Getting closer now...
The division preview tour nears the end of the line, featuring wacky uniform changes, super teams, grand
years, retirement tours, fire... sales, Dusty trails, Brad Pitt
lookalikes, electric shortstops and classic perpetual futility. This time we round the bend with the American League Central.
(*plus-minus indicates how many runs they outscored/were outscored by)
---Kansas City Royals (2015: 95-67, 1st (!), +12, *+83)---
Okay, so that wild 2014 run was no fluke. No sir. Just to prove it, the 2015 Royals played with such a chip on their shoulder that Lays wants to name a flavour after them (my suggestions are "Hosmerrnero Pepper" or "Candy Cain"). For the upcoming season, they've swapped out some familiar names (Cueto, Zobrist, Alex Rios) for some other familiar names (Ian Kennedy, Joakim Soria, Dillon Gee) in hopes of defending their World Series title.
But first they'll have to defend their AL Central title, which might not be the walk through the park it was last year. The Tigers and White Sox, non-factors in 2015, have made enough improvements to at least make you think they have a shot, if you really stretch a few things of course. And the Royals aren't without problems themselves. There very well could be a massive crater at second base, the starting rotation beyond Volquez, Ventura and Duffy has some serious injury questions, who knows what Ian Kennedy and his Weird Contract are going to provide, and you gotta think Sal Perez catching 160 games a year can't be good for a guy.
But they're now the team to beat in all of baseball for a reason. Their defense is stellar everywhere, their offense puts the ball in play to the right spot every, damn, time, and they still have The Bullpen. Greg Holland is missing but Wade Davis (a.k.a. the best reliever in baseball) is ready to step into those ninth inning shoes, Kelvin Herrera and his rocket launcher fastball is right behind him, plus new/old addition Joakim Soria jumps into the mix as yet another dominant late game option. I see them slipping maybe a little, but not enough to lose the smaller of their two defending crowns.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 92-72, AL Central Title
---Cleveland Indians (2015: 81-80, 3rd, 13.5 GB, *+29)---
Lindor Chocolate Gold
I almost (almost) want to see the Clevelands be successful this season just so this whole "Shapiro and Atkins built a losing organization over there" narrative can maybe hibernate for a while. In the meantime, there are some very interesting fellas to keep an eye on here. The pitching staff is led by a tremendous combo of Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco (they've been dubbed "The Three Musketeers", and we laugh legitimately). Kluber in particular has become one of the best things to happen to Cleveland since, I dunno, The Drew Carey Show? He's developed a long ways since being drafted in the 4th round of the 2007 Draft.
For his first few professional seasons, he was a super hittable guy, racking up strikeouts though not young for his level, getting battered about in the Padres system (ouch). Then during the 2010 trade deadline, the Padres needed an average-ish outfielder for some reason, so they swung a three team deal getting Ryan Ludwick from the Cardinals and sending Kluber to Cleveland. Even then he trolled away for the AAA squad there, going 7-11 with an ERA of 5.56. Cleveland called him up in September anyway, he bombed for three innings and started 2012 in AAA again. He was called back up for the big club early that year, as Brett Myers of all people got injured, and Klubot never looked back. He's since morphed into some kind of Roy Halladay clone the past three years, and I laugh legitimately. But the best part of it all is that Cleveland only gave up Jake Westbrook to get him. Boy, I hope whoever the GM was got promoted for that gem, don't you?
The Clevelands were supposed to be a dark horse contender in 2015 also, but had some difficulties. They started very poorly (14-23), their big name free agent/trade additions of the past two seasons were all dreadfully-unplayably bad (Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Brandon Moss), third base was a blackhole, everybody's favourite exiled catcher Yan Gomes was hurt/ineffective at the plate, and Bruce Chen (Yeah! Still!) actually pitched for them. So at the deadline in July they dumped those expensive big names for nothing (except money) and immediately improved, putting together a modest late season run to finish just above .500 by the tiniest margin possible. A big part of that late year success was the young (21? What is with these whippersnappers?) shortstop Francisco Lindor, who finished the year second on the team in WAR despite only playing 99 games. Lindor hit .313, flashed some power (.169 isolated slugging) defended his position extremely well and has that Prospect Pedigree(TM) everyone loves to drool over. He'll have to maintain that stellar production in 2016, since many of those same holes still remain for the Clevelands. Third base and centerfield are big questions, their depth behind the plate is wanting if Gomes is hurt/bad again, and it's unclear exactly what kind of player first baseman Carlos Santana is at this point. Nevertheless, that starting staff is really impressive, and if Lindor continues to amaze while none of the other everyday players are unspeakably unplayable (seriously, look up Swisher or Bourn's 2015) they've got a shot for the wildcard. And they just might snag it because... why not.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 85-77, Wildcard Berth
---Chicago White Sox (2015: 76-86, 4th, 19 GB, *-79)---
Rock, Paper, Frazier
It's a genuine toss up for the next three teams (heck, really everybody but the Royals) of which order they will finish in. All have significant flaws, but enough good pitching/star players to make their final destinations unclear. So for Third Place in the NL Central (an award on par with Second Favourite TTC Bus Line) we're going for the Chicago White Sox. Not because I think they'll be good, but because I could see them being the most "not bad" if the right pieces click.
