2017 AL Central Preview: There's Cleveland...and...??
With Spring Training in full swing, it’s getting time to get back into baseball mode. This is part of a season primer series, that’ll take you through what to watch for over the course of the season.
This division has had more shake-ups than a Martini bar on a Friday night over the last few years.
The Twins were good, then got bad. The White Sox showed flashes of excellence, then went rebuild. The Tigers were toothless, then got scary good, and then cooled off a little. The Royals came out of nowhere, won the World Series, and returned to nowhere last season. The Indians couldn’t quite put it together, and then when they did, they met a team that the baseball universe never thought would come, and lost to the Cubs in the World Series (still can’t believe it).
Who knows what’ll happen next? Fun thing, you can’t predict baseball. This division proves that.
Chicago White Sox
Coming into this season: The White Sox have been tumbling around over the last couple of seasons, and have been best at making their long-time broadcaster Hawk Harrelson lose his mind (if he ever had it). They made a big splash in bringing in Todd Frazier from the Reds, but that didn’t help them reach .500, and started blowing it all up in the off-season. They traded Chris Sale to Boston, and Adam Eaton to Washington, and got back a big haul of prospects in return. The team will look green now, but have something to look forward to.
Storyline to watch: Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier’s trade watch. At this point, for the South Siders, it’s a matter of building to the future. That means fire sale, and everything must go. Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, as mentioned before, brought back big prospects, and one could imagine that if the Chi-Sox deal one or both of Abreu or Frazier, they could have enough prospects to fill two entire farm systems...well not really, but you get my point.
X-Factor: Yoan Moncada. Maybe not even this season, because at this point, White Sox fans are throwing in the towel before the season starts, considering the dismantling of the big league roster. But Moncada was the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade, and is a top 3 prospect in baseball. If he comes good, it’ll make the trade of their ace all worth it.
Bold prediction: Contention...for last in the AL.
Coming into this season: They became a really fun team to watch last season, starting with a double digit win streak starting the night after the Cavaliers won the city their first title in nearly 70 years. The pitching staff was loaded, and the bats started breaking out, as they played their way into what became a World Series that’ll be remembered forever.
They followed that up by signing big bat Edwin Encarnacion to bolster a lineup that’s hitting in front of a very good pitching staff. They might not be long for lifting that 68 year old monkey off their back.
Storyline to watch: How does the Tribe respond after coming so close to their first crown since 1948? Well, that game was epic, but someone had to lose (I was convinced both teams would lose after the rain came, but I digress). The Indians looked like they were built to win, and I would argue that they’d have beaten anyone besides the Cubs. They only improved in the off-season. They have their rallying cry. It’s time for them to take that next step. This is the year.
X-Factor: Tyler Naquin. He had a very good rookie year, and deserved consideration for Rookie of the Year. We know about Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor being sure things. Edwin Encarnacion is proven. But Naquin can hit anywhere in the lineup and not miss a beat. Having that kind of bat in the lineup, where he can get on base, move runners over and in, and do it in a lineup that’s already stacked, that’s what separates the men from the boys.
Bold prediction: World Series contention, winning the division by miles and miles.
Coming into this season: The Tigers have been very good over the last few years, with a core centered around Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, and have usually been near the top of the AL Central. They each have a good supporting cast around them, yet for some reason, they haven’t been able to reach that next level and win the big one.
Last year, Michael Fulmer burst on the scene and dazzled everyone with great pitching, but he and Verlander didn’t get much help from the rest of the starters. The hitters hit, including great years from Ian Kinsler and JD Martinez, but it wasn’t enough.
Storyline to watch: Father Time. This is what happens when a core of players stays together for this long. They start getting older and creakier. Cabrera and Victor Martinez will be 34 and 38, respectively, this season. Ian Kinsler will be 35, Justin Verlander 34. These guys won’t be in their primes for too much longer, so it makes us think how much longer it is until the clock runs out on these Tigers?
X-Factor: Nick Castellanos. The young third baseman enjoyed a breakout year, hitting .285, 18 home runs, and cut down on his gaudy strikeout numbers. But if father time does indeed start knocking on the door of some of the veteran Tigers, it’ll put a lot of the team’s efforts on Castellanos to carry the team’s offensive efforts, especially if their pitching staff doesn’t get back on track.
Bold prediction: Second place, a good showing, but it won’t be good enough for the playoffs.
Kansas City Royals
Coming into this season: The Zac Brown Band puts it well: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown”. They came into the season as defending champs, yet had a tough time getting going last year. They lost Mike Moustakas for the season early on, which hurt, and a lot of their other key players missed time with injuries.
The pitching staff was decimated with injuries, and was led by Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy, neither of whom would realistically be a top gun in any other rotation. Then, tragedy struck as star pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident. Things were never easy for the Royals, and it doesn’t look like it’ll get any easier this coming season.
Storyline to watch: Can the Royals’ big bats stay healthy? They had a lot of trouble staying on the field. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas all missed significant time with injuries. When you’re the team that everyone is looking to take down off their high horse, it’s better to defend that with your team’s best players defending the city’s honor. Instead, they battled back with half a lineup most of the season.
X-Factor: Danny Duffy. The Royals’ success came on their pitching and defense. They lost a lot of pitching in the off-season, and never really had a strong rotation to begin with. Duffy had a very good season, and it could be argued that he kept the team from completely sinking. If the Royals are going to have any chance at coming back, Duffy will have to be that ace that can stop a losing streak if it comes up.
Bold prediction: Mediocrity regains form, and the team starts selling off parts come July.
Coming into this season: The bottom really fell out this past season for the Twinkies. They lost their first 9 games of the season and never looked back, being the only team in the 100 loss club last season. The starting pitching was very bad outside of Ervin Santana, giving up the second most runs per game in the majors. Miguel Sano had a big regression, and didn’t get a ton of support from the other Twins either.
The lone bright spot on the team was Eduardo Nunez, who ended the season on the San Francisco Giants. Everything that could have gone wrong, pretty much did.
Storyline to watch: Brian Dozier’s trade value. The Twins, as they are, are not a contending team. Brian Dozier was looked at for a long time by teams like the Dodgers, who were longing for a second baseman who can hit the ball. Dozier is a rare power threat at the keystone, and still has tons of value coming into his 30-year-old season.
X-Factor: Max Kepler. He’s young, he’s got pop in his bat, and has good potential to last a while in the bigs. There are very few power threats in this lineup, with Dozier being the big one and Sano the other, but Kepler has a much lower strikeout rate than either. If Kepler can get better at getting on base, and nothing tells me he can’t, he’ll be a nice surprise for Minnesota this season.
Bold prediction: Battle for the bottom. Dozier doesn’t get traded, either.
What do you think?