2017 MLB Preview: AL Central

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For years the American League East was the division with the best teams in the division always fighting for the World Series.

Every year it seemed like the East was producing a World Series favourite and almost every year they made good on that favourite status.

The New York Yankees ruled the MLB throughout the 1990s and the Boston Red Sox broke their long drought only to become one of the top teams in the league throughout the 2000s.

Both teams were constantly in the hunt and they made the AL East a tough division to win in and a tough division to face every year.

That dominance from the east is no longer the case in the MLB but the Central has taken up the mantle of being the best division.

The American League Central has turned into the division that produces World Series teams bringing three teams to the World Series in the last three years.

In 2014 it was the Kansas City Royals who found their way to the World Series after earning a wild card spot.

They lost that series but they won the division in 2015 and took that title to their second straight World Series, which they won.

It seemed like they were simply going to become a division about one team dominating everyone else until 2016.

That is when the Cleveland Indians took the division title and made an unexpected trip to the World Series where they lost to the Chicago Cubs.

For three straight years the AL Central has produced a World Series team and in that streak, things have been interesting.

Unlike in the AL East, none of these teams has really become one to the top teams in the league.

They, instead came out of nowhere in every year with unexpected runs to the World Series that not many saw coming.

The Royals surprised everyone when they made the postseason but then marching to the World Series from the wild card was an even bigger surprise to everyone.

When they went into the next season it was questioned as to whether or not they could make another run after losing the World Series.

They did just that and this time came out on top as the best team in baseball giving them plenty of hype heading into 2016.

Then came the Indians who nobody expected anything from and who rose to the top of the division.baseball-sidebar

Even when they entered the postseason not many had them going all the way to the World Series but they were right there.

They may have taken the loss but the fact that they made the World Series at all was a surprise that only continued the pattern of the division.

As a new season approaches there are plenty of questions when it comes to the Central.

Was 2016 just an aberration for the Royals? Are the Indians the team to beat? Can the Indians break their World Series drought this year? Can the Central division produce another pennant champion? And is there another surprise team ready to take the title?

All of these questions will need to be answered this year and every team is looking to be the next AL champions and possibly next World Series champions.

The Royals are back hoping that they just slipped in 2016 and that they can return to something great in 2017.

The Indians are hoping that some big new additions can make the difference in repeating as AL champs, although they won’t surprise anyone this year.

As these two fight at the top, the other teams will look to sneak into contention and be the next surprise.

The Tigers have the ability with the talent on their team while the Twins and White Sox could be headed for a painful year unless their young talent puts in surprising performances.

The White Sox are finally realising that a rebuild is in order and are starting to look to a young group.

In Minnesota, the Twins have already started the rebuild and will be hoping for a sped up version if they want to compete with the top teams.

Most likely this division comes down to the Indians and the Royals and if either or both make the postseason there is a chance that they make the World Series again is good.

The Central continues to be one of the best divisions in the league and they hope to prove it again this year with another AL pennant and hopefully a World Series title.

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It’s another story that has become so familiar in the MLB, a team that has seen some success trying to remain a contender and avoiding the rebuild. Teams do it all the time as they think adding a few pieces can make the difference and make them a contender. Eventually, they realise that it isn’t the case and they have to start the rebuild but that is a hard thing to sell to ownership and to the fans. The White Sox are in that position right now as they have come to the realisation that they need to rebuild this team and not just retool. After years of sitting in the middle of the division and missing out on the resurgence of the Central, the Sox are headed in a new direction. They started to get rid of the old guard trading Adam Eaton and Chris Sale to bring in a load of prospects. Some even see them being very active on the trade market this year to send the rest of their veterans away and restock the farm system. A big part of their rebuild came in the Sale trade when they got Yoan Moncada, a promising young Cuban prospect. He will join his countryman Jose Abreu as a pair of building blocks for the future. Both should have an impact on the offence as they hope Abreu can bounce back from a more difficult third year in the MLB. New addition Geovany Soto should add some experience behind the plate as well as at the plate while they hope Melky Cabrera can continue to hit. On the mound, the White Sox are now without their top pitcher in Chris Sale but they still have some talent. Jose Quintana and James Shields are both capable of being great pitchers and they can make a difference for this team. In the bullpen, the White Sox aren’t necessarily a great lineup but they are good. David Robertson is not a sure closer but he is good while the late relief pitchers like Dan Jennings and Nate Jones are two of the highlights of the group. The White Sox are a team gearing up for their rebuild and it is just the beginning of that process. They have some promising prospects thanks to their commitment to the rebuild but it might not be over. They are still not a team that will be competing for a postseason spot no matter how promising their prospects are. So expect them to begin selling their top players midway through the year and fully commit to the rebuild especially if they are just a middle-of-the-road team.

