Monday, March 10, 2014

MLB 2014: American League Central

The 2014 MLB predictions continue today with the American League Central Division, home to half of the now 113-year old league's charter franchise clubs.

Founded in the old Western League in 1894, the Detroit Tigers are the oldest continuous one-name, one-city franchise in the American League, and one of those 8 junior circuit charter franchises.

The franchise has won 4 World Series crowns, 11 American League pennants, 3 division titles as a member of the A.L. East division, and now the last 3 consecutive division titles as a member of the A.L. Central.

For the Tigers to add a 4th consecutive division title the team will have to overcome a number of big off-season personnel losses. On the mound, starting pitcher Doug Fister was traded and setup man Joaquin Benoit left via free agency. Infielder Jhonny Peralta also left as a free agent.

But the two biggest losses to overcome will be slugging 1st baseman Prince Fielder and one of the game's top managers, Jim Leyland. Fielder was dealt to Texas, while Leyland finally walked away at age 69 after eight seasons guiding the Tigers.

Still, any team that wants the crown, and there are contenders, will have to go through Motown. Remaining are one of the game's most dominant pitchers, and the envy of many red-blooded American males as swimsuit model Kate Upton's steady date, Justin Verlander, the reigning A.L. Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer, and the best hitter on the planet, 2-time defending A.L. MVP Miguel Cabrera.

Here are my predictions for the American League Central in 2014:

1) Detroit Tigers
Sure, they suffered all of the losses that I described above. But for most of the questions raised by those losses, the team appears to have enough answers to win a 4th straight division title. On the mound, Drew Smyly should be ready to step right into Fister's steady shoes, and Rick Porcello at age 25 now should be ready to take a step forward as well. They follow behind the outstanding trio of Verlander, Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Given health, that group is far and away the best rotation in the division. In the bullpen, Detroit signed Joe Nathan as the new closer, and has a talented bullpen mix with arms such as Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain, and future closer Bruce Rondon. The infield has a chance to be one of the best in the league. Besides the 2-time MVP in Miggy, the Tigers have veteran Ian Kinsler now at 2nd base. He came from Texas in the Fielder deal, and brings an all-star caliber of play to the middle infield. His doubleplay partner is tremendous defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias. At 3rd base, rookie Nick Castellanos will finally get a chance to show that his minor league production and prospect hype are for real. The regular DH is Victor Martinez, one of the game's elite hitters, and the catcher is the capable Alex Avila. The starting outfield trio of Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, and consummate pro Torii Hunter is supported by speedy Rajai Davis. And Detroit has a pair of reliable bench players in Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi. The Tigers enter the season as the favorites to 4-peat in the A.L. Central. Whether they can win another A.L. pennant, even win their first World Series since 1984, remains to be seen.

2) Kansas City Royals
For me, it's verrry close for the runner-up spot in this division between KC and the Cleveland Indians. I'm going on a bit of a hunch with the Royals, the only franchise in the division that is not one of the original 8 charter members of the American League, feeling that perhaps they are ready to grow into a legitimate playoff contender. A year ago the team registered the first winning record since 1994, and their 86 victories were the most since 1989. The difference with the Tribe, and the main reason that I pick them for 2nd, is an under-rated starting rotation that is supported by a shutdown bullpen. 'Big Game' James Shields gives them a legit Ace at the front, and arms such as Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen, Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar are all talented, with the latter two likely battling for the 5th spot with fireballing youngster Yordano Ventura. The two who don't make the rotation will join a bullpen that includes Greg Holland as the closer, with lefty Tim Collins and righties Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow setting up. If healthy, that trio can be as good as any end-game trio in baseball. The everyday lineup finally began to see 1st baseman Eric Hosmer tap some of his vast raw potential in 2013. In the coming season, 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez will be counted on to take similar steps forward. They join veteran leaders in DH Billy Butler and leftfielder Alex Gordon. Lorenzo Cain in center and newcomer Norichika Aoki in rightfield add nice speed, and veteran 2nd baseman Omar Infante is a steadying presence for the kids. If players like Moustakas, Perez, and Ventura actually come through as star-caliber, KC could surprise and contend for the division title. But there remain enough questions to think that the wrong answers may dump them back towards the bottom.

