Sox it to me... (ugh that was bad even by my standards...)
We continue our looksy at the American League with the Central division. Starting with...
Minnesota Twins (2016: 59-103)
Wow, that did not go well. After a surprising 83 win season in 2015, the Twins looked like a young team on the move. They weren't a gifted offensive outfit (team OPS+ 92) but they had enough steady pitching to keep them in ballgames. Guys like Tommy Milone (9-5, 3.92), Phil Hughes (11-9, 4,40), Kyle Gibson (11-11, 3.84) and Tyler Duffey (5-1, 3.10 in 10 starts) weren't sexy but were reasonably effective at preventing runs from scoring. Thing is, these fellas and everyone else on this team are low strikeout guys (the Twins finished last in the AL in pitcher strikeouts that season) so you're gonna have a lot of balls in play. Which is fine, if you have a good defense. Well here's the thing: in 2016 the Twins as a whole graded out 5.5 wins below replacement level when factoring defensive WAR. The main culprits were Robbie Grossman (an amazing -2.6) and Miguel Sano (-1.8), but perhaps the bigger issue was the absence of good to great gloves out there. Brian Dozier and Byron Buxton were the only two regulars to grade as above average, and that was only slightly. So a pitch-to-contact pitching staff, with a shaky defense behind them? Not promising.
Well even factoring in that bad situation, the Twins pitching staff was awesomely disappointing in 2016. The team ERA jumped by an entire run (4.07 to 5.08) which is gonna cause problems. Tyler Duffey pitched a bunch more innings and was truly dreadful (9-12, 6.43), Tommy Milone looked like a batting practice pitcher (3-5, 5.71), Jose Berrios made his debut season one to forget (3-7, 8.02 in 12 starts) and Kyle Gibson... I've run out of ways to describe "bad" so lets just say he was bad. This pitching staff was an honest nightmare. Need further proof? At the deadline, the Twins and Angels swapped Ricky Nolasco for Hector Santiago, with Santiago going to Minnesota. Despite having a solid season in LA (10-4, 4.25), Santiago immediately went into the septic tank as a Twin (3-6, 5.58). Nolasco meanwhile, was hot garbage (4-8, 5.13) when the deal went down, but finished up nicely (4-6, 3.21) as an Angel. Run away, pitchers! Run! Here be dragons! Gloveless dragons!
The Twins are probably gonna be awful bad again. Dozier is a really nice player, Buxton could become something interesting if he can stay healthy (still only 23), and Miguel Sano might be the next David Ortiz (in that he's a big guy being forced to play a position he's obviously bad at, and it might take another organization to grab him and say: you're a DH now. Go hit.). I picked the A's as likely to be the worst team in the American League, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's the Twins (again) instead.
Prediction -- 64-98, 5th AL Central
Chicago White Sox (2016: 78-84)
It's A Fire! ....Sale
Trading away one of the best pitchers in all of baseball is usually a sign that you're throwing in the towel for a while, as the White Sox did this winter when they sent Chris Sale to Boston (damn you). Well they doubled down on their towel throwing by trading off Adam Eaton (a 6+ win player in 2016) to Washington also, so I think the message here is pretty clear.
Thing is, the White Sox still have enough good players to not be completely terrible. Jose Quintana is a consistent 200+ inning horse with a career ERA of 3.41 (mighty useful), David Robertson and Nate Jones form a pretty dominant late game bullpen duo, Carlos Rodon is an improving young arm and the lineup still has guys like Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier (though he's injured), and Melky Cabrera that can hurt you. Throw a potential sizzling debut for super-prospect Yoan Moncada into the mix and you think this actually might be a respectable team... until you see the other names they've got lurking around. Guys like Derek Holland, or Avisail Garcia, or worst of all... James Shields. Shields came over from the Padres last summer and pitched 114.1 exceptionally bad innings for Chicago (4-12, 6.77 ERA, 1.697 WHIP). He gave up 31 home runs in 22 starts. So if the White Sox truly wanna be really awful, I think we know who they should give the ball to more.
They'll be bad, but not hilariously bad. You can put that on the board, yes.
