MLB Season Preview: AL Central

The month of April has always had a certain duality to it, in that it is both the beginning and end of spring. The days are longer and the sun shines brighter for sure. But for the 30 clubs of Major League Baseball and their fans, April signifies the end of Spring Training and the beginning of the 162-game marathon that is the baseball season. The rosters are set, the pitchers are stretched out, and the teams are once again ready to battle it out on Opening Day.

Despite the flashy lights and eager crowds of Opening Day, there are those who believe the real work for the season begins as the final pitch of the World Series meets the tough leather of the catcher’s mitt. Last year, this pitch was thrown by closer Sergio Romo and caught by the reigning National League MVP, Buster Posey, securing the San Francisco Giants’ second World Series victory in three years. In the days following the win, the front office of each major league club began the process of improving their team in preparation for the upcoming season. Although not as exciting as in years past, the 2012-2013 off-season (known as the “Hot Stove” season to the fans) still offered its share of surprises and question marks. Among them was the transformation of a team from perennial loser to World Series favorite, a free-agent transfer among rival teams, and the perplexing inactivity of one of the most surprising teams of 2013.

In this series, I will analyze each of Major League Baseball’s six divisions and predict which team will most likely be crowned division champion. These predictions will be based on off-season activity and the strength of each team’s lineup, starting rotation, and bullpen. Even though the playoffs are notoriously fluky, towards the end I’ll provide a hypothetical postseason bracket. This analysis will begin with the AL Central, the division most likely to exhibit the least competition, and will gradually move on to the more competitive divisions.

American League Central

Probable 1st place finish: Detroit Tigers

Austin Jackson. Torii Hunter. Miguel Cabrera. Prince Fielder. Victor Martinez. If and when American league pitchers have nightmares, I’d be willing to bet they look a little something like the lineup of the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers are the defending American League champs and look to be even more of an offensive powerhouse with the addition of Torii Hunter and the return of V-Mart from a torn ACL. Some analysts accuse this lineup of being too top-heavy, but I’m confident they will be among the highest-scoring teams of 2013.

A strong lineup is not the Tiger’s only strength, however. Anchored by ace Justin Verlander, their 5-man pitching rotation projects to be one of the best in the American league, featuring both the 2012 strikeouts leader (Verlander, 239) as well as the runner-up (Max Scherzer, 231). Strikeout-heavy pitching will complement a team noted for subpar defense in the field. The only question mark with this team is the role of closer. With the meltdown of Jose Valverde during the stretch-run of last year, it seems manager Jim Leyland will go with a closer by committee. Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit, and Octavio Dotel may all wind up getting time in the 9th. Rookie pitcher Bruce Rondon was the heavy favorite for the role, but has had an unimpressive spring, forcing the Tigers to option him to AAA Toledo.

RHP Justin Verlander has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the game, tossing 200+ innings since 2007. (Photo via CBS Sports)

The team that will give the Tiger’s the biggest run for their money will be the Chicago White Sox. With a rotation that includes All-Stars Chris Sale and Jake Peavy (both of whom were signed to contract extensions this off-season), the ChiSox pitching will be solid, especially if former Opening Day starter John Danks comes back strong following shoulder surgery last year. Their bullpen should be a strength as well, with setup man Nate Jones and newly-anointed closer Addison Reed in the 8th and 9th. With a .738 WHIP and 12.9 strikeouts/9 in the minors, Reed’s numbers were fantastic in 2012. Despite the departure of catcher A.J. Pierzynski and third baseman Kevin Youkilis, the ChiSox still boast a respectable lineup in Alejandro de Aza, captain Paul Konerko, and the home-run-or-strikeout king Adam Dunn. The latter two aren’t getting any younger, but hopefully outfielder Dayan Viciedo can pick up the slack as he develops a better approach at the plate. Contributions from outfielder Alex Rios could really benefit the Sox, but his career thus far has been characterized by inconsistency. To replace the departing Kevin Youkilis, the Sox added the high-contact, low strikeout Jeff Keppinger. Along with shortstop Alexei Ramirez and second baseman Gordan Beckham, the Sox defense should be above average. Expect the White Sox to be in the hunt for one of the two American League wild-card slots.

