Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the second divisional edition of College Sports Town’s 2014 MLB preview. Today, I’m going to take a look at the AL Central. This division is fairly top-heavy, but most of its teams are up-and-coming young squads with real potential. The difference is whether or not that potential will be realized this year. The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox both have stores of promising young players to match with veteran stars, although the White Sox are closer to utilizing their prospects than the Twins. The Indians and Royals will continue to battle for position in the AL wild-card hunt this year, just as they did last season. And the Tigers will finally bring home a World Series title for the first time since 1984.
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Kansas City Royals
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Minnesota Twins
1. Detroit Tigers
2013 was a great season for the Tigers. Max Scherzer brought home a Cy Young award, Miguel Cabrera won his second straight MVP (third in a row for a Tiger), and Detroit made it to the ALCS. This season will be better, however, because the Tigers will be able to finally claim the World Series title they have been in close pursuit of for the last three years. The lineup will look slightly different, but still will be among the best in baseball. Gone is the pudgy but powerful Prince Fielder, but into the lineup enters the still-potent Ian Kinsler. While the lineup protection Fielder afforded Miggy will be missed, Cabrera is moving back to a vacated first base, which should focus him more on the offensive side of the game (first base is both easier to play than third and Miggy’s natural position). Joining Cabrera and Kinsler are veterans like consistent outfielder Torii Hunter and the streaky Austin Jackson, as well as Nick Castellanos, a promising rookie third baseman. Sadly, Jose Iglesias will be out most of the year, so look for the Tigers to make a move for a shortstop soon. While there isn’t as much pop in the lineup as in years past, just having Miguel Cabrera at this point in his career pretty much guarantees you a top ten offense. Besides, the Tigers have one of the best rotations in baseball. Despite a confounding trade of the talented Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, the Tigers have the reigning AL Cy Young winner in Scherzer, the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander, and the reigning AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez (seriously, Miami, quit trading with Detroit). Even though Verlander’s stats took a bit of a hit last year, he seemed to return to form in the postseason. This trio is arguably unparalleled in the MLB, and Rick Porcello isn’t bad, either. Last year the big question mark was the bullpen, but the Tigers are banking on the newly acquired Joe Nathan to close out games. I think that gamble will prove to be a good one.
Best Case- Cabrera wins his third straight MVP, one of the members of the the pitching trio wins the Cy Young, and the Tigers win the World Series.
Worst Case- Cabrera can’t play through injuries, Verlander continues to decline, Scherzer is dealt, and the Tigers barely manage a wild-card spot.
2. Kansas City Royals
The crushed dreams of Kansas City denizens are slowly being patched together. After a long period of losing, 2013 saw the Royals involved in a wild-card race. They missed out on a spot then, but 2014 will be the year the drought ends. Years of high draft picks paid off, both in terms of developed prospects and stars traded for with prospects. The Royals’ lineup is formidable. Norichika Aoki will be an improvement leading off, and Omar Infante has some pop and a fine glove. Adding those to a lineup which includes young gun Eric Hosmer, All-Stars Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez, and slugger Billy Butler should be a dangerous combination. They might not hit a lot of home runs, but they should be putting a good amount of runs on the board.Their rotation is headlined by James Shields, who is likely in his last year with the Royals. Following Shields, who finished 11th in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013, are the decent Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, along with the underrated Bruce Chen. If the Royals can extend their youth movement into the pitching staff effectively with prospects Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, it will improve their playoff prospects. In the bullpen, All-Star closer Greg Holland is among the best in the game, and, when healthy, Luke Hochevar is a nice set up man.
Best case- Shields is a Cy Young candidate, Perez and Hosmer are All-Stars, and the Royals break their playoff drought with a wild-card berth.
Worst case- Hosmer and Mike Moustakas fail to develop further along with Ventura and Duffy, the Royals can’t break into the playoffs, and Shields departs soon after the season ends.
3. Cleveland Indians
Following an off-season in which the Indians made a big splash by signing Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and new manager Terry Francona, the Indians snagged a wild-card spot. Content with the composition of the squad, the Indians had a quiet off-season. This team might fall behind a bit due to its lack of moves in an extremely competitive AL wild-card race, but the Indians are still a dangerous ball club. The core of the lineup is made up of All-Star Jason Kipnis, the powerful Carlos Santana, and the solid Michael Brantley. The performances of Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera are more difficult to predict, due to the inconsistent natures of their 2013 seasons, but the Indians will prosper if the two produce. New outfielder David Murphy is fairly underrated and should be a nice addition to the lineup. The lineup is solid, but the rotation is where this team is really promising. If the young pitching staff can produce at the level they are expected, the Indians will make the playoffs for the second straight year. All-Star Justin Masterson is the ace, as well as the oldest of the bunch at 29. The most promising prospects are former Diamondback Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, a 24 year old who throws absolute gas. Also promising are Carlos Carrasco, Zach McAllister, and Corey Kluber. The Indians only need a few of these guys to produce in order to have a good shot at the postseason. The bullpen is fairly uncertain as well, with John Axford taking over the closing job. Axford, polished sophomore Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw will have to step up in the Indians’ revamped bullpen.