3) Cleveland Indians
The Indians finished in 2nd place a year ago, and earned a berth in the A.L. Wildcard playoff game where they were shutout 4-0 by Tampa Bay. The franchise has won 7 American League Central Division titles, the most recent in 2007, and the most by any of the division's 5 teams. But the franchise has won just two World Series crowns in it's 114-year existence, none since 1948, the longest such streak in the league among teams who have won it at least once. They don't appear to have enough pitching to end that World Series drought, but they might have enough to return to the playoffs, even challenge for a division title with the right breaks. The everyday lineup has depth and versatility. 1st baseman Nick Swisher brings energy and leadership on a daily basis. 2nd baseman Jason Kipnis is an all-star caliber player now, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is solid. The outfield will feature speedy Michael Bourn in center, steady newcomer David Murphy in right, and multi-talented leftfielder Michael Brantley. There is depth as well with still-dangerous DH/PH Jason Giambi, infielder Mike Aviles, and IF/OF utility man Ryan Raburn. The most intriguing story line for the Tribe is the move of catcher Carlos Santana to 3rd base, a move they now appear committed to as the season opens. He is also still likely to catch a bit, with Lonnie Chisenhall getting the hot corner when he does. Yan Gomes will catch when Santana is at 3rd base. On the mound, Justin Masterson is more of a #2-type, and is now in his free agent season. Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Carlos Carrasco are back and are all capable starters, though none is dominant. Young Danny Salazar gets his first full shot, and he may bring that dominant, strikeout type stuff to a rotation that could use it. Cleveland signed former Milwaukee closer John Axford to finish games, and his presence allows arms such as Vinnie Pestano, C.C. Lee, and Cody Allen to settle into what should be nice setup/matchup pieces in the bullpen. Shaun Marcum and Josh Tomlin provide the Tribe with swingmen who give the rotation depth and the pen some long arms. If Salazar proves for real, and manager Terry Francona keeps pushing the right buttons, Cleveland should at least be in the Wildcard hunt.

4) Chicago White Sox
It will be a big summer for the Chisox, no matter what happens on the field, as former superstar slugger Frank Thomas is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While the team and city celebrate the career of the man known as "The Big Hurt", they hope that there will not be a repeat of last season's last place divisional finish. Aside from the fact that Minnesota just does not appear talented enough to avoid that cellar, there is room for optimism on the South Side of Chicago. That positivity begins with Cuban import 1st baseman Jose Abreu, who the team hopes can provide some of the type of pop that Thomas once gave their lineup. Another newcomer, centerfielder Adam Eaton, is expected to bring speed and energy to the top of the lineup. Even with those new bats, young outfielders Avisail Garcia and Dayan Viciedo must step up and produce if the club is to rise beyond 4th place. The club would also love to see prospect Matt Davidson, who arrived from Arizona along with Eaton, take the 3rd base job away from Conor Gillaspie. Speedy Alejandro De Aza in the outfield, and steady vet Jeff Keppinger in the infield, provide lineup depth. At the DH spot the club is likely to split veteran sluggers Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, the latter in a swan song for the Sox former hero. On the mound, young lefty Chris Sale gives the club a true Ace to build upon. Veteran John Danks needs to stay healthy and remain another strong option. Behind them, a pair of youngsters in Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson are likely to take steady rotation turns. Felipe Paulino and Andre Rienzo provide depth to the rotation and pen. If Nate Jones can shoulder the closer role, then arms such as Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario, Mitchell Boggs, and Scott Downs could make the bullpen a strength. The White Sox could use a couple more reliable rotation arms. But if what they have should overachieve, and the kid bats come through, it could be an interesting season for the Pale Hose. Right now, that has to be seen before it can be believed.

5) Minnesota Twins
The Twins are really bad right now. So bad that it's hard to remember that in the last decade they were the division's dominant team. Winning 6 of 10 division titles, and nearly a 7th, the Twins and the "M&M Boys", stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, were constant contenders. Despite all those division titles, those teams did not have much playoff success. They will have to wait awhile before even talking about playoffs again. Mauer, a hometown crown jewel player, is moving from his longtime home behind the plate and out to 1st base, where he is likely to spend the remainder of his career. He will never be a prototypical slugger at the position, so will have to keep his batting average and on-base percentage high while proving that he is not a defensive liability at his new position in order for him to not become a problem for the team as it moves forward. The rest of the infield is average at best, with Brian Dozier at 2nd, Pedro Florimon at short, and Trevor Plouffe at 3rd. The catcher will be some combo of veteran Kurt Suzuki and young Josmil Pinto. Reliable vet outfielder Josh Willingham gives them some pop, and Oswaldo Arcia is a coming young run-producer. The rest of their production and depth will come from a questionable mix of Alex Presley, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Escobar. It's not much better on the mound. The rotation has some experience with Kevin Correia, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Mike Pelfrey, Samuel Deduno, Scott Diamond, and Brian Duensing all in the mix. But none are close to being a true Ace. Closer Glen Perkins is solid, and might be trade bait in the end. The arms that don't make the rotation will join Anthony Swarzak and Jared Burton to fill out the pen. The Twins do have a pair of elite prospects, two of the best in baseball in Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. But Sano suffered an injury that likely leaves him out until 2015, and backs his arrival up until at least mid-season next year. It may be 2016 before those two arrive and help begin to truly turn things around in the Twin Cities.

The Tigers were somewhat weakened in the off-season, and should their pair of superstars in Verlander and Cabrera have any injuries or production slippage, either or both of the Royals or Indians could put it all together and beat them out. But for now, Detroit still looks like the best team in the division, and they also look to be the team with the most answers should troubles strike. New manager and former catcher Brad Ausmus should be able to pick up where Leyland left off, winning a 4th straight division title. And they have enough talent that, with health and everyone producing to their capabilities, they could return to the World Series, where they lost in both 2006 and 2012.

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