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2013 MLB Preview: AL Central

Next up on our path to Opening Day is the land where all roads lead to Motor City

The Tigers shoot for a return to the World Series, the White Sox try to defy expectations again, the Royals are all (well … mostly) in, the Indians play the speed-and-defense game, and the Twins try to cobble together a pitching staff. Grantland’s countdown to Opening Day continues with a look at the AL Central.

DETROIT TIGERS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Austin Jackson (.263/.342/.418)
RF Torii Hunter (.287/.346/.438)
3B Miguel Cabrera (.313/.397/.561)
1B Prince Fielder (.284/.400/.499)
DH Victor Martinez (.286/.342/.431)
LF Andy Dirks (.276/.321/.418)
SS Jhonny Peralta (.258/.318/.395)
C Alex Avila (.248/.351/.407)
2B Omar Infante (.278/.311/.387)

The Tigers were a good but top-heavy team last year, blessed with tons of star talent but also a bunch of scrubs who conspired to bury the team’s defense, make a lot of outs when the big boys weren’t at bat, and limit the team’s regular-season success … though not enough to prevent a division title and an eventual trip to the World Series. The starting nine will be better this year, with Martinez back to bolster the middle of the lineup, and Hunter taking over for the grisly Brennan Boesch in right field. If Dirks can’t cut a full-time job or someone gets hurt, the Tigers have both the young talent and the will to aggressively promote top prospects into prominent jobs; you get the sense that Avisail Garcia or Nick Castellanos will play a role in Detroit’s success this year. If any bigger problems arise, we’ve seen enough of Dave Dombrowski’s M.O. to know the Tigers will make a deal.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Justin Verlander (221, 3.01)
Max Scherzer (187, 3.49)
Doug Fister (171, 3.61)
Anibal Sanchez (185, 3.85)
Rick Porcello (179, 4.01)

The starting rotation might actually be deeper than the lineup. The following is a list of ERA title–qualified starting pitchers with a better strikeout rate last year than Scherzer: ____ . Fister was another clever Dombrowski deadline move, one that paid particularly big dividends during the 2011 stretch run and in that year’s ALCS. Sure, $80 million might turn out to be a bit of an overpay for Sanchez. That doesn’t mean the Tigers aren’t thrilled to have a pitcher who’s averaged four Wins Above Replacement over the past three years, without a single DL stint, as their fourth starter. Porcello’s gains over the past four years have been incremental, but they add up to an above-average innings eater with potential for more. Meanwhile, 23-year-old lefty Drew Smyly struck out nearly a batter an inning in his rookie season last year, but can’t even win a job in this all-righty rotation. That Verlander guy is OK too.

The only real source of intrigue this spring has been the closer spot. Detroit has opted to go with the risky closer-by-committee route after sending 22-year-old man-mountain Bruce Rondon to Triple-A. Even when Rondon does arrive, his minor league track record suggests a pitcher with enough gas and enough wildness to evoke a poor man’s Carlos Marmol.1 This is a likely playoff team no matter what happens in the ninth, but the Tigers may look for other options if Rondon falters. They have Joaquin Benoit and his slider of death, a Hall of Fame backstory guy in Phil Coke … Jim Leyland has even hinted that Porcello could get some save chances, if Smyly were to step into a rotation role. A trade could also be in the cards at some point, be it Porcello switching teams or some other scenario. They’ll see what the kid can do first, of course; if your biggest (only?) problem is who’s going to pitch with a two- or three-run lead, bases empty, needing three outs, that’s not a terrible problem to have.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The Tigers sort out their bullpen issues, ride their improved lineup and stacked rotation, and cruise to their first World Series title in 29 years.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The closer committee (and possibly Rondon) can’t cut it, the Tigers limp to an 87-win season, and … honestly, that’s still probably good enough to win this lousy division.


CHICAGO WHITE SOX

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Alejandro De Aza (.272/.335/.406)
3B Jeff Keppinger (.289/.340/.398)
RF Alex Rios (.271/.310/.434)
1B Paul Konerko (.284/.363/.485)
DH Adam Dunn (.206/.335/.436)
LF Dayan Viciedo (.264/.316/.434)
SS Alexei Ramirez (.269/.309/.389)
C Tyler Flowers (.211/.316/.396)
2B Gordon Beckham (.250/.315/.387)

Kenny Williams is out and Rick Hahn is in as general manager, so maybe it’s no surprise the team didn’t make many major changes this offseason, with Williams’s gunslinger player-acquisition approach shelved in favor of a job upstairs. This isn’t the Old Sox of a few years ago, with Konerko now flanked by a bunch of twentysomethings: Flowers is 27, Viciedo is 24, even disappointing first-round draft pick Beckham’s still just 26. That youth does offer some upside. But the high minors are a virtual wasteland, as evidenced by the industry’s view of this farm system. Hahn has talked about rebuilding the minor league talent pool, building on the progress from the past couple drafts. For now, this looks like a team with a better-than-average offense and mediocre defense, one that figures to add up to another decent but unspectacular season.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Chris Sale (176, 3.43)
Jake Peavy (159, 3.80)
Gavin Floyd (173, 4.03)
Jose Quintana (186, 4.36)
Dylan Axelrod (127, 4.75)

