2016 American League Central Preview: Will the Royals Repeat?

The American League is completely bananas in 2016. Is the Central an exception?

For a division that was and is again expected to be among the tightest top to bottom in baseball, the American League Central did a poor job of being a compelling race down the stretch last season.

Granted, the onus isn’t on the division to provide the intrigue necessarily, but the Kansas City Royals winning by 12 games over the Minnesota Twins represented the largest margin between first- and second-place clubs in all of Major League Baseball.

Basically, the Royals threw down the gauntlet, and the rest of the division failed to muster a response, especially considering the fact that the Twins were widely predicted to finish fifth. In short, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago were asleep at the wheel.

But for at least two of those teams, the slumber is no more.

Few teams more aggressively attacked their weaknesses than the Tigers, while the White Sox cleaned up a sore spot on the right side of their infield which has plagued them for years. Cleveland didn’t do much, but quite frankly was also the team with -- in this writer’s opinion -- the largest disparity between talent and results in 2015.

Staying the course isn’t completely objectionable, though the Michael Brantley injury does add another layer to consider. The Twins added a potential big bat, and finally, the defending champion Royals didn’t rest on their laurels, though there are certainly questions about the moves they made as well.

Let’s break down the division (in order of last year’s finish):

1. Kansas City Royals, 95-67 in 2015

Key Additions: RP Joakim Soria, SP Ian Kennedy, SP Mike Minor, SP Dillon Gee (MiLB)
Key Subtractions: OF Alex Rios, RP Greg Holland, UTIL Ben Zobrist, SP Johnny Cueto, RP Ryan Madson

Offseason Breakdown: First of all, listing Holland as a subtraction feels so wrong. There’s no doubt how much he’s meant to the team as a closer, but he’s A) hurt and B) still a candidate to return on a deal that helps the team circumvent paying him an arbitration raise. With that out of the way, the losses here aren’t as crippling as they may seem. Cueto and Zobrist were rentals, and Madson was a reclamation projection who was rebuilt and found a nice deal on the open market with the A’s.

Soria should be able to help cushion the blow of a full season without Holland, and Minor and Gee are both interesting for a team that carried an iffy rotation (4.34 ERA ranked 12th in AL) all the way to the World Series title. The Kennedy deal (five years, $70 million) is puzzling from a number of angles, including notably that this is a team that’s been able to take cheaper pitchers with worse stuff and build them up with a superior defense. So why pay the market rate -- or perhaps then some -- for a guy who basically is who he is (3.98 career ERA, 3.99 career FIP)?

Finally, re-signing Gordon simply can’t be overstated. He’s the heart and soul of the team, and since his breakout in 2011, he ranks fourth among outfielders with 25.1 fWAR. That’s behind Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista, but ahead of players like Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Braun, Justin Upton, Adam Jones and Hunter Pence. Gordon was the pivot point for their entire offseason, which has to be labeled a win.

Why They’ll Win: The Royals return basically the same cast of characters that reached the World Series in 2014 and won it all a season ago. It seems unlikely that the loss of Rios (.255/.287/.353 in ‘15) will hurt much, and Zobrist and Cueto were only in town for short periods -- in essence, not enough time to be termed critical losses. If their contact-heavy approach can be maintained with a solid bullpen and good team defense, there’s really no reason they can’t be right in the thick of things even if they aren’t quite as good as a year ago. In this year’s American League, that’s all it’s going to take. Flirting with 90 wins and winning the division is certainly attainable.

Why They’ll Lose: This isn’t a team without holes. Right field and second base are sore spots, and the rotation still has potential to be pretty bad. It’s also worth noting that the entire division is either trending upward or did something to improve over the winter. One does not simply repeat 2015.

Initial numberFire Projection: 80-82, third in the division

2. Minnesota Twins, 83-79 in 2015

Key Additions: 1B/DH Byung-Ho Park, RP Fernando Abad (MiLB), C J.R. Murphy
Key Subtractions: OF Aaron Hicks, OF Torii Hunter, SP Mike Pelfrey, RP Brian Duensing, RP Blaine Boyer, RP Neal Cotts

Offseason Breakdown: It was pretty quiet around the Twin Cities, though the team did emerge as a surprise winner for Park, an odd roster fit given the team’s current construction. But in an offseason where the team opted not to move erstwhile third baseman Trevor Plouffe -- they may not have had a choice -- this means the team will try to teach hulking slugger Miguel Sano to play the outfield on the fly. There’s some serious boom-or-bust potential on that, with the smart bet probably on the downside.

