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2014 AL Central Preview

The Tigers look to fend off the rising Indians and Royals, while the White Sox and Twins count down the minutes until 2015

Grantland’s 2014 division previews kicked off last week with a look at the AL East. Today, the series continues with the AL Central, where the Tigers are going for their fourth consecutive division title, the Indians are trying to make it back to the playoffs, the Royals are aiming to snap a 29-year postseason drought, the White Sox are looking to make good on their chic sleeper status, and the Twins are biding their time until their star prospects arrive.

Note: I’m ordering the teams by Vegas lines. If you want to know how I think they’ll finish, check back on Monday, March 31, for my season predictions.

For more, check out the AL EastAL WestNL EastNL Central, and NL West division primers, the MLB Warning series, and all of Grantland’s 2014 season-preview goodness.

(Projected lineups and rotations via MLBDepthCharts.com.)

Detroit Tigers

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Vegas line (via Sportsbook.com): 90.5 wins

Key additions: Joba Chamberlain, Rajai Davis, Alex Gonzalez, Ian Kinsler, Ian Krol, Joe Nathan

Key losses: Joaquin Benoit, Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta

Projected lineup (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for AVG/OBP/SLG):
2B Ian Kinsler (.266/.340/.419)
RF Torii Hunter (.285/.330/.431)
1B Miguel Cabrera (.321/.409/.584)
DH Victor Martinez (.290/.344/.426)
CF Austin Jackson (.270/.342/.415)
C Alex Avila (.240/.340/.399)
3B Nick Castellanos (.273/.318/.414)
LF Don Kelly (.244/.312/.363)
SS Andrew Romine (.241/.291/.345)

With promising young shortstop Jose Iglesias out for the season with stress fractures in both legs, the big question swirling around the Tigers is whether they’ll sign free agent Stephen Drew. The better question, however, is whether they should.

The pro-Drew argument goes like this: Andrew Romine, Alex Gonzalez, Eugenio Suarez, Hernan Perez, and anyone else the Tigers could currently throw out there would likely be awful. Drew, meanwhile, is a left-handed hitter who’d bring balance to a lineup that skews right-handed, especially after the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler trade. And with a weak farm system and multiple players either in their walk years (Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter) or eligible for free agency after 2015 (Miguel Cabrera), the Tigers are built to win now; they can’t let this season get away just because Iglesias is hurt.

The anti-Drew case goes something like this: Signing Drew would cost the Tigers the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft; they’ve already pulled off small deals for Romine and Gonzalez, and they can still probably find a half-decent shortstop who won’t cost as much as Drew in salary or draft compensation. Take a guy like Cliff Pennington, who’s basically a poor man’s Iglesias: He can’t really hit, but he’s a solid fielder and he’d probably come cheap given the glut of shortstops the Diamondbacks have. Plus, the Tigers still project to be a fair bit better than the Indians and Royals, meaning Detroit might be able to get away with playing a replacement-level shortstop for a while without dramatically affecting its postseason chances.

Whatever the Tigers do, one thing is clear: If they’d kept Doug Fister, they’d now have more than enough pitching depth to use in a trade for a legitimate shortstop.

Projected rotation (ZiPS/Steamer hybrid projections for IP, FIP):
Justin Verlander (213, 3.33)
Max Scherzer (201, 3.25)
Anibal Sanchez (195, 3.35)
Rick Porcello (177, 3.68)
Drew Smyly (121, 3.86)

Is this the year Rick Porcello finally breaks out? Porcello, a highly touted first-round draft pick in 2007, has developed into one of the game’s most prolific ground ball pitchers, but has yet to find similar success missing bats, the cornerstone of most successful pitchers’ résumés. However, there are positive signs on that front following a 2013 season in which Porcello struck out a career-high 19.3 percent of the batters he faced. Porcello has become one of those pitchers whose peripheral stats don’t match his more superficial stats, like ERA; last year, for example, he posted a 4.32 ERA, but a career-best 3.53 FIP.

It’d be easier to feel better about every Detroit pitcher if Iglesias were healthy, but ditching Fielder and moving the statue-like Cabrera from third to first should still improve Detroit’s run prevention this year, and potentially help Porcello post numbers that please both statheads and traditionalists.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Rajai Davis always seems to find his way to 300 plate appearances, and he gives the Tigers a major base-stealing threat they lacked last year. Meanwhile, Joe Nathan should firm up a closer position that was often shaky in 2013. Losing Joaquin Benoit to the Padres and Bruce Rondon to Tommy John surgery thrusts the setup role into doubt, though. It’ll be hard to feel fully confident in Detroit’s bullpen if Joba Chamberlain ends up throwing a bunch of high-leverage innings this season.

