2015 AL Central Preview: Watch Out, Detroit — Cleveland’s Coming

Ross D. Franklin/AP

Yesterday, we kicked off our division previews by digging into the parity-ridden AL East. Today, it’s the similarly up-for-grabs AL Central. Check back next week for our looks at the AL West and all the divisions of the National League.

Looking for a wild divisional race this season? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

While the AL Central does include one also-ran in the Twins, patiently waiting for the arrival of a battalion of top prospects to hopefully lead them into a brighter future, the top four could wage a dogfight that lasts all the way into September: You’ve got the four-time defending division champs in the Tigers, the defending AL pennant winner in the Royals, and another club, in the White Sox, that might’ve improved more than anyone else in baseball over the winter. And yet, I’m not picking any of those teams to win it. So before these squads get their first licks at each other, let’s set the scene for what could be the most competitive division in baseball.

Programming notes: Projected lineups and rotations come from RosterResource.com. Projected player stats and team records come from FanGraphs and combine ZiPS/Steamer-projected performance with playing-time estimates from the FanGraphs depth charts. Projected player improvements and declines are restricted to hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2014 and 2015 (projected), and pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2014 and 2015 (projected). Finally, injury projections for hitters and pitchers are provided by Rob Arthur and Jeff Zimmerman, respectively.1

1. Cleveland Indians

francisco-lindor-indians-triDarron Cummings/AP

Indians Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Michael Bourn L .255/.313/.354 92 588
2 SS Jose Ramirez S .258/.300/.354 86 497
3 LF Michael Brantley L .294/.351/.432 124 637
4 1B Carlos Santana S .247/.365/.437 132 623
5 RF Brandon Moss L .242/.325/.479 129 518
6 C Yan Gomes R .263/.308/.446 114 480
7 2B Jason Kipnis L .254/.329/.385 106 581
8 DH Nick Swisher* S .231/.317/.384 102 420
9 3B Lonnie Chisenhall L .267/.321/.429 114 490
*David Murphy will initially start for the injured Swisher.
Indians Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Corey Kluber 3.07 2.85 212.0 9.6 2.1
2 RHP Carlos Carrasco 3.66 3.34 162.0 8.4 2.6
3 RHP Trevor Bauer 4.38 4.20 180.0 8.5 3.9
4 RHP Danny Salazar 3.65 3.51 145.0 9.8 3.0
5 RHP Zach McAllister 3.96 3.66 83.0 7.5 2.5

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Nick Swisher, 3.0 WAR/600 PA; None

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Michael Brantley, minus-2.6 WAR/600 PA; Carlos Carrasco and Zach McAllister, minus-1.6 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Michael Bourn, 33 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Zach McAllister, 44 percent

Best Offseason Move: Trading Joe Wendle to the A’s for Brandon Moss. Last year, the Indians finished seventh among American League teams in runs scored and ninth in home runs. Enter Moss, whose 55 homers over the past two seasons rank 11th among AL hitters. While Oakland’s reasons for trading the first baseman are understandable — including a homerless stretch that lasted 123 at-bats, Moss’s numbers crashed in the second half, and he also had offseason surgery on a torn hip labrum — Cleveland is only committing to a one-year, $6.5 million deal2 for a hitter who, when healthy, can outslug almost anyone else in the league. As an added bonus, Progressive Field plays very generously to Moss’s wheelhouse: right-field power.

Worst Offseason Move: None. The Indians didn’t lose any significant contributors from last season, nor did they spend any real money on stiffs in a desperate attempt to plug holes. Prudence!

Greatest Team Strength: Potential. Now, more skeptical fans might argue that the team’s relatively quiet offseason was just another frustrating example of the Indians refusing to spend on upgrades. However, with a young pitching staff that includes five starters 29 or younger, the best way for the Tribe to improve might just be for the guys they’ve already got to simply get better. With Corey Kluber’s impressive breakout/Cy Young season/Skynet impression in the books, we could see one or more of Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar make their own leaps this year.

Greatest Team Weakness: Right field. The projected Opening Day starter, David Murphy, hit .262/.319/.3853 in 2014 and doubled as one of the worst defensive outfielders in the game. The plan is for Murphy to keep the spot warm until Nick Swisher returns from offseason knee surgery sometime soon after the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, Swisher hit a sub-Murphian .208/.278/.331, played equally horrible defense, and ranked as the fifth-worst player in the majors by Wins Above Replacement.4 At $15 million a year for his age-34 and -35 seasons, Swisher’s contract ranks as one of the worst albatrosses in baseball, especially given the Indians’ limited payroll. He was so bad last year that even the big improvement projected above would raise him only to the level of “semi-mediocre.”

