As the Cleveland Indians have won their last seven games, they have plenty to celebrate about.
X-Cleveland Indians 92-70
As good as the 2016 Major League Baseball season was for the Cleveland Indians, they are left to ponder as far as what could have been. The Indians enjoyed a postseason run that saw them sweep the heavily favored Boston Red Sox in the American League Divisional Series, and defeat the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series for their first World Series appearance since 1997. The Indians were one victory away from their first World Series Championship since 1948, but they would be the first team since the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985 to blow a 3-1 lead in the Fall Classic, and the first since the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 to lose the final two games at home as their demise saw the Chicago Cubs become a team of destiny. And as close as the Indians were in 2016, it will be even tougher for them to get back to the World Series here in 2017.
But luckily for the Indians they are led by manager Terry Francona who is one of the best in the business as far as motivating and getting the most out of his clubs. Francona won a pair of World Series Titles as the skipper of the Red Sox, and in four years with the Tribe, they’ve never had a losing record. Now it will take the ultimate coaching effort from Francona in order to get his team to move on after last year’s collapse.
In 2016, the Tribe was one of the most balanced teams in baseball and it could once again be a strength for them. Last year each one of Cleveland’s starting pitchers was able to win at least 11 games, while this unit had 81 saves which was fifth in the American League.
In the last three years starting pitcher Corey Kluber has won 45 games as he is no longer a secret outside of Northern Ohio. However after Kluber was able to win 18 games in 2014, he would lead the American League in losses in 2015 with 16. Kluber did this while he posted an earned run average of 3.49 in 2015 as he was sometimes a hard luck loser. But after Kluber was able to once again win 18 games last season, along with the Indians explosive offense, he could find himself in the mix to win his second A.L. Cy Young Award.
But even with Kluber leading the way, the strength of Cleveland’s pitching staff will once again be their bullpen. Francona has his version of “The Nasty Boys” in relief pitchers Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen. Allen saved 32 games for the Tribe last season, while Shaw was able to record 25 holds. Miller was acquired from the New York Yankees just prior to the trade deadline last year and he proved to be vital coming down the stretch. Miller struggled late in the World Series, but he should be able to bounce back as the elongated delivery coming from his 6’7″ frame makes his fastball that much more difficult for batters to pick up.
After the Indians offense was able to score 777 runs last season which was second in the American League, they should once again be fun to watch. First baseman Mike Napoli left in free agency to sign with the Texas Rangers, but Indians general manager Mike Chernoff didn’t waste anytime in finding a replacement for him as he signed first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion. For the last eight years Encarnacion has developed into one of baseball’s most feared power hitters. Encarnacion hit 239 homers while wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform which is third most in their franchise history. And even at the age of 34, Encarnacion will provide the Indians with a veteran slugger that can provide some of their other key hitters protection in the lineup.
After shortstop Francisco Lindor finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2015, he is beginning to show his worth as one of Major League Baseball’s future stars. And along with displaying some slick fielding at shortstop, Lindor is a potential .300 hitter whose ability to set the table will be important for Cleveland.
Carlos Santana will alternate with Encarnacion at first base and being the Indians designated hitter as he looks to build off hitting a career-high 34 home runs last season. I don’t see Santana taking a step backwards as playing with Encarnacion could make them one of the best power hitting combinations in the American League.
A shoulder injury is expected to keep second baseman Jason Kipnis on the shelf to begin the season, but he is one of Cleveland’s best overall players along with being a leader. And if the Tribe is able to get off to a solid start without him, their chances will only be magnified upon his return to the lineup.
Like Lindor, outfielder Tyler Naquin is one of the young and bright stars that the Indians can lean on. Last year as rookie, Naquin batted .296 with 14 home runs and 43 runs batted in, and heading into 2017, he is seeking to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Shortstop Jose Ramirez gives the Indians another potential .300-hitter in their lineup as Cleveland has the potential to hang with the best offenses in the American League.
Right out of the chute the Indians will be on the road to face the Texas Rangers as these two clubs could once again be two of the best in the American League. The competition in the A.L. Central will once again be difficult, however Cleveland has the ability to hold their on within the division.
Detroit Tigers 87-75
After four consecutive trips to the postseason which included winning the American League Pennant in 2012, the last two years have seen the Detroit Tigers fail to make the playoffs. But after missing out on a playoff berth by just 2.5 games in 2016, there is some optimism for the Tigers heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season. And for Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, he has a veteran team that is definitely in win-now mode.
Since first baseman Miguel Cabrera joined the Tigers in 2008, he has done just about all that a future Hall of Famer can do. Cabrera is a two-time American League MVP which included him winning the Triple Crown in 2012 as he became the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Cabrera will have his 34th birthday in April, and although that the Tigers will look to use him more as a designated hitter, he still has one of the best bats in baseball as he is one of the top contact hitters that the game has ever seen.
