2016 MLB Preview: AL Central

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There was no other division that saw a bigger shift than the AL Central as the domination by one team came to an abrupt end.

The Detroit Tigers had long been the team to beat in the Central as they were the only team in the division with a chance in the postseason.

They took four straight division titles and often went into the postseason as World Series favourites.

As good as they were with great pitching and a solid offence, the Tigers were division winners largely because no other team had enough to challenge them.

The rest of the division was a collection of teams trying to figure out how to compete with the Tigers and never quite figuring it out.

Every now and then a team could climb up to test the Tigers but for four straight years, none could really do anything.

The Chicago White Sox were a team that had just come off of their own strong period but were aging and falling off.

In Minnesota, the Twins had just won two straight division titles before Detroit took over and like the White Sox, they were an aging team unable to keep their momentum.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians were a team that had been trying to figure it out for years but never able to get the right combination together.

The Kansas City Royals were much of the same never really finding the right team to compete.

In 2014, the dynamics began to shift slightly as the Royals were a team that could compete and an unorthodox approach in Cleveland brought, at least, a bit of fight back.

Despite the new competitors the Tigers once again took the division title to continue their reign.baseball-sidebar

The Royals made a bigger impression though as they took the wild card and moved on to the World Series where they lost to the Giants.

That run in the postseason, though, was the beginning of the change in the division as the Central was about to take on an entirely new look.

2015 was a season of change in the division as the Tigers were nowhere close to the top and the Royals never came close to the bottom.

The Tigers’ grip on the division went away faster than any other grip on any division as they went from a four-time division winner to one of the worst teams in the division.

Meanwhile, the Royals went from a perennial loser to one of the strongest teams in the division and the league.

The Tigers fell to the bottom of the division and had little say in what happened while the Royals rose to the top and never let go of their lead.

The Twins joined the Royals on top to give them their only real challenge for the division title while the White Sox and Indians stayed much the same.

The Central had a new look and as a result of the new look, the division became home to the World Series champions.

With a new season set to begin the new champion will look to make this division their own and begin their own run at a long run at the top of the Central.

It might not be as easy this year though as the Tigers are hungry to get back to the top for another year and the Twins would love to finish off what they started last year.

It could turn out to be a great battle but for the entire season, one team will remain top of mind for every baseball fan.

The questions will be whether or not this is the time for the Royals to take over baseball or if they are simply a one-and-done champion.

They have already changed the league but what they do now will be under more scrutiny than ever before.

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The Chicago White Sox were once the kings of this division and became one of the few teams to actually challenge the Tigers. Despite those good years they could never make the postseason and with the team falling to the bottom of the division the drought has continued for seven years. Last year Chicago made a lot of moves to try to find their way out but none really worked as they sunk to the bottom of the division once again. They enter a new year with fewer moves but ones that might make a bigger difference in making them contenders again. In 2015, their biggest issue was on offence where the infield gave them almost no production and the White Sox went about changing that this year. They signed Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie who will both add some power to the line-up and although Lawrie can be a bit streaky they are both big upgrades. They will hope that the first two years with Jose Abreu can continue as he has proven to be one of the better Cuban signings in the league. The offence should be better than a year ago as the White Sox have made smart moves that reflected their needs. The pitching staff is a little different as they didn’t make many moves with a promising group that could produce good games. There is no doubt that Chris Sale is the leader as one of the best pitchers in the game while Jose Quintana put together a good year despite the lack of hype around him. Meanwhile, they will hope that Carlos Rodon can avoid a sophomore slump after a good rookie season that solidified his spot as the future of the rotation. Beyond those top three pitchers, there is some uncertainty as John Danks and Matt Latos have shown they can be good but lately have not been able to overcome injuries. The Sox may choose to roll the dice on another young pitcher in Carson Fulmer who is one of their more exciting prospects. The bullpen did not do well last year but much of that was due to the middle relief rather than closer David Robertson and setup man Nate Jones. They didn’t change a lot in the hopes that the potential of the group can come through this year and if it does they can produce. The White Sox are definitely better this year but they looked good last year as well and missed the postseason. It is too tough for them this year though as they will put up a better fight but it won’t be enough to keep them out of the bottom of the division.

