AL Central Preview 2017

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The AL Central seems to always be the underdog. First, the Kansas City Royals made an improbable run from 2013-2015 when they came out of nowhere, and went to contenders-to champions. Then, last year the Cleveland Indians shocked the world by going from .500 to Game 7 of the World Series. Meanwhile, both the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox seem to be in constant rebuilding mode, and the Detroit Tigers continue to deal with postseason heartbreak. Let’s take a look at how they can turn it around.

Minnesota Twins (2016: 59- 103, 5th Place)blog-0928281001412727967.jpg

Lineup: Not only was this atrocious record the worst in the AL Central, it was the worst in the entire MLB by a full 9 games. Ouch. Except for that stud Brian Dozier at second base and a future superstar in Byron Buxton at center, the Twins don’t have a lot going for them. The good news is that they easily clinched the first overall pick in the draft in June. But with a lot of their prospects being prematurely forced to move t0 the MLB due to the scarcity of talent, they can’t even say they have an eye to the future. Thirty-three-year-old Joe Mauer is the team leader, a lifetime Twin. Minnesota finds some power from Miguel Sano, but really, Dozier carries the team by leading in almost every hitting stat except OBP for which he is second best to Mauer. It’s stunning to see just how much Minnesota needs Dozier, and it’s a shame that they’re stuck with a major problem over the coming years. They can’t trade Dozier for a couple of other players, because Dozier is the entire offense. They can’t trade anybody else (besides Buxton, but he’s not going anywhere), because they’re not good enough to get anyone in return. So, unfortunately, the Twins have nowhere to go. Stuck in the basement, only time and hope of breakout performances can rescue this squad. Well, until the 2018 offseason that is…

Pitching: I wish I could say that the Twins at least have a good pitching staff. Their “ace” is 12-year veteran Ervin Santana, who is far past his prime. I would say the only bright spot is the potential of rookie Jose Berrios. A first round pick in 2012, Berrios is tearing up the minor leagues. After cashing in a few games at the end of 2016, it’ll be interesting to see how his skill translates to the Majors when he earns a role as a full-time starter. The Twins could desperately use his talents at the back of the rotation. As for the bullpen, some more young and potential starters down the road will put the work in. Their specific roles will remain to be seen, as manager Paul Molitor will have to find out where each arm fits best. For now, as the most experienced member of the bullpen, Brandon Kintzler will have the closing duties. At least he did okay in 2016… when he took over the role midseason and closed out 17 games. With so much unknown, time will tell just how this season will play out.

2017 Goals: The Twins only goal should be to avoid getting last place. Finishing 30th place by 9 games is a little embarrassing, and I’m sure Minnesota wants nothing more than to surpass at least one team in 2017. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for, but Brian Dozier can’t win 65 games by himself.

My Expectations: Honestly, I don’t know what to expect from this team. I believe they are better than their atrocious record shows, but not much better. With each year of team experience, chemistry should build and hopefully that will amount to wins. It’ll take “all hands on deck”, and more than a lot of patience to ride through the storm that Minnesota has created. Hopefully a few years down the road they can become a winning franchise again, but for now, I don’t expect much to change.

Chicago White Sox (2016: 78-84, 4th Place)Five Chicago White Sox players have agreed to play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Lineup: The White Sox have officially hit the reset button. Letting star players like Chris Sale and Adam Eaton leave for a multitude of top prospects leaves no doubt on where the mindset in Chicago is moving forward. Watching their cross-town Chicago rivals break their World Series drought last year has forced a massive overhaul on the South Side. The Sox will heavily rely on first baseman Jose Abreu. His stellar rookie season was followed by an above average sophomore year, and in 2017 he’ll have the full weight of the White Sox depending on him to keep the explosive power coming. He’ll get help from the veteran slugger Todd Frazier. Probably batting 4-5 in the lineup, these two will have to use their big bats to put up the majority of the runs Chicago will score this season. That’s a lot of pressure. Luckily, as one of the best farm systems in the MLB grows and matures, Abreu and Frazier will be joined by some of the best young talent of the next generation by 2018 or even sooner.

Pitching: Along with trading their ace Chris Sale, the White Sox have been shopping Jose Quintana and David Robertson on the trade market. If they are successful in letting their best remaining pitchers go before the season starts, it’ll be a scary year for the pitching staff. Of course, by trading away their franchise players, it’s clear that the White Sox are looking far past 2017. Luckily, by trading Eaton to the Washington Nationals, the Sox scored big by acquiring pitchers Lucas Gioloto and Reynaldo Lopez. These hard-throwing righties are on the verge of entering the Majors and catapulting the White Sox into a new era. The amount of talented prospects about to join the team in Chicago cannot be understated, and to think that they could acquire even more for the expensive Robertson is scary. With ample cap room and a multitude of young stars, the White Sox could be the next dominant force in the MLB before long.

