2016 American League Central Preview By Justin Lada
The For two straight years, projections and some prognosticators didn’t like the Kansas City Royals chances to win the division or even contend for a playoff spot. Two years, two pennants and a World Series title later, the Royals have more believers than ever, still some doubters and may not be as good as they have been. The Detroit Tigers window is starting to close and that thud you heard in the Midwest last summer was the Tigers bloated payroll hitting the basement in the division. The Chicago White Sox won the 2014 offseason but failed to meet expectations in the season. They had a pretty good offseason again and a controversial spring training, so who knows what to expect on the south side. Despite a rough rotation, the Minnesota Twins arrived a year early and contended almost to the end. They are starting to bring up some of their highly touted prospects, to they may be on their way. The Cleveland Indians were famously picked to win the World Series by Sports Illustrated. Their veterans were either hurt or didn’t perform. Once they got rid of most of them, things picked up. They kept their highly touted pitching staff intact to see if they can make another run at with the core in 2016.
Kansas City Royals
What’s not to like: Well, they are the defending champs. They really only lost their two deadline pickups, Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. They return everyone else aside from Alex Rios, who underperformed last year. The top seven in their lineup isn’t filled with big time power hitters or superstars, but there’s a lot of high level talent throughout it. Lorenzo Cain has developed into one of the game’s best players. Mike Moustakas looks like he’s finally figured it out. Eric Hosmer keeps getting better. Wade Davis headlines what’s still a good bullpen. Joakim Soria is back in the fold to help that bullpen.
Yeah, but: Even in a World Series title year, the Royals rotation wasn’t all that good. Chris Young, who came to camp last year on a minor league deal, had the lowest ERA in the rotation (3.06) even though his FIP was 4.52. The Royals paid 31 year old Ian Kennedy 70 million over five years to bolster the rotation. In this third year in San Diego, Kennedy allowed 31 homers despite pitching 40 less innings than 2014 when he allowed 16 home runs. The Kansas City outfield defense will have their prowess tested with him on the mound. They’re going to try to start Omar Infante again and a patchwork situation in right field. Greg Holland was their All-Star closer, got hurt and is now a free agent recovering from arm surgery.
X-Factor: Either Edison Volquez or Yordano Ventura is going to have to step up and front the rotation. They got by last year without a great rotation. Repeating without it might be a little harder.
Best case: Ventura becomes the ace they hoped for. They make another key deadline acquisition to shore up right field and maybe the rotation again. Moustakas’ 2015 was for real. Alex Gordon continues to be a solid left fielder for all the money they are paying for them. Wade Davis is still ridiculous and they win the division again.
Worst case: The rotation can’t hold it together. Moustakas falls back to old habits. Gordon starts to slow down. An injury or two to the bullpen sets them back and they miss the playoffs.
What’s not to like: Miguel Sano was pretty good when he came up. Despite major regression to the mean from Phil Hughes, the rotation held up. Glen Perkins had some issues but the addition of Kevin Jepsen really helped them out. Brian Doizer is still underrated. Byron Buxton is going to start the year in centerfield despite a rough showing in his first major league showing. Mike Trout was pretty bad in his first callup at age 20 as well. There could be more key prospects on the way.
Yeah, but: Ervin Santana is going to pitch a full season this year (probably?) and might be their best starter until they call up Jose Berrios, who will be their best pitcher once he does. That’s not great for a team that found a way to contend last season. They’re trying to convert Sano to right field now that they’ve signed Byun-ho Park to DH. That might be an issue if they stick with it, even if Buxton can cover a lot of ground.
X-Factor: If Buxton can bust onto the scene like several rookies who were lest touted than he was did a year ago. That would go a long way to keeping momentum going from last year. But Berrios and Santana holding together the pitching rotation could make them a contender again.
Best case: Buxton blossoms into a star as does Berrios. The Sano in right field project works out. They keep up with how they got it done last year somehow and contend throughout the season.
Worst case: Buxton has had some freak injuries in the minors and if it happens again and he struggles, that could be an issue. The rotation can’t find any consistency and Sano struggles in right field. Regression hits and they’re still too young and finish in the basement.