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The Cleveland Indians have been a good team over the last few years but every year it seems like they are starting from behind every year. They have regularly started slow only to recover and end up with a winning season in the end. That slow start ends up being their downfall in the end as they can’t seem to get going in time to fully recover. For another year, they will try to get going early on and have the talent to do that with minimal movement this off-season. The strength of this team over the last few years has been the rotation where three of the starting five pitchers ended the season with sub-4.00 ERAs. Led by Corey Kluber the top three pitchers, including Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, were great throughout the full season. Trevor Bauer was an exception last year while Josh Tomlin was great in his limited starts last year. If this group can start fast they will put the Indians in a great position to win the division this year. The bullpen is just as good ranking among the best bullpens in the league in most major categories. Cody Allen is steady closer while Zach McAllister and Bryan Shaw both hovered around 3.00 ERA as set-up men. The entire pitching staff was great last year but like the rest of the team didn’t get going early enough. They will need to do it differently this year but they have the skill to do it as they can shut down other offences. Their own offence will try to get going early but is going to have an uphill battle in doing that. Michael Brantley has led this offence but he is recovering from an injury which will put a hole in their line-up, at least, to start the year. What made him so great was the opportunities to drive in runs and that will remain as Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor remain at the top of the line-up. Carlos Santana and new addition Mike Napoli will hope to make up for Brantley’s absence by providing power although Napoli needs to be more consistent to do that. There is no doubt that the Indians have the talent on offence and in their pitching staff to win this division. The real question is whether or not they can play a full season well rather than having to climb out of a hole to start the season. They are too good to overlook though as a division title is likely as at the very least they will be a part of the battle for the top spot.

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After years of ruling the Central division, the Tigers had their worst season in years finishing at the bottom of the division. The Tigers had the talent that had got them to the top but couldn’t put everything together but they hope that won’t last long. During their time at the top, they had always put together a rotation that counted among the best groups in the league. That didn’t change last year but it seemed to be only on paper as the performance on the field was not up to expectations. Justin Verlander is the unquestioned leader but he is not the Cy Young contender he was a few years ago. Meanwhile, Anibal Sanchez and new addition Jordan Zimmermann can be great pitchers but are going to have to recover from poor years last season. Daniel Norris was a solid addition last year and has the potential to be a great starter but has to stay healthy. The pitching staff has the potential to be strong again but the question for many is whether or not the best years are behind some of the leaders. The starters were always the strength of the team and they needed to be recently as the bullpen had a tendency to fall apart. This year the Tigers went to work trying to find ways to get more strength signing Mark Lowes and Francisco Rodriguez. It could be a big boost for the group as K-Rod may not be as big a star as he used to be but he is a great closer that is sure to help the bullpen. Lowe is hoping to keep up momentum from his best season while Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson, and Blaine Hardy have potential. On offence, the Tigers have had one of the most balanced teams in the league with power and the ability to get on base throughout the line-up. The Miguel Cabrera is still one of the best hitters in the game even if he isn’t winning triple crowns anymore. Along with Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez, the Tigers have a strong middle of the lineup. Meanwhile, Anthony Gose and Ian Kinsler provide some speed on either end of the line-up. The Tigers are once again a balanced team with an offence that is sure to put up points and a pitching staff that can dominate teams. The big question will be whether or not that balanced offence can meet their potential and start winning again. They likely will fight for the division but this battle is too tough for a team that might be on that edge of truly competing again.

