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2015 MLB Preview: AL Central

Even though the Detroit Tigers won the AL Central for the fourth straight year in 2014, the Kansas City Royals had the more memorable season, reaching the postseason and the World Series for the first time since 1985 before losing to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Despite the relative success of these two squads last year, however, I don’t think either one will be returning to the postseason in 2015. The Minnesota Twins will be better as their highly-touted prospects begin to arrive in the Show, and the Cleveland Indians have a formidable lineup to send out alongside AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. But I think the Chicago White Sox will be the team to end Detroit’s domination of the Central and to take the divisional crown for the first time since 2008.

Divisional Breakdown

  1. Chicago White Sox
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Minnesota Twins

Team Breakdown

  1. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox had a fairly discouraging 2014, with the team falling out of the AL Wild Card race after a terrible August. However, there were several bright spots, the most exciting of which being AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. This year, the White Sox will depend on the 28 year old Cuban to be the key cog in a revamped lineup. The White Sox had one of the splashiest offseasons of any team in the league, adding OBP master Melky Cabrera and the powerful Adam Laroche into the fold. These two will be welcome additions into a lineup that doesn’t boast many household names. In addition to the improved lineup, the White Sox boast an imposing trio of starting pitchers: Chris Sale (my Cy Young pick), new acquisition Jeff Samardzija, and the underrated Jose Quintana. Although Sale is currently injured, and although the rest of the rotation is somewhat underwhelming, these three should serve Chicago well come October. Strides were also made to improve a bullpen that was among the worst in the league last season. New closer David Robertson and lefty Zach Duke should help the White Sox lock down a few more games over the course of 2015.

Verdict

Best Case- Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana are dominant, Abreu is an MVP candidate, and the White Sox win the AL Central.

Worst Case- Sale’s foot doesn’t heal properly, Robertson and Duke cannot fix Chicago’s bullpen troubles, and the White Sox are stuck at home in October.

I feel obligated to use this image whenever Chris Sale comes up in a post.

  1. Cleveland Indians

The Indians had a fairly good 2014 season, finishing 3 games back in the AL Wild Card race. Breakout seasons from Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley, who finished third in the AL MVP race, should have Indians fans very excited for 2015. Overall, this is a pretty solid baseball team. In addition to Brantley, the lineup boasts the underrated catcher Yan Gomes, the powerful Carlos Santana, and the newly acquired Brandon Moss, who should improve production out of right field. And if Jason Kipnis can return to his 2013 All-Star form, the Indians’ lineup might be among the best in baseball. The rotation is also promising, headlined by Kluber and filled with young fireballers. Getting production out of Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer will be particularly important if the Indians hope to compete this year. The bullpen is fairly solid, with no key departures from a squad that finished 7th in the league in reliever ERA. While I don’t know if I agree with Sports Illustrated’s prediction that the Indians will win the World Series, Cleveland will certainly be a formidable opponent in 2015.

Verdict

Best Case- The rotation is overwhelming, Brantley, Gomes, and Kipnis produce at a high level, and the Indians take home the AL Central title.

Worst Case- The young guns in the rotation show little development, the breakout seasons of last year appear to be a fluke, and Cleveland misses the playoffs for the second straight year.

Tests have confirmed that Kluber is not a robot, but he does exude a machine-like efficiency from the mound.

  1. Detroit Tigers

The Tigers missed yet another opportunity to bring home their first World Series title since 1984 when they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. Now, they try to do so in an AL Central that has improved, and with a team that is quite different than last year’s. Any lineup with Miguel Cabrera will produce a fair amount of runs. Adding Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and J.D Martinez into the equation in 2014 resulted in the Tigers scoring the second-most of any team last season. Jose Iglesias will return, intent on matching the offensive production and defensive wizardry of his rookie season, newcomer Anthony Gose will try to be a serviceable replacement to Austin Jackson in center, and Yoenis Cespedes will attempt to inflate the value of his next contract with a big season. While the lineup appears to be as strong as ever, Detroit’s rotation and bullpen are filled with question marks. Gone are Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly. In their place stand David Price, Alfredo Simon, and Shane Greene. I don’t know that the replacements will be able to match the production of their predecessors, a statement made even more concerning by the fact that no one knows if Justin Verlander will ever be the same pitcher that he was in 2011 again. I believe the Tigers’ rotation will be solid, but I’m not sure that they’ll match the dominance of the 2013 squad. Meanwhile, the team did little to improve what was an absolute mess of a bullpen in 2014. Joe Nathan is back, coming off one of the worst years of his career, and disappointing midseason acquisition Joakim Soria returns as well. It is up to those two, as well as the resigned Joba Chamberlain, to provide some stability to what has been consistently the worst aspect of Detroit’s team.

