2014 Preview: AL Central

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By Greg Hudson
Chicago White Sox (63-99, 5th in 2013)
The White Sox endured a terrible 2013 season when they lost 99 games and finished at the basement of their division for the first time since 1989. The reason for their failure wasn’t do to a particular shortcoming but rather a mediocrity in all departments, from run production (598 runs, 29th in the league) and on-base percentage (.302, 27th) to team WHIP (1.33, 24th) and bullpen ERA (4.00, 23rd).
The Sox dipped into the free agent market to land highly-touted Cuban defector Jose Abreu, who is expected to take over duties at first base from aging Paul Konerko. It was certainly a risk to offer a six-year, $70 million contract to a rookie, but his potential is so high, especially in the power department, that the Sox seem to believe he’ll follow in the footsteps of Yasiel Puig and become an overnight All-Star. They also brought in outfielder Adam Eaton from Arizona in a three-way trade involving the L.A. Angels.
But the weaknesses in the pitching staff and underwhelming lineup, especially the catcher position, remain, and will likely plague the Sox this season. Chris Sale will have to turn in a killer season to lead a poor rotation that still includes John Danks, whose 4-14 record in 2013 was one of the worst among starting pitchers in the league. Don’t expect a revelation this year, but perhaps an improved hitting performance will help Robin Ventura’s men win more of the close games they always seemed to lose last season.
Cleveland Indians (92-70, 2nd in 2013)
The Indians were a solid all-around ream last season, wrapping up a wildcard spot. Their offensive production was stellar, with Indians hitters ranking 5th in runs scored with 745 and 7th in on-base percentage at .327. A pitching rotation led by veterans Scott Kasmir and Ubaldo Jimenez ranked second in strikeouts.
But the offseason departure of both Kazmir and Jimenez leaves a big void to fill, most likely by youngster Danny Salazar and newly-appointed ace Justin Masterson. The Tribe will need to continue to rely on their hitting, which they improved with the acquisition of outfielder David Murphy, a standout in his time with the Texas Rangers. Should the hitting do the job, they’ll hope to rely on new closer John Axford, who had a decent season with Milwaukee and St. Louis last season, but hasn’t featured as a regular closer since 2012.
The roster strength in Cleveland is so high that it’s unlikely that they won’t be a part of the playoff picture, but with the likes of Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the East, the Tribe will have to have another consistent season in order to compete in September, let alone challenge for the division with Detroit.
Detroit Tigers (93-69, 1st in 2013)
The 2013 ALCS losers had a dominating season last year, ranking in the top five in the league in all major hitting categories, and topping the column in batting average. The power of infield duo Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder was matched by the lights-out pitching from Justin Verlander and Cy Young Winner Max Scherzer.
The offseason has been productive for the Tigers, who dealt Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, and acquiring relievers Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos will be looking to prove his worth in the big leagues after making a few appearances in 2013.
It looks like another open-and-shut case for the Tigers in the Central in 2014 – if they can stay healthy.
Kansas City Royals (86-76, 3rd in 2013)
They came up short of the playoffs, but the Kansas City Royals finally delivered on a decade of promises that the team would have quality young players that would give them a chance at the playoffs let alone a long-sought .500 record. Young phenoms Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer led a lineup that won 86 games to give them a winning record for the first time since 2003.
The Royals added veteran second baseman Omar Infante and outfielder Norichika Aoki to their lineup, which will add further quality, but made a risky move for inconsistent hurler Jason Vargas, who struggled mightily for the Angels last season.
It isn’t likely that they have a playoff team this season. But the qualifying word in the sentence is this season. If they continue to develop their younger players into stars like Perez and Hosmer, they’ll be playing in October on a regular basis in the next five years.
Minnesota Twins (66-96, 4th in 2013)
The Twins had another disappointing season last year, and the early signs didn’t look good for this season either. The team ranked in the bottom third of the majors in all hitting categories last season, and a simply shambolic pitching rotation ranked dead last in quality starts and opponent batting average.
But the Twins added pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and while both have had struggles living up to their potential, the potential remains very high, and it’s almost impossible not to improve on last season’s 4.55 team ERA. DH Jason Kubel and defensive-minded catcher Kurt Suzuki will both contribute to an improved lineup, even though Suzuki isn’t renowned for his bat.
While it’s a step in the right direction, the Twins remain the team of Joe Mauer and little else, and the pressure of leading an underwhelming team has clearly affected his performances in recent seasons.
Prediction:
1st: Tigers
2nd: Indians
3rd: Royals
4th: White Sox
5th: Twins
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