With the two divisions out west covered, we’re moving on to the central divisions, where we’ll start in the American League. To tell you the truth, I believe the bottom three teams took a step forward this offseason. Of course, that doesn’t immediately make the likes of Chicago and Minnesota contenders.
As for Cleveland, they made themselves contenders in 2013 before a small step back this past season—a season that still held plenty of positives. For them, the offseason was just a matter a building on that success. So where does that leave the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals? Capable, but not shoe-ins.
2014 Record: 90–72
“Mad Max” Scherzer is off to join the Washington Nationals, and if Tigers fans don’t believe that’s a significant hole to fill, they’re lying to you. Furthermore, Justin Verlander is penciled in as their No. 2 starter in the rotation behind David Price. Problem is, this is neither the Verlander of 2011 who won the Cy Young nor the one of 2012 who finished runner-up.
And while he wasn’t as bad as his 4.54 ERA in 2014 may indicate (3.74 FIP), he simply is no longer dominant. He surrendered more earned runs last season (104) than anyone else in the AL, and struck out his fewest amount of batters (159) since 2006. He had struck out 200 or more in each of his last five seasons. Behind him, Anibal Sanchez provides encouragement, but after that? It’s tough. Alfredo Simon doesn’t particularly come across as a threat, while Shane Greene has only one season at the major league level under his belt. It gets less encouraging once you get to the back end of the bullpen.
Joe Nathan, 40, was horrendous more often than not last season when called upon to close out games. He struggled to the tune of a 4.81 ERA, and even though his FIP was almost a full run lower (3.94), that isn’t something to be over the moon about. Couple that with seven blown saves last season, and 2015 may not bode too well for the veteran.
Will the offense be enough to overcome the potential rotation issues? Adding Yoenis Cespedes provides a little more pop at the plate, but it came at the cost of Rick Porcello—who would definitely help Detroit’s rotation right now. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez are all still dangerous at the dish, but those first three are aging. Cabrera in particular is 32 and already starting to break down physically. Obviously we cannot expect his numbers to ever be the same as his 2012 and 2013 MVP seasons, but how quickly will they start to fall? He can’t carry this team as much as many want to believe he can.
The Tigers still have plenty of offense to compete in 2015, but their rotation isn’t nearly as threatening as it was in recent years. They may have missed the boat on a championship with this group of players, and we still don’t know if they’ll hold on to Price after the season. The division is still theirs to lose by definition, as they’ve won it four seasons in a row. But the days of assuming it’s theirs from Day One or that they’re going to run away with it are over.
Kansas City Royals
2014 Record: 89–73
The Royals were the undisputed underdogs of MLB last season, proving all of us wrong at each and every level, but 2015 may not be nearly as kind. Their unbelievable postseason run, ending 90 feet away from forcing extra innings, was the conclusion of that team as we’d known it.
The roster isn’t very different from 2014. Guys like Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez are all back. For Hosmer and Gordon, the question is how long. If things don’t go well through the first half of the year, expect some trades. It’s the life of a small-market team, after all.
Fan favorite Billy Butler, who spent his first eight seasons with the Royals, is off to Oakland, while outfielder Nori Aoki signed on with San Francisco. To fill those gaps, designated hitter Kendrys Morales—who had an atrocious 2014—inked a two-year deal. Aoki’s spot now belongs to the 35-year-old Alex Rios. He tailed off a bit last season and doesn’t have too much left in the tank.
The biggest change, however inevitable, was the departure of James Shields. When Shields was traded from Tampa Bay to K.C. heading into the 2013 season, the Royals hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1985. His arrival went a long way in changing that, helping them to a winning season in 2013 before 2014’s World Series appearance.
While his “Big Game” moniker is a foolish one—his playoff track record is anything but attractive—Shields was a reliable workhorse over the last two seasons. He registered a 3.18 ERA, 3.53 FIP, and started 34 games both years, logging just over 450 innings in that time. He is as irreplaceable as can be to a team like Kansas City, which now must look to the young and promising Yordano Ventura. At just 23 years old, Ventura has a bright future, but he doesn’t have the presence of Shields. Not yet.
