With opening day approaching, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We're examining each division over the next two weeks, looking at the big questions, the important players and making our predictions. Our series continues with the AL Central.
So many unknowns in the AL Central this year: Are the Detroit Tigers, the four-year reigning champs, still the power of the division? Will the Kansas City Royals, the wild card Cinderellas of last year, make a postseason run again? Can the Chicago White Sox, big movers and shakers in the offseason, challenge for the crown?
And what about those Cleveland Indians? A lot of people are picking them as a surprise team this year. They have enough hype and expectations to land a Sports Illustrated cover. But will it be another jinx? As for the Minnesota Twins, two questions: How many of those weird bloody marys are they going to sell this year? And when is Miguel Sano going to arrive?
As you can see, the AL Central is a particularly stacked division that should be one of the best races to watch this year. We don’t have all the answers, because it’s March and nobody does. But The Stew’s Chris Cwik, Mike Oz and Mark Townsend are here to delve deeper into what's happening in the AL Central.
WILL RICK HAHN'S AGGRESSIVE OFFSEASON PAY OFF FOR WHITE SOX?
For the first time in a long time, there's reason for optimism on both sides of Chicago. While the Cubs built mostly through the draft and international signings, Rick Hahn has exhausted every avenue to reshape the foundation of his roster, and it looks pretty solid. Cuban star Jose Abreu and newly-signed free agents Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera will anchor an improved offense. Returning ace Chris Sale now has a right-handed compliment in Jeff Samardzija. And the bullpen figures to be much better with David Robertson and Zach Duke on board. Assuming Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City come back to the pack even a little, the window looks to be wide open.
WHEN WILL WE SEE FRANCISCO LINDOR?
The Cleveland Indians' No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011 is ticketed for the big leagues this season. It's just a matter of when that promotion call will come. It's a situation not unlike the one the Chicago Cubs have with Kris Bryant. Lindor is a major league-ready talent with few weaknesses in his game, but the Indians will want to delay starting the service-time clock in order to push back his free agency and perhaps avoid a fourth year of arbitration. It's mostly a business decision, though the team does feel confident going with Jose Ramirez following his impressive second half in 2014. With that said, the Indians are a team that's expected to contend again in the AL Central. It will be interesting to see if a slow start in the standings tempts them or forces their hand with Lindor.
WILL THE TIGERS GET IMPROVEMENT FROM THEIR BULLPEN?
The Tigers are suddenly a team with more questions than answers, and the biggest questions surround a bullpen that may have been the leading cause for heartburn in the state of Michigan last year. In particular, veteran closer Joe Nathan failed to endear himself after inking a two-year, $20 million deal. But it wasn't just Nathan that contributed to their fourth worst bullpen ERA (4.29). There were widespread issues, and general manager Dave Dombrowski didn't really go out of his way to address them. The hope, it would appear, is that several bounce-back seasons are in order, and that Bruce Rondon and other young arms get healthy and provide that needed boost.
CAN THE ROYALS REPEAT HISTORY IN 2015?
The 2014 Royals embarked on a wildly entertaining run, and in the process put 29 years of misery behind them. Now they have to prove they can do it again with all eyes watching them, and with No. 1 starter James Shields, designated hitter Billy Butler and right fielder Nori Aoki all gone in free agency. It will be a tall task for Ned Yost and company, but they're still really fast, they're still going to play excellent defense and the dominant bullpen trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera is back as well. Those factors give them a fighting chance.
WHAT DOES JOE MAUER HAVE LEFT IN THE TANK?
With a new manager in Paul Molitor and an influx of talented young prospects around the corner, the Minnesota Twins are a team in obvious transition. So where does Joe Mauer fit in that equation? That's a question they hope Mauer will answer himself with a bounce back season. The former AL MVP saw his batting average dip to a career low .277 last season after making the switch to first base. A switch that was designed to keep him fresher and healthier, but may have messed with his focus. Mauer, 31, should be more comfortable there this season though, so the Twins will hope that leads to a rediscovery of past success and cements him again as an offensive anchor.
CARLOS CARRASCO: Over the second half, you'd be hard pressed to find a pitcher who posted better numbers than Carrasco. The 28-year-old Indians pitcher put up a league-leading 1.72 ERA over 78 2/3 innings, and his 1.98 FIP suggests that wasn't a fluke. After a midseason demotion to the bullpen, Carrasco decided to alter his approach on the mound. Once he returned to the rotation, Carrasco saw his slider usage jump from 17.60 percent to 25.95 percent. He also opted to pitch out of the windup, regardless of whether anyone was on base. Both changes led to him posting dominant numbers, and Carrasco has said he plans to utilize the same strategy in 2015. If he can retain some of the gains from his monstrous second half, it's easy to view the Indians as contenders. If not, the team suddenly has a lot of questions in the rotation behind Corey Kluber.