We can talk about this team’s underwhelming talent forever, but the White Sox have been smashing projections for a while now. Pitching health has played a pivotal role in that success, with pitching coach Don Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider presiding over a staff that pathologically avoids the disabled list.2 Chris Sale has been cited as one of the biggest injury risks of 2013, because of his huge jump in innings pitched last year. Turns out, as Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton ably demonstrated, this supposed effect doesn’t actually hold water. With Peavy shaking off years of injury history of his own, the top of the rotation should be in good hands — even as the back figures to be pretty bad. Most of last year’s no-name, reasonably effective bullpen crew is back this year too. This really is 2013′s quintessential “meh” team.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: It would take a minor miracle for the Sox to catch the far more talented Tigers. In a best-case scenario, you could close your eyes and imagine Chicago hanging on the fringes of the wild-card race through Labor Day.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: There really aren’t any major reasons for pessimism per se. The big league club will be respectable, and the new regime will continue its efforts to churn out the kind of talent that could make 2015 and beyond far more exciting.


KANSAS CITY ROYALS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
LF Alex Gordon (.269/.353/.434)
SS Alcides Escobar (.271/.313/.366)
DH Billy Butler (.295/.365/.476)
3B Mike Moustakas (.261/.313/.430)
C Salvador Perez (.286/.318/.422)
1B Eric Hosmer (.273/.339/.435)
RF Jeff Francoeur (.261/.308/.413)
CF Lorenzo Cain (.259/.313/.383)
2B Chris Getz (.259/.312/.316)

They’re goin’ for it! So why are Francoeur and Getz starting for a team with playoff aspirations? GM Dayton Moore believes the Royals’ young players need to be in a winning environment if they are going to improve, which meant acquiring players with that kind of winning pedigree. So James Shields is a Royal now, even if on paper the downgrade from a full season of Wil Myers to outmaking ninja Francoeur threatens to approach the gains made from generic 2012 KC pitcher X to the very able Shields. Johnny Giavotella isn’t nearly the prospect Myers is, but he certainly offers more upside than Getz, who’s presented us with 1,309 plate appearances worth of evidence that he can’t hit if the fate of nations depended on it.

OK, all of that might seem a little unfair. Every team has weaknesses. And when you take a closer look, what the Royals’ lineup seems to offer more than anything is potential. Cain is 26, Escobar 26, Moustakas 24, Hosmer 23, Perez 22; no team has more breakout candidates in its lineup than KC does. Meanwhile, Gordon and Butler offer something the Royals haven’t had much of for about a quarter-century: on-base ability. We can debate whether the pitching staff is contender-worthy (and we will, in about 30 seconds). We can wonder aloud why the Royals seem content with two black holes at the bottom of their lineup. But the other seven members of the starting nine are a product of years of strong scouting and player development. One of these years, a bunch of these guys could go nuts. Might even be this year.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
James Shields (208, 3.89)
Jeremy Guthrie (164, 4.68)
Ervin Santana (178, 5.08)
Wade Davis (153, 4.41)
Luis Mendoza (134, 4.83)

If trading away six years of Myers for two years of Shields3 is going to work, the Royals will need the Shields who’s tossed six straight 200-inning seasons, averaging just less than four WAR a year in the process. But how much of KC’s new ace’s success rested on his extremely pitcher-friendly home park, on the Rays’ talented glovemen, and on Joe Maddon’s array of dramatic shifts against pull hitters? You worry about the 4.67 ERA in open-air parks vs. 3.34 in domes (i.e., primarily Tropicana Field), and the Rays’ track record for jettisoning players right before their performance starts to ebb. If the rest of the rotation were loaded, these might seem like mere quibbles. It isn’t. Santana was one of the worst starters in baseball last year, Guthrie has years of mediocre performance behind him suggesting his big stretch run with the Royals last year was an outlier, and Mendoza’s a space filler. If Davis can harness his massive results from last season’s bullpen stint (2.78 FIP, 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings) into success every fifth day, that could be a difference-maker. But that’s a big if.

The better news is that the Royals have done a great job over the past couple of years of building young, cheap, very good bullpens, using a combination of homegrown talent and shrewd acquisitions. Greg Holland should fare well in the closer’s role this year, while pint-sized lefty Tim Collins is a delight to watch as he fires mid-90s fastballs by befuddled hitters. Kelvin Herrera was nearly unhittable as a rookie last year, Aaron Crow’s best days might still lie ahead, and Luke Hochevar’s an intriguing addition now that he’ll be free to rear back and fire for 20 pitches rather than sweating for 100.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: The Royals vie for a wild-card spot. But just about everything will have to click for that to happen: breakouts for at least two or three hitters; in-season upgrades on Francoeur, Getz, or both; the Tampa Bay version of Shields; a big year for Davis; maybe even Santana somehow approaching his 2008 form.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Another disappointing season in Kansas City, a monster rookie year for Myers on another team, and management left wondering what might have been.