Jason Vargas, Edinson Volquez, and Danny Duffy fill out the rotation. In my mind, Vargas is a No. 3 starter on his best day, while Volquez wasn’t nearly as good as last year’s 3.04 ERA leads you to believe. His FIP was more than a full run higher (4.15), he didn’t quite have a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio (140 strikeouts, 71 walks), and he led the league with 15 wild pitches. He’s been nothing short of effectively inconsistent for the majority of his career, and we shouldn’t expect any different in 2015.
Finally, there’s Duffy, who isn’t a slam-dunk yet either. He’s 26 years old, has been solid in spurts, but how will he follow up 2014? His ERA of 2.53 is misleading, as his FIP was a less than desirable 3.83—showing he was a bit more lucky than good throughout his 25 starts. Ideally, his BB/9 of 3.2 last year should be lower while his SO/9 of 6.8 could stand to increase a little. Rotation strength and depth is not on Kansas City’s side at the moment.
Can we expect the Royals to be competitive again this year? To an extent, yes. But for the time being, losing Shields hurts a lot, and there’s no replacement on the horizon. Their 2014 success could just be a one-off, but that’s why they play the games.
2014 Record: 85–77
After making the playoffs in 2013, the Indians finished just three games back of the second wild-card spot in the AL. This year, though, I expect for them to contend for the AL Central crown. Age is on their side, and if last year is any indication of what this group is capable of—their youthful rotation especially—then the future appears to be bright under the watchful eye of Terry Francona.
However, their rotation depth already suffered a setback with 32-year-old veteran Gavin Floyd sidelined indefinitely after re-injuring the right elbow he fractured last season. The Indians signed him to a one-year deal, but there’s a strong possibility that he’ll miss the entire 2015 season. As it stands, their 2015 rotation will have reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco. It becomes a bit murky after that:
“The last two spots will come from a group of candidates that includes Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Zach McAllister, Josh Tomlin and veteran Bruce Chen, who is in camp as a non-roster player on a minor league contract.”
If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on McAllister (27) and Salazar (25). When you see a 5.23 ERA, you shudder, right? Yet for McAllister, his FIP of 3.45 and SO/9 of 7.7 in 2014 is much more encouraging than that first number. In Salazar, we saw a 3.52 FIP and a staggering SO/9 rate of 9.8. Add that to Kluber’s coming out party in last season, and it’s easy to see why the future is now for Cleveland.
Offensively, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, and Michael Brantley return. Brantley has had three very good seasons in a row now, averaging a slash line of .300/.355/.435 in that time. Last year saw him take a real leap from 2012 and 2013, though, and the pressure will be on to continue to play at that level. Over the last three years, his home run totals have gone from six, to 10, to 20. He also walks almost as often as he strikes out, and he doesn’t strike out a whole lot:
2012: 53 walks, 56 strikeouts
2013: 40 walks, 67 strikeouts
2014: 52 walks, 56 strikeouts
He also set a career high in doubles and stolen bases last year with 45 and 23, respectively. Brantley, who was just a guy in the C.C. Sabathia deal to Milwaukee back in 2008, has burst on to the scene now. He’s signed through 2017 for relatively cheap, earning just under $22 million over the next three years. His contract includes a team option for $11 million in 2018.
With the Tigers as beatable as they’ve ever been in the last five years, I envision the Indians making a convincing run for the crown.
Chicago White Sox
2014 Record: 73–89
Of all the teams in the AL Central, the White Sox certainly made the most waves during the offseason. They traded for Jeff Samardzija, adding a formidable second starter behind Chris Sale. They spent on free agents like Melky Cabrera to fill out their outfield, Zach Duke and David Robertson to bolster their bullpen, and Adam LaRoche to add a little more power to the lineup.
