Division Outlook 2016: AL Central

AL Central 2015 Final Standings
Kansas City Royals        95      67
Minnesota Twins           83      79
Cleveland Indians         81       80
Chicago White Sox       76       86
Detroit Tigers                 74       87

“Spring training is the time of dreams and of hopes, when reality takes a holiday and every veteran is a wizard and rejuvenated, and every rookie is a potential Babe Ruth or a Satchel Paige, and no club has lost a single game that counts in the standings…but basically, it’s to condition the fans.  It’s a con game.” – Bill Veeck

This spring training, articles like “John Danks working for results, durability” by MLB.com writer Scott Merkin remind us that fluff pieces offer very little substance, at best fulfilling a beat writer’s story quota (name a player, Scott, not working for results and durability) while remaining uncritical to any front office spin.  And the narrative being spun for the American League Central Division has been that any team could win the division.  With Fangraphs and other projection systems giving unfavorable forecasts to the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals, there seems to be credence for this narrative.  A consequence of this yarn is that it gives White Sox, Indians, Tigers and Twins fans hope, which translates to an increase in ticket packages, or at least subscriptions to MLB.tv at its newly reduced rate.  As Bill Veeck, the former owner of the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, alluded to years ago, reality will eventually come back from its holiday.

Last year we warned against the Detroit Tigers doubling down on their aging, expensive veterans.  This year is no different.  By adding starter Jordan Zimmerman and outfielder Justin Upton to the mix, 80-year-old owner Mike Illich is signalling his desire to win regardless of the price tag or the drain on the farm system, as well as a noticeable disregard for the opinions here at Off Base.  Admittedly, we are fans of Zimmerman, although there were obvious warning signs last season that his best years are behind him, and we thought Upton was the best of the outfield free agent class this offseason.  And looking at the top of the roster, there’s not much to complain about, especially concerning Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler.  Yet doubling down again reminds us of that definition of insanity: doing something over and over and expecting a different outcome.  Of course we could be wrong and the outcome could be different.  Justin Verlander could pitch like he did four years ago.  Victor Martinez could stay healthy.  Francisco Rodriguez could improve one of baseball’s most woeful bullpens.  Jose Iglesias could…yeah whatever.  The outcome isn’t changing.

General Manager Rick Hahn and the Chicago White Sox front office are seemingly never satisfied with their roster, constantly looking to make the “next move.”  Even after a busy offseason, which is now to be expected from Hahn, the team still feels incomplete.  And what is the next move?  Currently it may be filling right field, set to be manned by disappointing incumbent Avisail Garcia.  After missing out on free agent outfielders Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes, a trade may be in the team’s future, with targets like Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce and Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez consistently popping up in the rumor mill.  Even with designated hitter Adam LaRoche’s decision to retire during spring training and saving the team $13 million, a trade deadline deal is more likely at this point, with Hahn and, more importantly, owner Jerry Reinsdorf banking on a strong April and May in terms of wins and attendance before adding to the payroll.  Will the Sox do well out of the gate?  Possibly.  Yet the current roster and lack of farm depth reveal the Sox may perpetually be incomplete, a team sewn together every season with one-year, “prove themselves” kinda deals of aging veterans (Jimmy Rollins) and reclamation projects (Mat Latos), tools-y, young talent that may end up going the way of Dayan Viciedo (Garcia), and relatively inexpensive stars anchoring positions that don’t require great athleticism (Todd Frazier and Jose Abreu).  After last year’s disappointing output of 76 wins, it is obvious that Hahn is trying to build a team that can insulate itself from injury and underperformance with an abundance of fresh talent through trade and free agency.  Who knows, Hahn may get that right fielder sooner rather than later.  Unfortunately another hole will more than likely reveal itself (hello, John Danks) and the Sox will still be one more move away.

Last season, the Minnesota Twins’ surprising challenge for the final Wild Card spot sputtered in the second half due to a middling rotation and atrocious bullpen.  This season, outfielders Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano will add a lot of excitement to the team, but not more wins as neither one can pitch.  This is disappointing, as the youth and the talent all around the diamond, including third baseman Trevor Plouffe and second baseman Brian Dozier, will make this a fun team to watch offensively.  Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes are both fine starters, but the rotation gets thin rather quickly, setting up disaster for the bullpen as manager Paul Molitor will look to mix and match mop-up duty from his underwhelming relief corp.  Signing Byung Ho Park looks like a solid, inexpensive move for the team, as he’s raked this spring training, and the trade for catcher J.R. Murphy could be the underrated move that pays dividends for the future.  Yet as long as the pitching talent down on the farm remains slow to progress while the front office overspends on mid-tier pitching talent, the Twins will be a competitive team that runs out of gas over the long haul of a season.

The Cleveland Indians, sabermetric darlings, have consistently fallen below expectations, flashing brilliance the last few years in between injuries and defensive miscues.  Although it was a little misguided for Sports Illustrated to proclaim them as World Series favorites heading into last season, the potential was indeed there.  And that potential still remains, especially as their starting rotation makes other teams envious.  But for all this potential, many concerns fester.  Their double play duo of Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis rivals the combination of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve in Houston for the best in the game, yet aging veterans Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe don’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence at the corners.  Catcher Yan Gomes is one of baseball’s most solid receivers, playing a position that is a black hole for quite a number of teams, but can he stay healthy?  And Terry Francona remains the class of the division’s managers, yet his team has seen a decline in wins every season since his first year on the job.  It’s quite fortunate that Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, traded last season, will not be in the Opening Day lineup, but former MVP-runner up Michael Brantley won’t be either because of a lingering injury.  The bullpen complements the rotation nicely, but the outfield situation remains a mess with the uncertainty surrounding Brantley.  Hopefully by the second half of the season, everything will click.  But with the talent of the Indians’ four division rivals, it may be too little, too late.

Having “Ned Yost” and “Hall of Fame” in the same sentence two years ago was laughable.  Yet a few more seasons of Yost managing this Kansas City Royals team could change what was once an improbability to a possibility.  Whether or not one thinks Yost is a good manager may not matter if he keeps racking up wins and pennants with the core of players on this team, which includes Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Eric Hosmer.  By bringing back Gordon and Joakim Soria, the Royals are sticking to the formula that has proven successful the last two seasons, culminating in the team’s first World Series win since 1985.  And what is the formula?  Have fastball-hitting position players providing Gold Glove defense behind average starters who can turn the ball over in the 6th inning to a shutdown bullpen.  Seems simple enough.  Yordano Ventura may or may not break out as the staff ace, but he won’t have to after the Royals replaced Johnny Cueto with Ian Kennedy this offseason, giving the team five decent starters.  Many knocked the Royals signing of Kennedy, yet the flyball-prone pitcher may prove to be adequate enough for this team as long as he keeps the ball in the park, especially with MVP candidate Cain patrolling center.  Closer Wade Davis steps in nicely for Greg Holland, anchoring one of the best bullpens in baseball that was only reinforced with Soria.  It wasn’t even two years ago that Yost was on the brink of losing his job.  However, he’s potentially set up quite nicely for a Hall of Fame career, laughing all along the way.

AL Central 2016 Projected Standings
Kansas City Royals        90      72
Cleveland Indians          84      78
Chicago White Sox        82      80
Minnesota Twins           82      80
Detroit Tigers                 78      84

Featured Image: Via newslocker.com








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