In the American League Central one thing is clear: you’re only as good as the sum of your parts, and the Detroit Tigers are as good as anyone in baseball. Their lineup features the best hitter in baseball (Miguel Cabrera), the last two American League Cy Young award winners (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer), and the last three American League MVP award winners (Justin Verlander (2011), Cabrera (2012 and 2013). They traded for Ian Kinsler, get Victor Martinez for another full season, and their bullpen now features Joe Nathan who has 80 saves in 86 opportunities (93%) the last two years. They are the only team in this division who boast those kinds of parts all around.
That isn’t to say there won’t be competition; the Cleveland Indians came within a game of putting the Tigers in the Wild Card play-in game, and the Royals young talent is starting to figure it out offensively with George Brett as hitting coach. I fully expect both the Indians and Royals to play for a Wild Card spot in 2014 with the White Sox showing improvement enough to make things that much more difficult in division games. The Central is the Tigers to lose, but keep an eye out on the rest of the group (unless you’re in Minnesota, just enjoy the Summer weather at Target Field!).
- Division’s Best Player: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers (44 HR, 137 RBI, .348 BA, .442 OBP, 1.078 OPS, 2013 AL MVP, Batting Champion)- What more can you say about the best hitter on the planet that hasn’t already been said? Three consecutive batting titles, two consecutive AL MVP awards, the first Triple Crown winner (2012) in 40 plus years, and he’s still learning his craft. I think that last sentence might be the scariest one about Cabrera, he’s still learning what it is to be a hitter in Major League Baseball. There aren’t enough words to describe how good Cabrera is but I wanted to point something interesting out to those who don’t believe strikeouts aren’t a big deal. Between 2004 and 2009 Cabrera averaged 124 strikeouts a season and his batting average (BA) and on-base percentage (OBP) during that span was .315 and .388 respectively. Between 2010 and 2013 Cabrera averaged 94 strikeouts (difference of 30 per season) and his BA/OBP during that time rose to .337 and .425 (differences of 10% and 7% in his overall statistical averages). The name of the game is getting on base to create more runs or putting up better at-bats to drive in more runs. Between 2010-2013 he did just that, averaging 10 more runs scored and driving in 12 more runs annually. The adjustments he’s made going into his prime have been amazing and he continues to get better and better.
- Division’s Best Pitcher: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (13-12, 3.46 ERA, 217 K’s, 1.315 WHIP, 8.9 K/9)- I’m sure I will ruffle more than a few feathers with this selection but hear me out. I know a lot of people will remind me that Max Scherzer has won a Cy Young award just last year. I also know that the best left-handed pitcher in baseball (Chris Sale) is in this division as well. Verlander, however, has become a pitcher. He still brings it, and his numbers were a sign of learning his craft. Once he figured it out, it was a wrap. His last two months were as spectacular as we expect him to be (2.27 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 48 K’s, 10 BB”s). Scherzer and Sale are coming on quickly and very well could have been in this spot, but Verlander remains king until someone knocks him off that perch.
- Division’s Best Manager: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians- In the Central a wave of new managers have taken over the last three years. Robin Ventura is the head man in Chicago now, Brad Ausmus is now managing the Tigers after the retirement of jim Leyland this past offseason, and Terry Francona came back to managing when he took the job in Cleveland. I have the utmost respect for Ron Gardenhire and what he gets out of those Twins teams, but Francona is the clear guy on the bench in this division. In his first season at the helm he brought playoff baseball back to Cleveland, worked with the veterans masterfully, and proved once again he knows what he’s doing with an offense AND a bullpen. He’ll have some work to do in 2014 but I picked them in 2013 after his signing was announced and I’m hesitant to bet against him again.
- Division’s “X” Factor: Kansas City Royals’ pitching The assumption is that the Royals will take a step forward in 2014. They won 86 games last season (their first winning season in ten years) and made a Wild Card push late. The shape of this division after the Detroit Tigers will depend on how well the Royals rotation holds up. They lost Ervin Santana, his 3.24 ERA, and his 211 innings from last season. The assumption is that Jason Vargas will fill the void, James Shields will continue to lead the staff, and Jeremy Guthrie’s second half will carry over and he will provide another reliable arm. IF those assumptions are true, the Royals have as good a shot at the Wild Card in the American League as anyone. If not, they could fall to third and watch the Indians pass them up for it again.
- Detroit Tigers (2013 Finish: 1st (93-69))
The Tigers will be looking to win their fourth consecutive American League Central title and by my research I can’t see many reasons why they shouldn’t. They traded Prince Fielder to Texas in the offseason and brought over Ian Kinsler, a trade marking a change in philosophy that is coming with new manager Brad Ausmus. Detroit wants to be more aggressive on the bases to take advantage of opportunities that arise throughout the course of the game. They are also looking to capitalize on having the best hitter on the planet in their lineup, Miguel Cabrera. Kinsler still runs well on the bases (15 SB in 2013, avg. of 20 per season since 2010) and should provide them more than station-to-station baseball by pairing him with Austin Jackson at the top of the order. Nick Castellanos will take over at third base and if his Spring numbers are any indication (2 HR, 16 RBI, .373 BA) he’s primed to be in the Rookie of the Year picture for 2014. Victor Martinez bounced back nicely in 2013 (14 HR, 83 RBI) and provides them yet another quality at-bat in this lineup. The pitching is loaded with Verlander and 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer leading the way. Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello round out the quartet to form an above-average staff. They addressed a bullpen issue by signing the dependable Joe Nathan and should be able to close out games a lot better in 2014. The Tigers have grander visions than the division in 2014 and with their roster as constructed should have a strong year and compete for the World Series title.