Verdict

Best Case- Miggy and Victor Martinez are MVP candidates, Verlander and Price look like their old selves, and the Tigers win their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.

Worst Case- The aging lineup is injury-riddled, the new pitching acquisitions can’t match the production of last year’s squad, and the Tigers miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Verlander and Price need to pitch like their old selves if the Tigers are to win this division.

  1. Kansas City Royals

The Royals shocked the world in 2014, sweeping their way to the World Series from the wild card game before finally falling to the San Francisco Bumgarners– sorry, the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Unfortunately, after losing three key members of that magical run- James Shields, Nori Aoki, and Billy Butler- and not matching some of the louder moves of their divisional rivals, I don’t think they’ll be returning to the postseason. The lineup is still quite solid and defensively elite, with Gold Glovers Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon all back at their respective posts. Newcomers Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales will attempt to produce at DH and RF, but both had fairly mediocre 2014s, which can be tough to come back from on the wrong side of 30. The rotation is solid, but will certainly miss its former ace Shields. Flamethrower Yordano Ventura and his fellow young gun Danny Duffy headline a staff that could be one of the better rotations in baseball, provided that Edinson Volquez can replicate his success of 2014. Chris Young is a nice end-of-the-rotation addition as well, and the signing of Kris Medlen (who will return later in the season from Tommy John surgery) could play a key role down the stretch. The core of the much-discussed Kansas City bullpen stayed relatively unchanged, with closer Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera all returning. If they can perform as they did last year, the Royals will win a lot of close games.

Verdict

Best Case- Perez, Hosmer, and Gordon show they’re among the best at their positions, the rotation holds together despite the loss of Shields, and the Royals snag another wild card spot.

Worst Case- Morales and Rios aren’t suitable replacements, the rotation looks weak without Shields, and the Royals drop out of the wild card race by mid-September.

Ventura, seen here at his Rockettes audition, will bring 100+ MPH heat at the top of KC’s rotation.

  1. Minnesota Twins

The 2014 Twins were pretty bad, finishing in last place in the Central and not even getting a glimpse of the future after disappointing injuries to their two top prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. While I don’t expect the Twins to be in contention this year, Minnesota could be a dangerous team come 2016. The lineup is filled with potential. Buxton and Sano are still stuck in the minors for the time being, but Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia have shown promise in the outfield, and Brian Dozier is one of the better second basemen in the league. Torii Hunter is back in Minnesota, returning to the team with which he spent the first nine full years of his career. While Buxton may very well steal his job when he finally arrives in the Bigs, Hunter will provide valuable veteran leadership (and may serve to put more Minnesotan butts in the seats). The rotation had the highest ERA of any AL team last year, but the addition of Ervin Santana should make things a little better. Phil Hughes had a terrific 2014 season and was rewarded with a 3-year, $42 million extension. Hughes and Santana alone aren’t enough to fix Minnesota’s pitching problems, though, and the back end of the Twins’ rotation will probably struggle. The bullpen is decent, with All-Star Glen Perkins closing games, but it is not very deep. The Twins may yet decide to pursue free agent closer Rafael Soriano to shore up their staff.

Verdict

Best Case- Buxton and Sano come up and impress, Arcia and Hicks emerge as key long-term pieces, and the Twins enter 2016 as a playoff favorite.

Worst Case- Buxton and Sano are again bitten by the injury bug, the rotation is a mess, and the window for contention moves even farther away than it already is.