JUSTIN VERLANDER: Was Verlander's decline last season due to injuries, or has his workload finally caught up to him? Since 2009, Verlander has seen his average fastball velocity drop from 96.34 mph to 93.30 mph. While other pitchers, such as Felix Hernandez, have shown the ability to adapt to diminished velocity, Verlander hasn't done that just yet. It would also help if he could rediscover his curveball. By pitch values, it was easily his worst offering last year. In the past, it's been much more effective. Verlander has said all the right things this spring, and he's optimistic about a bounce back. The Tigers need it, as he's owed $140 million over the next five years.
ERIC HOSMER: Four years into his career, it's tough to know exactly what Hosmer is at this point. He's posted two strong seasons for the Royals with one awful year in the middle. Last season was about league average, but that's not exciting for a first baseman. After missing time with a hand injury, Hosmer returned and looked like a new man. Much of his success was attributed to hitting coach Dale Sveum, who worked with Hosmer to fix his swing. Hosmer's hot bat carried the Royals in October, nearly leading to a World Series victory. Overall, his late-season streak came in a small sample, so it's tough to really know if his improvements are legitimate. At 25, there's still room for growth in his bat. This is the year he's going to have to prove himself.
OSWALDO ARCIA: The 23-year-old Arcia very quietly popped 20 home runs in just 410 plate appearances last year for the Twins. The power is no joke, and there's potential for more so long as Arcia can remain in the lineup. With that said, his approach at the plate is pretty raw. Arcia struck out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances last year, and that's going to keep him from hitting for a high average. At the same time, Arcia has always been pretty young for his leagues, so there's a chance that he improves as he gets more chances in the majors. Even in his current iteration, Arcia should provide value at the plate. If he can cut down on the strikeouts and raise his average, he could be another nice, young asset in Minnesota's rebuild.
AVISAIL GARCIA: A shoulder injury ruined any chance at a breakout from Garcia in 2014. He showed some promise in his return to the White Sox outfield, but still remains a big question mark. Garcia is expected to be a middle-of-the-order hitter this season, yet it's unclear if he has the skills to hack it in the majors. In order to stay on the field, Garcia reportedly dropped about 15 pounds during the offseason, and has looked a bit more spry during spring training. While that won't guarantee success, it seems like Garcia is taking better care of his body, and that's a good thing. While the White Sox would love a breakout, merely staying healthy this season would go a long way in determining whether Garcia is part of the team's long-term future.
• Best case: Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez prove ain't no injuries stopping them, while rising star J.D. Martinez and new slugger Yoenis Cespedes make Detroit's offense one of the best in baseball.
• Worst case: Miggy and V-Mart struggle with injuries, the Tigers free fall in the division and they end up trading free-agent-to-be David Price in July.
• Best case: Sale and Samardzija become the best 1-2 punch in baseball, and Abreu has an MVP-type season as the Sox return to the postseason.
• Worst case: Like so many other quick rebuilds, this one falls flat: Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche are mediocre, Samardzija doesn't live up to the potential, all while Abreu hits a sophomore slump.
• Best case: Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton provide enough excitement and highlights in the minors to keep Twins fans happy until "the future" arrives. The big-league team? Eh, whatever.
• Worst case: Joe Mauer struggles, the Phil Hughes/Ricky Nolasco/Ervin Santana pitching staff gets bombed in this tough division and the Twins join the 100-loss club.
• Best case: Yordano Ventura becomes the ace the Royals expect, and everybody's like, "Who's James Shields?" Meanwhile, the young position players find their groove at the plate, and Ned Yost looks like a genius again.
• Worst case: Year one of 29 more years.
• Best case: The young and deep Indians live up to the hype, and we praise the genius of Terry Francona in October.
• Worst case: The jinx is real.
Order of finish: Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Twins
AL Central top hitter: Michael Brantley
AL Central top pitcher: Corey Kluber
AL Central top rookie: Carlos Rodon
Order of finish: Tigers, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Twins
AL Central top hitter: Jose Abreu
AL Central top pitcher: Chris Sale
AL Central top rookie: Carlos Rodon
Order of finish: Indians, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Twins
AL Central top hitter: Jose Abreu
AL Central top pitcher: David Price
AL Central top rookie: Carlos Rodon
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