As a team the Tigers were able to go yard 211 times last season which was sixth in the American League and you can expect more of the same this season. After outfielder Justin Upton signed a six-year, $132.75 million contract with Detroit last off-season, he appeared to be pressing and thus got off to a slow start. However Upton was eventually able to get it going as his 31 homers were second to Cabrera’s 38 on the Tigers. Upton has been a very streaky hitter during his career, but with that he has the potential to put the Tigers lineup on his back for an extended period of time.
When the Tigers acquired second baseman Ian Kinsler from the Texas Rangers in 2014, they got him for his ability to be a table setter; however he has been able to do than and then some. Kinsler was able to blast 28 home runs for the Tigers last season, while he also won his first Gold Glove Award. And even at the age of 34, Kinsler is still able to get it done at a very productive level.
Even on knees that he taken a beating from his days as a catcher, designated hitter Victor Martinez can still get it done. Martinez is 38-years of age, but he still possesses the ability to hit at least 25 home runs, while giving Cabrera some protection. Since joining the Tigers in 2014 after being released by the Houston Astros, outfielder J.D. Martinez has turned into a star. In three years with the Tigers, Martinez is batting .299, while he was hit 83 homers. And I expect Martinez to have a big 2017 campaign due to the fact that he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
In each of third baseman Nick Castellanos’ three seasons with the Tigers, he has continued to improve, and as he finds himself in one of Major League Baseball’s best hitting lineups, he has the potential to become an All-Star this season.
Starting pitcher Justin Verlander has been the face of Tigers pitching for more than a decade. Verlander’s 2,197 strikeouts are the second most in franchise history, while nine out of the last ten seasons have seen him pitch at least 200 innings. Verlander is 34-years age, and what has allowed him to be able to remain around in baseball so long is that he is a very determined athlete. Several times Verlander has been written off by his skeptics, but he now combines his power fastball with craftiness to work the corners of the plate. And after once again leading the American League in strikeouts last season with 254, Verlander should once again be solid for the Tigers here in 2017.
2015 saw the Tigers lose starting pitcher Max Scherzer in free agency as it impacted their postseason chances. However after the Tigers traded outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets in 2015, they found themselves a gem in return.
In trading the slugging Cespedes, the Tigers received starting pitcher Michael Fulmer. Fulmer was a first-round pick of the Mets in 2011, but as they are a team that is currently loaded with pitching, they could afford to part with him and the Tigers were more than happy to receive him.
Fulmer started 26 games for the Tigers last season and he sported a record of 11-7 with an earned run average of 3.06 in 159 innings pitched. Fulmer became the first Tigers player to be the American League Rookie of the Year Award since Verlander in 2006, and he is poised to become Detroit’s next ace.
Fulmer has a power fastball that he can mix up with a slider and a changeup. Fulmer just turned 24-years of age last month and the Tigers are going to proceed with caution, but it would not surprise me to see him get close to pitching 200 innings this season.
However for the Tigers, there will more than likely be a drop off in their starting pitching production behind Verlander and Fulmer. Last year the Tigers pitching staff’s earned run average of 4.24 was 11th in the American League with no other starting pitcher winning more than 9 games. After starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman won 19 games in 2013 as a member of the Washington Nationals, his career has taken a step backwards. Last year Zimmerman agreed to a five-year, $110 million contract with Detroit, but he was only able to make 19 starts. And if the Tigers are going to be a playoff team here in 2017, Zimmerman is going to need to pitch much better.
The Tigers bullpen still has been unable to shake their reputation of blowing games which is one of the issues that has prevented them from winning their first World Series Championship since 1984. Relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez was able to save 44 games for the Tigers, but he knows how to put stress on a pacemaker as he allowed 45 hits in just 58.1 innings pitched last season.
The upcoming Major League Baseball season will mark the first time that the Tigers will take the field without being under the ownership of Mike Illitch since 1991. Illitch was a very respected throughout the Detroit area and I expect the Tigers to play with tremendous emotion this season as they seek to honor him.
Kansas City Royals 85-77
After the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015, they took a huge step backwards last season as injuries were a big reason why they finished 81-81. And as there is always optimism heading into a new Major League Baseball season, the Royals will be fighting an uphill battle before it even starts.
On January 22, the Royals received the tragic news that starting pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. Ventura was only 25-years of age, and he was just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. Ventura’s death will leave a void in the Royals starting rotation, but the organization must find a way to move on.
Aside from Ventura’s death, the Royals understand that they’re a small market team which means that they have to rely on developing talent as opposed to big spending in free agency.