What’s not to like: The rotaion might be the best in the league and in baseball aside from the Mets. Francisco Lindor finished second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Carlos Correa. Jason Kipnis had an incredible month and decent rest of the season. Once they brought up Lindor and Giovanny Urshela to take over the left side of the infield, the team turned around. Cody Allen continued to emerge as one of the best relievers in baseball.
Yeah, but: Michael Brantley is likely to star the year on the disabled list and the outfield might be one of the shakiest in baseball. They’re counting on Juan Uribe, Marlon Byrd and Mike Napoli to have something left in the tank on one year deals to improve the offense to help this pitching staff. Bryan Shaw and Allen have both been heavily used out of the bullpen the last three seasons and there isn’t a ton of experience depth if something happens.
X-Factor: Brantley is the team’s best and most reliable player. They could use a fast start and big year from Carlos Santana, but if Brantley can comeback relatively early and can produce like he’s capable of, that helps the lineup out tremendously.
Best case: In a walk year, Santana breaks out. The rotation pitches like they’re capable. Brantley comes back just fine. The veterans they brought in on one year deals have something left to help offer this offense some punch. Lindor continues to dazzle and they win the division.
Worst case: Brantley suffers with shoulder soreness all season and isn’t himself even when he’s back. The veterans play like they’ve had their day in the sun. Lindor has a sophomore slump. The bullpen struggles for most of the season and they struggle to stay above .500.
Chicago White Sox
What’s not to like: Chris Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Jose Abreu is a real masher. Adam Eaton’s power was a nice surprise. The addition of Todd Frazier should play really well at U.S. Cellular Field. Jose Quintana gets less attention than run support and he deserves more of both. Carlos Rodon had a nice first showing and should get better.
Yeah, but: They won the offseason last year and struggled in 2015. This year? They made to spring training before Adam LaRoche retired because of VP Ken Williams’ issues with his son being in the clubhouse too often. That set the locker room ablaze and needs to be put out before they get serious in the season. Alex Avila and Dioneer Navarro are going to platoon at catcher. That seems like a disaster waiting to happen. They still have to pay John Danks to pitch and they’re hoping Mat Latos can be useful as a fifth starter. So they have two good pitchers, a promising rookie, a struggling, overpaid vet and a gamble at the fifth spot.
X-Factor: Brett Lawrie played a career high in games last year and set a career high in homers despite playing in the canyon that is Oakland. He should benefit even more from playing in Chicago. For the White Sox to actually get something positive from second base in terms of production would be a miracle. Second base has been a wasteland for them since they traded Ray Durham.
Best case: Rodon takes another step forward. They push past this controversy in spring training. Sale finally wins a Cy Young. Melky Cabrera finds it again and they push for a Wild Card, maybe even the division
Worst case: More of 2015. Some really good individual talent, can’t translate it into wins. Controversy follows them all season long. The catching platoon performs as bad as it sounds. Lawrie gets hurt and they finish in fourth or last place.
What’s not to like: Miguel Cabrera is still awesome. Justin Verlander proved he can still be effective at least for part of last season. JD Martinez continues to be a star and adding Justin Upton should be an even bigger boost to their offense. Jose Iglesias rebounded nicely from a year off due to injury. Ian Kinsler is aging gracefully.
Yeah, but: Cabrera was hurt last year and Victor Martinez’s health isn’t the best this year. Verlander struggled but eventually found out. Anibal Sanchez continues to have injury issues. Free agent signee Jordan Zimmermann might be the most sure thing in this rotation, which is a bit scary.
X-Factor: If Verlander can prove he can still pitch at a pretty high level without having elite stuff anymore, this rotation looks a lot better. If not, there’s not much talent and depth in the rotation to make it formidable against the division’s pitching staffs.
Best case: Verlander continues to figure it out, Sanchez stays healthy, the additions to the bullpen make it the best in years and Cabrera/Martinez find their health. If that all happens, they could contend for the division or the wild card.
Worst case: If Cabrera and Martinez can’t stay healthy and return to form, the lineup is still ok, but not enough to make up for a rotation that really has one, maybe two reliable starters. If Zimmermann winds up being their best pitcher, another finish in the basement could be possible.
POSTED 04/02/2016 16:12