A.L. Central Division Preview (03/28/17)

By Rob Pizzola @robpizzola

We outlined the A.L. East in our first divisional preview on Monday, and the A.L. Central poses a lot of similarities this season in that there's a clear frontrunner and then everyone else.

The Indians enter 2017 off of a 94-win season, which saw them one victory away from claiming the World Series title. Cleveland put together that incredible through many key injuries, including Michael Brantley, who missed the large majority of the season, as well as, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar later in the year—two of their top three starters.

Cleveland went out and acquired slugger Edwin Encarnacion in the offseason, which gives the Tribe a much needed true power hitter in the middle of their order. With Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, and eventually Jason Kipnis (who is likely out until mid-April) also in their projected lineup, the Indians will boast one of the more potent offenses in the American League. Cleveland average 4.83 runs per game a season ago—only behind Boston in the A.L.—and we expect that number to slightly increase this season. There are some uncertainties at the bottom of the order, but overall, this is a lineup that will strike fear into opposing pitchers. Similarly, to the Red Sox, who we profiled yesterday, Cleveland won't strike out very much either.

And while the Indians' lineup is solid, the pitching rotation is just as strong. Anchored by the three-headed monster of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, Cleveland's rotation stacks up with the best in the league. Carrasco's health is certainly a question mark since he is seemingly never healthy, and Salazar occasionally battles with long runs where he is erratic, but we are really just nitpicking at this point. Trevor Bauer gives the Tribe a decent four option, but the Indians could use an improvement in their final spot in the rotation, where Josh Tomlin is simply not cutting it anymore.

In case you weren't watching the postseason last year, it's incredibly difficult to mount a comeback against Cleveland if you're trailing in the late innings. With a back-end duo of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, the Indians aren't going to be giving away many games late. Middle relief shouldn't really be a problem for Cleveland either, with Bryan Shaw, Boone Logan, and Dan Otero occupying spots in one of baseball's best bullpens.

Detroit has the best shot of dethroning Cleveland in the Central, but there is definitely a gap between the two teams headed into the season. Miguel Cabrera is still one of the best hitters in the game, and he's surrounded by a handful of other solid bats in the lineup, but similarly to Cleveland, the bottom of the order is going to be an issue until J.D. Martinez returns to the lineup at the end of April. Tyler Collins, James McCann, and Jose Iglesias will likely occupy the bottom three spots in the order on Opening Day, none of whom will sniff a .700 OPS this season.

The Tigers also don't have the same caliber of pitchers that the Indians have in their rotation. Justin Verlander will he hard-pressed to replicate a 2016 season that saw him pitch 227 innings and compile a stellar 3.04 ERA. Verlander's swinging strike rate was the highest of his career last season, but his 79.9% left-on-base percentage and .255 BABIP indicate a regression is likely coming. With that being said, Verlander will likely pitch around a mid-threes ERA, and Jordan Zimmermann will almost assuredly have a much better campaign than a season ago. With Michael Fulmer in the third spot in the rotation, Detroit's top three is decent. There is a bit of a fall off to Daniel Norris at number four, although there's reason to be optimistic about Norris potentially having a breakout season. The less innings that Anibal Sanchez, Matt Boyd, and Mike Pelfrey have to pitch, the better off the Tigers will be this season.

Detoit also has some concerns in the bullpen. Closer Francisco Rodriguez's velocity is steadily dropping, although he has still found a way to pitch effectively. Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson are a couple of decent arms, but they aren't “lights out” type of guys that anchor the back-end of other top end pens in the league. After that, it gets pretty ugly for the Tigers and it wouldn't be surprising to see them blow a lot of leads this year. We project the Tigers to allow almost half a run more per game than the Indians.

The Twins are the third-best team in the division by the slimmest of margins. Minnesota's lineup is better than it looks on paper. Brian Dozier likely won't come close to duplicating last year's monster season, but along with Miguel Sano, the Twins have two big power bats that should hit somewhere around 30 homers this season. Aside from Jason Castro at the bottom of the order, the Twins have a bunch of players who should produce a decent OPS, but they really don't have a high ceiling. You can expect decent run production out of a surprisingly deep Minnesota lineup, but you can also expect a boatload of strikeouts.