Best-case scenario: Detroit has been a popular World Series pick the last few offseasons, but so far the only thing the Tigers have to show for it is getting swept by the Giants in 2012. This could be the year the Motor City Kitties break through.

Worst-case scenario: Third place. Like last year, the Indians and Royals both have significant upside. Unlike last year, the Tigers have some real question marks.

Bold prediction: Most projection systems have Detroit finishing comfortably ahead of Cleveland, Kansas City, and the rest of the AL Central. But if the Tigers fail to upgrade at shortstop and their younger division rivals rise up, their run of consecutive AL Central titles will end at three.

Cleveland Indians

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Vegas line: 81.5 wins

Key additions: John Axford, Elliot Johnson, David Murphy, Josh Outman

Key losses: Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Chris Perez, Mark Reynolds, Joe Smith, Drew Stubbs

Projected lineup:
CF Michael Bourn (.259/.321/.354)
1B Nick Swisher (.248/.342/.419)
2B Jason Kipnis (.262/.339/.416)
DH Carlos Santana (.254/.367/.444)
LF Michael Brantley (.275/.331/.388)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (.258/.318/.411)
RF David Murphy (.260/.322/.407)
C Yan Gomes (.256/.309/.423)
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (.255/.305/.419)

Last year’s sixth-best offensive team returns with its lineup almost entirely intact. The two notable changes are both positive: (1) the low-cost acquisition of David Murphy, a promising buy-low pickup who could form a solid platoon with Ryan Raburn in right, and (2) Carlos Santana’s move to DH, which leaves Yan Gomes as the starting catcher and could have a significant impact on Cleveland’s run prevention this year (more on that in a bit).

The post-hype sleeper here is Lonnie Chisenhall. The lefty-swinging third baseman hit just .225/.270/.398 last year, but those numbers sunk due to a .243 batting average on balls in play that doesn’t jive with Chisenhall’s decent line-drive ability.1 He was once a highly regarded prospect who hit .282/.351/.470 in 1,905 minor league plate appearances, and he’s still just 25 years old. The Indians aren’t giving up on him, and fans shouldn’t either.

Projected rotation:
Justin Masterson (198, 3.56)
Corey Kluber (180, 3.64)
Zach McAllister (156, 4.05)
Danny Salazar (161, 3.37)
Josh Tomlin (38, 4.33)

I’ve written about my man Danny Salazar several times this offseason, including in last month’s piece on 2014 MLB breakout candidates, in which I highlighted how Salazar and his rotation mates could be due for big seasons thanks to a combination of natural talent and Gomes taking over behind the plate.

While the first four rotation spots are set, however, the fifth spot figures to be more fluid. Josh Tomlin looks like the favorite right now, with 14 strikeouts against just two walks over 14 innings this spring. On the other hand, Tomlin is coming off Tommy John surgery and owns the 11th-lowest strikeout rate among the 178 pitchers who’ve thrown as many as or more innings than Tomlin since he broke into the majors in 2010. His main competition for the job, Carlos Carrasco, has a poor major league track record thus far: 238⅓ innings, 83 walks, 31 homers, 281 hits allowed, and just 164 strikeouts. The wild card here is Trevor Bauer. The 23-year-old right-hander has gone from future star status after being drafted third overall in 2011 to becoming a big question mark following struggles with command and some clashes with coaches and catcher Miguel Montero when in Arizona. If none of these arms pan out, the Tribe could hit the trade market to plug the fifth hole.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: While the bullpen might not be elite, it could be better this year following the additions of John Axford and Josh Outman and the deletion of Chris Perez. Meanwhile, coming off a monstrous .272/.357/.543 season, Raburn provides one of the most potent bench bats in the league. The big difference-maker, though, could be shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor. Though Lindor is just 20 years old and has just 21 Double-A games as his highest level of experience, scouts say he has a big league–ready glove, and he’s shown precocious plate discipline in his climb through the minors. If Lindor looks primed for a call-up this year, the Indians might be able to trade current starting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera for pitching help.

Best-case scenario: The Tribe make the playoffs in consecutive seasons, only this time they manage better than one-and-done results.

Worst-case scenario: The rotation, while talented, proves not quite ready for prime time, and the Tribe fall to the .500-ish level most projection systems are forecasting.

Bold prediction: Lindor becomes the Indians’ starting shortstop by August 1.

