Butler (whose “Country Breakfast” nickname is one of the best in the game) and brought in RF Alex Rios and DH Kendry Morales. Rios has always been a bit of an enigma, vacillating between great and below average. Ditto for Morales. But the Royals have to hope that they help an offense that was woefully short on power last season. Both vets will need renaissance seasons in order for the Royals to repeat.
The most exciting thing going on with the Twins this summer will be the continued development of minor leaguers Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
I expect the Indians to win the division with the Tigers and White Sox close behind them.