The Central has long been rather the red-headed stepchild of the American League, not as good as or watched as the siblings around it. That might be changing, but not to any great extent, or quickly.
Chicago last year were the only AL team to not score at least 600 runs. But to even out the equation, they didn’t pitch or field well either. No big surprise they ended up in last place for the first time since the 80s. Don’t look for any big changes this season, although they may escape the basement. The big change will be highly-touted Cuban Jose Abreu taking over at first from Paul Konerko, the best Chicago player of the post-Frank Thomas era. Abreu has power and raw skill, but may not come close to the impact of a Konerko in his prime, or of his own 2013 season in the Mexican League where he hit .316 with 60 ribbies in fewer than 300 at bats. Adam Eaton is a nice addition, Adam Dunn should do what he does- hit three dozen or so dingers and strikeout most of the rest of the time, and in Chris Sale they at least have one of the best and emergent young pitchers in the game. On a winning team, he’d be a household name and good bet for a Cy Young soon. With the Sox, he’ll have to be content with merely getting a winning record this year. Prediction– 67 wins, 4th place.
Cleveland started to distance themselves from their Chief Wahoo logo last season, largely to appease Native protesters, but perhaps a little as well to distance themselves from the decade or so of lacklustre teams that had worn the Chief on their hats. The Indians surprised many in ’13, so it’s not surprising that they are back relatively untouched. The team seemed to have chemistry galore last year and Terry Francona and his crew should ensure that continues which is worth a win or five over the season. Danny Salazar dazzled in his debut against the Jays last year; he’ll probably end the year as the ace of northern Ohio, though Justin Masterson is no slouch either. Yan gomes is quickly erasing the adjective “first Brazilian player” and simply being acknowledged as an above-average catcher, free agent David Murphy likes his new ballpark…but there’s still not enough here, nor a good enough replacement for Jimenez and Kazmir to expect a repeat of ’13. Prediction– 82 wins, third
Detroit- the Tigers know the key to success, like any good real estate agent does: “Location, location, location”. Detroit aren’t close to the best team in baseball, but they are the class of this division and thus get darn near a free pass to the playoffs. Having to not battle for that should make them very nearly the faves to win the World Series this year. Giving up Prince Fielder was a huge risk of course, but a team that hit .283 last year and was second in runs scored can afford to lose a run or two. Rajai Davis, in from Toronto, will bolster the offense with his speed (45 steals in 108 games last year) and Ian Kinsler, if he quickly matures and focuses on his game rather than his anger at Texas, will be a good presence on base for Miggy to drive in. Speaking of, don’t look for another triple crown for Cabrera…but don’t expect him to slump like others (not mentioning any Anaheim stars for example…) did after receiving monster contracts. I’d be surprised if he hits less than .310 or clips under three dozen homers. Letting Doug Fister go may go down as a major blunder, but Justin Verlander (expect a bit of a resurgent year from him), Anibel Sanchez and disgruntled Max Scherzer – now pitching for a free agent megadeal- should provide pitching enough for the tabbys to cruise to the division title for the fourth year in a row. Prediction– 95 wins, first
Kansas City- the Royals gained 14 wins last year, bested only by Boston and Cleveland in the AL. Another 14 tacked on could make them the kings of the world– but isn’t likely. Nonetheless, they are a team heading the right direction. Sal Perez is quickly establishing himself as the best catcher in the league (at the plate, .292, 21 homers, behind it 137 games, second best and fewest passed balls of any catcher with triple digit games) and could come to be recognized as a legitimate superstar this year. Expect Eric Hosmer’s power to return this year and if Mike Moustakas ever develops into the star he was expected to be KC should score runs by the bushel. James Shields is dominant – he matched his career best 34 starts last year and is 44-31, 3.28 over the past three years- and will likely get even better in his year leading upto a big free agency payoff. However, Jason Vargas is no Shields,nor even an Ervin Santana (whom he replaces) so seeing him as the #2 guy in the rotation makes me think this team still has a ways to go to cause the Tigers to break out in a sweat. Prediction– 86 wins, second.
Minnesota- the Twins had never gone three years without winning 70 before last year. Needless to say, this year they have a chance to extend their futility streak. The league’s only starting rotation to sport an ERA of over 5 last season is only marginally improved with the addition of Phil Hughes, meaning there’s not much for the Twins to pitch to the fan base in way of hope for 2014. Interesting to watch will be Joe Mauer’s transition to first base; on the plus side he should stay healthier and play more , on the downside, his usual .870 OPS and 8 home runs (averaged over the past 4 seasons) make him a star catcher but a mediocre at best first bagger. Down the road things look brighter- of Byron Buxton and IF Miguel Sano are two of the best prospects in all of baseball but both are at least a year removed from making the bigs. Prediction – 66 wins, fifth.
Next we’ll go to the increasingly evenly-matched AL West.