On the bright side for 2015, Joe Mauer’s hair is still presumably dandruff-free.

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2014 MLB Preview: AL East

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the first divisional preview for the 2014 MLB season. To begin, I’m going to take a look at what is perhaps again the best division in baseball, the AL East. Apart from the Blue Jays, every team in this division has a realistic chance to reach the postseason. The Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees shared the same exact record last year (85-77), and each team has done nice work in the off-season, although the Yankees have, unsurprisingly, far outspent the Orioles for more prized free agents. The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off a season in which a group of talented rookies joined a couple of All-Star veterans to lead the team to a wild-card berth. Oh yeah, the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox happen to be in the division as well. Like I said, the AL East is one of the best divisions in baseball, and, as always, the battle for its crown should be very interesting.

Divisional Breakdown

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

Team Breakdown

1. Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox went from worst to first last year, winning the 2013 World Series in their first year under new manager John Farrell. The level of success established by the new manager will be continued this year, as the Red Sox will win their second straight AL East crown. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia still make up the heart of this lineup, but young guns Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Will Middlebrooks should add some firepower to a lineup which last year scored the most runs in baseball. The rotation is very good too: Clay Buchholz, when healthy, is one of the best pitchers in the division, while Jon Lester and John Lackey are generally solid. Add to those three a full season of Jake Peavy, and the rotation should do very well. Come the ninth inning, Koji Uehara was the best closer in the league not named Craig Kimbrel last season, and he will look to continue his wild success this year. This Red Sox squad is talented, with a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership.

Verdict

Best Case- The Red Sox repeat as World Series champions. Bogaerts wins ROY, Buchholz wins the AL Cy Young, and Ortiz keeps on launching balls into the atmosphere.

Worst Case- Ortiz’s aging body gives out, Buchholz is once again plagued by shoulder issues, and the rookies look unready and overhyped. The Red Sox win a wild-card spot but don’t go anywhere in the postseason.

Boston is Papi's city, and he's ready to lead them to another divisional crown

Boston is Papi’s city, and he’s ready to lead them to another divisional crown.

2. Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays, as they have done for the past 5 years, found a way to win in 2013. Manager Joe Maddon led his squad to the AL Wild-Card game, where they beat the Cleveland Indians (only to lose to the division rival Red Sox in the divisional round). The Rays are hoping to replicate that success this season.  Last year, ace David Price (who, despite trade rumors galore, is still in Tampa Bay) and All-Star 3B Evan Longoria were healthy and played well, but it was young talent that pushed the Rays into the wild card berth. Wil Myers, the crown jewel of the James Shields trade, was as good as expected, taking home the AL ROY award, and young pitchers Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Alex Cobb all looked extremely promising. The players in the youth movement will only continue to grow and improve this season, which bodes well for the Rays’ playoff hopes. Add to that mix All-Star closer Grant Balfour, signed from the Oakland A’s this off-season, and the Rays look poised to make the postseason for the second straight year.

Verdict

Best Case- Longoria plays like an MVP while staying healthy all season, Myers continues to improve, Moore and Price form a deadly duo at the top of the rotation, Balfour has 40 saves, and the Rays get back in the playoffs.

Worst Case- Longoria once again falls victim to the injury bug, Archer and Cobb don’t improve, Price is dealt mid-season, and the Rays miss out on the postseason.

Longoria is going to like what he sees from the Rays this year.

Longoria is going to like what he sees from the Rays this year.

3. New York Yankees

2013 was a disappointing year for the Yankees. They finished tied for third in the AL East, missing the playoffs for only the second time in 19 years. In response, Brian Cashman went out and signed as many high profile free agents as he could. As a result, the Yankees are looking strong. The lineup is plain scary. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran join Derek Jeter (who, if you haven’t bothered to come out from under your rock this winter, is retiring at the season’s end), Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, and Brett Gardner. These 7 guys are going to produce a lot of offense. The Yankees lost Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and, most importantly, Robinson Cano this past off-season, yet the hit on their offensive production shouldn’t be too bad (except at second base. Brian Roberts would be a great replacement for Cano– if the year was 2007). The rotation is very good as well. C.C Sabathia looks slim and ready to make up for a disappointing 2013, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova are looking to improve upon strong showings last season, and, as for Michael Pineda and the newly signed Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees might have two of the best pitchers in the division at the end of their rotation. The bullpen obviously has been affected by the departure of the G.O.A.T Mariano Rivera, but David Robertson should do a serviceable job in lieu of Mariano. Besides, with their lineup, the Yanks are hoping that the leads they will be protecting are sizable.