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Last year the Royals changed the way many people thought about the game as they finally won the World Series and did it with little to no power. They also did it without any big arm that was a guaranteed win throughout the season. It was a march towards history that included an old school approach to simply hitting the ball well and playing great defence. On offence they didn’t rank among the top scoring teams and their pitching staff didn’t have the best ERAs and yet the Royals took the division and the World Series. They enter a new year relatively unchanged and that is not a bad thing for a team built the way the Royals are. Most teams like to rely on their starters in the pitching game but the Royals prefer their bullpen only really requiring their starters to go six or seven innings. The bullpen is the strength of the team with Wade Davis leading the way as one of the best closers in the game. Alongside Kevin Herrera and Danny Duffy they made up a dominant group while the addition of Joakim Soria should make up for the loss of Ryan Madson. The starters don’t ned to be lights out they just need to get the game into the late innings and this group takes care of everything else. It doesn’t mean that the starters are terrible but none are really overpowering pitchers that will pitch nine innings every game out. Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura were good enough to provide solid outings while the addition of Ian Kennedy provides a perfect pitcher for how the Royals play. Strikeouts aren’t as important as giving the defence a chance to make plays and the entire rotation is, at least, good at doing that. On offence, the Royals are not built for power but have a little power with Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, who had a breakout year in 2015, and Kendrys Morales. What they are great at though is getting hits and piling the hits up until they begin scoring runs. That is what everyone in the line-up can do as Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas provide that ability to get on base and run the bases well. The rest of the line-up can get those key hits and drive runners in even if they don’t hit it out of the park every time. This type of team proved that they can be the best last year and there is little to say that they can’t do it again. Another World Series will be tough but they are definitely front runners for the division title.

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The Minnesota Twins were a team that nobody expected much from last year but in the strange year that defined the Central, they became one of the strongest teams. The Twins actually began competing in the division and a combination of the fall of Detroit and the rise of Kansas left them in second place. For a while, they seemed like they could actually give the Royals a push for the title but in the end, the team ran out of steam and fell short. It did give plenty of hope for 2016 though and with a few moves and some good prospects achieving their potential the postseason might be here. The Twins will be looking to some young guys to help them in a big way this year and they will be the difference between playing in October or not. Nowhere is that truer than on offence where young players need to step up and an unknown could change the team. Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton were both considered top-10 prospects at one point and they will get a chance to prove themselves this year. Sano could bring some extra power to the line-up while if Buxton can improve in his second season he can provide speed at the top of the line-up. The Twins will also be closely watching Byung-ho Park who has lit up the Korean league hitting 50+ home runs in both of the last two seasons. His addition could provide a true power hitter if he can adjust to the much better pitching in the MLB. Along with veterans Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe there is plenty of promise for this offence if everyone plays to their potential. The pitching staff is much the same as the potential is there for them but they need to meet it to be good enough. The biggest issue last year was that many of their starters couldn’t play a full season with injuries to Phil Hughes and Tyler Duffey along with a suspension for Ervin Santana. This year all will hope to see a full season and that should immediately improve the group as they all have the ability to be good starters. Chief among them, Hughes, who had a great 2014 and hopes that he can get back to it with a full season. In the bullpen, it was a slightly above average showing but the best was Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen who were great at getting the job done in late innings. The rest of the group will need to be better if they want to help the Twins to the division title. There is plenty of promise for this team to continue their momentum from last year but there are a lot of questions. For that reason, they won’t be making the postseason but they aren’t going to be out of the division battle throughout the year either.

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Prediction:
It is not going to be an easy fight this year as the entire division seems to be better this year than a year ago. Then again anything can happen and, at least, one team is set for a bad year but nobody knows who that might be. The royals still seem like a team built to win and they will win again continuing their time at the top. It won’t be as easy though as they will fight off the Twins and the Indians who will fall short but will continue to fight for the wild card in the American League. The Indians will get just further as the unknowns are too much for the Twins. The White Sox and Tigers will continue their old battle but this time, it will be to stay out of the bottom of the division. Neither will be out of the division race all year but in the end, the White Sox will finish last while the Tigers will at least not finish last again for the year.

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