The small market Royals lost designated hitter Kendrys Morales and starting pitcher Edinson Volquez in free agency, while they traded relief pitcher Wade Davis and his 44 saves over the past two seasons to the Chicago Cubs. Outfielder Jarrod Dyson was sent to the Seattle Mariners as Royals general manager Dayton Moore understands the business side of operating a small market team. And as Moore will probably be trading other talented players soon, he is still attempting to field a team that can compete for the American League Central Title.
The Royals have some talented players in their lineup; however this team is not known as an offensive juggernaut which means that they’ll once again have to scrap and claw to consistently score runs. The Royals should benefit from having a healthy Mike Moustakas at third base. Injuries limited Moustakas to just 27 games last year and Kansas City missed his bat as well as his spirit in their lineup. Along with Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer is the heart and soul of this team. Hosmer made his first All-Star Game appearance last season and in 2017 he will continue to be one of the best first basemen in the American League.
Catcher Salvador Perez was able to avoid an severe injury scare after a collision in the World Baseball Classic as he was playing for his native Venezuela and he is on track to be in the lineup for Kansas City on Opening Day. What Perez gives the Royals is a leader, a clutch bat, and one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. Each of the last four years has seen Perez make the All-Star team along with winning a Gold Glove which is something that cannot be lost of the Royals pitching staff.
To offset the loss of Morales, the Royals are going to need outfielders Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Brandon Moss to have solid impacts. Gordon is set to begin his eleventh season with the Royals and he has entered some rare air. Gordon’s career wins above replacement total of 32 is eighth most in franchise history, and his 278 doubles are sixth. Injuries limited Gordon to 128 games last season and he is still a vital part of this team; especially in the outfield as he is a three-time Gold Glove winner.
Like Hosmer, Perez and Gordon, Cain was a big part of the Royals championship team in 2015. And like Gordon, injuries got the best of Cain last season. But the Royals and Cain will enter in an awkward position being that he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent following the season. The Royals want to compete, but if they fall out of competition prior to the trade deadline, I would not be surprised to see Cain put on the trade market.
The Royals signed Moss to a two-year contract for $12 million after he had one of the best seasons of his 10-year career. Moss hit 28 home runs last year for the St. Louis Cardinals, and although that he might not be the consistent threat that Morales was, he is still solid enough to contribute in Kansas City as I see him being more of a designated hitter than an outfielder.
But one player who could be a sleeper for Kansas City in their lineup this season is outfielder Paulo Orlando. Injuries last season opened the door for Orlando to be an everyday player, and he made the most of hit as batted .302. I don’t see Orlando taking a step backwards in 2017 as he should once again be a regular in manager Ned Yost’s lineup.
The Royals pitching staff that was a big part of their run to the playoffs in both 2014 and 2015 struggled last season as I don’t see things getting any better this season. The Royals team earned run average of 4.21 was ninth in the American League last season, while they were only able to muster 68 quality starts. But if starting pitcher Danny Duffy is able to build off of his 12-3 mark from last season, it could keep Kansas City in the playoff picture.
Yost is one of the best managers in baseball as far as having the idea of the pulse of his team. Yost is a hands off manager that lets the players police themselves, and his laid back approach should once again allow Kansas City to relax and hang around in the playoff picture.
Chicago White Sox 68-94
The last four years have seen the Chicago White Sox finish with a losing record, and the recent success by the Chicago Cubs which includes them winning the World Series last season means that the South Siders have become nearly forgotten in the Windy City. In five years as the manager of the White Sox, Robin Ventura was never able to get Chicago to the postseason, while they never finished higher than fourth place in the American League Central during the last four years. But Ventura cannot take all of the blame for the White Sox struggles as this is an organization that cannot figure out if they want to contend or rebuild. However it is now Rick Renteria’s turn to be the skipper of the South Siders as with the 2017 Major League Baseball season right around the corner, all signs points to the Pale Hose being in rebuilding mode.
The past five years saw starting pitcher Chris Sale emerge as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Over the last five seasons Sale won 70 games while he also got the nod to start in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game last summer. But Sale had his issues with the White Sox front office which reached a fever pitch on July 23 when he was suspended for five games after he used scissors to destroy the team’s throwback uniform that he didn’t want to wear. Aside from trading Sale, outfielder Adam Eaton was traded to the Washington Nationals in a move that saw the Sox receive three young pitchers in Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, and Dane Dunning that the jury is out on.
The writing was on the wall for a divorce between Sale and the White Sox. And during the off-season the White Sox were able to find a trade partner in the Boston Red Sox. In exchange for Sale, the White received four players which includes infielder Yoan Moncada who received a ton of hype when he defected from Cuba, but has yet to deliver in Major League Baseball.