Verdict

Best case- Tanaka wins ROY, Pineda pitches well, and Jeter plays like he’s a decade younger, leading the rejuvenated lineup to the AL East crown.

Worst Case- The injury bug bites the Yanks. Jeter’s aging body completely crumbles, along with those of Texiera, Sabathia, Beltran, McCann, etc… Robertson is a disappointment, Tanaka doesn’t live up to the contract, and Pineda’s arm falls apart once more. The Yankees miss the playoffs and send their captain off on a sour note.

Alex wants to play, too!

Alex wants to play, too! How upsetting!

4. Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles, a year after making a surprise playoff run, didn’t have enough in the tank to win a 2013 wild card spot. Without Yankee-like willingness to spend, the Orioles did not massively improve this off-season. Still, they should be good enough to compete for a wild-card spot this summer. Joining home run king Chris Davis and All-Stars J.J Hardy, Adam Jones, and (a favorite at College Sports Town and someone who will hopefully make a full recovery soon soon) Manny Machado are sometimes-exciting 2B Jemile Weeks and the powerful Nelson Cruz. The lineup is talented, but a lot will be asked of them due to the state of the Orioles’ pitching staff. Chris Tillman, Bud Norris, and Miguel Gonzalez are decent, and the newly-acquired Ubaldo Jimenez was effective last year for the Indians, but the Orioles’ rotation is pretty lackluster. The bullpen will likely be worse than last year’s, without former All-Star Jim Johnson, and the Orioles lost out on All-Star Grant Balfour. The immortal Tommy Hunter will be closing games for the O’s. The Orioles better hope they score a lot of runs, because it seems that a lot of runs will be scored against them.

Verdict

Best Case- The lineup produces wildly, and the rotation is just good enough to win games for the Orioles. They squeak into the playoffs when the Yankees and Rays falter.

Worst Case- The production of the lineup is not enough, as the leaky rotation lets up too many runs. The Orioles can’t win the close games they did in 2012, and they can’t replicate their success from that year. They miss the playoffs again.

Machado and the O's have a shot to make the playoffs if he can come back to make plays like this!

Machado and the O’s have a shot to make the playoffs if he can come back to make plays like this!

5. Toronto Blue Jays

It’s painful to admit it, but I was way off last year when I predicted the Blue Jays would be the best team in the AL East. They were a disappointment last year, and I think the disappointment will continue this year. They have a similar situation to the Orioles in that they have a powerful lineup (albeit not as good as the O’s) but questionable pitching. Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion all are very talented, but beyond those three, there are many question marks. Is Brett Lawrie going to fulfill his potential as a top 3B? Is Melky Cabrera going to return to his San Francisco form or were the PEDs just really effective? Even with the questions, the lineup is still in better shape than the rotation. R.A Dickey did not play like a reigning Cy Young winner last year (thanks for Syndy, you guys!), as his knuckleball appeared less effective. In order for the Jays to improve, R.A must retrieve a little bit of that 2012 magic. The rest of the pitching staff is equally inconsistent. Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, and J.A Happ were disappointing last year, and will likely remain disappointing in 2014. The bullpen was good last season, but its status this year is unclear; their prospective closer, Casey Janssen, has not pitched this spring, but All-Stars Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil have been good thus far. Still, the bullpen would be more useful if the Jays had leads to protect. The Blue Jays have some good pieces, but it would be very surprising for them to make a playoff run.

Verdict

Best Case- Reyes, Bautista, and Encarnacion are All-Stars, Lawrie is the second best 3B in the AL East, Dickey and Co. get their act together, and the Blue Jays contend until September.