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Francisco Lindor. While the 21-year-old has played only 38 games at Triple-A, producing a so-so line of .273/.307/.388 in the process, he’s a consensus top-10 prospect. With a plus hit tool to complement his impressive speed and defensive ability, Lindor could force his way into the lineup by this summer — and he’ll be a reason to tune into Tribe games from the moment he arrives.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: From 2013 to 2014, Jason Kipnis’s WRC+ fell from 129 to 86 — the biggest performance drop for any full-time second baseman in the majors. Although the playing time was mostly there, Kipnis did miss 33 games with oblique and leg injuries, which continued to hamper him even when he was in the lineup. Add offseason surgery on his left ring finger and a nagging back injury this spring, and things don’t look great going forward. But Kipnis doesn’t turn 28 until next month, and he’s just one year removed from an All-Star season that included an 11th-place MVP finish. A bounce-back season for the middle infielder could add three or four wins to Cleveland’s ledger all by itself.

Off-Field Story Line: Progressive Field hasn’t packed ’em in since the ’90s and early ’00s, and attendance has dropped by more than 50 percent since the franchise’s 1999 peak. Despite 92 wins and a playoff appearance in 2013, followed by an 85-win season that included meaningful games in September, Cleveland still finished last in the American League in fans per game last year. Management hopes that extensive stadium renovations will drive more fans to the ballpark, but a return to the postseason certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 84-78 — OVER. ZiPS, Steamer, PECOTA, and all the other projection systems don’t see a team that won 177 games over the past two seasons or a group with a young and talented pitching staff and a borderline MVP-caliber second baseman coming off a miserable season who’s primed for a big comeback. Instead, they see the monster 2014 seasons turned in by Kluber and Brantley as flukes, and project big crashes down to earth, along with mild regression sprinkled all over the rest of the roster. Granted, the smart money tends to bet against monumental breakouts like Kluber’s and Brantley’s from repeating, but the team’s youth, the addition of Moss’s power bat, the potential for big improvements in the rotation and the batting order, and Cleveland’s ability to scratch out little edges such as handedness advantages all bode well for an exciting season in Ohio.

Go ahead and bet the over on 84 wins being enough to claim the AL Central this year. Steamer projects the Indians and Tigers to tie for the most victories in the division, but I’m backing the Tribe by a whisker.

2. Detroit Tigers

yoenis-cespedes-tigers-triMark Cunningham/Getty Images

Tigers Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 2B Ian Kinsler R .268/.323/.413 107 644
2 CF Anthony Gose L .245/.305/.345 83 420
3 1B Miguel Cabrera R .312/.386/.544 158 630
4 DH Victor Martinez S .306/.368/.479 133 532
5 RF J.D. Martinez R .278/.325/.473 122 588
6 LF Yoenis Cespedes R .271/.320/.473 120 595
7 C Alex Avila L .230/.331/.376 101 419
8 3B Nick Castellanos R .272/.320/.428 108 581
9 SS Jose Iglesias R .255/.299/.325 75 483
Tigers Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 LHP David Price 3.45 3.24 220.0 8.6 1.7
2 RHP Justin Verlander 3.83 3.72 209.0 7.7 2.7
3 RHP Anibal Sanchez 3.55 3.31 163.0 8.0 2.3
4 RHP Alfredo Simon 4.71 4.59 146.0 5.4 2.8
5 RHP Shane Greene 4.45 4.19 130.0 7.0 3.3

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Nick Castellanos, 2.1 WAR/600; Joe Nathan, 0.8 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: J.D. Martinez, minus-2.3 WAR/600; Joba Chamberlain, minus-2.2 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Victor Martinez, 25 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Anibal Sanchez, 47 percent

Best Offseason Move: Not topping the Nationals’ seven-year, $210 million offer for Max Scherzer. The Tigers made more significant offseason additions than any AL Central team other than the White Sox, but you could argue that each of those transactions rates as neutral — or worse. Detroit’s best move was the one it didn’t make: tossing far too much money at another player whose best days will soon be behind him.

