2016 Division Preview – American League Central

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

Defending Champion

Kansas City Royals

Past Five Champions

2015 – Kansas City

2014 – Detroit

2013 – Detroit

2012 – Detroit

2011 – Detroit

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.2

Best Player

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

Lorenzo Cain has turned into an all around dynamo for KC.  Jason Kipnis is a perennial All-Star in Cleveland.  But ask anybody in baseball, and the answer would be unanimous: Miguel Cabrera is still the cream of the crop in the Central.  Cabrera suffered the worst year of his major league career last year.  He failed to reach 20 HR and 100 RBI for the first time since his rookie year.  He was placed on the DL for the first time in his career.  And his team suffered through an awful year and finished in last place.  But despite having the worst year of his career, Cabrera still topped the AL in batting average (.338) and OBP (.440), posted a .974 OPS, 170 OPS+, and 5.2 WAR.  He also made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger, and finished 11th in MVP voting.  Not bad for a down year.

Honourable Mention: Lorenzo Cain, Royals; Jason Kipnis, Indians

Best Pitcher

Chris Sale, White Sox

Sale took a bit of a step back in 2015 after a lights out 2014.  His ERA soared from 2.17 to 3.41, and WHIP went up from 0.97 to 1.09.  But take away an awful April (ERA of 5.32) and he was still the same dominant lefty.  He led the AL in strikeouts with 274, K/9 (11.8) and K/BB (6.52), and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, his fourth straight top-6 finish.  Chicago should be an improved team in 2016, and Sale hopes to lead them back to the playoffs.

Honourable Mention: Corey Kluber, Indians; Carlos Carrasco, Indians

Three Storylines For 2016

1. Can Kansas City Do It Again?

They came out of nowhere and went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, but got no love heading into last season, as projection systems pegged them for last in the division.  Then they went out and somehow won the World Series.  The Royals didn’t have a prolific offense (6th in the AL in runs, 7th in OPS, 14th in HR, 7th in OBP), and they sported a weak rotation (12th in the AL in ERA, 12th in Strikeouts, 15th in IP, 14th in WHIP).  What they did have was a dominant bullpen (1st in ERA, WHIP, BAA) and a lineup full of pesky hitters who didn’t strikeout and had a knack for hitting consecutive singles.  Aside from losing trade deadline acquisition Ben Zobrist, they bring back the exact same offense after re-signing Alex Gordon.  But key questions surround KC’s pitching.  Can Ian Kennedy replace Johnny Cueto?  Can Joakim Soria replace the departed Ryan Madson?  And will the bullpen, depended on so severely in each of the past two seasons, finally collapse under the strain of so many innings?

2. Last Chance in Detroit

To say 2015 was a disaster for the Tigers would be an understatement.  They entered the season as the four time reigning division champs, but were plagued by injury and under-performance and finished in dead last with their lowest win total since 2008.  To get back into the playoffs, Detroit went aggressive in the offseason, bringing in Justin Upton to add offense, Jordan Zimmermann to bolster the rotation, and Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe to shore up the bullpen.  Despite the big winter and the fact that many of the players are signed for multiple years, there are many wondering if this is the last chance for a winner in Detroit.  Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez are all on the wrong side of 30, and all but Kinsler spent time on the DL last year.  Yes Upton, JD Martinez, Zimmermann, and company are good, but this team isn’t winning without excellent production from that core of aging stars.

3. The Kids are Alright 

While Detroit may have concern over many of their veteran players, there is excitement elsewhere in the division with dynamic young players set to make big impacts.  In Minnesota, the Twins will be looking to build on a surprising 83-win season and have several stellar young players set to make an impact.  Byron Buxton had a rough stretch in 2015 and hasn’t looked great in the spring, but remains one of baseball’s best prospects and is only 22.  Miguel Sano hit 18 HR in half a season and is also only 22, and top pitching prospect Jose Berrios (21) isn’t far off.  In Cleveland, the Indians are stacked in the rotation with Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer both 26 or younger, and they have 22-year old wunderkind Francisco Lindor at SS.  In Chicago, the retooled White Sox (with newly acquired Todd Frazier), have a huge power arm in Carlos Rodon (23) to line up behind Chris Sale.  It’s a good time to be young.

Interesting Stat

Francisco Lindor made his major league debut for Cleveland on June 14, and immediately inserted himself into the conversation of baseball’s best defensive player.  He fell just short of the innings minimum for the Gold Glove award, but one look at advanced fielding statistics tells the story of just how good he was.  According to Fangraphs, Lindor had an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 10.5 and a DEF rating of 15.0 in only 865.1 innings, the best in the AL.  For context, Didi Gregorius was second best in both UZR (7.4) and DEF (14.2) in 464.2 more innings, and Andrelton Simmons was the best in baseball (UZR of 17.3 and DEF of 23.9) in 414 more innings.  Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s rotation ERA dropped from a poor 4.40 from April-June to a very good 3.56 from July-October, coinciding with Lindor’s arrival.  Having him in the field for an entire season will not only help the Indians challenge for a division crown, but will also see him battle Simmons for baseball’s best defensive SS.

Who Should Win

Kansas City

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

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