Feb. 24, 2015
2015 Ten Questions: AL Central
Our baseball previews continue, as we ask ten questions about the American League Central Division
Written by Jake Elman
The 2015 MLB Previews on SportsMix continues, and today, we're talking about the American League Central. It's a division that, unlike most other divisions, has been fairly consistent in terms of who wins and who loses. It's the divison that's fielded two of the past three American League Champions, but a division that hasn't hoisted a World Series trophy since 2005; out of every division, that's the longest drought, with the National League East (2008) in second.
With pitchers and catchers reporting, now seems like a good time to get back into doing previews for the MLB season ahead. Without waiting any longer, let's just dive right into this. If you missed any other MLB previews, I'll list them below:
10. Do Tigers still have a roar in them?
It wouldn't be right to start off an article about the American League Central without talking about the four-time reigning division champion Detroit Tigers. Like them or hate them, the Tigers have been one of baseball's best teams since 2011, averaging 92 wins a season in that time and making three American League Championship appearances in four years. On paper, the Tigers field one of the best lineups in baseball, and the rotation is still a solid one, even with Max Scherzer counting Benjamins in Washington and Rick Porcello hanging out in Boston.
Yet, this really isn't the same Tigers team that won 90 games last year. Two of the staff's veteran pitchers, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, are off on different teams, DH Victor Martinez and 1B Miguel Cabrera both are dealing with injuries that could hold them out of opening day action on April 6th against the Minnesota Twins, and the rest of the division (as you'll soon see) is much improved. In fact, I think this is the first season since 2011 where I don't have the Detroit Tigers as clearcut division winners coming into the season. The Detroit Tigers may be running a four year streak of winning the AL Central, but this could really be the year that they're sitting at home in October.
In terms of what they did this offseason, I do like the additions of starting pitchers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, as well as outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Though Greene and Simon don't even come close to Scherzer and Porcello, they're solid additions and should help the Tigers out considerably. On paper, the Tigers may be one of the division's best teams with those additions, but I'm not sure if the Tigers are going to repeat as division champions again. The rest of the AL Central is a lot better, and this team is already dealing with injuries to stars that could cripple (no pun intended) the Tigers' chances of another playoff run. Seeing how the Tigers do this year is going to be one of the more interesting stories in baseball, especially as they try to succeed without Max Scherzer.
Also as cliche as this may seem, it wouldn't be right to talk about Detroit without adding one of the greatest songs ever relating to the Motor City...and no, it's not Welcome 2 Detroit by Trick-Trick and Eminem.
9. How hot is Robin Ventura's seat?
When Robin Ventura was hired as White Sox in October 2011, he had two jobs: make White Sox fans forget about Ozzie Guillen, the former manager who the team had a bitter divorce with, and bring the team back to the playoffs. At the time, the White Sox had only one playoff appearance since their World Series championship in 2005, and now, despite fielding several talented teams, Ventura enters the season on the hot seat because Chicago is still searching for that elusive playoff berth. After going 85-77 in his first season as Chicago's skipper and finishing third in AL Manager of the Year voting, Ventura has seen his White Sox lose 99 and 89 games the past two seasons; with that said, after a big offseason that saw several big-name free agents come to the Windy City, now is go time for Ventura and the White Sox.
If we had to rate Ventura's seat on our usual grades of piping (which means you're likely gone), warm (which means you might lose it, you might not), or too early to be seen, I think Ventura falls under warm. Did the Chicago White Sox have a bad season last year? Yes, for sure, but a ten game improvement in a relatively hard division is still a ten game improvement. Still, I think Ventura is at least going to need to have a winning record to make sure he's managing the South Siders in 2016, especially after the improvements this team made in the offseason. I like Ventura a lot, and I think the White Sox are going to be a fun team to watch in 2015.
8. Who will replace Butler, Shields, for Royals?
Now, you likely read that question out loud and said, "Kendrys Morales will obviously replace Billy Butler at the DH spot, and Yordano Ventura will likely slide into James Shields' vacant ace spot, right?" Well, you're right when it comes to on paper, but I'm talking about the team as a whole. Before joining the Oakland Athletics in the offseason, Billy Butler was one of Kansas City's longest tenured players, a loyal star for a team that had struggled for so long before finally reaching their potential these past two seasons; though he'd only been in Kansas City for two seasons, James Shields was a gamer and a competitor, something that the Royals had desperately needed from their pitching staff for years. It may seem easy to replace them on paper, but when it comes to the clubhouse and the team, there are just some guys that you can't replace.