Kansas City Royals

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Vegas line: 81.5 wins

Key additions: Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante, Danny Valencia, Jason Vargas

Key losses: Emilio Bonifacio, Chris Getz, David Lough, Ervin Santana

Projected lineup:
RF Norichika Aoki (.289/.349/.380)
2B Omar Infante (.286/.318/.398)
1B Eric Hosmer (.291/.351/.456)
DH Billy Butler (.290/.366/.453)
LF Alex Gordon (.271/.343/.435)
C Salvador Perez (.287/.320/.432)
3B Mike Moustakas (.255/.308/.419)
CF Lorenzo Cain (.257/.313/.373)
SS Alcides Escobar (.259/.294/.347)

A common theme round these parts is the importance of carrying not only stars, but also players who don’t suck. Alcides Escobar (.234/.259/.300), Lorenzo Cain (.251/.310/.348), and Mike Moustakas (.233/.287/.364) all sucked offensively last year, as did most of the Royals who tried (and failed) to play second base effectively. Omar Infante isn’t a star by any means, but he could end up being a huge upgrade over the dreck KC used at the position in 2013. As for Escobar, Cain, and Moustakas: All three are plus defenders and young enough to wield some offensive upside.2

Moustakas in particular looks sharp this spring, and is hitting approximately infinity/infinity/infinity, with all the home runs. The best reasons to get excited about the Royals — other than last year’s 86 wins — are the lineup’s untapped potential and the possibility of fielding average or better players at every position.

Projected rotation:
James Shields (214, 3.60)
Jason Vargas (191, 4.71)
Yordano Ventura (129, 4.14)
Jeremy Guthrie (171, 4.73)
Bruce Chen (157, 4.69)

At this point, we know the Royals are getting ace-level production from James Shields, and we know they’re getting basic competence but not much more from Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen, and Jeremy Guthrie. Yordano Ventura is the wild card, and the Royals pretty much need him to excel right away if they hope to contend in the loaded AL this season.

It could happen. In three late-season starts last year, Ventura fired his fastball consistently in the high 90s, and topped out at 102 mph. Combine that heater, which is considered one of the best on the planet, with a solid curveball, and the diminutive flamethrower looks like a leading Rookie of the Year candidate.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Virtually unhittable closer Greg Holland leads one of baseball’s best bullpens, while Justin Maxwell and Danny Valencia should provide good right-handed sock off the bench. And with talented youngster Danny Duffy and top prospect Kyle Zimmer both likely to get called up at some point this year, the rotation could get a major boost.

Best-case scenario: After 29 years, baseball’s longest playoff drought ends.

Worst-case scenario: The laggard young hitters fail to develop, the starters behind Shields are lousy, and this ends up being the Royals’ season highlight:

Bold prediction: Moustakas blasts 30 home runs, helping the lineup realize its potential and the team to remain in contention.

Chicago White Sox

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Vegas line: 75 wins

Key additions: Jose Abreu, Ronald Belisario, Matt Davidson, Scott Downs, Adam Eaton, Felipe Paulino

Key losses: Hector Santiago, Gavin Floyd, Addison Reed

Projected lineup:
CF Adam Eaton (.262/.342/.371)
LF Alejandro De Aza (.262/.323/.396)
1B Jose Abreu (.271/.359/.514)
DH Adam Dunn (.207/.318/.420)
RF Avisail Garcia (.275/.310/.413)
SS Alexei Ramirez (.268/.304/.374)
3B Conor Gillaspie (.251/.314/.386)
2B Marcus Semien (.241/.319/.386)
C Tyler Flowers (.206/.287/.372)

The White Sox are coming off a 99-loss season, yet GM Rick Hahn has ascended to media darling status, earning plaudits from statheads and mainstream writers alike for his rebuilding efforts this winter. That praise might turn out to be justified. Buying low on 25-year-old center fielder Adam Eaton after Eaton’s injury-plagued season looks great on paper, as does snatching 22-year-old third-base prospect Matt Davidson for a relief pitcher. The most exciting addition, however, is Jose Abreu, the 27-year-old Cuban slugger who cost $68 million, has never taken a big league at-bat, and might prove to be a bargain anyway.

It’d be a stretch to expect that new blood to propel the Pale Hose to greatness right away. But at least fans and analysts can look at this roster now and see the building blocks for a turnaround, which wasn’t the case at this time last year.

Projected rotation:
Chris Sale (198, 3.23)
Jose Quintana (194, 4.09)
John Danks (150, 4.82)
Erik Johnson (160, 4.65)
Felipe Paulino (65, 4.35)

Chris Sale is one of the five best starting pitchers in the AL, he turns 25 on March 30, and he’s effectively signed for the next six seasons, making him one of the most valuable commodities in the game. The question is what the Sox have after that. John Danks was once one of the best pitchers in the league himself, but shoulder surgery and a subpar return last year have left his status in doubt. Felipe Paulino was once regarded as a possible breakout candidate, but he’s coming off both shoulder surgery and Tommy John surgery, making him a long shot who wouldn’t crack the rotation on most other teams.