The Tigers are going to regret the Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander contracts, and there’s a strong chance they would’ve soon felt the same way about a Scherzer deal. Despite the player-specific arguments against the contract — notably, Scherzer’s violent delivery — the basic logic is that all aces eventually break down and stop being worth $30 million per season. While losing the 2013 Cy Young winner will hurt the Tigers in the short term,5 letting him walk should give Detroit all kinds of valuable flexibility at the 2015 trade deadline and way beyond.

Worst Offseason Move: Not upgrading the bullpen. Despite not re-signing Scherzer, the team is still in win-now mode, so fortifying the notoriously leaky bullpen, which was fifth-worst in park-adjusted ERA last year, seemed like an obvious offseason goal. Instead, Detroit decided to stand pat and will hope for a full, healthy season from Joakim Soria, one more year of staving off Father Time for Joe Nathan, and, uh, yeah. Good luck with that, fellas.

Greatest Team Strength: The bats. Last season, the Tigers finished second in the AL in runs scored. Although there are reasons to expect some pullback — both Victor and especially J.D. Martinez performed far above expectations last year; giving newly acquired center fielder Anthony Gose 420 plate appearances should help the defense, but will probably hurt the offense — adding Yoenis Cespedes’s pop in left field, along with Nick Castellanos’s potential for a breakout given the disconnect between his pedigree6 and his rocky rookie season, could cancel out much of that regression potential.

Greatest Team Weakness: The bullpen. There is one source of hope here: Hard-throwing right-hander Bruce Rondon, who showed flashes of upside in an abbreviated rookie season two years ago, appears fully recovered from last year’s Tommy John surgery and could add a much-needed swing-and-miss option in the late innings. That said, if Soria’s health keeps flickering, Nathan continues last year’s decline, and Rondon doesn’t produce as hoped, GM Dave Dombrowski will need to get more aggressive about making upgrades at the deadline.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Yoenis Cespedes. Sure, the Tigers’ new left fielder is a smidge overrated: In the past two seasons, he’s batted .251 with a .298 on-base percentage, which is about on par with Omar Infante’s 2014 numbers (and worse than Jordy Mercer’s) in those categories. Still, watch Cespedes put on a one-man show at the Home Run Derby or launch a fireball home to incinerate a baserunner, and it’s easy to understand that you’re seeing something special. That Cespedes might flail at 10 pitches out of the zone before launching one into orbit or badly misplay a ball before firing a strike to erase an overaggressive runner only makes his unpredictable game more irresistible.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: Hard-Hit Average, which is designed to show how often batters make hard contact and give a sense whether a one-year batting average is a fluke, held Cabrera (.233) and Victor Martinez (.231) in very high stead last season. The only qualified hitter to rate higher was the ageless wonder David Ortiz.

Off-Field Story Line: On December 19, Little Caesars opened its first location in Costa Rica, expanding the chain’s reach to 26 countries. The explosion in people’s desire to eat terrible pizza has shoved the net worth of Mike and Marian Ilitch to nearly $5 billion. If you consider the Tigers from that angle, maybe there’s no such thing as a bad contract.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 84-78 — OVER. For the first time in several years, Detroit no longer has one of the best starting rotations in baseball. Again, losing Scherzer does free up lots of money, but the Tigers’ ace is gone, and he hasn’t been replaced. David Price assumes the mantle of staff leader, while Verlander looks like a mid-rotation starter whose best days are behind him. And you can root for Anibal Sanchez to return to full health, Alfredo Simon to replicate his big 2014 first half despite turning into a pumpkin in the second half, and 26-year-old Shane Greene to fulfill his sleeper potential — but you can’t count on any of that happening.

Even with those question marks in the rotation and in the bullpen, the Tigers should have enough to at least contend for a fifth straight division title. But the aging stars are a year older, and the competition’s all but caught up. After averaging more than 91 wins during the past four seasons, Detroit is no longer a sure thing to claim the Central crown.