Now, if I said to you that these two were the Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaws of the Kansas City Royals, I'd be lying, but Butler and Shields were both instrumental in the Royals' World Series run. Though Butler regressed to a .271/9/66 statline with a -0.3 WAR, his lowest since 2008's -0.4, he was still a threat, and he did hit .262 with 8 RBIs in the postseason, and that average is skewed due to a hitless showing in the ALDS. In the ALCS and World Series, Butler hit .309 with 6 runs batted in, which isn't at all bad for a player in his first postseason. Shields had another great season, going 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA while walking only 44 men in 227 innings. That's not a bad season, and that's why James Shields got paid big time by the San Diego Padres.
In terms of the big bat that will drive in those key runs for you, I really think third baseman Mike Moustakas is due for a big year. The second overall pick in 2007, 'Moose' is coming off another rough season, mustering up only a .212/15/54 statline for the Royals in 2014, though he did hit five home runs in the postseason. I think at some point, this kid is going to break through, and this seems like the year everything will come together for the former first rounder. Pitching wise, Yordano Ventura is going to need to be a legitimate ace for the Royals this year if he wants postseason baseball to take place in Kansas City. I like what he did last year -- a 14-10, 3.20 season with a 3.2 WAR is pretty damn good -- and he can be a Cy Young candiate if all goes well.
7. Is Nick Swisher capable of a rebound for Indians?
In the history of the New York Yankees, there have been some pretty lopsided trades; Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, and Tino Martinez all top that list, but one of the more recent trades to fall under that trope was the November 2008 acquistion of outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher from the Chicago White Sox for power hitting utility man Wilson Betemit and a minor league pitcher, Jeff Marquez. The results immediately paid off, as Swisher's 29 home runs helped the Yankees win their 27th World Series in 2009, and the team ultimately made three ALCS appearances in Swisher's four seasons, in large part due to the former first round pick hitting .268 with 105 homers and 349 RBI during that time. Following the 2012 season, Swisher parlayed his four big years in the Bronx into a four year contract with the Cleveland Indians, where it was expected he'd continue mashing long balls and bringing home playoff appearances.
Well, that's not quite what happened. Though he played in 145 games for Cleveland in 2013 and had a 3.8 WAR, which matched the highest of his career (2012 with the Yankees), Swisher was a bit of a let down for the Indians, as he only had a .246 batting average (his lowest since 2008, when he hit .219), 22 long balls (his lowest since 22 in 2007), and his Indians didn't move past the Wild Card round, which was the first time since 2007 that he wouldn't be playing in at least the ALDS. 2014 wasn't much better, as an injury plagued Swisher only hit .208/8/42 in 97 games. Now, in year three of a four year contract, it's make-or-break time for Swisher, and the Indians need a big time season from him.
At this point, I don't know what you can really get out of Swisher. Though he's supposedly reported ten pounds lighter to camp, I don't know if he's as dangerous as he was back when he was a member of the Yankees...but, I wouldn't write him off just yet. The last time Swisher had a truly awful season before last year was 2008, and he rebounded in a big way for the 2009 New York Yankees. Swisher is six years older, sure, but after having watched him in the Bronx for a few years, I know this is the type of guy you do not want to count out.
6. Will we see Buxton, Sano in 2015?
The easy answer is maybe for Sano, most likely for Buxton. But, because I don't want to answer something in only one sentence, I'll go a bit more in depth. Let's start with Byron Buxton, who was named MLB.com's top prospect in all of baseball for the second straight year last month. Buxton has been described as 'the epitome of a five-tool player', and he has exceptional speed and awareness, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. In short, this kid is going to be a star, but I don't think we'll see him just yet. Buxton is coming off a year in which he only played 31 games due to injuries, and at age 21, it may be best just to let the kid play in the minors for the majority of the year. If he lights it up down there, maybe call him up, but I would rule out seeing Buxton in MLB action until at least August. So yes, we'll probably see him, but not anytime soon (aside from spring training, but that doesn't count).
