The Kings Court: AL Central Preview

Miguel Cabrera is searching for his 3rd consecutive MVP, and his 2nd World Series Ring.

Miguel Cabrera is searching for his 3rd consecutive MVP, and his 2nd World Series Ring.

By: Travis Thayer

The AL Central has been dominated by the Tigers for the better part of five years.  Is there a team who can finally dethrone the Tigers?  Will it be the Royals, who haven’t been to the postseason in 28 years?  Can the Indians win 90 games again on their way to the playoffs?  And finally, can the White Sox and/or Twins shock the world by winning the central?  One thing is for sure, the road to winning the AL Central goes through Detroit, and it doesn’t appear that the Tigers are ready to lose grip on the division.

1. Detroit Tigers (95-67)

The Detroit Tigers are well on their way to their fourth consecutive AL Central Championship, that is unless a surprise happens.  The AL Central hasn’t been the most competitive divisions over the years, with the exception of last year when the Indians came within a game of the Tigers for the division.  The Tigers are a perennial powerhouse with World Series aspirations, and it will be tough for any team to slow down the likes of two-time reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera.  He and teammate Justin Verlander have combined for the last three AL MVP’s, and it appears nobody in the AL Central is ready to dethrone the Tigers.  The Tigers arguably have the league’s best one-two punch at the top of their rotation.  Ace Justin Verlander is followed by 2013 AL Cy Young award winner Max Scherzer.  The two combined to win 34 games in 2013, anchoring a team that won 93 games.  If that isn’t enough, the Tigers have the best hitter in baseball, which seems unfair.  Miguel Cabrera is two years removed from winning the Triple Crown (first since 1967), and he nearly won it again in 2013, batting .348 with 44 HRS and 137 RBI.  The Tigers chose to trade slugger Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Kinsler will instantly make the Tigers stronger up the middle, while providing a good bat at the top of the lineup.  Max Scherzer is entering the last year of his contract, but the money saved by trading Fielder should keep Scherzer in Motown.  With all the pistons firing, the Tigers are a serious World Series contender.

Projected Rotation: 1. Justin Verlander, 2. Max Scherzer, 3. Anibal Sanchez, 4. Rick Porcello, 5. Drew Smyly

Key Relievers: Joe Nathan, Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain

Projected Lineup
1. CF Austin Jackson
2. 2B Ian Kinsler
3. 1B Miguel Cabrera
4. DH Victor Martinez
5. RF Torii Hunter
6. C Alex Avila
7. LF Rajai Davis/Andy Dirks
8. 3B Nick Castellanos
9. SS Jose Iglesias

Top Prospects: 3B Nick Castellanos, RHP Jonathan Crawford, LHP Robbie Ray

2. Kansas City Royals (89-73)

Projected Rotation: 1. James Shields, 2. Jason Vargas, 3. Jeremy Guthrie, 4. Wade Davis, 5. Danny Duffy

Key Relievers: Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera

Projected Lineup
1. RF Norichika Aoki
2. 2B Omar Infante
3. DH Billy Butler
4. 1B Eric Hosmer
5. LF Alex Gordon
6. C Salvador Perez
7. 3B Mike Moustakas
8. CF Lorenzo Cain
9. SS Alcides Escobar

Top Prospects: RHP Yordano Ventura, RHP Kyle Zimmer, OF Bubba Starling

The Royals have put themselves in position to make the playoffs this year, and potentially ending the longest current playoff drought in the MLB at 28 years.  The Royals have an ace pitcher in James Shields, and a slew of youngsters on the cusp of making a big impact.  The Royals did everything in their power to help their pitching staff in the offseason by bolstering their lineup.  Newcomers Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante should immediately help the Royals lineup because of their ability to get on base.  All-Star first baseman Eric Hosmer is primed for a big year, and he’ll need to do so if the Royals are going to make a push towards the postseason.  The Royals proved they can pitch last season, and their success should continue if Jason Vargas is able to adequately replace Ervin Santana.  Combine that with added run production, and the Royals might just break through the glass ceiling to the playoffs.

