Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 AL Central Preview

Cabrera and the Tigers are the undisputed kings of the AL Central
1st Place Detroit Tigers
2013 Record: 93-69
2013 Pythagorean: 99-63
2014 Projected: 92-70
The Tigers have won the division three years in a row and should have no problem repeating again in 2014. Trading Prince Fielder takes some oomph out of their lineup and I think this is the year that Torii Hunter finally falls apart, but the offense is still dynamite. You have Miguel Cabrera--the best hitter in baseball--surrounded by Austin Jackson, Victor Martinez (who proved he could still hit last year) and now Ian Kinsler, who's in decline but still provides above average offense from the keystone. Shortstop's a problem now that Jose Iglesias is out indefinitely with stress fractures in his shins, and Alex Gonzalez isn't the answer (I hear Stephen Drew is still available...). With Cabrera moving back to first, 22 year-old Nick Castellanos will take over third base duties and has a good shot to win Rookie of the Year honors. Rajai Davis adds a nice dash of speed to an otherwise slow team. The rotation, which features 2011 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, reigning award winner Max Scherzer and 2013 AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez, is just as formidable. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly round out what should be one of the best starting fives in baseball (which would be even better, by the way, had Detroit not practically given Doug Fister away for free). Even with Joe Nathan on board the bullpen still isn't great, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem during the regular season if the rotation pitches up to its potential.

2nd Place Kansas City Royals
2013 Record: 86-76
2013 Pythagorean: 87-75
2014 Projected: 90-72
This is the last year KC has James Shields under contract, and their success is more or less riding on him. Losing Ervin Santana means the rest of the rotation (Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen) is just meh, so Shields needs to pitch like an ace again in order for the Royals to contend. Rookie Yordano Ventura had a great spring training and could be the X-Factor if he hits the ground running. The lineup is significantly improved over last year's with Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante likely to provide big upgrades at right field and second base. Mike Moustakas has been on fire this spring and looks like he's finally ready to break out. He along with Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer still have room to grow, which means Kansas City's offense is teeming with upside. Better things might also be expected of Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, but I wouldn't count on it. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are already established stars and just need to keep doing what they're doing. The bullpen, led by Greg Holland, is one of baseball's best. Put it all together and the Royals are well-positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since George Brett's heyday in 1985. They're still longshots to win the division and will thus have to settle for one of the two wild card spots.

3rd Place Cleveland Indians
2013 Record: 92-70
2013 Pythagorean: 90-72
2014 Projected: 88-74
Terry Francona guided Cleveland to a surprise postseason appearance last year and much of the talent remains to make another push this season. Like Kansas City, Cleveland has a nice, young team that's a little short on star power and starting pitching, but makes up for it with a deep, balanced lineup and stellar bullpen. The lineup has great depth with plus or average players at almost every position. Jason Kipnis has emerged as one of baseball's top second baseman and a legitimate MVP candidate. His double play partner Asdrubal Cabrera is due for a rebound after hitting a career worst .242/.299/.402 last year. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (when he comes off the DL) should also bounce back, though that's less likely with both on the wrong side of 30. Yan Gomez was quietly excellent (133 OPS+) as the team's backstop last year and helps Carlos Santana by allowing him to play mostly first base and DH. David Murphy should be a solid addition to the outfield. The rotation will miss Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, but not so much if Danny Salazar has the breakout campaign that many expect him to have. Justin Masterson can't afford to have a repeat of his disastrous 2012 (4.93 ERA, 1.45 WHIP). Corey Kluber took a big step forward last year and needs to at least stay the same, if not improve again. John Axford makes their already great bullpen even better.

4th Place Minnesota Twins
2013 Record: 66-96
2013 Pythagorean: 63-99
2014 Projected: 71-91
The Twins aren't going to hit at all (except when Joe Mauer's in the batter's box), but at least Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes make their pitching more respectable. Jason Kubel's back after a two-year hiatus and could add some punch if he hits like he did in 2012 (30 homers, 90 RBI, .833 OPS), but will only make things worse if he repeats last year's putrid performance (5, 32, .610). Minnesota could also use a big bounce back from Josh Willingham who, like Kubel, fell apart after a big 2012, but seeing as how he's 35 that's probably not going to happen. Former top prospect Aaron Hicks could be okay, but none of this changes the fact that the Twins are woefully short on bats. The rotation, which also includes Kevin Correia and Pelfrey, should be better, but only marginally so. The bullpen's actually pretty pretty good, and Glen Perkins is one of the better closers in baseball, but it won't be enough to make up for their mediocre starting pitchers. Their best talent (besides Mauer) just isn't major league ready yet.

5th Place Chicago White Sox
2013 Record: 63-99
2013 Pythagorean: 67-95
2014 Projected: 68-94
The White Sox were active this winter after bottoming out with a 99 loss season last year, but I'm not convinced they're going to be much better this year. Jose Abreu adds an intriguing power bat to an otherwise ugly lineup. Adam Dunn and Alexei Ramirez are past their primes. Paul Konerko is at the end of the line. The outfield of Avisail Garcia, Adam Eaton and Alejandro De Aza has no power whatsoever. Even though Chicago plays in a homer-friendly park, it's not going to help the team's light-hitting position players..The starting rotation is completely dependent on Chris Sale having another elite season, so if he gets hurt they're screwed. John Danks desperately needs to bounce back from three straight injury-plagued and ineffective campaigns. Jose Quintana made major strides in his sophomore season and is a great number two or three, but probably won't ever develop into an ace. Erik Johnson needs to get his walks down if he wants to make a positive impact on the rotation. Even without Addison Reed, the bullpen should be better than it was last year, so that's a plus.

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