Overall, this team is difficult to forecast. They have many pieces in place; they just need a few lucky breaks for their gambles in the pitching staff to come through.
Best Case- Salazar and Bauer are electrifying, Kipnis and Masterson are All-Stars, and the Indians snag a wild-card spot for the second consecutive year.
Worst case- The inexperienced rotation falters, Swisher and Cabrera derail the lineup, and the Indians lose their gambles and their chance at a postseason spot.
4. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox had a disappointing 2013, finishing last place in the AL Central under manager Robin Ventura. In response, they made a nice splash in the off-season. As a result, this White Sox squad should be improved, although not quite good enough to contend for a wild-card spot. The lineup could potentially be very effective. The young trio of Cuban Jose Abreu and former Diamondbacks Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson, as well as summer acquisition Avisail Garcia, have the potential to be in the core of the White Sox lineup for the next decade, but likely won’t contribute too much this year. The ChiSox retained the terribly-disappointing Adam Dunn, as well as franchise icon Paul Konerko for another year, who will be joined in the infield by the unpredictable Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham. If their play, along with outfielder Dayan Viciedo, returns to past levels, the White Sox will be much improved. The rotation is fairly top-heavy, but it is headlined by one of the most exciting young pitchers in the league: 24 year old Chris Sale. Already a two-time All-Star, Sale is followed in the rotation by the decent duo of Jose Quintana and John Danks, then Felipe Paulino, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012, and Erik Johnson, who had a nice showing in September call-ups. The rotation will likely miss Hector Santiago, traded to Arizona in the deal for Eaton, as much as the bullpen will miss Addison Reed, also traded to Arizona for Davidson. The bullpen was completely revamped over the off-season, which probably a good thing considering the ChiSox were 23rd in bullpen ERA last year. Scott Downs, Roland Belisario, and Matt Lindstrom were all signed in the off-season, but it remains to be seen if Nate Jones can serve as an adequate closer. Overall, the White Sox are closer to contention, but their pitching staff outside of Sale needs improvement.
Best Case- Sale wins the Cy Young, Jose Abreu hits 35+ HR, and the White Sox are in contention until after the All-Star break.
Worst Case- The rotation after Sale is worse than imagined, Abreu is a bust, and the White Sox crash and burn for the second straight year.
5. Minnesota Twins
The Twins had a difficult 2013, but there is hope for the future. The Twins spent an unusually large amount in free agency to shore up their pitching staff, which was the second-worst team in the majors in team ERA last season. While the rotation should be improved, the lineup does not look too impressive. Outside of Joe Mauer (who has been converted to full-time first baseman) and Brian Dozier, the lineup is filled with replacement level players. This year’s lineup will likely be even worse than last year’s, despite the addition of C Kurt Suzuki, because of the midseason trade of former MVP Justin Morneau. Even more upsetting than the current state of the lineup is the stalling of the arrival of one of Minnesota’s saviors. The best slugger in the minors last season, Miguel Sano, was expected to be called up midseason, but Sano will miss the entire year with Tommy John surgery. Twins fans can hope one of the best prospects in all of baseball, Byron Buxton, will arrive in the upcoming season, but it seems unlikely that he’ll make the show this year. Hopefully for Minnesotans, the rotation will be better. Still, it is made up of cast-offs. Ricky Nolasco is likely the ace of the staff, which is already a risky proposition, and he is followed in the rotation by shaky starters Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, and Phil Hughes. For Minnesota to be any good this season, each one of these pitchers will have to have a career year, which seems unlikely. Outside of Mauer, the star of the team might be closer Glen Perkins, who saved 36 of the Twins’ 66 wins. Those two will probably be the only bright spots for the Twins this year, outside of the All-Star Game at Target Field, but don’t worry, Twins fans. 2015 will bring a healthy Sano and a more developed Buxton, and the prospect of facing those two will keep Chris Sale and Max Scherzer up at night.
Best case- Mauer wins a batting title, Perkins saves 40 games, the patchwork rotation holds together, and the Twins contend until August.
Worst case- Mauer gets injured again, the rotation completely falters, and the Twins finish 2014 in the cellar of the Central.
There you have it. The Tigers will win the AL Central once more on their way to a World Series championship, and the Royals will break their own postseason drought. Thanks for reading this edition of College Sports Town’s divisional preview. Next time, I’ll be forecasting the AL West. Will the Mariners’ wild off-season lead to a postseason appearance?Check back tomorrow to find out!