Erik Johnson is an interesting case, though. He’s 24 years old, throws effective two- and four-seam fastballs and a power slider, and is coming off a big 2013 season in which he struck out three batters for every one he walked across three levels. He’s become a sleeper prospect heading into the season.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: Davidson will likely start the season in Triple-A, and while most of his fellow White Sox prospects are further away from reaching the majors, he’ll give the team a potentially valuable reinforcement option at some point this year. Meanwhile, Hahn was aggressive in fortifying the bullpen over the winter, adding Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario. Those may not be exciting names, but they’re veteran pitchers who can eat innings and make up for Addison Reed being sent to Arizona. Not every team has the luxury of this many relievers who can keep games close.

Best-case scenario: Abreu immediately becomes one of the most potent power hitters in the league, a healthy Eaton breaks out, the 2-through-5 starters provide more support behind Sale than expected, and the White Sox improve by 20 games over last year, setting themselves up to contend in 2015.

Worst-case scenario: A repeat of last year’s 99-loss debacle. Barring multiple catastrophes, it’s tough to see the White Sox doing any worse than that.

Bold prediction: Despite a sub-.500 season, the White Sox produce an AL Rookie of the Year contender in Abreu and an AL Cy Young contender in Sale.

Minnesota Twins

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Vegas line: 70.5 wins

Key additions: Phil Hughes, Jason Kubel, Ricky Nolasco, Kurt Suzuki

Key losses: Jamey Carroll, Ryan Doumit, Clete Thomas

Projected lineup:
CF Aaron Hicks (.220/.297/.349)
2B Brian Dozier (.246/.304/.375)
1B Joe Mauer (.296/.383/.426)
LF Josh Willingham (.232/.341/.427)
RF Oswaldo Arcia (.259/.318/.440)
3B Trevor Plouffe (.244/.304/.410)
DH Jason Kubel (.232/.306/.391)
C Kurt Suzuki (.247/.301/.372)
SS Pedro Florimon (.231/.287/.330)

Yep, that’s about as good as it’s going to get until Miguel Sano (who’s out for the year after Tommy John surgery) and Byron Buxton (who’s just 20 years old and whose highest level of experience so far is 57 games at high-A ball) arrive in the big leagues. In the meantime, the player to watch is Aaron Hicks. A first-round draft pick in 2008 and Baseball America’s 19th-ranked prospect in 2010, Hicks lost a lot of his prospect luster after opening last season as the starting center fielder and then limping to a .192/.259/.338 season.

Still, going by tools alone, Hicks ranks as one of the most talented players in the game. And while spring training stats are always debatable, Hicks’s big spring appears to have given the Twins the confidence to make him the starting center fielder yet again over low-upside Alex Presley. Hicks is still just 24 years old, and if he ends up sharing an outfield with fellow speed demon Buxton in 2015, the Twins won’t be at the bottom of columns like this for long.

Projected rotation:
Ricky Nolasco (200, 3.97)
Phil Hughes (160, 4.31)
Kevin Correia (194, 4.67)
Mike Pelfrey (157, 4.44)
Kyle Gibson (48, 4.61)

When I spoke to assistant general manager Rob Antony this spring, he stressed the team’s commitment to fielding a respectable starting rotation, not only to win more games, but also to create a less depressing atmosphere for Sano, Buxton, and other youngsters when they arrive in the big leagues. The Twins helped achieve that goal by adding Ricky Nolasco, who’s been one of the most valuable pitchers in the game over the past six seasons, even if his superficial stats don’t reflect that.

The three-year, $24 million contract they gave Phil Hughes looks more perplexing.3 The silver lining for Hughes could be his move from homer-happy Yankee Stadium to Target Field, one of the stingiest parks when it comes to home runs. The short porch and the right-handers’ fly ball tendencies made Yankee Stadium a terrible fit for Hughes, but over the past two seasons he’s shown durability (61 starts) and pretty good command. If a few balls die short of the warning track, it could make a notable difference in Hughes’s performance.

Bullpen, bench, and depth: It was almost impressive to see a team with a bullpen as strong as Minnesota’s lose 96 games last year. Glen Perkins has quietly emerged as one of the best closers in the league, while Casey Fien has even more quietly developed into one of the game’s top setup men. And while the Twins already promoted several young players onto the big league roster last year, promising catching prospect Josmil Pinto could wrest playing time from Kurt Suzuki in the near future.

Best-case scenario: Maybe 75 wins? Other than Joe Mauer, the best players in the organization aren’t on the major league roster yet, and won’t be for a little while longer.

Worst-case scenario: The only worse scenario than last year’s debacle would be more threats of contraction.

Bold prediction: Mauer plays very well, but gets ripped by troll sportswriters via hotsportstakery anyway. Wait, that’s the least bold prediction ever. Let’s go with a sub-4.00 ERA for Hughes.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, AL Central, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Jonah Keri

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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