With opening day coming soon, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We'll examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few key players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and breakout stars. Next: The American League Central.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Did Miguel Cabrera just get all of Max Scherzer's money?
Hopefully not. Probably not. Actually, why do we care? It's not our money. But with both sides apparently ready to accept that Scherzer will enter free agency come the offseason, the Tigers gave Cabrera a $248 million extension a full two years before his current deal was up. Seems hasty, even if Cabrera wins another MVP. And it echoes other large deals, given to the likes of Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard, that are looking kind of shaky right now.
2. Can anyone beat the Tigers with the starting pitching they have?
Considering that Justin Verlander was throwing like his Cy Young self at the end of the 2013 season, Scherzer won the Cy Young and a third Tigers right-hander won the ERA title (Anibal Sanchez), they seem unstoppable within the division. Fans also should be excited about Rick Porcello stepping forward and being a Doug Fister-like contributor. What could trip up the Tigers? The bullpen, which is fine at the end with Joe Nathan, but is lacking middle guys with the season-ending injury to Bruce Rondon. Joba Chamberlain has gone from curiosity to kind-of important. Torii Hunter finally losing his mojo as he inches closer to his 40th birthday — that would be bad. There already are questions or unknowns in left field, at short, and third base with rookie Nick Castellanos.
3. Royals? Playoffs? Yes?
Maybe. Eggheads seem to think they overachieved a tad with the 86 victories in 2013 and are due to regress. Perhaps, but they also got below-average seasons from Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, center and right field, along with horrendous offense from the middle infielders. And slugger Billy Butler was below his standards. It's not unreasonable to think the Royals will hit better from 1-9 in the order. If the pitching is approximately the same quality (no guarantees), they seem like a 90-win team. And that means playoffs. Probably. Maybe. It's just been so long, you know?
4. Are the White Sox still there?
Yup. And they should be better, having added Adam Eaton and Cuba's Jose Abreu to the lineup. Left field needs improvement. Right field has potential with Avisail Garcia. Third base and second still need upgrades, and catcher is a wasteland. With Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and a healthy John Danks, the pitching has a chance to be OK. But they're also relying on Felipe Paulino to become something — which he might, but he hasn't so far. The bullpen has a chance to be good, but 25 or 26 other teams say the same thing. If everything goes right for the Twins, the Sox could be ticketed for last place. But they'd still be better than the 2013 squad.
5. When does Byron Buxton reach the Twin Cities?
The league's top prospect is starting the season on the disabled list in the minors, but once he's healthy the calls will start coming for the Twins to promote him. Aaron Hicks, meanwhile, gets another crack at center for the big-league club and former shortstop Jason Bartlett — who didn't play anywhere in 2013 — backs him up. If Hicks can hit a little (like he did in the minors), he'll give the Twins some leverage to keep Buxton in the minors until a September callup. Jason Bartlett, a career shortstop having to play center frequently is not palatable.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Carlos Santana: A catcher by trade, he's transitioning to third base — and the early returns have been encouraging on his glove work. Santana certainly can rake, and he might be better able to sustain his power over the season by avoiding the rigors of playing catcher. If he can't cut it at the hot corner, there's always DH, and the Indians could give Lonnie Chisenhall another chance at third.
2. Alex Gonzalez: After losing Jose Iglesias for perhaps the season and passing on free-agent Stephen Drew, the Tigers made Gonzalez their shortstop at age 37. It's been three years since he was a starter there. Before going with Gonzalez, the Tigers reportedly considered activating first base coach Omar Vizquel, who turns 47 in April.
3. Yordano Ventura: Can throw 100 mph, but the key will be improving his curveball and changeup. After a dominating spring — for what it's worth — he seems like he's on the verge of a breakthrough for the Royals. Another young right-hander, Danny Salazar of the Indians, has similar stuff and is in their rotation. Ventura might be over-hyped some but he also might become an ace. Ace Ventura.
4. Ian Kinsler: He gets a fresh start in Detroit with the Fielder trade, trying to regain the results that made him one of the more underrated players in the majors. He might have to hit for two, considering who his double-play partner is.
5. Adam Eaton: White Sox TV personality Hawk Harrelson recently said Eaton reminds him of George Brett. Sure, it sounds patently ridiculous, but Hawk's hype machine aside, Eaton stands to become a valuable center fielder. He can catch the ball and has shown an ability to get on base in the minors. He could transform the team's offense by being a Lenny Dykstra-type — there, that's a little more reasonable analogy — spark plug.
AL Central MVP: Miguel Cabrera
AL Central Cy Young: Chris Sale (pictured)
AL Central Rookie of the Year: Jose Abreu
AL Central breakthrough star: Oswaldo Arcia
Order of finish
1. Detroit Tigers — Owner Mike Ilitch will be 95 when Miguel Cabrera's contract finally runs out. Can they win him a World Series by then?
2. Kansas City Royals — It could be their first playoff appearance since they won the World Series in 1985.
3. Cleveland Indians — They had kind of a lousy offseason. They probably are a bat short and at least one starter short. The bullpen should be pretty good, especially if closer John Axford regains his old form.
4. Chicago White Sox — GM Rick Hahn needs to pull off a couple of more acquisitions like Eaton and Abreu.
5. Minnesota Twins — They're going to be good again, and soon, though they're still short on high-end pitching prospects. Miguel Sano and Buxton are just two of the big-time hitters they have coming up.
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