3. Chicago White Sox

jeff-samardzija-white-sox-triRon Vesely/Getty Images

White Sox Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Adam Eaton L .271/.345/.374 103 560
2 LF Melky Cabrera S .292/.341/.436 116 595
3 1B Jose Abreu R .292/.369/.549 154 602
4 DH Adam LaRoche L .239/.338/.448 117 588
5 RF Avisail Garcia R .267/.308/.419 101 567
6 3B Conor Gillaspie L .256/.316/.395 97 490
7 SS Alexei Ramirez R .268/.301/.379 88 630
8 C Tyler Flowers R .219/.282/.384 85 320
9 2B Micah Johnson L .252/.297/.356 81 329
White Sox Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 LHP Chris Sale* 2.96 3.02 216.0 10.1 2.2
2 RHP Jeff Samardzija 3.91 3.68 208.0 8.8 2.2
3 LHP Jose Quintana 3.86 3.72 184.0 7.4 2.6
4 LHP John Danks 5.20 5.10 133.0 5.8 3.3
5 RHP Hector Noesi 5.37 5.23 122.0 6.2 3.2
*Sale will miss Opening Day because of injury, but he may start on April 12. If so, no one will need to take his place in the rotation.

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Gordon Beckham, 1.2 WAR/600; None

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Emilio Bonifacio, minus-2.2 WAR/600; Zach Duke, minus-2.3 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Geovany Soto, 46 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: John Danks, 47 percent

Best Offseason Move: Given the way the Sox reeled in Zach Duke, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, and Melky Cabrera in just a few weeks’ time, Chicago’s best move might end up being a five-way tie. For now, though, the Cabrera deal takes the cake — if for no other reason than how it went down. After the outfielder, unsure of the team’s competitive potential, initially rebuffed Chicago’s approach, GM Rick Hahn went to the winter meetings, successfully courted those four other players, and then called Cabrera’s agent from the tarmac on his way home and did his best Kool Moe Dee impression. Soon after, Cabrera was signed for three years, and $42 million. Although he won’t win a Gold Glove any time soon, a 30-year-old outfielder coming off a .301/.351/.458 season7 could be a bargain at that price.

Worst Offseason Move: None. Seriously, the Pale Hose didn’t put a foot wrong this winter. Although, when we spoke a few weeks ago, Hahn getting fired up about a minor league deal for 36-year-old Brad Penny might’ve been a bit much.

Greatest Team Strength: The top three in the rotation. Chris Sale’s foot injury looks mild enough that he’ll miss only one or two regular-season starts, so the lanky lefty should reclaim his standing as one of the five best pitchers on earth shortly. Samardzija might end up being only a short-term rental, but he’s coming off a career-best season that saw his walk rate drop to career-low levels, and the strike-throwing right-hander fits perfectly between two lefties. The other notable southpaw, Jose Quintana, is among the league’s most underrated pitchers, and he’s one of just 12 AL hurlers to toss 400 or more innings over the past two seasons. Beyond those three, John Danks and Hector Noesi could struggle as the last two starters in the rotation, but Carlos Rodon, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, has shown flashes of brilliance this spring and could crack the rotation soon.

Greatest Team Weakness: Second base. Thanks to a hot spring and to his blazing speed, 24-year-old rookie Micah Johnson — who stole 84 bases across three levels in 2013 — looks like the favorite to beat out 22-year-old fellow rookie Carlos Sanchez. With veteran utility man Emilio Bonifacio and former top prospect Gordon Beckham both offering equally undesirable options, Johnson might just be getting the job by default.

While it’s not quite the sinkhole that second base has the potential of becoming, beyond Robertson and Duke, the bullpen doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. With a weak back of the rotation, there could be serious pressure on last year’s walk-happy duo of Javy Guerra and Jake Petricka or scrap-heap pickups like Matt Albers to come through in the middle innings.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Jose Abreu. Not to be that guy … well, OK. I’m gonna be that guy and just say it: I’ve been a gigantic Jose Abreu fan since he was putting up Bondsian numbers in Cuba. And who doesn’t love a guy who can hit the ball a mile? If you weren’t excited already — and if not, you are doing it wrong — get this: He’s only gonna get better. ESPN’s Tristan Cockcroft wrote about how Abreu’s batting eye improved significantly as his rookie campaign wore on. Divide the season into thirds, and this is what you get: a strikeout rate falling from 26.5 to 20.7 to 16.8 percent, and a walk rate rising from 5.3 to 7.0 to 11.8 percent. Please, spare a thought for the four other pitching staffs in the AL Central.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: By park-adjusted FIP, the White Sox bullpen (109) was the worst in the majors. The additions of Robertson and Duke should help a lot, but the Sox will need at least a couple of last year’s holdovers to come through, especially when the no. 4 and 5 starters inevitably get knocked out early from games.