Moncada joins a White Sox lineup that includes first baseman Jose Abreu and third baseman Todd Frazier who if nothing else will excel in putting balls into the seats. Since making his Major League debut for the South Siders in 2014, Abreu has been one of the best first baseman, but he gets lost in the shuffle since he doesn’t play on a good team. And aside from possessing a solid glove at first base, you can also pencil him in to hit 30 home runs, while also driving in 100 runs. After the White Sox acquired Frazier from the Cincinnati Reds last year, it took him some time get going as he appeared to be pressing. However Frazier would rebound to hit 40 homers for the first time in his career. But with Frazier’s power surge came an increase in his strikeouts as he struck out 163 times last season which was the eighth most in the American League. An oblique injury has currently sidelined Frazier which could effect him to start the upcoming season; especially in Chicago where the temperature will still be cold in April.
The departure of Sale means that starting pitcher Jose Quintana is now the White Sox best option in their rotation. Quintana has a career earned run average of 3.20, but his career record is only 46-46 as like Sale, he has not always gotten run support. But if Chicago can find a way to score runs for Quintana this season, he has the potential to win 15 games. Starting pitcher James Shields is seeking to redeem himself after going 4-12 with the White Sox last year. Shields posted an earned run average of 6.77 with the Sox and as he is an aging pitcher, the time is now for him to reinvent himself if he wants to stick around.
In two seasons with the White Sox, relief pitcher David Robertson has saved 71 games including 37 last season. Robertson will once again be in the mix to be one of the best closers in baseball, but if the Sox fall out of contention he will become at hot commodity on the trade market.
With not that much expected of the White Sox, they will definitely fly under the radar as the focus in Chicago is on the Cubs. However the last thing that the White Sox can afford to have is another season of losing baseball on the South Side.
Minnesota Twins 60-102
After six postseason appearances over a nine-year span, the Minnesota Twins have fallen on hard times. The Twins have not made the playoffs since 2009, while they’ve only had one winning season since then either. Things went from bad to worse last year for the Twins as they lost 103 games for the first time since 1949 when they were still the Washington Senators. Heading into the 2017 Major League Baseball season, there is only one way to go for the Twins which is up, but how much progress can we realistically expect this team to have?
Paul Molitor is set to begin his third year as the manager of the Twins. And after the Twins overachieved in 2015 by winning 83 games, he was dealt a harsh dose of reality last year.
The biggest issue for the Twins is their lack of pitching. In 2016, the Twins team earned run average of 5.08 and 59 quality starts were each last in the American and they didn’t have one starting pitcher win at least 10 games. There isn’t that much optimism for Minnesota’s pitching staff heading into 2017 as their rotation is comprised of either youngsters such as Tyler Duffey who are trying to make a name for themselves in Major League Baseball, or veterans such as Ervin Santana whose best days are behind them.
And for the Twins, their pitching issues won’t help them in the American League Central where they’ll have to compete against two of the better hitting lineups in baseball in the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians.
But if there is one thing that will keep fans in the Twin Cities excited over the summer in regards to Twins baseball, it is the bat of second baseman Brian Dozier. Last season Dozier slugged 42 home runs which was the highest single-season total for a Twins player since Harmon Killebrew hit 49 in 1969. Dozier could be setup to have another big year at the plate, however the bigger question is whether or not that he’ll finish the year in a Twins uniform?
Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey did receive some offers for Dozier over the winter, but there wasn’t anything that was enticing enough for him to pull the trigger on a deal. Dozier is under contract with the Twins through 2018. However being that the Twins are not setup to contend anytime soon, a trade for Dozier could bring back some value for them.
It should be another long summer in the Twin Cities, and the best thing that Minnesota can hope for is that they won’t get the brakes beaten off of them.
X-Kansas City Royals 93-69 (1)
After winning the World Series Championship in 1985, it was a slow tumble down for the Kansas City Royals as from 2002-2006, they had four seasons in which they lost at least 100 games. But after having just one winning season from 1995-2012, the Royals began to establish themselves as a contender in the American League. In 2013, Kansas City finished with their first winning season since 2003. And in 2014, the Royals returned to the postseason for the first time since 1985 as they fell one victory short of winning the Fall Classic. But the Royals didn’t allow the heartbreak of 2014 to slow them down in 2015 as they were able to get back to the World Series, and this time they were able to win it. The Royals had a bullseye on their backs last year, but in 2016 it will be much bigger as in a very short time Kansas City has gone from the hunter to the hunted which should make for a very intriguing 2016 Major League Baseball season in the Heartland.
The Royals have a young core of players that have become grizzled veterans overnight, but more importantly they are good. Led by designated hitter Kendrys Morales, the Royals had six players that hit at least 13 home runs last season, but offensively Kansas City makes their mark with their ability to get on base and put pressure on opposing pitching. The Royals were tied for second in the American League last season in batting average (.269), and with a team that is full of contact hitters that is led by shortstop Alcides Escobar, and first baseman Eric Hosmer, Kansas City will once again put stress on opposing pitchers as this is a team that is tough to strike out as they were last in the AL in strikeouts last season with just 973.
