Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.
Past Five Champions
2017 – Cleveland
2016 – Cleveland
2015 – Kansas City
2014 – Detroit
2013 – Detroit
Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.8
Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
Lindor seemingly reinvented himself last season. It was as if he took a look around baseball, saw home runs flying out of ballparks at record rates and decided that he wanted to hit some too. The Indians SS more than doubled his career high with 33 HR, and also set career highs with 89 RBI, 44 2B, a .505 SLG, and a .842 OPS. While his batting average dipped to a .273 mark, Lindor was able to add power to his game without sacrificing his speed (15 SB and an 83% success rate) or his defense (1.4 dWAR, 6th best among shortstops). He was a key part of Cleveland’s 102 win season, and earned a top-5 finish in MVP voting. He also just turned 24, so the best is yet to come.
Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Cleveland had baseball’s best pitching staff last season, and Kluber was the best pitcher on that staff. He topped the AL in pretty much every meaningful category with a 8.2 WAR, 2.25 ERA, 18 W, 0.869 WHIP, 6.23 H/9, 1.59 BB/9, 5 CG, 3 SO, and a 7.36 K/BB. He also finished second in strikeouts with 265, posted his fourth straight 200 inning season, and won his second Cy Young award. After a rough start that culminated with a trip to the DL in May, Kluber returned on June 1 and in his final 23 starts posted a 1.62 ERA and only allowed more than three runs in a game once. They don’t call him Klubot for nothing….
Three Storylines For 2018
1. Top Heavy Division
The Cleveland Indians won 102 games in 2017 and despite losing a few members of the team during the offseason are still expected to win north of 95 games in 2018. The Twins surprised many last season by capturing the second Wild Card slot and made a bevy of moves to ensure they will be very competitive again. And then comes the rest. Kansas City somehow managed to retain Mike Moustakas but bid adieu to Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer and should be much worse off in 2018. Detroit and Chicago are both rebuilding and while neither are expected to be as bad as Miami, 90 – 95 losses are surely within reason. All of which should make for another very noncompetitive division (see NL East and AL West).
2. Minnesota’s Rotation
The Twins came from seemingly out of nowhere last year to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and they did so largely on the shoulders of their position players. Former top prospects Byron Buxton (5.2 WAR) and Miguel Sano (28 HR in only 114 games) finally broke through, Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier remained offensive threats, and lesser known players like Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco had big seasons. So runs shouldn’t be a huge problem in 2018. Starting pitching, on the other hand, is another story. Ervin Santana was outstanding last year, but he will be out until May after undergoing finger surgery. Jose Berrios was solid in his age-23 season, but wore down noticeably in September. Minnesota tried (and failed) to bring in big names like Arrieta, Darvish, and Ohtani, and instead settled on Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, and Michael Pineda. Will they be enough?
Once considered the best overall and most consistent player in all of baseball, Miguel Cabrera took a step back in 2017. His numbers plummeted (16 HR, 60 RBI) and he set career lows in batting average (.249), OPS (.728), and OPS+ (92). He battled a variety of ailments (groin and back trouble), missed over 30 games, and saw virtually all of his longtime teammates traded away. Now, as he approaches the age of 35, comes a question: what happens next? Will he rebound and become the player who finished in the top-15 in MVP voting every season from 2005-2016? Or will his dropoff continue? With $184 million and six years still outstanding on his contract, the rebuilding Tigers are likely stuck with him regardless. But a slugging and smiling Miggy makes for a much more entertaining baseball season, no matter how many losses pile up in Detroit.
Virtually all baseball pundits, writers, and even fans agree that there are four elite teams in the American League: Houston, New York, Cleveland, and Boston. Fangraphs projects each of them to win over 90 games, meaning in all likelihood four of the AL’s five playoff spots are spoken for. That leaves the remaining 11 franchises to conceivably battle for the second Wild Card spot. Of those, the top three projected teams are the Blue Jays, Angels, and Twins. With not much separating those teams, a playoff spot might all boil down to strength of schedule, giving Minnesota a decided advantage. Using Fangraphs projected win totals, the Blue Jays have an expected divisional opponents winning percentage of .522, the Angels are at .514, with Minnesota bringing up the rear at .464. While Toronto has to face the elite Yankees and Red Sox 38 times and LA gets the Astros 19 times, Minnesota has the privilege of facing Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago – the projected three worst teams in the AL – a whopping 57 times. That might just make all the difference in a tight playoff race.
Who Should Win
Who Will Win
Find out in my season prediction column at the end of March