Off-Field Story Line: The White Sox still have a couple of holes to address, but they’re close to being a very dangerous team. Hahn, manager Robin Ventura, and seemingly everyone else in the organization rush to point out owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s largesse and how any money he makes from the team immediately gets reinvested into the franchise. If the Sox are in contention at the trade deadline and have a chance to make a big move or two, will Reinsdorf be willing to bankroll a few deals for big-money players?

Projected Record and Over/Under: 78-84 — OVER. Combined with the unbalanced schedule, the quality of the top four teams in the Central should result in plenty of intradivision bloodbaths. With the quartet of contenders constantly beating up on each other, that could go a long way toward leveling overall records across the division. So while the Sox face a gantlet of a season, with the young core of Abreu, Sale, Quintana, and Adam Eaton,8 the wave of impact moves the team made over the winter, and the potential of top pitching prospect Rodon and a handful of others coming soon from the farm, they’re a team that should surprise some people — and computers.

4. Kansas City Royals

yordano-ventura-royals-triLenny Ignelzi/AP

Royals Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 SS Alcides Escobar R .265/.298/.352 81 623
2 LF Alex Gordon L .270/.344/.433 119 637
3 CF Lorenzo Cain R .272/.316/.382 96 567
4 1B Eric Hosmer L .285/.341/.440 119 630
5 C Salvador Perez R .276/.308/.423 104 515
6 DH Kendrys Morales S .262/.317/.418 106 532
7 RF Alex Rios R .273/.308/.497 99 525
8 3B Mike Moustakas L .245/.299/.407 98 560
9 2B Omar Infante R .271/.306/.372 89 490
Royals Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Yordano Ventura 3.64 3.75 174.0 8.0 3.3
2 LHP Jason Vargas 4.20 4.43 191.0 5.9 2.2
3 RHP Jeremy Guthrie 4.39 4.62 195.0 5.2 2.4
4 RHP Edinson Volquez 4.53 4.54 159.0 6.8 3.8
5 LHP Danny Duffy 3.71 4.19 139.0 7.4 3.7

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Kendrys Morales, 3.2 WAR/600; None

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Lorenzo Cain, minus-2.9 WAR/600; Wade Davis, minus-4.6 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Omar Infante, 31 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Jason Vargas, 48 percent

Best Offseason Move: The decision to re-sign reliever Jason Frasor to a one-year, $1.8 million contract, plus a 2016 club option, isn’t sexy, but it’s effective. Over the past two seasons, Frasor has quietly produced quality numbers, striking out just slightly less than a batter per inning and allowing only seven homers in 96.1 frames. Manager Ned Yost rode Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland hard last year, squeezing 244.1 often-high-leverage innings out of the talented trio. If Frasor can take just a small portion of the burden off those big bullpen arms to keep them fresh through the season, he’ll earn that salary and plenty more.

Worst Offseason Move: Four years, $75 million seems like a big investment for a small-market team … until you remember that the small-market Padres — who, unlike the Royals, weren’t fresh off a World Series appearance — gave James Shields just that. With their payroll significantly increasing for the fourth straight season, Kansas City’s ownership deserves credit for spending money; it’s just that GM Dayton Moore took the cash that might’ve gone to Shields and instead invested it in a pair of 2014 replacement-level players, Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios, and Edinson Volquez, whose subpar peripheral numbers belie last year’s luck- and defense-aided 3.04 ERA.

The Royals won’t miss Shields only because he’s a very good pitcher: They’ll miss having an automatic 200-inning arm in the rotation who can take pressure off that vaunted bullpen. And they’ll miss the little things Shields did, such as turning holding runners on into an art form and tutoring young teammates on everything from learning to throw a better changeup to subtler, tougher-to-quantify lessons that show up between the ears.

Greatest Team Strength: The bullpen. Again, last year’s heavy workload is concerning. And in a sport where regression’s always waiting to bite you in the ass, no one aspect of a roster is more prone to it than the bullpen. Still, the addition of Frasor and Luke Hochevar, who returns after missing last season because of Tommy John surgery, should provide some much-needed relief for Herrera, Davis, and Holland. Plus, there’s no denying how dominant that trio was last year: In 204.1 combined innings, they struck out 258 batters, walked 69, and allowed just three homers.9