Pitching wise, the Royals were third in the American League last season in team earned run average at 3.73, but they will have to replace veteran starting pitcher Johnny Cueto who left as a free agent to sign with the San Francisco Giants. The Royals had acquired Cueto in a mid-season trade from the Cincinnati Reds as he provided Kansas City with vital veteran experience in their starting rotation that was beneficial for youngsters such as Yordano Ventura. The Royals did sign veteran starting pitcher Ian Kennedy this offseason to be at the back of their rotation. But in the last two Major League Baseball seasons, Kennedy has combined to lose 28 games and the Royals are hoping that he can find the form that he had when he won 21 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.
Before becoming a dominant relief pitcher for the Royals, Wade Davis was a starting pitcher and his presence has now given Kansas City extra depth in what is a stingy bullpen. Davis took the place of relief pitcher Greg Holland as the Royals full-time closer last September, and now he is the guy that manager Ned Yost will consistently give the baseball to in the ninth inning.
The Royals didn’t beat themselves that much last season and you can expect more of the same from this bunch under Yost as they feel that that they still have something to prove.
After beginning the season with a World Series rematch against the New York Mets, the Royals will host the Minnesota Twins before a road series versus the Houston Astros whom they eliminated in the American League Division Series last October. The Royals know that they have a target on their backs, but it is a situation that I don’t expect them to run from.
Detroit Tigers 87-76*
After winning four straight American League Central Titles, things changed drastically for the Detroit Tigers in 2015. The Tigers finished 2015 with their first losing season since 2008 while they saw a reshaping in their front office. After 14 years with the Tigers organization, Dave Dombrowski was fired last summer as the team’s general manager. Dombrowski was replaced by his assistant general manager Al Avila who is focused on not only getting the Tigers back to the postseason, but to also hopefully help them win their first World Series Title since 1984.
Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera has been one of the most prolific hitters during this era of Major League Baseball. In Cabrera’s 13-year MLB career, he is a two-time American League MVP along with being a 10-time MLB All-Star. Cabrera has one of the smoothest swings in spite of the fact that lower leg injuries in recent years have limited him. Cabrera will be 33-years of age next month as Tigers manager Brad Ausmus must monitor his slugger’s health which could mean him playing more at designated hitter this season.
To provide protection for Cabrera, the Tigers were happy with the emergence of outfielder J.D. Martinez last year. In Martinez’s second year with the Tigers, he led the club in home runs (38), and runs batted (102) as he earned his first All-Star Game appearance. And now Martinez is expected to be a catalyst in Motown. But Avila didn’t rest on his laurels as he signed outfielder Justin Upton which gives Detroit even more depth.
Upton was seeking a long-term contract this off-season and he received it when he a the Tigers came to an agreement on a six-year deal that is worth $132.75 million. What Upton gives the Tigers is another power bat in the middle of their lineup that will fill the void that was created last summer when outfielder Yoenis Cespedes was traded to the New York Mets. Upton is prone to strikeout a ton, but he will make up for it as he is always a threat to hit 25 homers while driving in 100 runs.
Aside from Cabrera, Martinez, and Upton in the Tigers lineup, Detroit has professional hitters in second baseman Ian Kinsler and designated hitter Victor Martinez while they will have some speed in outfielder Anthony Gose.
Pitching will once again be an issue for the Tigers as they were last in team earned run average last season in the American League at 4.64. Injuries and age appear to be catching up with starting pitcher Justin Verlander while Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez have seem themselves have up and down Major League Baseball careers which means that the Tigers bullpen could once again be busy. This off-season the Tigers did sign starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman to a five-year contract that is worth $110 million, but his velocity has dipped ever since he won 19 games in 2013 as a member of the Washington Nationals.
For years the Tigers bullpen has been a source of frustration for the team and now it could be Francisco Rodriguez who gets his chance to close out games for Detroit which should be nail-biting to say that least.
The bats will carry the Tigers in 2016, but don’t rule out Avila making a move between now and the trading deadline In order to get his hands on a quality starting pitcher.
Minnesota Twins 86-76
After four consecutive losing seasons, the Minnesota Twins bounced back in 2015. The Twins were under the guidance of first-year manager Paul Molitor who instilled some of the same values that he used during his Hall of Fame career as a player. The Twins were in contention for the entire 2015 Major League Baseball season until were they swept in their final regular season series by the eventual World Series Champion in the Kansas City Royals. The Twins fell just three wins shy of claiming the second wild card berth in the American League, and this year, Molitor and his bunch in Minnesota are looking to build off of the strides that they made in 2015.