3. Chicago White Sox (80-82)

Projected Rotation: 1. Chris Sale, 2. Jose Quintana, 3. Erik Johnson, 4. John Danks, 5. Felipe Paulino

Key Relievers: Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario, Scott Downs

Projected Lineup
1. CF Adam Eaton
2. 2B Gordon Beckham
3. 1B Jose Dariel Abreu
4. DH Adam Dunn
5. RF Avisail Garcia
6. LF Dayan Viciedo
7. SS Alexi Ramirez
8. 3B Jeff Keppinger
9. C Tyler Flowers

Top Prospects: 1B Jose Dariel Abreu, RHP Erik Johnson, 3B Matt Davidson

The AL Central takes a bit of a drop off after the Tigers and the Royals.  That’s not to say that there may be a surprise team, but nobody should bet on that.  Having said that, the White Sox get the nod as the third place team in the AL Central.  Newcomer Jose Dariel Abreu will be key to any success the White Sox have, and fans of baseball should hope that he is as good as advertised.  The Cuban defector had a monster 2010-11 season that some of the all-time greats would be jealous of.  He hit an incredible .453 with 33 HRS and 93 RBI, and he did all that in just 66 games!  That stat line won’t translate entirely to the MLB, but he should find some early success considering he is a mature 27 years old.  The Sox will need their young pitching staff to improve in most major statistical areas though.  Chris Sale has ace stuff, and he will be joined by fellow youngsters Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson.  If the pitching staff comes together and Abreu brings some much-needed pop, then I see the White Sox making one of the biggest improvements from 2013 to 2014, it just may not be enough to make the playoffs though.

4. Cleveland Indians (75-87)

Projected Rotation: 1. Justin Masterson, 2. Danny Salazar, 3. Corey Kluber, 4. Zach McCallister, 5. Trevor Bauer

Key Relievers: John Axford, Vinnie Pestano, Nick Hagadone, Cody Allen, Mark Rzepczynski.

Projected Lineup
1. CF Michael Bourn
2. 1B Nick Swisher
3. 2B Jason Kipnis
4. DH Carlos Santana
5. SS Asdrubal Cabrera
6. LF Michael Brantley
7. C    Yan Gomes
8. 3B Lonnie Chisenhall
9. RF David Murphy

Top Prospects: SS Francisco Lindor, OF Clint Frazier, C Francisco Mejia

The Indians won 92 games last year, and some believe they were one-year wonders.  The Indians got some pretty good pitching last season, while being a top 10 hitting team in many categories.  Losing starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir could be a blow that Terry Francona’s team can’t overcome.  The Indians failed to replace either of the two via trade or free agency.  It is well-known that pitching a defense wins championships, and I’m not convinced the Indians will pitch well enough to get back to the playoffs.  There is talk that Carlos Santana might play some third base, and while that won’t help the Indians defense, it will bolster their lineup.  The development of catcher Yan Gomes has allowed the Indians to play Santana at other positions.  Nick Swisher is the everyday first baseman, so Santana will be heavily relied on as a DH, but he could spell Lonnie Chisenhall at third.  On those days, it will allow both David Murphy and Ryan Raburn to be in the lineup with one playing the outfield and the other at DH.  Santana’s impact on this team will be great, but the pitching staff will have to have a strong year to get anywhere near the 92 wins they posted a year ago.

5. Minnesota Twins (70-92)

Projected Rotation: 1. Ricky Nolasco, 2. Phil Hughes, 3. Kevin Correia, 4. Mike Pelfrey, 5. Scott Diamond

Key Relievers: Glen Perkins, Jared Burton, Brian Duensing, Casey Fien

Projected Lineup
1. CF Alex Presley
2. 2B Brian Dozier
3. 1B Joe Mauer
4. LF Josh Willingham
5. 3B Trevor Plouffe
6. DH Chris Parmelee
7. RF Oswaldo Arcia
8. C Josmil Pinto
9. SS Pedro Florimon

Top Prospects: OF Byron Buxton, 3B Migeul Sano, RHP Alex Meyer

Another year, another disaster in Minnesota.  The Twins tried to improve their team through free agency by signing starting pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.  While those were nice signings for a team that only won 66 games a year ago, they aren’t signings that will completely turn your franchise around.  The Twins have a great closer in Glen Perkins, but he doesn’t often get a chance to shut the door.  The Twins ranked nearly last in all statistical categories on both the hitting and pitching side.  That is a recipe that even Joe Mauer can’t fix.  On the bright side the Twins don’t make a bigger mess of things in the field as they finished eighth in the league with a .987 fielding percentage.  That isn’t the only good thing about the Twins.  Being bad now might pay off in the long run, as the Twins have built quite the minor league system.  Outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano look like the real deal.  The two together could anchor a good Twins team for years to come.  The two still might be a year or so away from hitting Target Field, but they could potentially be franchise turners.  In other words, the Twins might be bad now, but better days are ahead in the Twin City.

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