The American League Central is possibly the most interesting division in baseball. In 2015, the Kansas City Royals won the division en route to a five-game World Series win. However, many pundits believe they outperformed their projections during the regular season, and all five teams in the division have a reasonable chance to take the crown this season.
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox finished 2015 with a record of 76-86, fourth place in the division. Chicago felt they could compete last year, and when they fell out of the race they knew some changes had to be made. The biggest news off the offseason was the trade that netted 3B Todd Frazier from the Cincinnati. Along with the signing of OF Austin Jackson, they join 1B Jose Abreu to form a formidable heart of the lineup.
SP Jeff Samardzija is gone, but the White Sox probably won’t miss the performance he put up last season. In his place is Mat Latos, who had a tough go with the Los Angeles Dodgers after a deadline trade last year, but has been generally solid otherwise. Of course, the rotation starts with Chris Sale, possibly the best pitcher in the American League.
Young pitchers Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon have also shown flashes of excellence, making Chicago’s rotation very solid. That and the improvements to the lineup give the White Sox a great chance to improve on their 2015 record and compete in the division.
Before 2015, several publications predicted the Indians to win the division, with Sports Illustrated even going so far as to pick them as the World Series champions. The Indians underperformed those expectations, and were dead in the water until a late run after some big trades at the deadline.
This year the Indians hope to continue that momentum, and get a full season of solid production from their revamped lineup. It all starts with Francisco Lindor, their young SS. Lindor hit 12 home runs and stole 12 bases in just 99 games, and finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
2B Jason Kipnis is an All Star, and the team added 1B/DH Mike Napoli in free agency. On the pitching front, the rotation is four deep, with former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, along with Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Cody Allen anchors a solid bullpen. The Indians have a chance to get to the top of the division in 2016.
The Tigers were another disappointment in 2015, dealing with injury issues and finishing dead last in the division. The team made some major changes in the offseason and looks poised to make a run in 2016. The biggest moves were in free agency, where they signed SP Jordan Zimmermann and OF Justin Upton.
Zimmermann joins Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and second-year starter Daniel Norris in what could be a great rotation, while Upton joins what might be the best lineup in the division. The Tigers return perennial MVP candidate 1B Miguel Cabrera, along with DH Victor Martinez, 2B Ian Kinsler and OF J.D. Martinez.
The Tigers should have a ton of power, and have a good chance to lead the league in home runs. The Tigers also brought in closer Francisco Rodriguez to improve what was a poorly performing bullpen. The Tigers have a lot of older players, and their window is probably small, but they have the pieces to compete now.
Kansas City Royals
The World Champion Royals return a large portion of the team that won it all last year, with just one major loss – trade deadline addition SP Johnny Cueto left for the San Francisco Giants in free agency. The Royals replaced him with free agent Ian Kennedy, who is a downgrade, but is still a solid option in the rotation.
The Royals were able to re-sign LF Alex Gordon, and C Salvador Perez signed a contract extension, but they do have a couple of holes to fill in the lineup. Kansas City will look to fill them with promotions from their minor league system.
For Kansas City, the rotation still looks good, as all the other starting pitchers return from last season. The bullpen is definitely a strong point for the Royals, and will bring back most of the key players from 2015. Former closer Greg Holland did elect free agency, but he was replaced by Wade Davis, one of the best relief pitchers in the MLB.
On the surface it appears to be a tall order for the Royals to repeat last year’s 95-win success, but they surprised last year and could very well win the division again.
As what I consider the least-hyped good team in the league, the Twins finished 2015 second in the division and missed out on the playoffs by just three games. The team is generally intact from last year, and in fact should be improved.
The biggest loss is the retirement of OF Torii Hunter, whose spot in the outfield could be filled by top prospect Byron Buxton. DH Miguel Sano will look to make improvements on a solid rookie campaign and could be a major factor in the power department. 2B Brian Dozier was an All Star and also hits for a ton of power.
On the pitching side, the Twins will get Ricky Nolasco back into the rotation, and will look for repeat success from Kyle Gibson, as well as a return to form by Phil Hughes. Glen Perkins is one of the best closers in the league, and the bullpen as a whole is underrated. In fact, the entire team is underrated, and should be in the race again in 2016.
As I mentioned, all five teams in the AL Central look solid on paper, and all have a chance to win the AL Central. Of course, like last year, at least one team will under-perform expectations, and only one team can win the division. The tough part is determining which teams will reach their goals, and which will fall by the wayside.
The best way to determine the favorite is to take into account all facets of the game. When looking at offense, defense, starting pitching, and the bullpen, two teams seem to rise above the rest: The Royals and the Tigers. In the end, I predict the Tigers will be back on top.
Statistics provided by: MLB.com, and ESPN.com
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