Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.
Past Five Champions
2014 – Detroit
2013 – Detroit
2012 – Detroit
2011 – Detroit
2010 – Minnesota
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.0
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
By all accounts the Tigers slugger had a down year in 2014. But for Cabrera, a down year is relative: .313 average, .895 OPS, 25 HR, 109 RBI – all top-10 (or near top-10) numbers in the AL. Though he might be starting to show some signs of decline, as evidenced by the ankle issues that plagued him all year, he is still the cream of the crop. Consider this: he has finished in the top-15 in MVP voting for 10 consecutive years. If he can lead an aging Tigers squad back to the playoffs once again, expect to see that number reach 11.
Honourable Mention: Jose Abreu, White Sox; Michael Brantley, Indians
Chris Sale, White Sox
Chris Sale has to be wondering what it will take to capture a Cy Young award. He has been arguably the best pitcher in the American League over the past three seasons (40-26, 626 strikeouts, 2.79 ERA) but has been eclipsed in each of those years by some outstanding individual seasons by others (Price, Scherzer, Kluber). As a consolation prize he takes my award for the AL Central’s best pitcher. He topped the AL last season in both ERA+ (178) and K/9 (10.8), and posted career best numbers in both ERA (2.17) and WHIP (0.97). He will miss the beginning of 2015 with a broken foot but might be pitching for a contender when he returns.
Honourable Mention: David Price, Tigers; Corey Kluber, Indians
Three Storylines For 2015
1. What Can Kansas City Do For an Encore?
The Kansas City Royals were baseball’s darlings last season. After making the playoffs for the first time since 1985, they promptly put on a pair of glass slippers and danced all the way to game 7 of the World Series. It was an incredible run that included a remarkable Wild Card win over Oakland in perhaps the best game of the year. The young core that everybody in baseball was waiting to arrive finally came together. So what do they have in store for 2015? A big challenge. The enter the year missing several key components of last year’s team, most notably ace James Shields, but also Nori Aoki and long-time DH Billy Butler. Both will be missed. Can Alex Rios return to his younger form? Can Edinson Volquez help replace Shields? Will last year’s long run have a negative impact on the power arms in the bullpen? KC may need positive answers to all of those questions to find their way back to October.
2. Wheelin’ and Dealin’ in Chicago
Something got into the executives in the Windy City this offseason. The Cubs took the prize for busiest National League team, and the White Sox won the AL prize. They made a few huge moves to improve their pitching, including dealing for Jeff Samardzija, and signing both David Robertson and Zach Duke. They also brought in Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera to add to a lineup that includes last year’s rookie of the year Jose Abreu. That means both the offense and the defense should be better, and for a team that won 73 games last year, that also might mean a big turnaround is in order. In a division that looks wide open, that just might make them contenders.
3. A Crumbling Dynasty?
The Detroit Tigers have been an AL Central dynasty in recent years. They have finished .500 or better in six consecutive seasons, capturing four straight division crowns. But they have been unable to win in the playoffs mainly due to a weak bullpen. So with some solid closers available for hire in the offseason, it was a little bit surprising that Detroit decided to keep Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, and Al Alburquerque as their key relievers. To add to their list of potential problems is the fact that two of their perennial MVP candidates look to be fading a bit. Cabrera’s numbers were down across the board last year, and he is coming off offseason ankle surgery. Justin Verlander had one of the worst years of his career, with his velocity and strikeouts way down, and his ERA way up. Couple that with the loss of Max Scherzer to free agency and the Tigers, for the first time in years, just might be vulnerable.
Joe Nathan and success have gone hand-in-hand for most of his career….except for last season. Of all American League closers, Nathan’s 35 saves were 5th most in the league – but that is where the good news ends. He blew seven saves (tied for the most), and his 4.81 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and -0.2 WAR were the worst by far. If Nathan falters, the next man in line might be Joakim Soria, who was Texas’ closer before being acquired by the Tigers at last year’s deadline. The problem? His WAR of -0.1 wasn’t much better than Nathan’s. In a division that already had Glen Perkins and Greg Holland, and acquired David Robertson in the offseason, Detroit’s end-game options must be better.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column in early April.