Prediction -- 72-90, 4th AL Central
Kansas City Royals (2016: 81-81)
A lot went wrong for the Royals in 2016. An injury limited third baseman Mike Moustakas to only 27 games, star outfielder Lorenzo Cain was also only able to appear in 103 games and saw his production take a dramatic decrease (.838 in 2015 to .747 in 2016), Alex Gordon was also hurt much of the year and butchered my fantasy team when healthy, while pitchers who had been such a big part of the 2015 run like Edinson Volquez and Chris Young turned into rotting Halloween pumpkins by the curb of the road. In January. The offense was a bad combo of punchless and impatient, finishing last in the AL in both home runs and walks. It's impressive that considering everything that went bad, the team still finished with an even .500 record (which may have been a minor fluke, considering they allowed 37 more runs than they scored).
One factor that helped the Royals stay afloat was the emergence of pitcher Danny Duffy. The lefty Duffy had been mostly a swingman the past couple seasons and a very effective one at that, but in late May Kansas City gave him a rotation spot and he ran a mile with it. As a starter he went 12-3, an ERA of 3.56 while striking out more than a batter per inning. He was also absolute bloody murder on left-handed batters, holding them to a .183 batting average and a .229 slugging percentage. He now figures to be their opening day starter and you can imagine why.
As for the Royals outlook in 2017, I don't know. They've added some potentially useful parts (outfielders Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss, starting pitcher Jason Hammel) but they've lost some useful ones also in Wade Davis and Kendrys Morales. This could go... okay, if their injured core bats can recover, but this could also go south quickly. I don't see a playoff appearance even if things go well though. It's a tough league, and the unfortunate death of Yordano Ventura casts a dark cloud over whatever happens at Kaufman Stadium this summer anyhow.
Prediction -- 77-85, 3rd AL Central
Detroit Tigers (2016: 86-75)
Soar And Roar
I'll confess to being completely wrong about the 2016 Tigers. The 2015 team was a disappointing mess with a handful of stars all on the wrong side of 30, and so when they went out and spent big free agent money on both Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, an obvious "contender move", I wondered aloud what exactly the hell they were doing. And for the first month and a half of 2016 I was right: the team was 15-21 while Upton was struggling to keep his OPS above .600. The only bright spot was Zimmermann, who started the year 5-0 with an ERA of 0.55. Well then something funny happened, or rather something fortunate. A pitcher named Michael Fulmer, picked up from the Mets in the Cespedes trade the summer before, was called up in late April. Thirteen starts later, he had a 9-2 record with an ERA of 2.11(!). It was July 6th, Upton had started heating up, and the Tigers had meanwhile gone on a tidy 30-19 run to sit at 45-40. They would sniff around the wildcard race for the rest of the season but a mediocre September (14-16) pushed them outside of the playoff picture.
So what to expect for 2017? Again, there is some real awesome talent here but the ages of these guys has to be a concern. Miguel Cabrera will be 34 as will Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler is 35, Victor Martinez is 38 (his bounceback season in 2016 was huge for Detroit), closer Francisco Rodriguez is 35 and Zimmermann is 31. However, what really helped the Tigers in 2016 was an infusion of young talent. We've discussed Fulmer already (he's 24), there's also Daniel Norris (did you remember he lives in a van?), Matt Boyd, outfielder Steven Moya (sure to get a look thanks to the J.D. Martinez injury), relievers Bruce Rondon and Kyle Ryan, all of whom are 26 or younger. A seemingly solid mix of star veterans and young upside, what does it all mean? That I was totally wrong about this team a year ago, they've actually got it together it seems. Now watch them go lose 90 games because I said that.
Prediction -- 88-74, 2nd AL Central
Clevelands (2016: 94-67)
I mean, they lost Rajai Davis right? This is a fact. So... they're gonna be terrible, obviously. He was the key to that team, damnit!
There's very little you can nitpick with this team. On paper they're the most complete team in the division, arguably in the entire American League. The rotation will again be ridiculous thanks to Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco returning (a strikeout duo that combined for 22 victories, yet only three playoff innings), the bullpen is even more ridiculous with Cody Allen and Andrew Miller (WBC scuffles not withstanding), oh and they'll be getting Michael Brantley back, a guy who was only a 3.4 WAR player in 2015, and a seven win player the season before that.
And of course, there's the new first baseman. I wrote about this earlier in the winter, but I just wanna say it again: don't boo the guy when he comes back. That being said, I really really don't want him to hit a bomb against us in the dome. Seeing him do the parrot in another uniform, on our turf... that's a nightmare parallel universe that is.
That's really all I can add here. We watched this team come just a win away from winning it all, we watched these guys a lot and most of them are back. They'll be pretty damn good again and a menace for whatever poor team goes up against them in a playoff series.
Prediction -- 97-65, AL Central Crown
One division left. Can you guess which one it is?