The quiet offseason has left the natives restless as general manager Terry Ryan opted not to aggressively attack a bullpen which ranked 10th in the AL in ERA (3.95) and dead last in K/9 (6.9). True to form, Ryan expects much of the help to come from within, and he’s not totally wrong. Kevin Jepsen was solid (1.61 ERA in 28 innings) after coming over from the Rays, while Trevor May took to the bullpen with aplomb (2.87 ERA, 10.6 K/9 as a reliever in 2015). There still hasn’t been a sighting of those two paired with a healthy Glen Perkins, which would make for a solid back-end trio. Abad is one year removed from a tremendous season (1.57 ERA, .499 OPS against in ‘14) and is an upgrade on Duensing, and the Twins are just itching to assimilate bullpen youngsters like Alex Meyer, J.T. Chargois, Jake Reed, Nick Burdi and others. So maybe it made sense not to jam that scene up with more guys? Time will tell.

Why They’ll Win: The Twins were carried by youth in 2015, and will need the veterans to pick up the slack to hedge against any sort of regression from the likes of Sano and Eddie Rosario. Joe Mauer says he’s feeling as good as he ever has since the concussion that moved him out from behind the plate, but whether his bat feels the same remains to be seen. Brian Dozier’s second-half swoon (.841/.639 OPS split) happened for a second year in a row, which was a little concerning. A bounceback year from Phil Hughes (4.40 ERA, 4.70 FIP) would be huge, too. The talent is here for the team to win, but it still feels like the window is just cracking open, rather than letting air flow freely.

Why They’ll Lose: The pitching staff still doesn’t strike anyone out -- they’re on a five-year run with the MLB’s worst K/9 -- and if the team digs any semblance of a hole in early-season play, it’ll be too hard to dig out. The Twins can avoid this pratfall by bringing the five best starters north from Fort Myers -- especially if that includes May or Jose Berrios in the rotation -- but that just doesn’t feel likely. This team feels like it’s one year away from being a real contender for the Central crown, so a .500 finish might be in store for them, but our projections don't agree.

Initial numberFire Projection: 74-88, fifth in the division

3. Cleveland Indians, 81-80 in 2015

Key Additions: 3B Juan Uribe, RP Tommy Hunter, OF Rajai Davis, 1B/DH Mike Napoli, OF Will Venable (MiLB)
Key Subtractions: UTIL  Ryan Raburn, RP Ryan Webb

Offseason Breakdown: Cleveland had a pretty low-key offseason, though the most important development has been keeping an eye on Brantley’s injury status. Davis is a nice injury contingency, while Abraham Almonte filled in competently in center in his 200-plate-appearance cup of coffee. The trouble is that Almonte is serving an 80-game suspension for Boldenone, an anabolic steroid. This may open the door for youngster Tyler Naquin (.263/.353/.430 in center for Triple-A Columbus last season) to steal some time, but Venable is probably the favorite to see playing time out of the gate.

Swapping Uribe in for Giovanny Urshela (.608 OPS in 288 Major League plate appearances) should improve the offense greatly and not be too bad defensively, and Napoli still mashes lefties (.954 OPS in ‘15) and will see time between first base and designated hitter with Carlos Santana. Hunter throws hard and gets grounders but has never been a big strikeout guy (7.0 K.9 in ‘15, 5.6 career). On a one-year deal, he should still fit in nicely near the middle of a very good bullpen. Overall, the team didn’t get a ton better but isn’t actively worse, either.

Why They’ll Win: It begins and ends with starting pitching, as no AL rotation had more strikeouts per nine innings (8.9) or a better xFIP (3.57) than Cleveland last season. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar is a terrifying trio to contend with, and they’ll have a better defense behind them for the duration this season. Trevor Bauer is interesting if a bit frustrating at the back end of the rotation, while Josh Tomlin (3.02 ERA, 7.8 K/9) and Cody Anderson (3.05 ERA in 15 starts) will be doing their best to jockey for the last spot.

All told, this is one of the finest rotations in the AL. The Tribe have a strong bullpen as well -- second in ERA at 3.12 and fourth in K/9 at 8.7 -- but will need the offense and defense to do a bit more than they did a season ago. Still, this team was a trendy pick to make the playoffs last year, and things don't look drastically different. The time may be now.

Why They’ll Lose: The biggest issue will be offense with Brantley out. He’s currently expected to miss all of April, but any sort of setback could leave the Indians in a hole that’ll be hard to dig out of. It won’t necessarily be about wins and losses after that but rather how many teams a club has to leapfrog. If this team can stay in the thick of things until Brantley returns, they have a great chance to reach the playoffs. He really is the linchpin/pivot point here, though.