The Twins were near the bottom of most offensive categories in the American League last season which is something that they must improve on this year in order to get to the postseason. Led by utility man Trevor Plouffe, the Twins are not a team of stars, but they’ll simply fight, scratch, and claw on a nightly basis.
Neil Allen is in his second year as the Twins pitching coach and he’ll look to get the most out of veteran pitching that consists of Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone, and Kyle Gibson that will need to give Minnesota enough quality starts to keep them in playoff contention. And if the Twins rotation is able to succeed at that, relief pitcher Glen Perkins could become the first player in franchise history to record 40 saves in a season since Joe Nathan in 2009.
The Twins will be a hot and cold team in 2016, but they should once again be in the wild card race until the very end.
Cleveland Indians 82-80
Terry Francona is set to begin his fourth year as the manager of the Cleveland Indians and he is looking to recapture the magic that was on display in 2013 when the Tribe played in the American League Wild Card Game. Under Francona, the Indians have finished the last three Major League Baseball seasons with a winning record, however they have not had enough to be a legitimate contender for the postseason. But will 2016 be any different in Cleveland?
For the Tribe to be a playoff contender in 2016, they will need to do themselves a favor and get off to a better start. Last year the Indians began with a record of 9-16 which resulted in them fighting an uphill battle for the majority of the season in the American League Central.
A big part of the Indians struggles last year began with starting pitcher Corey Kluber. After Kluber won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014 with a record of 18-9, he struggled for the majority of 2015 as he finished with a record of 9-16. And for the Indians to be a player in 2016, Mr. Kluber will need to regain the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the business in the previous year.
Behind Kluber, the Indians have some depth in their starting rotation in the form of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. And if this trio is each able to win at least 15 games, the Indians could hang around in contention for playoff spot in the AL.
The Indians must get more production out of their offense in 2016 as they were near the bottom of most statistical categories in the American League last season. Outfielder Michael Brantley is the Indians best all-around player as he can hit for average along with being a solid defensive player. But Brantley cannot do it by himself at the plate as players such as first baseman Carlos Santana and designated hitter Mike Napoli will need to have solid seasons at the plate for the Indians to be a playoff team.
Francona’s teams have always been known to compete, and the 2016 Indians should be no different.
Chicago White Sox 79-83
It’s hard to believe, but 2008 was the last time that the Chicago White Sox were in the postseason. In the late 2000’s, the White Sox were an aging team which has paved the way for them to rebuild. The last three years have seen the White Sox finish with a losing record and they are hopeful that things will turn around for them in 2016 as they are seeking to be a contender for a playoff spot in the American League.
Robin Ventura is in his fourth year as the manager of the White Sox and after bottoming out in 2013 when Chicago lost 99 games, he is hopeful that he has a team that is on the upswing.
The White Sox have one the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball at the top of their rotation by the name of Chris Sale. The last three seasons have seen Sale strike out at least 200 batters in each year as his quirky delivery from his lengthy 6’6″ frame keeps hitters off balance. But as good as Sale is, he has been the victim of a lack of run support when he takes the mound along with the bullpen behind him not being able to consistently finish games for him. But the bigger problem for the White Sox is that they are extremely thin in their starting rotation behind him.
The White Sox have a new third baseman in Todd Frazier who they acquired this off-season from the Cincinnati Reds. Frazier has morphed into one of the better power hitters in Major League Baseball and he will now team with first baseman Jose Abreu to give the White Sox a solid power-hitting combination. But there will be a big question mark around the rest of the White Sox lineup as this team was near the bottom in most offensive categories in the American League last year.
A slow start by the White Sox could get the rumor mill going on the South Side as far Ventura’s job security.
X-Detroit Tigers 89-73
The Detroit Tigers have won four consecutive American League Central Division Championships, but they have always fell short of the holy grail which is winning their first World Series Championship since 1984. The Tigers were swept last season in the American League Divisional Series by the Baltimore Orioles and they are hopeful that the title window has not closed for them as of yet. Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski has attempted to build a title contender, but the one thing that has held Detroit back in the past few seasons has been their bullpen. The Tigers bullpen blew 16 games last season and they always appeared to become unglued in the big games.
The Tigers will still have a talented team in 2015, but they are a bit older and they won’t be as deep.
Since last year the Tigers were attempting to lock up starting pitcher Max Scherzer to a long-term deal. But after winning 39 games over the last two seasons and the American League’s Cy Young Award in 2013, Scherzer was looking for a mega deal which he received this off-season from the Washington Nationals. In 2011, Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander was unstoppable as he won the AL’s MVP and Cy Young Award. But last season Verlander was 15-12 with a 4.54 earned run average. Verlander has lost some zip on his fastball, but he has rededicated himself to his craft as he is now 32-years old. Tigers starting pitcher David Price is set to enter free agency next winter and like Scherzer he’ll be looking for a huge payday. It’s not etched in stone that Price will be a member of the Tigers in 2016, but they should get his best effort and then some this season.
