Only one team had a winning record in the AL Central last year, and that team (Cleveland) only pulled that rabbit out of their Wahoo-bedecked hat by way of having to play their 4 counterparts over 70 times. Has the division improved any for 2019? Perhaps, but this is still a flyweight of a divivision. Team by team:
Chicago – the Sox have more than just a former president (Obama) cheering them on to give them hope. The Chisox have one of the best farm systems in the game and the #3 overall prospect, outfielder Eloy Jimenez. They decided to buck the trends and sign him to a multi-year deal up front to negate years of arbitration bickering, and start him in the lineup from day 1 unlike other, ahem Blue Jays ahem, teams with superstars-in-the-making. That alone is reason to cheer, and not the only one, but the fact still remains this is a team that lost 100 games last year. It’s improved, but hasn’t improved that much. Besides Jimenez, he of .336 average, 22 homers last year in minors, they have a couple of stars-in-the-making in 2B/3B Yoan Moncada and OF Daniel Palka. Moncada is seen as a major star in the making if he can develop a better eye at the plate and cut down on his 200+ Ks last year. It’s said he put in extra work to do that in the off-season. Similarly, Palka hit more homers last year than any White Sox rookie in 35 years (27) but had an on base pct. under .300 due to his free swinging and strikeout rate of about 40% of all at bats. Add in aging veteran power hitter Jose Abreu and you have a team that can whack that ball out of the stadium regularly… but also boost opponents’ pitchers strikeout totals very quickly! Veterans Jon Jay and James McCann add some veteran stability in the clubhouse but are a few years beyond their prime. Pitching is wonky however, even with Ivan Nova (9-9, 4.19) and reliever Kevin Herrera added to the mix.
Cleveland: no more Chief Wahoo on the caps. The cynic might speculate that with him, winning teams might also be a relic of the past the Indians have jettisoned. That’s not correct, but northern Ohio fans have reason for concern. Last year’s team scored the same number of runs as the 2017 one (818), but allowed more than half a run a game more. The 648 allowed was still very respectable but what happens if the runs scored begins to drop off precipitously? Fact is, this is a team that looked fantastic on paper but fizzled in the post-season, which wasn’t that much of a surprise given that they feasted on games within their lacklustre division (49-27) but actually had a losing record against all other teams combined. Losing power-hitting dH Edwin Encarnacion, multi-talented catcher Yon Gomes and franchise icon Michael Brantley won’t help much at that. Nor will the gradual rise of some divisional rivals. Starting rotation is still best going by far – Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer and young phenom Shane Bieber. They combined last year to go 73-36, hurl just shy of 900 innings with just over 1000 strikeouts and keep the ERA at 3.18. Hard-throwing Danny Salazar could be back by June too, and ready to fill in if need be. Brad Hand and Andrew Miller anchor a decent bullpen. But, MVP-candidate Jose Ramirez is limping, second baseman Jason Kipnis starts on the injured list and Francisco Lindor, another MVP-candidate, has a damaged ankle that the team says reminds them of an injury Brantley suffered that cost him half a year. The OF is poor and new first baseman Hanley Ramirez is an old 35. In 2016, he still clubbed 30 homers and drove in over 100 for the Red Sox, but cumulatively in the past two, he’s had 29 HR and 91 RBI with a dropping average. Which hardly makes it seem the added baggage he seems to bring with him. Bottom line is its not really as good a team as last year; they’d better try a lot harder if they want to keep on winning.
