2015 American League Central Preview: A Changing of the Guard

The Detroit Tigers have won four straight American League Central division championships. Is there a new team ready to snag the crown?

In 2014, there were two divisions in baseball in which three teams won at least 85 games. The first is obvious, as the American League West's Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners all were at least contending in the season's stretch run.

The second may surprise you. Okay, maybe not as you're reading a preview of the AL Central, but chill, a'ight? It still came as a surprise to me when I saw it.

Although the Central didn't have any teams within the top-tier of the league in terms of win totals, they had three teams that were at least eight games above .500. They weren't the greatest, but they were a competitive division.

This year looks like more of the same. Although the Central doesn't have any of the league's top nine teams in our preseason power rankings, they have four teams ranked from 10th to 20th. Let's not talk about the Twins right now.

The Central is probably the toughest division to peg, so let's use some fancy pants math to try to sort through the madness. These rankings below are based on each team's nERD score. Outside of being the illest acronym alive, it also is a numberFire-specific stat that illustrates by how many runs a team would be expected to defeat a league-average team on a given day on a neutral site. You can read more about that in our glossary.

Let's go through what nERD says about each of the Central teams to see if we can gain some clarity about a jam-packed division.

1. Cleveland Indians

nERD: 0.29 | Projected Win-Loss: 85-77 | Division Odds: 43.4% | Playoffs Odds: 56.9%

The Indians are projected to maintain the same record they posted last year, except this time it's good enough to win the division. They checked in at 10th place in the power rankings, edging Detroit by one position.

The team returns the AL Cy Young and the third-place finisher in MVP voting in Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley, respectively. That, in addition to further progression for the team's youngsters and the Brandon Moss trade, puts Cleveland over the top in hte preseason projections.

Moss brings the team considerable depth both in right field and at first base. While he's not particularly great in either location, that flexibility helps provide him extra value. The problem is that Moss has seen a drop-off in his rate stats each of the past three years, as you can see in the chart below.


The flip side of this, though, is that the Indians may not need a 2012 or 2013 version of Moss to contend. Having a guy that can consistently hit 25-plus home runs in that order behind Brantley and Carlos Santana will make this team better from the get-go. If both Lonnie Chisenhall and Yan Gomes were to duplicate their 2014 production, then this team should more than live up to its projections.

2. Detroit Tigers

nERD: 0.28 | Projected Win-Loss: 84-78 | Division Odds: 35.8% | Playoffs Odds: 49.4%

At the trade deadline last year, we wrote a piece trying to decide whether Oakland or Detroit had the best rotation in baseball. I went with Oakland, but the case for the Tigers was compelling.

Now, just over six months later, only 60 percent of that Detroit rotation is still with the team. Max Scherzer signed with the Nationals, and they shipped Rick Porcello off to Boston for Yoenis Cespedes. This is not the same Tigers team that won 90 games last year.

If you look at the Tigers' 2015 ZiPS projections from Dan Szymborski, the youngest position player projected to produce at least two wins above replacement is Alex Avila, who is entering his age-28 season. Four of the eight players projected to hit that plateau are 32 or older. This team needs to win now.

That said, given the team's talent, they still can do exactly that. They're going to get production from the Miguel Cabrera's and Victor Martinez's of the world, assuming Martinez's knee recovery goes well. What they need now are other guys to step in and make up for the assumed drop-off in the rotation.

There's a reason this team is still projected to win 84 games instead of 74. But if they don't reach their goals this season, the window is closing fast on Detroit, and they might not have the fire-power to re-open it in the near future.

3. Kansas City Royals

nERD: -0.08 | Projected Win-Loss: 79-83 | Division Odds: 11.8% | Playoffs Odds: 19.6%

If you count the playoffs, the Kansas City Royals won 100 games last year and lost 76. That's a .568 winning percentage. This year, numberFire's algorithms have them slipping all the way to .488. Lorde finna rage against these machines.

Our Sal Cacciatore wrote an intriguing piece last week about why Vegas was so low on the Royals after Bovada set the Royals' over/under at 80.5. What caused the nation and odds makers to fall out of love with the Royals?

As Sal explained, the team outperformed their expected production in 2014. Entering the playoffs last year, Kansas City was ranked 16th in numberFire's power rankings (they enter this year 17th). Their Pythagorean win-loss was 84-78, a full five games below their actual record. This all would have indicated a regression for Kansas City by itself. Then you look at the Royals' offseason, and you can see even more blatantly why everyone is fading this team.