As for Miguel Sano, the 11th ranked prospect on MLB.com, we'll probably be seeing him as a September call up at best. As much as I'd love to see what Sano can do in the big leagues, let's not forget that this kid missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. When you have a player who missed all of the previous season and does not turn 22 until May, why wouldn't you just let him spend the entire year in the minors regaining his strength? MLB.com has Sano pegged for a 2016 MLB ETA, and I can't really argue and say that sounds unrealistic. If anything, that makes sense, but there's always a chance he sees time in September. Remember, there were a lot of people who thought Buster Posey wouldn't make his debut until the summer of 2010, but he spent some time in the big leagues in September of 2009. In short, I think you're more likely to see Buxton get serious MLB playing time this year than Sano.
5. Was quiet offseason best option for Indians?
I feel like every year, the Cleveland Indians seem to make some kind of splash in the offseason, but they were mostly quiet this year. Yes, they acquired slugger Brandon Moss from the Oakland Athletics (which was one of the more underrated moves this offseason) and signed Gavin Floyd, but there were no big contracts (Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in 2013, Kerry Wood in 2009, etc) or crazy trades; the Indians made a move to add a bat to their lineup, and signed a former solid starter to a one year contract in the hopes that he can resurrect his career and provide the Indians with some depth at the back of the rotation. They were moves that needed to be made, and I think they'll work out in the team's favor.
Now, the only question is if this quiet offseason will do the Indians good, or if they should have spent big time on a free agent. This is a team that doesn't have many holes, and the holes they had, they've filled up through young players and trades (see the Brandon Moss trade). Even if the Indians had wanted to go for someone like Chase Headley in free agency, the truth of the matter is that this team is very budget-conscious and isn't trying to spend big anymore. Sometimes, a quiet offseason is better than an extravagant offseason where checks are cashed and mistakes are made, and I think Cleveland will benefit from not breaking the bank for a marquee free agent this winter.
4. Was Jose Abreu's rookie year a fluke, or a sign of things to come?
There were few rookies I enjoyed watching more last season than Chicago's Cuban import Jose Abreu, who became a fan favorite across the league with his home run power. In fact, Abreu's .317/36/107 season with a 5.5 WAR was enough to earn him not only the American League Rookie of the Year award, but fourth place in the MVP voting. In this day and age, it's very rare to have a player on a team with 89 losses finish top five in the MVP voting, so that should tell you all about the rookie season Abreu had.
Now, as I said earlier, is a make or break time for the Chicago White Sox. After a flurry of offseason moves that netted them first baseman/designated hitter Adam LaRoche, outfielder Melky Cabrera, starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, and closer David Robertson, the White Sox are once again in prime position to contend. But, if this team has any realistic chances of contending, then Jose Abreu has to be healthy and put up numbers that are at least similar to last season. Now, with how many second year players there are that go through a sophomore slump, I don't know if last year's outburst was just a fluke and a player taking advantage of a new league, or if Abreu is for real.
Would I be surprised if Abreu struggles and falls off this year? Yes and no, moreso the latter because Abreu displayed great hitting tendencies last year as a 27 year old rookie. Now, with another year under his belt and other pieces surrounding him, I think Abreu can really take off and become one of the league's top stars. I know there are some people skeptical about Abreu doing well again, but hear me out; if there's one thing that's in Abreu's favor, it's the players previously in history who have hit 36 or plus home runs in their rookie seasons. Two of the five players, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire, hit 30+ bombs the next year, while Frank Robinson hit 29 his sophomore year; Robinson is a Hall of Famer, and Pujols is a lock for the Hall barring some kind of major incident. Does that mean Abreu is going to end up in the Hall of Fame one day? No, but if Abreu can bring postseason baseball back to ChiTown, I think that's all that matters to him.
3. Can Verlander give Tigers boost in rotation?
If this was 2010, 2012, or even last year and I asked this question, you'd probably have closed this tab and asked yourself what kind of question this guy was asking. Well, this isn't then; this is now, and if last year was anything to go off of, then Detroit Tigers star pitcher and former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander is beginning to regress. Last season, Verlander went 15-12 with an unimpressive 4.54 ERA and had his lowest strikeout total (159) since 2006; Verlander also recorded his lowest WAR, 1.1, in a full season ever, and a 5.30 ERA from May to August is likely to blame for that. Verlander also allowed 223 hits, a career high, and was unimpressive in his lone postseason start against the Baltimore Orioles.
