Today we turn our attention west, and preview the AL Central.
Chicago- despite a bad ’14, with Kansas City not yet proven as an ongoing contender and Detroit’s veteran superstars beginning to fade, Kenny Williams’ Sox decided to take a run at it in ’15, adding a front-line starter (Jeff Samardzija), ace closer (David Robertson) and powerful first baseman (Adam LaRoche) to a decent foundation with superstars-in-the-making Chris Sale and Jose Abreu.
A: Chris Sale. As seen on the list of “Pitchers who pitched better than Cy Young winner Corey Kluber but didn’t win the Cy Young in 2014”, the lanky lefty was 12-4 with a stellar 2.17 ERA, not a huge surprise given that in he’s got a career ERA below 3 and an average of better than a strikeout per inning. This could well be the year he wins the Cy… if his injured foot lets him take the mound before May.
Q:Hector Noesi. Penciled in to make the starting rotation, he seemed to find a home in Chicago last summer after bouncing around from club to club and not winning any of five starts for Seattle or Texas early in the season. A repeat of his 170+ innings would be a big boost for Chisox.
Y: Adam LaRoche. Free agent first baseman is needed to bolster Jose Abreu’s bat in otherwise so-so hitting lineup; he could do big things in US Cellular Field but given that he’ll turn 36 this year, has logged only six games for an AL team and that his 26 HR/92 RBI, .817OPS last year were big improvements over ’13, he’s a bit of a crapshoot.
Z: Club seems to have the right attitude and enough pitching to win; 89 wins, first place.
Cleveland: Biggest problems might be off-field, where despite having only their second winning season in last 6 years and all but retiring their politically incorrect “Chief Wahoo” logo, attendance continues to fall. An inactive off-season won’t help on-field though.
A: Michael Brantley.One of only 2 AL players to collect 200 hits in ’14, set career highs in most categories including runs (94), doubles (45), homers (20) and average (.327); given his age (28) and that generally his numbers have been steadily improving he could be set for a monster, MVP-type season.
Q: Rotation. Corey Kluber was excellent last year, though whether he was worthy of his Cy Young Award is open for debate. Hard-throwing Danny Salazar has flashes of brilliance but hasn’t yet put it together regularly, and assuming Gavin Floyd (who’d pitched only 78 innings over past 2 seasons) was a good-to-go #3 was a mistake- he faces the all too familiar Tommy John surgery. Rest of rotation is no treat…
Y: Plate Comebacks. Carlos Santana saw his average drop last year (.231) but still posted good home run and walk tallies. Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis saw pretty much all their significant factors plummet; for the team to contend, they’ll have to score a lot of runs and see this trio return to form.
Z: Much like Toronto, they have some key components in place but were too passive over the winter and rely too heavily on unproven arms on the mound. 79 wins, third place.
Detroit: Glass half-full types will note the Tigers have won the division four years in a row and have majority of roster returning. Glass half-empty folk will notice they struggled to do so last couple of years despite having Max Scherzer, and that their stars all appear to be in decline.
A: Miguel Cabrera. Remarkably, the 9-time All Star will only be 32 when he appears in his tenth Mid-summer Classic…and expect he will. However, he’s not the superstar that won the Triple Crown in ’12. Coming off surgery, Tigers say he’ll be ready sometime in April but it may be first year since ’03 he’s not playing 148+ games. And for most anyone else, his ’14: .313 avg, 25HR, 109 RBI, 191 hits, would be outstanding. For Miggy it was a rather shocking drop in productivity. Imagine a .300 avg, 25HR/100 RBI/70 BB year for him possible… but a .333/40/130/100 tally might be what Detroit need to win.
Q: Justin Verlander. Back when Cabrera was the best in the game with the bat, Verlander was his equal on the mound. Like Miggy, things have gone downhill since then for JV, and even more quickly. Last year’s 15-12 record looked tolerable, but his ERA of 4.54 was worst since ’08 and marks third year in row of significant decline; worse, strikeout rate falling with fastball velocity and opponents average against him a career-worst .275 show he’s not become a finesse pitcher. He’d better do so quickly. But at least he still has super-model Kate Upton on his arm.