Following a sport-wide trend, Adam Dunn hit 41 dingers but struck-out 222 (!) times in 2012. (Image via USA Today)

At one point during the 2012 season, the Cleveland Indians were in first place in the AL Central. However, a gradual collapse saw them finish with a 68-94 record, culminating in the firing of manager Manny Acta and eventual hiring of former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona. Despite this collapse, or perhaps because of it, the Indians have had a decent offseason. The Indians’ starting rotation was truly horrible in 2012, allowing the most runs scored in the American league. To remedy this, the Tribe traded outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and several prospects in a three-team trade for pitching help in Trevor Bauer (who will start in the minors but should be called up midseason). They also signed pitchers Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir. To replace Choo’s production, they signed free-agent Nick Swisher as well as speedy outfielders Michael Bourn and, via trade, Drew Stubbs. The Tribe also added first baseman Mark Reynolds, who brings good defense and good power. There’s no doubt these signings have bolstered the lineup and the defense, but big seasons will be needed from 2nd baseman Jason Kipnis and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera for this team to contend. Additionally, pitchers Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez will need to start throwing like legitimate #1 and #2 pitchers. Fortunately, the ‘pen should provide some stability in Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, and closer Chris Perez. The Tribe seems in good position to go .500 for the season, which is a big improvement compared to 2012.

Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, and Chris Perez form the core of Cleveland’s ‘Bullpen Mafia’, a phrase coined by a fan referring to the relief corps’ excessive Twitter use. (Image via The Tribe Daily)

One of the more talked about trades this hot stove season involved the Kansas City Royals, who traded top-prospect Will Myers and top pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi to the Tampa Bay Rays in return for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Clearly, it was a win-now type of move by Royal’s GM Dayton Moore, and if Myers continues to rake, it may end up putting Moore’s job on the line. Shields is noted for his durability, but it remains to be seen how much he’s benefited from pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay defense. KC also added free-agent starting pitcher Ervin Santana and resigned Jeremy Guthrie. Santana and Guthrie did have ERAs of 4.00+ last season, however. This fact, combined with the relatively anemic KC offense (it scored the 3rd fewest runs in the AL last year), does not bode well for the Royals’ chances this year. I do not believe the offensive output from Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, and catcher Salvador Perez will be enough to outscore opponents, even if first baseman Eric Hosmer rebounds from his sophomore slump. The KC bullpen was heavily taxed during 2012 largely due to the ineffective starting rotation, but this should change in 2013. Greg Holland looks set to close; behind him is a crew of hard-throwing relievers including Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow. The bullpen will hold its own; it’s up to the offense to serve up the runs.

The Minnesota Twins are clearly in rebuild mode despite being in contention as recently as 2010. Let’s face it; it’s going to be a bad year. Last year, Twins’ pitchers combined for a cringe-worthy team ERA of 4.77. I have no idea what the Twins were trying to do with their philosophy of pitch-to-contact pitchers, but the results were clearly not good. As such, most of the team’s offseason moves consisted of signing mediocre free-agent starting pitchers, such as Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey. These guys are place-holders, and the bullpen is thin behind starter-turned-closer Glen Perkins. The Twins, however, did deal Denard Span to the Nationals to rebuild the farm system and acquired pitcher Vance Worley and top prospects from the Phillies for Ben Revere.The Twins’ offense will once again be centered around All-Star catcher Joe Mauer and left fielder Josh Willingham. First baseman Justin Morneau could be in the mix, but his platoon splits are drastic: .902 OPS vs. righties compared to .569 OPS against lefties. It’s clear the Twins are banking on their farm system, which is still depleted but should improve, to develop major league talent, but it will be a couple of years until their minor leaguers make it to “The Show.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.