2017 Division Previews – American League Central

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

Defending Champion

Cleveland Indians

Past Five Champions

2016 – Cleveland

2015 – Kansas City

2014 – Detroit

2013 – Detroit

2012 – Detroit

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.0

Best Player

Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

Francisco Lindor only made his major league debut midway through the 2015 season but has already established himself as one of the top players in the game.  In his first full season in the big leagues, Lindor posted a .301 / .358 / .435 / .794 slash line with 15 HR, 78 RBI, 99 R, and 19 SB.  He is also an elite fielder with a +17 DRS metric that ranks him as the second best defensive shortstop in the AL.  And if that wasn’t enough, Lindor also proved that he has nerves of steel, refusing to wilt under the intense pressure of postseason baseball.  He posted a .310 / .355 / .466 / .820 slash line in leading Cleveland to within one run of the World Series title.  To top it all off?  He’s only 23.

Honourable Mention: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers; Edwin Encarnacion, Indians

Best Pitcher

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

Just when you thought he was finished, Verlander turned back the clock with an outstanding 2016.  After two straight down seasons, Verlander topped the AL with 254 strikeouts and a 1.00 WHIP while posting a 16-9 record and a 3.04 ERA.  He (arguably unjustly) finished second in Cy Young voting and even cracked the top-20 in MVP balloting.  The most impressive part of Verlander’s campaign was how he finished it.  At a time when many players on the wrong side of 30 were wearing down late in seasons, Verlander went the other way, posting an 8-3 record, 1.96 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, .180 opponent batting average, and 134 strikeouts in his final 16 starts from mid-July to early October.  He almost single-handedly kept an underperforming Tigers team in the playoff chase right down to the season’s final day.

Honourable Mention: Corey Kluber, Indians; Jose Quintana, White Sox

Three Storylines For 2017

1. Edwin Goes to Cleveland

The Cleveland Indians came within an eyelash of winning the city’s first World Series since 1948,.  Instead of sitting back and hoping the same core could take that one extra step, the Indians shocked the baseball world by signing the top available power hitting free agent.  After being linked to teams like Boston, New York, Houston, Texas, Colorado, and his previous team in Toronto, Encarnacion chose the Indians with a 3-year $60-million deal.  Edwin’s presence in the lineup will more than compensate for the loss of Mike Napoli to free agency and provides Cleveland with a true slugger, arguably baseball’s most consistent masher over the past five years.  Add to that a full season of bullpen ace Andrew Miller and the return of Michael Brantley, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco, and you have the clear favourite in the Central.

2. Talent Exodus

2017 could be a very interesting year in terms of who ends up leaving the division.  The White Sox have already started a rebuild by dealing Adam Eaton and Chris Sale, and releasing Brett Lawrie.  Closer David Robertson, starter Jose Quintana, and position players like Melky Cabrera and Todd Frazier (and maybe Jose Abreu?) could be next.  There is every reason to believe that Minnesota will send 42-HR second baseman Brian Dozier packing.  And with Cleveland the prohibitive front-runners, a slow start by either of Detroit or Kansas City might see those clubs start moving big name pieces.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, or even (gulp) Miguel Cabrera on the move.

3. Minnesota Kids

Banking a team’s future on prospects is a dangerous proposition: for every Mike Trout there is a Kevin Maas.  That is why the Minnesota Twins are so interesting this year.  The Twins are banking their future on not just one, but five highly rated prospects, each aged 23 or younger.  Outfielders Byron Buxton (2) and Max Kepler (30), infielder Jorge Polanco (99), and starting pitcher Jose Berrios (28) were each ranked in Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list in 2016, and third baseman Miguel Sano was #13 on the 2015 list.  All five are expected to be on the Opening Day roster and bear the responsibility of bringing the Twins back to respectability.  However, the early major league returns have not been great.  All four position players posted OPS totals of below .800 in 2016, Buxton and Sano struck out at alarming rates, and Berrios was an outright disaster on the mound (3-7, 8.02 ERA).  Minnesota will be preaching patience but if the quintet continues to struggle, both the near and long-term future will be bleak.

Interesting Stat

4.22.  That was Detroit’s bullpen ERA in 2016, 3rd worst in the AL.  Unfortunately for Tigers fans, that was nothing new.  The Tigers finished 14th in bullpen ERA in 2015, 13th in 2014, 12th in 2013, 10th in 2012, and 11th in 2011.  They haven’t finished in the single digits since 2010 and haven’t finished in the top half since 2006.  So what did Detroit do this offseason to improve their putrid pen?  Absolutely nothing.  But that might actually be a good thing.  Detroit has seemingly been making an effort to remake its ‘pen for years, employing a different setup man / closer combo each season since 2012.  By bringing back mostly the same group in mostly the same slots, maybe familiarity will lead to better results.  After all, it can’t get much worse.

Who Should Win

Cleveland

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March

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