The Tigers still have one of the best lineups in Major League Baseball: it’s just a matter of them staying healthy. Designated hitter Victor Martinez and first baseman Miguel Cabrera are in the process of recovering from injuries. Martinez is 36-years of age while Cabrera will be 32 next month. Cabrera still has one the best swings in baseball, but lower body injuries are beginning to take their toll on him. The Tigers did acquire outfielder Yoenis Cespedes who will be an upgrade offensively and defensively. Cespedes along with his violent and powerful swings will fit right into the middle of the Tigers lineup while he will dare runners to try his strong arm in left field. And if the Tigers are going to make another postseason run you can expect second baseman Ian Kinsler and outfielder J.D. Martinez to have big impacts. Kinsler is the Tigers table setter and with a career .344 on-base percentage he’ll need to get on base in front of Detroit’s big boppers.
In his first season as Tigers manager, Brad Ausmus got his team to the postseason. Ausmus is a former MLB catcher and aside from that he knows that he has a veteran team as he simply stayed out of their way. Ausmus will once again stick to this formula and he is hopeful that this philosophy will lead the Tigers to their fifth consecutive American League Central Title; but more importantly the World Series Championship.
Y-Cleveland Indians 86-76
The Cleveland Indians have the potential to be a playoff team in 2015, but they would need some breaks while having some things go wrong for other teams in the American League Central. Under manager Terry Francona, the Indians enjoyed a storybook season in 2013 as they were able to make the Major League Baseball Playoffs. The Indians took a step back last season as they finished in third place in the AL Central and they are hopeful to not get lost in the shuffle this season behind the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals.
Francona and the Indians can hang their heads on the fact that they’ll have the reigning American League Cy Young Award winning taking the mound every fifth start for them this season in starting pitcher Corey Kluber. Kluber went 18-9 last season with a 2.44 earned run average and for the Tribe to contend this season he will more than likely need to improve off of those numbers. The main reason that Kluber has to put the Indians pitching staff on his back is due to the fact that there isn’t that much depth behind him which will hinder their chances of contending for the postseason.
Offensively the Indians do have talent in their lineup. Outfielder Michael Brantley would be a household name if he played in a bigger market. Brantley hit a career-high 20 home runs last season along with finishing third in the American League in batting average (.321) and second in hits (200). Brantley is in the prime of his career and he should once again put up numbers this season that resemble his production from 2014. Last season was an injury filled one for Indians outfielder Michael Bourn who needs to have a bounce back year for Cleveland. Bourn is expected to be the Indians everyday center fielder while his presence on the base paths is of equal importance as he is always a threat to steal bases. Like Bourn, Indians designated hitter Nick Swisher was limited last year due to injuries. And even at the age of 34, Swisher can still be vital to the Indians due to his overall experience. Indians first baseman Carlos Santana has the potential to be one of the better power hitters in the AL, provided that he comes to the plate with men on base in order for him to be afforded the chance to drive them home.
The Indians have have soft schedule to begin the season and a quick start for them could be just what the doctor ordered as far as them hanging around in the American League Central.
Kansas City Royals 86-76
Last season the Kansas City Royals won 89 games in the regular season and they earned a postseason trip for the first time since 1985. But the real fun began for the Royals in October when they captivated all of Major League Baseball and were one victory away from winning the World Series. The Royals got hot down the stretch in 2014, but what will they be able to do for an encore in 2015 when the other 14 teams in the American League will be gunning for them?
The Royals weren’t an offensive juggernaut in 2014 as they were near the bottom of most offensive categories in the American League. For Royals manager Ned Yost, the name of the game for his club is speed as they were tops in the AL last season in stolen bases with 153. And that speed will once again be vital in 2015 if Kansas City is going to make it back to the playoffs. Led by second baseman Alcides Escobar, along with outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson, the Royals have speed up and down their lineup. But they will once again have to manufacture runs as they lack power bats.
As stagnant as the Royals offense was last season, their pitching more than picked up the slack. The Royals team earned run average of 3.51 was fourth in the AL and it kept them in ballgames. Starting pitcher James Shields led the Royals pitching staff last season in strikeouts with 180 while also tying for the team lead in wins with 14. But Shields became a free agent over the winter and he signed on with the highest bidder for his services as he is now a member of the San Diego Padres. Shields departure means that more responsibility will be thrust upon the youngster Yordano Ventura in the Royals starting rotation. Ventura is only 23-years of age, but he tied Shields last season in Kansas City for the team lead in victories while finishing sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Last season Ventura flirted with the 200-inning threshold so Yost can trust the youngster and his electric fastball to be there every fifth day.