2017 Goals: I don’t think the White Sox have many goals for this year. I imagine they’ll be very happy if everyone stays healthy and they don’t finish the seasons worse than the Twins. No matter what, they will scrupulously track their minor leaguers as they prepare to become the new champions of Chicago.

My Expectations: It’s anybody’s guess how things will shake out this season. Their current roster has two huge power hitters among an otherwise lackluster lineup. Currently, Quintana stands alone as the only reliable pitcher, and he is only above average. Time will tell if he stays with Chicago, but it might be better for everyone if he has a change of scenery. The collapse of James Shields was well-documented last year; a renaissance for him can salvage the Sox’s 2017 season. But again, as long as they don’t finish worse than Minnesota, this season is just a formality as they are ready to contend in 2018 and beyond.

 

Kansas City Royals (2016: 81-81, 3rd Place)bal-kansas-city-royals-pitcher-yordano-ventura-dies-in-car-crash-in-dominican-republic-20170122.jpg

Lineup: After exploding on the scene in 2015 to win the World Series, the Royals have been fairly quiet. Once coming from the cellar to the top of the world, now Kansas City finds itself in the middle of the pack, finishing at exactly .500 in 2016. Until this past offseason, the Royals have been reluctant to break up the lineup that got them to their first trophy since 1985. This includes Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakes, and the ever-reliable Salavdor Perez. In the outfield, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain will have a new face to work with this summer. The speedy Jorge Soler was acquired from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for the hard-throwing closer Wade Davis. There isn’t much to say about these men. They’re all veterans of the game with big game experience, and the coaching staff knows exactly what they’ll bring to the team. Of course, their past success together speaks for itself. With All-star potential abound, the Royals have a solid team. The problem is that they don’t appear to play as hungrily as they did during their miraculous 2015 season. Without that drive to succeed, it’ll be hard for the Royals to break into the postseason again.

Pitching: Unfortunately, tragedy struck for the Royals this offseason. On January 22, Yordano Ventura passed away following a car accident in his home country, the Dominican Republic. Much like José Fernandez, Ventura was a fiery young pitcher whose energy sent waves through the entire MLB. The Royals will greatly miss their ace, Ventura. With the unexpected passing of this great, there is a lot of pressure on the back end of the rotation to step up. Danny Duffy is thrust into the #1 role, while Ian Kennedy, Jason Vargas, and former Cub Jason Hammel take on the added competition. As for the bullpen, the loss of Wade Davis hurts them greatly. The shutdown bullpen of 2014-2015 is now gone, and the Royals can no longer rely on just getting the lead after the 6th inning. Working through the late inning will be a struggle, and you can expect many leads to get blown by the unproven relievers. The new closer should be Kelvin Herrera. While he can fire his fastball, he is known to lack control. As high0pressure situations affect him, things may get out of hand for KC in the 9th. Pitching is the obvious weakness for the Royals.

2017 Goals: The Royals want to get back to the playoffs. The success of 2014 and 2015 was definitely like catching lightning in a bottle, and they would love to rejuvenate their team to enjoy that type of run again. They have the experience and a batting order that can hit to all sides of the field, but the pitching needs to back it up.

My Expectations: While Kansas City has the ability to provide some pop, it’s still no match for the run support of the AL East or even the Cleveland Indians. I say this because teams like the Baltimore Orioles have the luxury of sacrificing their pitching ability because they can hit so well. The Royals are a good hitting team, just not up to that caliber, and poor pitching can easily put them out of games they could otherwise win. I expect another average season around .500.

 

Detroit Tigers (2016: 86-75, 2nd Place)

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Lineup: Last season Detroit fans were probably disappointed when their team narrowly missed out on a wild card bid to the playoffs.  In 2017 the organization hopes to reward its fan base with its first post-season victory since 2013.  As for the hitting, the Tigers don’t lack in power.  First baseman Miguel Cabrera leads a group of sluggers that contains the likes of J.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez.  The Tigers rank in the top 10 in every hitting statistic in the MLB.  With tons of combined experience, Detroit has more than enough talent to make a legitimate playoff contender.  In his fourth year with the team, manager Brad Ausmus has continued a winning tradition set forth by previous manager and Hall of Famer Jim Leyland.  Despite a slight decline between the shift in power, the Tigers have the potential to become a dominant force in the MLB once again.  Thanks to a break-out performance in 2016 by Nick Castellanos, the Tigers have a diverse group of men which is always a benefit in the MLB.  With so many big hitters, the sky’s the limit for Detroit.