One of those pieces is their big addition: third baseman Todd Frazier. The latest Reds sendoff in their quest to make Joey Votto miserable, Frazier comes to the Pale Hose with high expectations. In 2015 he was an all-star, won the Home Run Derby and was traded for NBA sharpshooter Klay Thompson's little brother Trayce (who is a legit outfield prospect). Yet there are troubling signs. In the first half of 2015 Frazier put up a .284/.337/.585, 25 HR and 57 RBI line, enough to put him in consideration for best 3B this side of Josh Donaldson. But in the second half: .220/.274/.390, with only 10 HR and 32 RBIs. Frazier (or "Flava Fraz" as I hope nobody calls him) is a very good hitter, an underrated defender at the hot corner, but he's more of a "very good" player than a superstar. He's not as good as that hot first half or as bad as that slumpy second. He's a nice upgrade, but he doesn't transform the team completely overnight. Who does he think he is? Corey Koskie?
Again, I could see this operation being successful. The rotation is anchored by a pair of star lefties in Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon could be dangerous if he gets his walks under control, Melky Cabrera isn't truly as bad as he was the first half of 2015, Jose Abreu punishes bad pitches and they finally have two not awful options behind the plate in Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila (Tyler Flowers is now a Brave, because of course he is). Then again, I could see this being a disaster. Any injury to Sale, Quintana or Abreu ruins everything, their bullpen is iffy beyond (the expensive) David Robertson, Carlos Rodon could be dangerous if his walks take control of him, and the ghost of Jimmy Rollins and his Veteranness(TM) is around to steal ABs from younger players. A baseball season has its ebbs and flows, so I think it'll all balance out in the end. The result here is a pretty "meh" team, but at least they get to watch Chris Sale every fifth day.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 80-82, 3rd
---Detroit Tigers (2015: 74-87, 5th, 20.5 GB, *-114)---
Up Ton Here
So you've just gone through a season where you lose 87 games, finish twenty games behind the World Series champs, trade significant players at the deadline and eventually finish dead last. So what do you do? Sign expensive free agents! Of course! Why didn't I think of that?
Now to be fair, the Tigers are not your ordinary last place team. They're very talent top-heavy, what with Miguel Cabrera still being amazing (when healthy), Justin Verlander still being alive and well (when healthy), sharp second baseman Ian Kinsler, found gold outfielder J.D. Martinez, and the free agent prizes Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann. The problem is that, well... there's a bit of a drop off afterwards, unless you're banking on Anthony Gose or Nick Castellanos having their Big Breakout(TM) or for Victor Martinez to think it's 2007 again. The bullpen has long been a problem and that may very well continue yet again, despite the solidifying additions of Justin Wilson, Mark Lowe and Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez. Which really says it all frankly, when you describe adding Mark Lowe and K-Rod as "solidifying". The rotation is also very questionable beyond Verlander and Zimmermann, featuring the not so great Shane Greene, those Blue Jays lefties they got, some guy named Kyle Ryan, Mike Pelfrey (yikes!) and the skeleton of Anibal Sanchez. So they'll be good for your fantasy team (unless you take Mike Pelfrey of course. I mean, seriously???) but not so good in the W-L column. The additions of Zimmermann and Upton will make them good enough to not completely suck, but not nearly good enough to contend. Money well spent? Whatever.
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 76-86, 4th
---Minnesota Twins (2015: 83-79, 2nd, 12 GB, *-4)---
Smoke, Meet Mirrors
The 2015 Twins were probably a lot better than I want to give them credit for, but since I'm the one writing these blasted previews I'm just not gonna do that. I mean, I look this team over and I just don't see how exactly they're supposed to be good. I mean, maybe if Miguel Sano simultaneously keeps crushing balls and takes well to right field, Byron Buxton stays healthy long enough to show us what all the fuss is about, their pitching staff keeps defying logic by being oh-so-hittable, not striking anybody out and yet still being effective, or if Brian Dozier keeps doing what he does and Joe Mauer continues to make the best of what he's got left, okay I could see this maybe working. And I guess they're a good defensive outfit. But... but...
SPUR OF THE MOMENT PREDICTION -- 74-88, 5th
That's enough appetizers for this meal. In a few days, it's time to sink our teeth into the juicy main course. What's on the menu? It's one of those surprise restaurants! That... don't exist... yet.