Detroit : the Tigers looked alright in their opening series in Toronto. But it’s a long season and its one that’s not likely to be the cat’s pyjamas for Michigan fans. Their everyday lineup consists of two stars – Nicholas Castellanos, a free agent after this year making him grade trade bait come July, and fast-aging superstar Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera played well in spring but has been on a downwards trajectory of late, and being signed through 2023, isn’t likely to draw much trade attention. You’ll need the program to know your tabbys. Jacoby James? Grayson Greiner? Not household names, but worse, nothing much in their resume suggests they’re going to change that. The pitching is a wee bit better, but still a big question mark. 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer started with a bang, but hasn’t followed up. His home run rate nearly doubled last year, and his ERA has gone 3.06/3.83/4.69 while his WAR has dwindled from 5.3 to 3.4 to 0.9.Some suggest he’s looking better this year; Detroit better hope so. Likewise, Matt Boyd, the lefty “thrown in” with Daniel Norris in the Toronto trade for David Price, has outpaced the supposed star in that deal and has really mastered a good slider. Jordan Zimmerman shut out those Jays through 7 very strong innings on opening day but there’s a long ways to go to make them confident in him. His final 3 campaigns with Washington yielded 613 innings, 46-24 and a3.20 ERA. His first three in Motown: 397 innings, 24-28, 5.24. Casey Mize is seen as a “can’t miss” pitching prospect, but with only 14 innings of pro ball experience is optimistically a 2020 arrival.
Kansas City: Have only three seasons elapsed since the Royals won it all? Surprisingly, yes. But it seems a world removed, no less to the fans than anyone else. Alex Gordon is the only significant part of the Series team still playing; superstar catcher Sal Perez is still with them but is going to miss the entire season after Tommy John surgery. There are some lights at the end of the post-championship tunnel now, but the exit from the dark could be a ways away still. Whit Merrifield may be the second best second baseman in the league now behind Jose Altuve and is getting better in the field and at the plate by the month. With his 45 steals from last year and former Reds-speedster Billy Hamilton, this is a team which can run. Adalberto Mondesi is like his father Raul in a number of ways, such as being a 5-tool talent who also is uneven in mental attitude and approach from day to day and who tends to run into a lot of needless outs on the path. Pitching has some potential, but even if lived up to, is going to be middle-of-the-road at best. Brad Keller was a Rule 5 rookie from Arizona last year and already seems the ace, He didn’t let them down giving 7 shutout innings on opening day this year, improving on his fine 3.08 ERA he posted last year.Ian Kennedy on the other hand, has the big contract but is 8-22 in the past two seasons and has bested the league average ERA only once in the last 8 years.
Minnesota: Out with the old, in with the new. In the Twins case, the old includes manager Paul Molitor and franchise hero Joe Mauer, who retired. The new includes young manager Rocco Baldelli, much more of a stats/Sabermatics guy than Molitor was. Question is, will he be more of a motivator of young, arguably lazy stars than Molly was? In particular, Byron Buxton (not long ago the top-prospect in the game) and infielder Miguel Sano? Sano, one scout says is “always hurt and always fat” and the twins may have given up on waiting for him to mature and develop into the star they thought he’d be, bringing in nose-to-the-grindstone types Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop, relegating Sano to the bench. Buxton on the other hand, is really needed to step up and rebound from a horrible year in which he was limited to 90 at bats due to a wrist injury, a broken toe and then arguments with management late in the year. He posted all of a .200 slugging percentage. 2017 had been a bit of a breakthrough, with a .253 average, 16 homers, 29 steals in 30 attempts and a dazzling 24 defensive runs saved. However, given that the two prior years combined for 138 games, a .220 average only 12 HR and 162 strikeouts to just 29 walks, and one has to ask if ’17 was the outlier, not the other campaigns? Twins are betting it wasn’t. Nelson Cruz is a good addition to add some oomph to the hitting. This being his 14th full season, he has a shot at making his 400th homer this year, sitting at 361 right now and having 5-straight 590+ at bat, 37 or more HR years. Jose Berrios is turning a lot of heads as the new ace, after a 12 win, 3.84 ERA, 200+ strikeout year last season at age 24. Michael Pineda could be a great #2 if he’s healthy, but with him that’s always a huge “if”. Taylor Rogers added a slider to his repetoire mid-year in ’18 and became almost unhittable; he’s one of the premier lefty relievers around now, but the rest of the ‘pen is forgettable.
CLEVELAND – 90 – 72
MINNESOTA 82 – 80
CHICAGO – 72 – 90
KANSAS CITY – 63 – 99
DETROIT – 62 – 100