Pitching:  The Tigers have arguably one of the best rotations in baseball.  Justin Verlander is the star of the group, but don’t underestimate Michael Fulmer or Jordan Zimmermann.  After a stellar campaign in 2016, Verlander fell just a few votes shy of claiming his second Cy Young Award.  Fullmer came out of nowhere after a sub-par beginning of his career to surprise the AL Central with his command, despite a lack of velocity.  A long-time Washington National, Zimmermann has compiled nearly 1,000 strikeouts in his career.  Although perhaps just past his prime, he averages an impressive 1.177 WHIP and 14 wins per year.  In the bullpen, closer Francisco Rodriquez, commonly known as K-Rod, has a naturally ability to throw strikes.  The veteran ranks 4th all time in saves with 430.  However, he doesn’t have much help for the rest of the relievers often fail to keep the game close until the 9th when given the ball.   Luckily they don’t need to because the starters often go deep anyway.  It’s a lot to ask to have starters go 7 to 8 innings a night, as surely they will wear down by September.  If Detroit can lessen the pressure for the starters to continue to perform at such a high clip, they should have a spot in the postseason.

2017 Goals:  As I stated before, the Tigers would likely be dissatisfied if they weren’t playing in October.  The batting order has all the pieces to churn out runs, and the pitchers can throw strong innings if they don’t get tired.  It’s reasonable to think that the Tigers can continue to improve, but the question will be if they can unseat the defending AL Champions.

My Expectations:   One could argue that the new “Death Row” is in Detroit.  There is no doubt that the veteran rotation has plenty of skill to compete with anybody.  However this drive to succeed and push the limits could be their undoing.  If they force themselves through too many innings in early summer, they can run out of gas before they make it to the playoffs.  I expect the Tigers offense to continue to roll year after year, but like the Royals, without pitching to support, they may fall just short of their aspirations.

 

Cleveland Indians (2016: 94-67, 1st Place)michael-brantley-jason-kipnis-francisco-lindor-mlb-cleveland-indians-milwaukee-brewers.jpg

Lineup:  Believeland is alive and well in northeastern Ohio!  Although famously blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 World Series, the Indians are not short on hope.  With the addition of Edwin Encarnacion, Cleveland’s dangerous roster got even more scary.  Encarnacion will follow up the best season of his career by working with infielders Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor.  Lindor might be the future of the MLB.  His outstanding speed and ability to make contact make him a very tough “out,” not to mention, his quickness at shortstop can lead him to multiple Gold Gloves in his career.  Long-time Indians Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley have waited a long time for Cleveland to rise to the top.  They hope to better their performance from last year and prove that they are here to win for seasons to come.

Pitching:  Speaking of becoming more dangerous, injured players Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar rejoin the rotation for 2017.  Had they been healthy, we might be calling the Indians the “defending World Champions.”  So this year, with plenty of rest over the off-season, they are ready to make an impact on the team.  The pitching rotation also boasts Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and All-Star Corey Kluber.  Last year they were the best in OBP in the AL, and 2nd in wins and ERA.  This mean that not only do their opponents rarely get on base, but if they do, they hardly score.  With a batting order as stacked as theirs is, Indians fans rest easy.  After a trade with the New York Yankees bringing in Andrew Miller, Cleveland has a nearly unstoppable bullpen.  Miller and Bryan Shaw can dominate long innings to allow closer Cody Allen a comfortable lead in the ninth.  Though the starters can go deep as well, having the comfort of knowing that they have a reliable bullpen to back them up can definitely ease the burden of these pitchers.

2017 Goals:  The Indians should settle for nothing less than the Commissioner’s Trophy.  They clearly have all the ingredients to make it back to the World Series, and they have no excuse for any lack of drive or motivation.  Adding Encarnacion and controlling Miller with a long-term contract shows that the Indians are ready to win sooner rather than later.

My Expectations:  I fully believe that the Indians can win the division again, the first time they will go back-to-back since 1998 and 1999.  Furthermore, they should match up well with any opponent they face in the playoffs, and they have the depth to succeed in a long series should it come down to that.  I don’t see anything holding the Indians back apart from unforeseen injury.  Expect to see Cleveland playing in the ALCS once again.

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