Winners of 73 games last season, the White Sox should not only hit the .500 mark with the new pieces they’ve put in place, but at least compete for a wild-card spot as well. I don’t expect a postseason appearance this year, but they’re heading in the right direction. If they can keep Samardzija, whose contract ends at the conclusion of this season, then they’ve got a real shot at making waves in 2016. After all, Sale is locked up through 2017, and on the cheap.
Offensively, the additions of Cabrera and LaRoche certainly help, but how will Jose Abreu progress? The 28-year-old had a sensational rookie season and ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, slashing .317/.383/.581, notching 35 doubles, and belting 36 home runs. While it’s possible pitchers will figure him out a little after a full season in the majors, there’s no disputing how good of a hitter Abreu is.
While they may have overpaid for Duke, who’s coming off of a career year with the Brewers, they made a hefty but wise investment in Robertson. In seven seasons with the New York Yankees, his FIP (2.74) has been slightly better than his ERA (2.81). His strikeout rate of nearly 32 percent in that time is nothing to scoff at either, and he closed out 39 games in his first full season as closer. Before that, he was the reliable setup man behind Mariano Rivera.
The White Sox are on the move with several key players under contract for the next few seasons, a rise that has occurred quite swiftly since 2013, when they were only able to win 63 games.
2014 Record: 70–92
The Twins didn’t register more than 66 wins per season from 2011–13, but they took a small step forward last year, hitting the 70-win plateau. Still, this was coming off of a fairly active offseason, and the results weren’t as good as many would have hoped. With a new season come more changes.
For one, Ron Gardenhire is no longer in charge. After managing the club since 2002 and overseeing six playoff appearances in a nine-year span from 2002–10, his team finished last in the AL Central in three of the next four seasons. A change was due.
So what do Twins fans have to look forward to in 2015? For one, another season of Phil Hughes. After suffering with the Yankees for seven years, the big man found new life in the Twin Cities. In a career-high 209.2 innings, Hughes had 186 strikeouts and only walked 16 batters. His 3.52 ERA (first time under 4.00 as a full-time starter), while respectable, was insignificant compared to his impressive 2.65 FIP.
The rest of the Twins rotation last season was not so hot—particularly Ricky Nolasco, who was brought in around the same time as Hughes for $49 million over four years. The 32-year-old’s walk rate of 5.6 is just about the only positive you could pick out from the 2014 campaign, especially when flanked by ERA and FIP totals of 5.38 and 4.30, respectively. Batters hit .311 against him last year, and while that shouldn’t ever be the case, the number sustained itself over 159 innings of work.
Hughes may have some help going forward after all, though, with the signing of Ervin Santana. If there’s one thing you cannot fault the Twins for, it’s this: They understand their pitching has needed some help for a while, and they’ve spent plenty over the last two years to acquire starters. They’re trying, and if Santana’s last two seasons are anything to go by, it may start paying dividends.
After going through his worst season ever as a professional in 2012 with the Los Angeles Angels, Santana has recovered quite nicely—most recently with the Atlanta Braves last year when he registered an ERA of 3.95 (not great) to go along with an FIP of 3.39 (solid). After surrendering an inexcusable 39 home runs in 2012, that total dropped to 26 in 2013 and just 16 last year.
Elsewhere, Torii Hunter has returned “home” for a hefty sum, while Joe Mauer hopes to remain healthy playing first base. People seem to forget what Mauer’s capable of at the plate when healthy because of his big contract. Second baseman Brian Dozier will look to build on a 2014 campaign which produced career highs in stolen bases (21), walks (89), home runs (23), and on-base percentage (.345).
The Twins are also relatively young; their hitters’ average age last year was 26.7. No, they’re not a playoff team in 2015. Perhaps they could be in 2016, or more likely 2017, but there’s something here. They definitely won’t struggle to win 63–66 games as they did from 2011–13. And if you don’t think that’s a positive takeaway, you haven’t spent the last three years rooting for this ball club.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs.