2014 Division Preview – American League Central

AL Central

Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.

Defending Champion

Detroit Tigers

Past Five Champions

2013 – Detroit

2012 – Detroit

2011 – Detroit

2010 – Minnesota

2009 – Minnesota

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 91.4

Best Player

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

This isn’t even close. Though he may have lost his status as the best player in the game (at least in the opinion of some), Miguel Cabrera is still the class of the AL Central, and an absolute beast. Last year he hit 44 HR and drove in 137 runs, all while missing 14 games. It was his second straight year of 40+ HR, and his 7th in a row of 30+ HR. He also won the AL batting title for the third straight season, finishing at .348, and he led the league in OPS with a massive 1.078. Cabrera has incredibly finished in the top-30 in MVP voting every single season of his career, including winning it in each of the past two years. Dominating.

Honourable Mention: Jason Kipnis, Indians; Alex Gordon, Royals

Best Pitcher

Max Scherzer, Tigers

In his fourth season in Detroit, Scherzer was finally able to put it all together, and for the first time eclipse his teammate Justin Verlander as the most dominant arm in the division. In winning the AL Cy Young award, Scherzer put forth some gaudy numbers, including a league best 21-3 W/L record, and a league leading 0.97 WHIP. Throw in 240 strikeouts, a 2.90 ERA, and only 56 walks in 214.1 IP, and you have a career defining campaign. Next up is trying to replicate that success in 2014.

Honourable Mention: Justin Verlander, Tigers; Chris Sale, White Sox

Three Storylines For 2014

1. Remade Tigers – Are They Better?

After three straight division titles and three straight disappointing playoff exits, the Detroit Tigers made some very significant changes in the offseason. First came the blockbuster trade with Texas, sending Prince Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Then, in a move that puzzled many, Doug Fister was shipped to the Nationals for a few relievers, opening up a rotation spot for Drew Smyly. They then added Joe Nathan to take over the troublesome closers spot, brought in Rajai Davis for bench depth, and named Brad Ausmus manager to take over for the retired Jim Leyland. After that whirlwind comes this question: are they actually better now? With Verlander trying to recover from offseason surgery, Jose Iglesias potentially missing the entire season, and the Scherzer contract fiasco hanging over them, there will be plenty of distractions standing in their way.

2. Brand New Minny

It’s been quite the fall from grace for Minnesota. After back-to-back Central crowns in ’09 and ’10, they have plummeted to 63, 66, and 66 wins in each of the past three years, never rising higher than fourth. To address that, the Twins made some wholesale changes of their own. The starting rotation – a huge weakness last year – has been remade with the additions of Ricky Nolaso, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey. Each of those comes with the potential to be great, but also a history of inconsistency. Longtime franchise icon Justin Morneau is gone, and his former partner in crime Joe Mauer will tansition to first base full time. The key will be getting enough offense from a young outfield, and looking forward to the potential callup of young phenom Byron Buxton. It likely won’t be enough for 2014, but the foundation is being set.

3. A Royal Improvement

After years of being labelled baseball’s next big thing, the Kansas City Royals finally took a step forward last year, finishing with 86 wins and only 5 games out of a Wild Card spot. This year all eyes will be on them to see if they can continue moving forward and finally break baseball’s longest postseason drought. The Royals brought in reinforcements in Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante to join a solid young core of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez, and are hoping for a breakout year from Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. They also welcome back one of baseball’s best closers in Greg Holland. However, after the departure of Ervin

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Santana, there are questions marks in the rotation after ace James Shields. And with Shields himself set to become a free agent after the season, the team needs to be in contention by the trade deadline to avoid a massive amount of speculation. With the Indians and maybe the Tigers both vulnerable, a good start is mandatory.

Interesting Stat

Advanced defensive metrics are ever evolving, and most will admit that they aren’t perfect. But no matter what your opinion on the subject, one thing is obvious – they all agree that Miguel Cabrera was a poor 3B. There were 160 players who spent time at third last year. Cabrera ranked 160th – dead last – in Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average at -17, meaning he cost his team 17 runs with his glove, and he was 159th in Defensive Runs Saved at -18. Cabrera’s defensive WAR (dWAR) was also pretty bad, coming in at -1.5. In 2014 Cabrera will shift back across the diamond to first base, a much easier and less premium position. That move should tighten up Detroit’s infield D, which in turn could do a world of good for the Tigers pitching staff and ultimately the runs allowed column.

What the Bloggers are Saying

I reached out to Mike Brandyberry, a Cleveland Indians blogger who runs a fantastic Indians blog called Did The Tribe Win Last Night.

Biggest Storyline

I think the biggest storyline for the division is that it is as wide open as it has been in the last couple of seasons. Detroit has really shaken up their roster with the loss of Jim Leyland, Prince Fielder, and Doug Fister. The Tigers can tout that they are quicker and better defensively all they want, but when you shake up your roster, you just can’t be certain you are still as good as you have been the last couple seasons. Detroit is still the team to beat, but they aren’t the near, sure-thing like they have been the last five seasons. Cleveland and Kansas City can both challenge the Tigers this season. It will be interesting to see how those two teams unfold. It’s easy to believe the Indians may have exceeded expectations last season and the Royals have to have a sense of urgency withi James Shields’ pending free agency at the end of 2014. I could see any of those teams winning the division, or any of them falling on their face.

Most Interesting Player

Justin Verlander and how he rebounds from a subpar season (by Verlander standards) and from minor injury this offseason can really dictate a lot. If Verlander returns to form and he and Max Scherzer make a dominant 1-2 punch, the Indians and Royals have nothing that can match that. If Verlander continues to appear human, or even has further setbacks, the door opens even wider for Cleveland or Kansas City to run through.

Who Wins?

As wide open as I think the division is, Detroit is still the team to beat. Pitching wins and they have the best pitching. however, each of three contenders (Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City) have some flaws. Detroit has lost both some offensive pop and a quality starting pitcher in Doug Fister. Cleveland won more than their fair share of one-run games last year. If that doesn’t happen, their win total could backpedal and I think Kansas City is the most improved team in the division. It could really make for a 3-team race to 90 wins. One gets in the playoffs and the other two miss the playoffs.

Who Should Win

Detroit

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column on March 27th.