Greatest Team Weakness: The lack of walks and the lack of homers. Continuing a storied tradition of hacking away at the plate, the Royals ranked last in the majors with a 6.3 percent walk rate. Not satisfied with one degree of ineptitude, they also finished last with just 95 home runs. How did they produce any offense last year? By striking out less often than any other team (16.3 percent) and bucking the leaguewide trend of rising whiff rates, the Royals were able to scratch out enough runs with their combination of contact hitting and speed. Even though they did so in 2014, it’s pretty tough to keep winning games when your opponents are consistently out-walking and out-homering you.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Yordano Ventura. He’s 23 years old, he fired more 100 mph fastballs than anyone in the majors last year other than Aroldis Chapman and Herrera, and with Shields gone, he’s Kansas City’s de facto ace. In his impressive rookie season, the right-handed Ventura’s reverse splits (he was better against lefty hitters than righties) and fairly even first- and second-half numbers were positive indicators, as was his ability to shake off mild shoulder soreness and toss seven innings of shutout ball in Game 6 of the World Series. If the Royals want to repeat last year’s Cinderella run, Ventura will need to come up big.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: Kansas City led the majors with 153 stolen bases in 2014. If Rios’s previous-season swoon continues into this year, it could open more playing time for Jarrod Dyson, the terrific gloveman and GIF inspiration, to wreak absolute havoc on the basepaths. If he can earn substantially more than the 290 plate appearances he recorded last year — in which he snagged 36 bags — look for the Royals to be near the top of the stolen base totals for another season.


Off-Field Story Line: Ask any MLB bean counter, and they’ll tell you that the biggest financial gains from a deep playoff run tend to show up the following season. In 2014, the Royals drew more fans to Kauffman Stadium than in any of the past 23 years, and the hope is that they’ll see even more gains this year. The timing isn’t great on the TV front, though: K.C.’s local deal, which, at $20 million a year, ranks as one of the least lucrative in the game, doesn’t expire until 2019.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 79-83 — UNDER. It’s fun to imagine the Royals as a reincarnation of their 1985 selves: a bunch of jackrabbits terrorizing teams on the basepaths and then locking down games with a killer back-of-the-pen. But claiming that K.C., a team that struggles to even get on base in the first place, has cracked the code and created a lasting antidote for the slower, high-strikeout approach that dominates today’s game would be to oversimplify things.

All pitcher projections in these previews are scaled to represent performance per 200 innings pitched, which is why it looks like Davis is headed for a monumental collapse. Still, pull it back to one-third as many innings, and the message remains: Davis, Herrera, and Holland are all very good pitchers, but they’re also relievers, and unless your name is Mariano Rivera, one year’s performance does not guarantee success the following season. Meanwhile, the loss of Shields means the Royals will roll with a combination of young starters who haven’t proven they can pitch deep into games (Ventura, Danny Duffy, maybe Brandon Finnegan later in the season) and three veterans (Vargas, Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie) who simply might not be good enough to justify being left in the game for longer than five innings.

Throw in the teamwide inability to draw walks plus the natural regression that comes after any extreme event, like when a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in three decades suddenly rolls to the World Series, and I’m skeptical about the Royals this year. Unfortunately for Rany Jazayerli, 79 wins sounds just about right.

5. Minnesota Twins

oswaldo-arcia-twins-triTony Gutierrez/AP Photo

Twins Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 SS Danny Santana S .266/.301/.375 90 560
2 2B Brian Dozier R .242/.320/.391 102 630
3 1B Joe Mauer L .284/.369/.397 117 588
4 DH Kennys Vargas S .246/.303/.416 101 462
5 RF Torii Hunter R .282/.318/.428 109 595
6 3B Trevor Plouffe R .251/.317/.418 107 532
7 LF Oswaldo Arcia L .255/.317/.461 118 518
8 C Kurt Suzuki R .257/.312/.360 89 416
9 CF Aaron Hicks S .224/.308/.342 85 315
Twins Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Phil Hughes 3.65 3.20 204.0 7.7 1.2
2 RHP Ervin Santana 4.50 4.22 201.0 7.1 2.8
3 RHP Ricky Nolasco 4.57 4.11 172.0 6.6 2.1
4 RHP Kyle Gibson 4.34 4.03 146.0 5.7 2.9
5 RHP Mike Pelfrey 5.02 4.65 96.0 5.5 3.2

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Torii Hunter, 1.0 WAR/600; Tommy Milone, 0.8 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Danny Santana, minus-2.5 WAR/600; Phil Hughes, minus-1.5 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Oswaldo Arcia, 31 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Mike Pelfrey, 57 percent