- Kansas City Royals (2013 Finish: 3rd (86-76))
The Royals are the dark horse team of 2014 to take that leap following the Athletics in 2012, and the Pirates and Indians in 2013. Anointing them too early can be tricky, they have to prove that the pitching can hold up in this division and in this league. Their bullpen features one of the best young closers in baseball in Greg Holland (47 SV, 1.21 ERA, .87 WHIP) and should put together a nice year in 2014. We’ve talked about the lineup of this ball club for two or three years now but this season might be the one they all come together and realize the massive potential each has. Eric Hosmer is the cornerstone, with Mike Moustakas (12 HR, 42 RBI, .233 BA) needing to help him out in the order. Both of these guys compliment All-Stars Alex Gordon (20 HR, 81 RBI, .265 BA) and Billy Butler (15 HR, 82 RBI, .289) nicely. The additions of Omar Infante and Nori Aoki give the lineup the professional at-bats it needs to remain competitive every game. James Shields, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Guthrie aren’t going to scare you, but if they can give you quality starts, pitch the innings they’re projected, and keep things manageable the Royals have everything they need to make up the six or seven games in the standings they need to get into the Wild Card conversation and possibly the division title discussion.
- Cleveland Indians (2013 Finish: 2nd (92-70))
The Indians did a great job last season of pulling it all together at the right time. While the offense was one of the best in the American League, it was the pitching that really came through for them down the stretch. In fact in the second half of 2013 Indians pitching went 41-26 with a 3.13 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. They made a furious run in the second half to hold off the Royals, Rangers, and Rays for the top Wild Card spot and almost took the Central. This season, the Indians essentially swapped Ubaldo Jimenez for Danny Salazar in their rotation. What they got from Jimenez can be replaced, but there is no certainty that Salazar is ready to do so. If he is, and Trevor Bauer can finally put it together (although he was sent down this Spring) I can see a scenario where the Indians can compete for the Wild Card again. Justin Masterson is critical to the rotation’s prospects. In 2013 he put it all together (14-10, 3.45 ERA, 1.202 WHIP) and this Spring doesn’t seem to be regressing. The reason I have them third is because I don’t know what to expect from this offense again. It took a big second half from Nick Swisher to get his numbers to respectable but it can’t be expected the Indians can sustain a slow start, not with Michael Bourn dealing with injuries early. The Indians will be in the conversation all year but, ultimately, they will have stiffer competition in their division let alone outside of it.
- Chicago White Sox (2013 Finish: 5th (63-99))
The White Sox are rebuilding and it is on track to come to fruition within the next two or three years. Chris Sale has been masterful since his debut in 2010 and he’s still just 24 years old. Cuban Jose Abreu will likely take over at first after signing a six-year, $68 million dollar contract last offseason. He’s been impressive this Spring (.295 BA, 2 HR, 9 RBI in 14 games) and the White Sox are counting on him to contribute right away. Paul Konerko, likely in his last season in the big leagues, will provide veteran leadership and punch from the designated hitter spot in the lineup. I’ll be writing more about Konerko in a separate piece but it needs to be noted: his career is about as accomplished as anyone who has played this game and it should be treated as such. The staff after Sale is all about potential, which is why I have them at fourth. Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson are capable but unproven, and John Danks is coming off a 2013 in which he lost 14 games (although he did have a WHIP of 1.29). They will be hard pressed to get to .500, but a five to ten win improvement isn’t out of the question.
- Minnesota Twins (2013 Finish: 4th (66-96))
The Twins have had a rough go of it since their last playoff run in 2010. They’ve averaged 97 losses a season since then and are now dependent on prospects for their next string of success. Ron Gardenhire makes them a competitive group by getting them ready everyday, and they have one of the best hitters in baseball in Joe Mauer. Mauer (11 HR, 47 RBI, .324 BA, .404 OBP). The problem the Twins have had is turnover and injuries. Justin Morneau is now a Rockie (replaced by Mauer), Nick Punto an Athletic, Denard Span is in Washington (D.C.), and Michael Cuddyer is also in Colorado. When these names left, the replacements were either a.) not ready or b.) not an adequate enough fill in to replace the production. Byron Buxton is the “Next Big Thing” coming for the Twins and his timetable is around June or July of this year if all goes right. Another of the Twins top prospects, shortstop Miguel Sano, recently had Tommy John surgery and is expected to miss six months (pitchers need 12-14 months). Minnesota is about three years from really making something happen in the field, on the mound it could be about the same n the mound. Alex Meyer and Kohl Stewart grade the best on the mound (some saying Stewart is better than Mark Appel), and should Jose Berrios not get moved to the bullpen, he should become a solid three or four in the Twins rotation down the road. Currently the Twins will rely on Ricky Nolasco, Kevin Correia, and Mike Pelfrey to fill in the gaps for 2014. With so many holes to fill I just can’t see the Twins being able to keep pace in 2014.