The obvious weakness of this Minnesota squad is their starting rotation. Any team with Ervin Santana as their ace is in for a long season of batting practice. Santana's 3.38 ERA from a year ago was an outlier, and his xFIP, which was nearly a full run higher than his ERA, indicates a regression is on the horizon. Hector Santiago spun a 4.70 ERA last season and there's nothing in his peripherals that would point to a better season ahead. Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, and a combination of Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey will round out the rotation, and we'd say that an ERA in the low fours in the best case scenario for all four of those pitchers, with an ERA in the mid to upper fours being the more likely outcome. Hughes could potentially put together a decent season following a disastrous 2016 campaign, but we highly doubt he gets anywhere near his 2014 numbers.

For as bad as the Twins rotation is, their bullpen isn't a whole lot better. The back-end of Brandon Kintzler and Glen Perkins (who is out to start the season) leaves much to be desired, and aside from Matt Belisle and Ryan Pressly, we're looking at a pen that doesn't have a whole lot of upside this season. We project the Twins' staff to give up the most runs in the American League this season, and unfortunately, the pitching is so bad that it can't overcome what is actually a somewhat decent offense.

It may be surprising for some people to see us have the Royals finishing slightly behind the Twins, but this isn't a Kansas City squad that resembles the World Series contender that it was a couple of years ago. When Mike Moustakas and Brandon Moss are your best power bats, it could potentially be a long season. That's not to say that the Royals don't have some power—Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and even Jorge Soler are all capable of hitting twenty dingers—but this lineup really lacks pop. We project Hosmer as the Royals highest OPS bat this season and he still falls roughly 20 points short of .800. Alcides Escobar is also a black hole atop that Royals lineup, so it will be interesting to see if Ned Yost can make an intelligent decision and drop him to the bottom of the order.

The Royals don't have much of a rotation, either. Danny Duffy is their ace, and while Duffy is a solid pitcher, he's more of a #2 or #3 on a World Series contender. Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Nate Karns, and Jason Vargas round out a rotation that doesn't have a bad pitcher, but is lacking a great one. Kansas City will be reliant on Kennedy to put in another great season, but his 4.67 xFIP and whopping 83.1% left-on-base percentage from last season points to an almost inevitable regressing.

Kelvin Herrera assumes the closer role this season, and there shouldn't be an issues with that. We project Herrera at a 15% swinging strike rate this season, and his 97mph fastball is definitely suited for the back-end of a bullpen. Unfortunately for Kansas City, the rest of the pen is fairly weak. Joakim Soria is a shell of his former self, and the Royals will be relying on plugs like Chris Young and Travis Wood to eat up a lot of innings. At the end of the day, Kansas City doesn't boast a single above average unit, and while last year's 81-81 may have been a disappointment, they likely get even worse this season.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that we project the White Sox to bring up the rear in the Central this season. Chicago spent the majority of their offseason trying to move anyone with any trade value, and it's hard to fault them, because this is a team that needs a full re-build. Aside from a hearty of the order that features Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, and an aging Melky Cabrera, the White Sox are littered with replacement level bats. Six through nine in the White Sox order could potentially be Cody Asche, Geovany Soto, Tyler Saladino, and Peter Bourjos this season; four bats that will struggle to hit for a .700 OPS. Simply put, it's bad. We tore a strip off of the Rays offense in our A.L. East preview yesterday, and Chicago's lineup makes Tampa's look like an All-Star team.

The White Sox rotation also looks like an abomination after dealing Chris Sale to the BoSox in the offseason. Jose Quintana is a great pitcher, and we have nothing bad to say about him, but you'll need protective goggles to look at the rest of Chicago's rotation. Carlos Rodon has potential to put together a strong season, but he's been experiencing tightness in his biceps in Spring Training, which means that the ChiSox will have to rely on the likes of James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, and Derek Holland heavily to start the season. Woof.

Chicago's bullpen packs some punch, however. David Robertson, Nate Jones, and Zach Putnam are all plus arms. Tommy Kahnle has a 96.5mph that could be a dangerous weapon if he could improve his control. Even Dan Jennings is capable of getting tough outs, despite the lack of a true out pitch. Unfortunately for Chicago, their pen cannot make up for their lack of talent on offense and in the starting rotation. It's going to be a long season for White Sox fans.