Y: Nathan, et al. The closer’s role has been a bugaboo for Tigers lately. 40 year-old Nathan is still penciled in for the job, but few closers have done so much (376 career saves) and so alienated the fans. Last year he was 35 for 42 in save opps, and had a terrible 4.81 ERA. Fellow Texas cast-off Joakim Soria is a backup plan, but the ‘pen still looks concerning, especially with weakened starting rotation.
Z: David Price is a good anchor to rotation and will be pitching for a monster contract; Miggy still one of the game’s best and Victor Martinez’ injury looks less serious than first believed, so he may play most of year. Lots of upside for team, but given their struggles last couple of years and aging star-base, look for 85 wins, second place.
Kansas City: Everybody’s Cinderella team last year came agonizingly close to winning their second World Series and in all likelihood bankrupting Vegas bookies! Busy off-season saw a few new faces enter but more importantly, integral ones (James Shields, Billy Butler, Aaron Crow) walk away.
A: Greg Holland. In the post-Mariano Rivera era, the closest thing baseball has to a Mariano Rivera. Over past two years, 133 appearances, 93 saves with only 5 blown ones, ERA a stunning 1.33; he was even better in the playoffs last fall, being 7 for 7 in saves and allowing an ERA of 0.82.
Q: Alex Rios. One of the most frustrating players in the game, having an excess of talent but seemingly a deficiency in desire and day-to-day effort. Last year hit an adequate .280 with Rangers but smacked only 4 HR (lowest since his 2004 rookie season), well below career average of 1 per 36 AB; and his strikeout total exceeded walks by 4:1. Royals could use the Rios of 2012-13 to add some pop to the lineup, over those two years he averaged about .291 with 86 RBi and 32 steals a year.
Y: Bullpen. With fair to poor offense and a rotation lacking a defined “ace” this year, the bullpen can’t be bull**** if the Royals have any hope at all. This shouldn’t be a problem, last year it was brilliant beyond compare and most of the pen is back. However, expecting Holland, Davis and Herrera all to log 65+ games and keep the ERA below 1.5 may be too tall an order.
Z: the bullpen will likely still be great, the starting rotation adequate, Mike Moustakas may carry over the growth he showed last October. But seems a team with a lot of question marks and no clear leader. 77 wins, fourth place.
Minnesota: after a long run of surprising glory, Twins suffered through fourth straight losing season in ’14 and did little in off-season to change that. However, outstanding prospects mean the future may not be as bleak as a St. Paul January.
A: Torii Hunter. Torii will turn 40 mid-summer and had his first big league at bat in 1998. He returns to where he started and won seven Gold Gloves, probably as much to help run the clubhouse as to perform on field, but he remains a viable outfielder… his 142 games played, .286 avg., 17 HR and 83 RBI last year aren’t bad for any OF, let alone one his age.
Q: Paul Molitor. The Hall-of-Famer returns to his hometown to take on his first manager’s job. Molitor had an abundance of talent and great hustle as a player but that doesn’t always translate to leading great teams. Comments he made about limiting electronic devices and music in clubhouse may show an old school formula for winning but could also quickly alienate young “Millenial Babies” players.
Y: Next Generation. Outfielder Byron Buxton is widely considered one of the three or four best prospects in game and third baseman Miguel Sano not far behind. Both are 21 and could be seen in Minnesota this year, and fans hope, turn the Twins’ tide. However, as of now, both are already sent back to minors and both had their best junior success in 2013, so…
Z: When things were rosy in the Twin Cities, Torii was a youngster, Joe Mauer was an All-star catcher. Now he’s an overpaid, under-performing first baseman and Torii is the senior statesman. Paul Molitor was one of my favourite players in Blue Jays history, but isn’t a sure bet to run a team that’s a mix of old-timers and young pups. Not much to hope for here. 66 wins, fifth place.