Worst Case- Reyes and Bautista are injured/traded, Lawrie is a disappointment, Dickey’s knuckleball is flat, and the Jays flounder.

Jose is clearly attempting to run away from this ill-fated team.

Jose is clearly attempting to run away from this ill-fated team.

There you have it. The AL East crown will return to Boston next year, and the Rays will accompany the Red Sox to the postseason. That’s it for the first edition of College Sports Town’s 2014 divisional previews. Next up, the impressive AL Central, the home of two of my playoff teams– but not necessarily the ones you would think.

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AL Wild-Card Tiebreaker Game Preview

After a couple of wild weeks, the top spot in the American League wild-card race went to the Cleveland Indians, who finished at 92-70. The Indians overtook the Rangers and Rays to earn home field advantage in the wild-card game. While this was great news for long suffering Clevelanders, Texas and Tampa fans (the latter of which barely exist, but no matter) hoped for their team to win and the other to lose today in order to reserve a spot in the wild card game and not have to play a one-game playoff on Monday night.

Luckily for baseball fans, both teams won to improve their records to 91-71. Tomorrow night, the Rays will march into Rangers Ballpark in Arlington aiming to keep the Rangers from making the postseason for a fourth straight year. Let’s take a closer look at the matchup.

Pitching

The Rangers and Rays are both going to be sending out starters whose performances are hard to predict. The Rays will start 2012 AL CY winner David Price, who followed up his award season with a pretty solid albeit slightly disappointing year, finishing 9-8 with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.109 WHIP. While Price is still a very good pitcher, the uneasiness in sending him out Monday night is his history versus the Rangers. According to ESPN’s David Schoenfield, “Price is 1-4 with a 5.98 ERA in eight regular-season starts against Texas and is 0-3 with a 4.66 ERA in three postseason starts.” Those are not numbers that make one very confident in Tampa’s chances on Monday.

On the other side, however, young Martin Perez (10-5, 3.55 ERA) will make his postseason debut. The 22 year old rookie is fairly good, but who is to say what his performance will be like Monday night? The postseason is an unfriendly place to make a mistake, and there is a rookie on the opposing team who is pretty good at capitalizing on those (hint: his name rhymes with Swil Smeyers). Will Price be able to get over his Lone Star struggles or will Martin crumple under the bright lights of Rangers Ballpark (and TBS)?

Lineups

Both teams have pretty good lineups, with a few players from each side that really jump out. From the Rays, Evan Longoria and Wil Myers stand out. Longoria, well known for his Game 162 heroics in 2011, had a nice year this summer, hitting 31 HR with a .831 OPS. In my book, he’s the 4th best 3B in the game (behind Miggy of course, Adrian Beltre, and David Wright), and he has a knack for the clutch. Don’t be surprised if the game comes down to him. Wil Myers, who was the key component in the James Shields trade this off-season, played like he was advertised, batting .293 with an .827 OPS on the way to a likely ROY award. Myers often launches mistake pitches a long, long way. Perez must be careful not to pitch carelessly to him in particular.

The Rangers, too, have lots of firepower in their lineup, as has been the case for the past few years. Adrian Beltre is pretty darn good at third both offensively and defensively. Beltre has 29 HR, 91 RBI, and a .875 OPS and anchors the Texas lineup. Texas has relied on consistent hitters such as Ian Kinsler and A.J. Pierzynski to get on base and provide run-scoring opportunities.

The key factor in the game, in my opinion, is the return of Nelson Cruz from his 50 game Biogenesis suspension. If Cruz is ready to play, he’ll make the Rays pay. PED issues aside, Cruz hit the second most HR on the team (27) while missing the last part of the season. Cruz certainly has the ability to break a game wide open, it’s just a matter of whether or not he is prepared to do so Monday under tense circumstances. As he is a holder of the record for most HR in a postseason (8 in 2011), I imagine Cruz is up to the task. He will be the difference maker in this game, as the Rangers take back a spot they nearly shockingly lost in a wild affair.

FINAL PREDICTION: Rangers 6, Rays 4

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