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The Indians are now the holders of one of the worst honours in baseball, the longest active World Series drought. The last time they won the title was 1948 but that pales in comparison to the last team that held the honour. The Chicago Cubs ended a 100+ year drought last year and they just happened to end it against the Indians. Cleveland somewhat unexpectedly made their way to the World Series last year and they had a chance to break the drought and continue the longest drought. That wasn’t to be and now the Indians are looking to a new season with another chance at making the World Series. The changes made have already made them favourites to get back as they head into the new season with a very promising roster. Last year they rode their great rotation to the postseason but in the postseason that rotation began to drop leaving them with a shell of what they once had. They return this year with much the same rotation and a hope that they can stay healthy for a lot longer than last year. Cory Kluber leads the way as a Cy Young candidate from 2016 and will be joined Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer. All pitched well last season and if they can stay healthy the entire season while pitching to their potential it will be a scary rotation to face with few weaknesses. The bullpen wasn’t far behind in terms of talent as Andrew Miller had a great year and became a major tool in the postseason. He will be used in big moments while Cody Allen takes over the closer role this year to once again make the group a tough one. On offence, the Indians went out to boost their power and they did that as they signed Edwin Encarnacion. He was one of the thorns in their side during the postseason and now he brings his power to Cleveland in what will be a big plus for this team. He will fit nicely with Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis. Meanwhile, they hope that Michael Brantley can be the star they know he can be but he still has issues after a shoulder injury in 2015.  If he can get back to normal this offence is going be a good group. Added to their already tough pitching staff makes the Indians an early favourite to take the division once again and possibly make a run at the World Series as breaking the drought is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

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The Detroit Tigers were the team that used to rule this division before it became one of the best divisions in baseball. The rule of the Tigers led to plenty of postseason appearances and a few times when they seemed like the team to beat in the league. They never quite got there though and eventually, they began to fall off of the pace of the great teams that have come through the Central. The tigers are now sitting right on the edge as they still have great players and have a chance to compete with top teams but they are also a team getting older. 2017 might be the season where a decision is made to either begin a rebuilding phase or continue down the same path. That will entirely depend on how well their best players perform and if they can make the postseason this year. Their team has always been built around two key players and more often than not a good rotation. One of those key players is back again as Justin Verlander continues to lead the Tigers’ rotation. Detroit doesn’t have the same dominant rotation they once did as many of the players around Verlander have left. This year they might not have the same depth but they still have a great pitching behind their ace. Michael Fulmer hopes to improve on his great rookie performance while Jordan Zimmerman looks to get back to his old ways and solidify the third spot for the team. Francisco Rodriguez will be looking to do the same as the man known as “K-Rod” has not been the same closer that he used to be. If he can get back to his dominant stuff this bullpen will follow him. The other major player for the Tigers has been Miguel Cabrera who remains one of the best hitters in the history of the game. Cabrera leads the offence while Ian Kinsler provides good leadoff help and Victor Martinez and Justin Upton provide some power. It is a good group but also not one that is entirely deep with talent throughout the batting order. For Detroit, this is probably going to be a very big year as it will decide what they do going forward. The management seems to believe that this group still has what it takes to compete but if they struggle a lot of their best players could be headed to other teams as they begin a rebuild. That will put some pressure on this group but that pressure won’t necessarily get them into the postseason this year as a rebuild seems to be in the future.