CLEVELAND INDIANS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Michael Bourn (.266/.331/.362)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (.271/.333/.422)
2B Jason Kipnis (.256/.328/.400)
1B Nick Swisher (.251/.347/.425)
C Carlos Santana (.248/.367/.435)
DH Mark Reynolds (.212/.322/.422)
LF Michael Brantley (.275/.335/.382)
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (.255/.308/.398)
RF Drew Stubbs (.220/.292/.344)

Like the Royals, the Indians didn’t sit idly by and accept another season of Tiger hegemony. In signing Bourn to a four-year contract and acquiring Stubbs as a throw-in in the Shin-Soo Choo/Trevor Bauer deal, the Tribe set up what could be the best defensive outfield in baseball. By supplementing those moves with a multiyear deal for Swisher, a one-year pact with Reynolds, and the cheap pickup of Jason Giambi, they also added badly needed power and depth. Also like the Royals, Cleveland will start several young hitters who’re at an age where a performance spike might be nigh. Kipnis and Chisenhall in particular are pretty good bets to post better numbers than they did last season — maybe much better.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Justin Masterson (193, 3.86)
Ubaldo Jimenez (181, 4.06)
Brett Myers (178, 4.06)
Zach McAllister (157, 4.47)
Scott Kazmir (58, 5.74)

That rotation doesn’t look much better than the miserable 2012 version. But Myers can at least offer bulk innings, and Kazmir has been one of the best stories in the game this spring, regaining much of his lost velocity and winning the fifth starter’s job, despite not pitching above replacement level since 2009. Really, what the Indians are banking on is staffwide improvement thanks to the team’s much-improved defense. Masterson was nearly a five-win pitcher in 2011, and though he’s one of baseball’s most prolific ground ball inducers, he’ll still benefit from having three center fielders running down balls in the gap this season.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Santana, Swisher, Bourn, Kipnis, and Cabrera fuel a big year for Cleveland’s offense, the pitching is at least adequate, and the Indians finish above .500 for the first time in six years.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: The defense gambit doesn’t work, laying bare the harsh truth that the pitching staff needs a gigantic overhaul before this team can call itself a true contender.


MINNESOTA TWINS

LINEUP (ZiPS projections: AVG/OBP/SLG)
CF Aaron Hicks (.232/.317/.358)
2B Brian Dozier (.247/.300/.349)
C Joe Mauer (.299/.388/.426)
LF Josh Willingham (.247/.353/.469)
1B Justin Morneau (.265/.339/.435)
RF Chris Parmelee (.249/.325/.390)
DH Ryan Doumit (.256/.314/.411)
3B Trevor Plouffe (.241/.302/.422)
SS Pedro Florimon (.237/.292/.331)

A stars-and-scrubs roto team come to life, only the stars aren’t that good. Mauer remains one of the best catchers in the game, of course. But entering his age-30 season, you wonder if we’ll ever again see anything like the power display he put on in 2009, when he won the AL MVP nearly unanimously. Morneau’s career has been sidetracked by a litany of injuries, to the point where he’s just a slightly above-average hitter when he’s actually on the field. The Twins have to be happy with what they’re getting from the three-year deal they tossed at Willingham, but he’s 34 and almost certainly won’t be part of the next winning team in the Twin Cities. It’ll be fun to see what Hicks can do now that Ron Gardenhire has trusted him with the starting center-field job and a leadoff role to boot. But the double-play combination of Dozier and Florimon may be the worst in the game, and the Twins will have plenty of work to do to build out the rest of this lineup in the coming years.

ROTATION (ZiPS projections: IP, FIP)
Vance Worley (148, 3.99)
Kevin Correia (135, 5.04)
Mike Pelfrey (106, 4.47)
Liam Hendriks (160, 4.73)
Cole De Vries (140, 4.80)

And the lineup’s not even the big problem, not when the team’s trying to recover from years of scouting, drafting, developing, and promoting an army of pitchers whose fastballs couldn’t dent a slice of bread. They’re trying, having traded for Worley, Trevor May, and others during the winter, in an effort to build a rotation that could actually compete in, say, 2015 or 2016. But for now, you can’t help but shake your head when a team’s would-be Opening Day starter throws an 89 mph fastball and was the third-least prolific strikeout pitcher last year … and he can’t even start because he’s coming off elbow surgery.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS RIGHT: Mauer finds his lost power, at least a couple of the young starters show signs of improvement, and the Twins do better in trading Morneau and Willingham than they did in flipping Denard Span’s very attractive contract to the Nats for minor league starter Alex Meyer.

IF EVERYTHING BREAKS WRONG: Mauer starts texting Ernie Banks 30 times a day, asking for advice on how to cope with losing and the promise of more losing.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

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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