Best Offseason Move: None, and for good reason. The Twins’ best hope for the future lies with top prospects like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Nick Gordon, Jose Berrios, Kohl Stewart, and Alex Meyer. Until then, with the hope of contending still a ways down the road, they’re biding their time, waiting for young major leaguers like Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia to hit their stride. In fact, the only major move Minnesota made this winter likely hurts the team more than it will help …

Worst Offseason Move: In a vacuum, signing Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million contract isn’t a terrible deal: He’s a league-average pitcher who gives you a bunch of innings every year. But the Twins won’t be contenders this year and probably won’t be next year either, making the 32-year-old Santana, who would’ve been more valuable to a contending team that needed a solid no. 4 starter, a weird fit. That Minnesota gave up a top-50 draft pick for the right to sign him makes it even worse. When you’re a bottom-feeder club looking for innings, taking a much cheaper flier on a veteran arm coming off a down year, like Minnesota did last offseason with the now-rejuvenated Phil Hughes, makes a lot more sense than paying full freight for an older — but not better — option like Santana.

Greatest Team Strength: Baserunning. Per FanGraphs’s Baserunning Runs, the Twins generated more runs with their legs (21.1) than any other team in baseball last year. After locking down Brian Dozier, the club’s best baserunner, whose career season included 21 stolen bases in 28 attempts and a total of 9.5 extra runs produced on the bases, to a four-year, $20 million contract, Minnesota can expect that dominance on the basepaths to continue. Of course, when a team can’t field to save its life, little things like scratching out a few runs on the bases won’t matter much.

Greatest Team Weakness: Defense. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat, only the Indians fared worse defensively than the Twins last year. Corner-outfield defense was the biggest problem of all, so Minnesota brought back Torii Hunter with the hope of upgrading the team’s glove work, in addition to providing veteran leadership and a dash of nostalgia. Unfortunately, at 39, Hunter is a mere shadow of his former Gold Glove–winning self, with sharply diminished range that makes him one of the worst defenders in the game even at a less demanding corner spot.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Oswaldo Arcia. The young outfielder was one of just four players 23 years old or younger to launch 20 or more homers last season.10 He was also a world-class hacker, ranking ninth in the majors in strikeout rate, 10th in the AL in swing frequency on pitches out of the strike zone, and tops in MLB for most frequent hacks on 3-0 counts. While Javier Baez is the reigning “Swing for the Moon” champ, Arcia is going to make a real run for his crown, which should provide some enjoyment to an otherwise gloomy season.

Miscellaneous Stat: In 2014, the Twins had a bigger gap between ERA (4.58) and FIP (3.97) than any other team in the majors — just further underscoring how abysmal the defense was in Minnesota. So even though the club posted the MLB’s worst park-adjusted ERA last season, if Hughes and the wave of talented, young arms approaching the majors can ever get some decent D behind them, the Twins could dramatically accelerate their rebuilding schedule.

Off-Field Story Line: We’ve already touched on the misguided idea of the Twins starting Hunter in right field, but with 2015 set to be a clear rebuilding year, who really cares? Hunter is a franchise hero, and if this could very well be his last major league season, a farewell tour could be fun — if for no other reason than giving us the opportunity to rewatch this amazing clip 10,000 times:

Projected Record and Over/Under: 75-87 — UNDER. The FanGraphs projection stands alone as the most optimistic for the Twins: Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA), Clay Davenport’s system, and ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield all predict Minnesota to finish a good bit lower than 75 wins. The defense isn’t there and the pitching’s not there, so an offense that was quietly one of baseball’s 10 best last year probably won’t amount to too many victories.

If you want a silver lining, there’s this: We haven’t seen a top four in the AL Central look this strong in years, so if the Twins want to rebuild — and they definitely do — now’s the perfect time to start.

This post originally mistakenly listed Alex Avila’s position as center fielder. He is a catcher.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Preview, 2015 MLB Division Previews, Baseball, MLB, MLB Predictions, MLB Preview, Jonah Keri, American League, AL Central, Cleveland Indians, Corey Kluber, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, Detroit Tigers, Yoenis Cespedes, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Chicago White Sox, Jose Abreu, Rick Hahn, Chris Sale, Kansas City Royals, Yordano Ventura, Jarrod Dyson, Jason Frasor, Minnesota Twins, Torii Hunter, Phil Hughes

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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