There were plenty of roster changes on the Royals this offseason, but not a whole bunch of them make you think that the team has made improvements. Despite his struggles, the departed Billy Butler's wOBA was a whopping 40 points better than that of incoming Kendrys Morales. Nori Aoki out-paced Alex Rios by 11 points in wOBA while playing better defense in the outfield.

Although you would expect some regression towards the mean from Morales and Rios, they are entering their age-32 and age-34 seasons, respectively. Any rebound would, realistically, be moderate, but the Royals need much more than that.

Then you add on the loss of James Shields and you see why the projections are so bearish on the Royals. Sure, they brought in Edinson Volquez, but he has had an ERA north of 4.00 three times and 5.00 twice in the last four years. Unless all of the new additions out-perform expectations, the Royals will be closer to 80 wins than 90 in 2015.

4. Chicago White Sox

nERD: -0.19 | Projected Win-Loss: 77-85 | Division Odds: 7.0% | Playoffs Odds: 13.1%

As I mentioned in yesterday's power rankings piece, I really expected the White Sox to be ranked higher than this. This team, with the additions it has made, should be better than it was last year, yet they are only projected to win four more games. What's up with the Sox?

Melky Cabrera had a .354 wOBA last year while slugging .458 with a .351 on-base percentage. Those are dope numbers. Add and a still-productive Adam LaRoche to any line-up that features Jose Abreu, and you should have the recipe for success.

Then you look at the rotation. Good sweet baby Jesus that rotation. The chart below shows the 2014 numbers for each of the top three guys last year, and my word does it look tasty. In this instance, nERD stands for the number of runs a pitcher would be expected to allow below the league average if they were to pitch the entire game. Positive is good in this instance, and so are these three studs.

PitcherStartsERAFIPnERDnERD Rank
Chris Sale262.172.571.7543
Jeff Samardzija332.993.201.9912
Jose Quintana323.322.811.8824

A quick note on Chris Sale's nERD: it's influenced by his smaller sample size with the starts he missed. If he had a full compliment of starts, that number would be higher. Even so, having three starting pitchers within the top 43 of the league is straight gross.

The big question with the team is, obviously, the bullpen. They had the second-highest bullpen ERA last year, topped only by the Astros. They were 25th in bullpen fWAR with only the Tigers and the Astros behind them in the American League. Not a lot went right, and that murdered the team's overall productivity.

The addition of David Robertson should help that. Can he help enough to get the team into the postseason? That remains to be seen.

At the end of the day, I would not be shocked one bit if the White Sox outperformed these projections. That said, there's a reason they're projected at 77 wins, and the computers are far smarter than I am. So, time shall tell whether the Sox have done enough to climb back into contention.

5. Minnesota Twins

nERD: -0.48 | Projected Win-Loss: 73-89 | Division Odds: 0.5% | Playoffs Odds: 4.0%

This should be indicative of the state of Minnesota baseball. When I tweeted out the power rankings a few days ago, the Minnesota people that replied were Gucci with the projections because it meant the team wouldn't lose 90 games yet again. Don't look now! Here come the Twinkies!

With Minnesota, they're not looking to win in 2015, nor should they be. Sure, Ervin Santana is an improvement over Yohan Pino, as is Torii Hunter over Chris Parmelee. But that shouldn't be what the Twins seek.

This year should be geared towards developing my main squeeze Oswaldo Arcia as well as guys like Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana. If they happen to win a couple of games along the way, great. But this team has assembled plenty of young talent; now you need to groom it.

The offense with the Twins isn't the problem. They finished seventh in the entire league in runs scored overall and third in the second half of the season. It's the pitching and defense that spike this team in the dumpster with no regard for feelings or sweet flow.

The Twins' starting rotation last year had a 5.06 ERA. As in worse than the Rockies. Those numbers are not to be viewed by the young or weak of heart.

Things will get better once guys like Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios and Kohl Stewart are in the majors. But Meyer will most likely be in his rookie season, and Berrios and Stewart likely won't see the majors until at least 2016 and 2018 respectively. Until then, just throw the ball, duck, and hope that puppy stays in the park.

Yes, the near future is pretty grim for the Twins. But this is a team that should be optimistic about their future, even if not all of the prospects pan out as projected.