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The Royals were the team that everyone was watching a few seasons ago as they surprised everyone in 2014 by rising through the ranks to the World Series. They lost that title but the next year they found their way back in 2015 and closed the deal to take the World Series. It was the beginning of what some thought could be a new era where the Royals were going to be a tough team to beat. They weren’t necessarily the oldest team and they were doing things different giving them a leg up for a few years. 2016 was supposed to be another division title but that is far from what it was as the Royals struggled. What was their strength turned into their weakness as their defence struggled while their offensive ability to make contact went away. The Royals are hoping that it was just an off year and if it was they could be back in the hunt for the postseason again. They moved further away from their World Series identity as they went out to get more power rather than hitters that can simply make contact. That was what was behind the signings of Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss. Neither are known for their pure hitting as both can hit for power and have high strikeout rates. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez are all still around although some are ending their contracts. They are all a part of the World Series team and all have that same mentality of small-ball but they also have the ability to hit for power. That core can still help this team compete this year if they meet their potential unlike in 2016. The pitching staff will look different this year as Edinson Volquez is gone and that leaves Danny Duffy to lead the team. He had the ability to do that last year but the big question will be if he can do it again this year. The addition of Jason Hammel could pay off but he is not a dominant pitcher while the same can be said for Travis Wood and Jason Vargas. The bullpen is moving on from Wade Davis as Kevin Herrera takes over as the closer for a bullpen that is nowhere near as dominant as it was in 2015. The Royals are in a weird spot as they don’t seem to be as good as they once were despite their attempts to stay at the top. Their efforts to remain one of the top teams will likely fall short as they won’t make the postseason fighting for second place.

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The Twins are the epitome of what it looks like when a team commits to the rebuild and it is not pretty. The Twins are right in the thick of their rebuild meaning that the talent is lacking on the team due to most of their stars either ageing or on another team. Their young stars are promising but they aren’t fully ready to be a contender in the league. That is where the Twins sit as they took 103 losses last year and as they head into another season without much changing. They added a few pieces to the struggling team but overall the off-season doesn’t look like it will change a lot in terms of how good this team is and whether or not they compete for any spot other than last. They looked into getting some kind of help in the rotation when they signed Ryan Vogelsong but he isn’t the same pitcher he used to be when he was on the super-rotation in San Francisco. If he can capture something from those days he could be a boost alongside Ervin Santana who remains their best pitcher. He is only one pitcher and the rest of the rotation is pretty shaky although Jose Berrios is a player to watch as one of the brightest prospects who will get plenty of time to prove himself. The bullpen is much of the same as Brandon Kintzler is good but not great and the Twins are just waiting for their top prospects to make an appearance in the majors. Some of those players have already arrived on offence but they still need time to develop. The biggest name of them is Byron Buxton who was one of the top prospects in the league but has yet to meet his potential. At the end of 2016, he looked better and he hopes to continue that progression to finally meet his lofty expectations. Buxton joins Miguel Sano and Max Kepler as promising young talents that are making their impact right now in the league. As the season progresses the top talents like Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier might not last long in Minnesota as they continue their rebuild. The Twins are in for a painful few years and they have already gone through one. Although the young talent is promising it isn’t ready to compete in 2017 and they won’t make it out of the basement this year.

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Prediction:
The Centrals remains one of the top divisions this year as there is talent in the division that can make a run at the World Series. The unfortunate part is that the talent tends to be located in a few teams rather than throughout the division. Most of the talent will be located in the division champions who will take the title for the second year in a row. The Cleveland Indians are the class of the division and with their additions, they look like a favourite to take the American League title for another year. The interesting battle will be for second as the Tigers and the Royals who are in a very similar position. They will fight for second and both will consider their end result as a sign of the next steps for the team. The Tigers will come out on top while the Royals will fall just short although both will likely come short of a postseason. The White Sox are at the start of a rebuild and it will be a rough year but not as rough as the Twins who will come in last for the second year in a row.

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