Led by relief pitchers Greg Holland and Brandon Finnegan, the Royals have a solid bullpen as the folks in Kansas City have their own version of the “Nasty Boys”. Yost knows that he has a strong bullpen as they can and will consistently be able to get the Royals out of jams.
The Royals will spend the majority of the month of April away from Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. And even if the Royals get off to a slow start, nobody is expected to run away with the AL Central which means that they’ll have a puncher’s chance to get back to the postseason.
Chicago White Sox 82-80
The Chicago White Sox have been a team in transition over the past few years and they are hopeful for an upswing this season. The White Sox lost 99 games last season for the first time since 1970 and thus there have been some changes made. The White Sox bid farewell to longtime first baseman Paul Konerko who retired and thus the South Siders are a team that is in the process of getting younger while also trying to compete in the American League Central.
Before being traded to the Oakland Athletics last summer, starting pitcher Jeff Samardzjia spent the first six-plus years of his Major League Baseball career with the Chicago Cubs. Samardzija didn’t dazzle with the A’s as he went 5-6 with a 3.14 earned run average in 16 starts. Now Samardzija is back in Chicago, but this time with the White Sox whom acquired him from the Athletics this off-season. In seven MLB seasons, Samardzija has a career record of 36-48 with a 3.85 earned run average, but Ventura and White Sox president of baseball operations Kenny Williams are hopeful that he can provide some depth in Chicago’s starting rotation behind Chris Sale. At 6’6″, Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball and he’ll be going for his third straight season in which he has struck out at least 200 batters. If Sale is able to get enough run support behind him he’ll definitely garner some interest in winning the AL Cy Young Award this year.
After trading relief pitcher Addison Reed to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the White Sox were tied for 11th in the American League last season in saves with just 36. By himself relief pitcher David Robertson saved 39 games last season for the New York Yankees. And when the Yankees failed to make Robertson an offer this winter, the White Sox signed him to a four-year deal worth $46 million to solidify their ninth inning situation.
The White Sox will definitely have some pop in their lineup. First baseman Jose Abreu burst onto the scene last year by hitting 36 home runs, 107 runs batted in and a .317 batting average to be named as the American League’s Rookie of the Year and I don’t expect the native of Cuba to have a sophomore slump in 2015. The Sox signed first baseman Adam LaRoche who will spend the majority of his time in the Windy City being a designated hitter. In 11 MLB seasons, LaRoche has averaged hitting 27 home runs per year, but he has done all of his damage in the National League. Williams also signed outfielder Melky Cabrera who is expected to give the White Sox more offense near the top of their batting order as he has a career .339 on-base percentage.
With the exception of a four-game series against the Baltimore Orioles, the White Sox schedule for the month of April will be exclusively against their brethren in the American League Central. April won’t be a make or break month the White Sox as barring any significant setbacks they’ll hang around the hunt in the AL Central race until the very end.
Minnesota Twins 68-94
The last four Major League Baseball seasons have seen the Minnesota Twins endure losing seasons and in three of those years they finished in the basement of the American League Central. The Twins futility cost longtime manager Ron Gardenhire his job and he has been replaced by one of Minnesota’s favorite sons. Before embarking on a Hall of Fame playing career, Paul Molitor was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. Molitor attended the University of Minnesota before being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1977. Molitor spent the majority of his MLB playing career with the Brewers, but he played his final three seasons with the Twins where he collected his 3,000 hit. Molitor was a coach with the Twins last season, but his duties have now shifted as he will be the team’s skipper for 2015.
The first order of business for both Molitor and Twins pitching coach Neil Allen will be to improve a Twins pitching staff that had a 4.57 earned run average which was last in the American League in 2014. Twins starting pitcher Phil Hughes did win 16 games last season and he’ll be asked to once be the ace of the pitching staff in Minnesota, but behind him there are a ton of question marks. The Twins will mark the fourth different team in as many years for starting pitcher Ervin Santana who has lost at least 10 games in each of those campaigns. Starting pitcher Kyle Gibson won 12 games for the Twins last season while this could be the last opportunity for starting pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Ricky Nolasco to show what they can do in Major League Baseball. If the Twins starting pitching and middle relievers are able to take care of business through the first eight innings, then Molitor will be able to give the baseball to relief pitcher Glen Perkins in the ninth inning who was one of the top relievers in baseball last season with 34 saves.
Led by third baseman Trevor Plouffe and second baseman Brian Dozier, the Twins did have one of the top offenses in the AL last season. But for the Twins to really have a chance of contending in 2015, they’ll need first baseman Joe Mauer to regain the form that made him the AL MVP back in 2009. At 39-years of age, outfielder Torii Hunter is returning to the Twins where he began his career and he’ll look to be an additional coach on the field.
If nothing else the Twins will play hard for Molitor in 2015, but the lack of talent there will have them on the outside looking in when the postseason rolls around.