Now, there are a lot of people who think Verlander just had a bad year, but I don't know. We're talking about a pitcher that threw 1574.2 innings from 2007-2013, and the workload is possibly starting to catch up with him. Unfortunately for the Tigers' ace, this is the worst possible time for him to be regressing, as the Tigers are desperate for a boost in the rotation following the departures of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Whatever problems plagued Verlander last year and caused him to stop being effective for most of the season need to be fixed this year if Detroit has any hopes of playing postseason baseball.
But, this is Justin Verlander we're talking about, and he is still a deadly pitcher when he's on his game. This season, I can still see Verlander going 16-11 with a 4.10 ERA, and if he can do that, then the Tigers will be more than happy. Besides, if you're an ace and you can't win 16 games in 30+ starts with his team's offense, then it may be time to call it quits.
2. Can Molitor bring excitement back to Twins?
The baseball fan in me loves it when a team's former player comes back to manage/coach them later on (see Joe Girardi with the Yankees, Robin Ventura with the White Sox, Mike Matheny with the Cardinals, etc), so I was excited by the Twins' hiring of Hall of Famer Paul Molitor this offseason. Molitor, of course, is from Minnesota and played the final three seasons of his career with the Twins, recording his 3000th hit there with a triple.
All old video aside, Moltior has a tough task ahead of him, as he has to lead his former team through the final year(s) of a long rebuilding process that has seen some players (Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe) become capable MLB players, and others (Kyle Gibson) struggle and eventually lose favor with the team. This is a big year for the Twins, and I think the addition of Molitor was one that the franchise needed to make. That's nothing against Ron Gardenhire, who I always had serious respect for, but the fans were getting tired of the constant losing from a team that can do so much better.
That, baseball fans, is exactly why the hiring of Molitor was a smart one. Not only does it get the fans interested again, but it ushers in a new era for the Twins; hopefully, for the Minnesota fans and players, it's an era of winning that will eventually culminate in the team's first World Series win since 1991, or even the team's first playoff victory since 2004. Molitor is the hometown hero, and that makes for a hell of a story -- the hometown hero and the former player bringing home the team's first championship in nearly twenty five years.
Are the Minnesota Twins a playoff team this year? Most likely no, and I would not be surprised if they lost 90 games. But, if the team can make progress and improve on last year's 70-92 finish, then all will be good in the Twin Cities. By the time 2017 arrives, the Minnesota Twins will be contenders again, mark my words.
1. Is Kansas City in line for another run?
The miracle run of the Kansas City Royals was one of 2014's best sport stories, but that was 2014 and this is 2015. Several key contributors from last year's Royals team are off in different places, and this is a different team that very well may not make the playoffs. Like I said above, there are a lot of things that have to go right for them, and that includes a breakout season from a couple of players. Ned Yost is a bit of an overrated manager, and things might not be as pretty in Kansas City as they were last year.
Though they still have Alex Gordon, a player who some Royals fans has become one of the American League's best, and a solid pitching staff, that might not be enough. In fact, looking at this team, I don't know if they're even going to have a winning record this year. We're talking about a team that got somewhat lucky last year, and luck isn't something that sticks with you every year unless you're the Indianapolis Colts. I think of a team like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals that got hot at the right time and eventually won the World Series, but only made the playoffs once in the next four seasons.
As a fan of the game, I wouldn't mind seeing Alex Gordon and the Royals make another playoff run, but I just don't think it can happen. The Royals not only play in the AL Central where Chicago's improved, Cleveland is a good team, and Detroit is still dangerous, but there are just other teams in the American League who are better than them. It's not something that Royals fans want to hear, but it's the truth; I don't think Kansas City is going to make another run this year, but that is definitely going to be an interesting story to watch.
Early Division Prediction:
Chicago White Sox: 88-74
Detroit Tigers: 86-76
Cleveland Indians 85-77
Kansas City Royals: 82-80
Minnesota Twins: 75-87
What do you think are the biggest stories surrounding the American League Central this year? Who do you have winning the division? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by voting in the poll below, and if you want to talk about the AL Central race, you can talk to me on Twitter by tweeting me at @JakeElman