Initial numberFire Projection: 85-77, first in the division

4. Chicago White Sox, 76-86 in 2015

Key Additions: SP Mat Latos, RP Matt Albers, SS Jimmy Rollins (MiLB), IF Brett Lawrie, 3B Todd Frazier, C Dioner Navarro, SP/RP Jacob Turner, C Alex Avila
Key Subtractions: C Tyler Flowers, SS Alexei Ramirez, C Geovany Soto, IF Gordon Beckham, SP Jeff Samardzija

Offseason Breakdown: Few teams actively attacked their weaknesses more than the White Sox, but unfortunately that still left a few unsolved. Shortstop is still bound to be rough unless Rollins can turn back the clock, but he’s most likely just the caretaker until Tim Anderson is ready. No AL team got worse production out of second and third base last year by wOBA and wRC+, so the Pale Hose went out and got the impossibly young Lawrie (.306 wOBA) and slugger Frazier (career-high 35 home runs) from the rebuilding Reds. Both will be huge upgrades simply from their baselines, let alone the fact that both could have really nice seasons.

Latos is a total wild card but has potential to be very useful on a one-year, make-good deal after fizzling with three teams in 2015 (4.95 ERA). It’ll be hard for him to replace Samardzija in some respects (214 innings) but not others (4.96 ERA).

Why They’ll Win: Believe it or not, this was the best team in the AL last year in innings pitched and fWAR from starters. Losing Samardzija hurts, but the bulk of the quality is still here, and it’s possible we haven’t seen the best of Carlos Rodon and maybe even the criminally underrated Jose Quintana (9.9 fWAR the last two years). Oh, and we haven't even mentioned perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale. This is a team that’ll ride the rotation, boppers, and back of the bullpen to wherever they are headed. In a topsy-turvy AL from the outset, it’s anyone’s guess where that’ll be.

Why They’ll Lose: They got absolutely nothing from a couple big-ticket free agent items a season ago -- Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche -- and overall gave nearly 3,000 plate appearances to hitters with sub-.300 wOBA marks. And while they’ve cleaned it up a bit, there’s still real potential to get nothing from the outfield corners, shortstop, and catcher. Every team in the AL has a potential fatal flaw -- and that’s Chicago’s. That's why they could be cellar-dwelling in the division this year.

Initial numberFire Projection: 78-84, fourth in the division

5. Detroit Tigers, 74-87 in 2015

Key Additions: OF Justin Upton, RP Bobby Parnell (MiLB), IF Mike Aviles, RP Justin Wilson, RP Mark Lowe, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, SP Mike Pelfrey, SP Jordan Zimmermann, OF Cameron Maybin, RP Francisco Rodriguez
Key Subtractions: C Alex Avila, OF Rajai Davis, SP Alfredo Simon

Offseason Breakdown: This is probably the team that most aggressively attacked their weaknesses, most notably in the bullpen by adding Wilson (9.7 K/9), Lowe (1.96 ERA) and K-Rod (2.21 ERA). If that works out, it’ll be done in the first offseason following the departure of general manager Dave Dombrowski, who was never able to nail down that part despite numerous efforts. Retooling this team started at the trade deadline, as they managed to grab a couple pieces that’ll figure prominently in the team’s near future in Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer. It continued into the winter and included big-ticket items in Upton and Zimmermann and other pieces lesser known but still important in Maybin and Pelfrey. Saltalamacchia has potential to be sneakily useful; expectations will be low, but he hit .251/.332/.474 last year with the Diamondbacks in nearly 200 plate appearances.

Why They’ll Win: It hurt the team badly to have Miguel Cabrera go down in July and miss over a month. When Cabrera got hurt, the Tigers were 40-39 and six games out of first place; when he returned, they had fallen to 55-60 and had already sold off their two biggest assets, effectively waving the white flag on the season. Cabrera and Victor Martinez are reportedly healthy, and a lineup featuring those two, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler is bound to score runs. A resurgent Justin Verlander and an improved bullpen could go a long way to restoring the roar in the Motor City.

Why They’ll Lose: Losing Cabrera for any length this year could prove crippling, and the team needs V-Mart to be healthy and reasonably productive. Entering his age-37 season and coming off a .245/.301/.366 batting line, that’s no guarantee. It’s also worth wondering if this team is really better with Upton and Zimmermann than it was a year before with David Price and Yoenis Cespedes. There are more layers to consider, of course, but this is a different team with a lot to prove coming off a last-place finish. Anibal Sanchez’s right arm is already barking again as well, which could leave the middle of this rotation more vulnerable than Al Avila and Brad Ausmus would like. This team is built and financed to win now -- not in the future. If they don’t win now, things could get ugly, and quickly.

Initial numberFire Projection: 84-79, second in the division