Division Preview: AL Central

We’re halfway done, with the wests — both NL and the AL — and covered NL Central yesterday. Today, we tackle the AL’s version of the country’s heartland.

The Projected Standings

Team Wins Losses Division Wild Card World Series
Indians 86 76 43% 14% 7%
Tigers 85 77 37% 15% 5%
Royals 79 83 10% 7% 1%
White Sox 78 84 8% 6% 1%
Twins 74 88 3% 3% 0%

With no great teams and only one franchise not really trying to contend this year, this is one of the most up-for-grabs divisions in the sport. Our forecasts suggest that there are two tiers within those going for it, but I think things might be a bit more bunched up than the numbers above suggest. Let’s go team by team.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians have become the trendy sleeper pick, a young team expected to build off their 85 win season a year ago. In particular, their rotation is very easy to dream on, as Carlos Carrasco, T.J. House, and Zach McAllister are classic breakout picks after finishing strong in the second half of 2014. Toss in Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, and this is a rotation with plenty of hype even before you mention the guy who won the Cy Young Award last year. If even two of the back-end starters turn into what looks possible, the Indians will have among one of the league’s best group of starters, and should make a serious run at the division title.

Of course, there’s no riskier gamble in baseball than betting on young arms with short track records of big league success, and while our projections pencil in the Indians for the AL’s best rotation, it’s not too hard to see things going south. And outside of their rotation, the Indians are mostly more good than great. Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley aren’t exactly traditional offensive cornerstone pieces, and Cleveland got Brandon Moss on the cheap because they A’s didn’t want to bet on an aging old-player skills guy with a bad hip. It’s not a bad collection of position players, but it’s a mostly average one, and not the kind of group that you’d expect to win a division title without strong support from the pitching staff.

With a relatively weak bullpen, that means their season probably comes down to how well the young starters live up to expectations. If McAllister’s velocity bump turns into a sustained improvement or Carrasco’s second half run carries over, this could very well be the best team in the division. But despite the old proverb, the road to hell is actually paved with teams who built their rosters around young pitching; this could also go really, really wrong.

Detroit Tigers

Barring a few more J.D. Martinez-style miracles, this is the last hurrah for the Tigers. Their stars are aging and only getting more expensive, and there just isn’t enough help coming up from the farm system to offset the decline that is growing ever closer. But the end isn’t here quite yet. This team is still pretty good, or at least has the chance to be good if they keep enough of their dinged up players on the field for most of the year.

And despite the core of the team getting long in the tooth, Dave Dombrowski did a nice job of making some upside gambles among the role players. If Shane Greene sustains his second half improvements, the team might not miss Rick Porcello as much as it might appear from the projections. Anthony Gose probably won’t hit, but even a slight improvement at the plate makes him a decent enough center fielder given his speed and defense, and he’s young enough to take a step forward. I remain skeptical on both Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias, but there is potential with both. These lottery ticket types all have high enough floors to fill regular jobs — maybe with Castellanos as the exception — and offer enough potential to help offset age-related decline among the team’s better players.

But this team still needs Miguel Cabrera to be great, and Justin Verlander to be not-terrible, if they’re going to keep up with Cleveland. There are good pieces elsewhere on the roster, but if Cabrera starts to get old as quickly as Verlander has appeared to, it will get a lot harder for the Tigers to win the division. Cabrera’s unlikely to age out of being a great hitter any time soon, but guys with his body size often can’t stay on the field for 150 games once they reach their 30s, and this team just isn’t deep enough to afford a few months without their franchise hitter. If the old guys can remain reasonably healthy, though, there’s enough around them to make one final run before it’s time to pay the piper.

Kansas City Royals

Projecting a 10 win decline for last year’s AL champs isn’t a popular forecast, especially with so much young talent that appeared to take big steps forward in the postseason last year. But our projections see a team that played like a .500 club in the regular season, then swapped out James Shields for Edinson Volquez, Billy Butler for Kendrys Morales, and Nori Aoki for Alex Rios.

With an inferior cast of veteran role players, the Royals road back to the postseason now leans very heavily on Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who both probably need to crush their league average forecasts in order for the Royals to make another run at the division title. Alex Gordon is an excellent player, but he can’t be the only star-level performer, especially with a weakened rotation and a bullpen that just can’t possibly be as good as they were a year ago. There are too many scrubs here for the top of the roster to be led by Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Lorenzo Cain.

The good news for the Royals is that Hosmer and Moustakas have flashed the potential to take steps forward, and it wouldn’t be at all unheard of for two former top prospects to finally put things together in their mid-20s. If Moustakas really did figure out how to unlock his power in September, and if Hosmer’s second half was more indicative of his future than his first half, then the Royals could make these projections look silly, especially if Cain holds on to more of his 2014 performance than the numbers expect. But that’s a lot of ifs and maybes, and we could play this same game with almost any team in baseball.

Maybe the Royals will prove us wrong again. They certainly made us look silly last year, and it’s not like pre-season forecasts are infallible. But there are a lot of legitimate question marks on this roster, and it’s pretty unlikely that everything goes right for the Royals two years in a row.

Chicago White Sox

Rick Hahn and his crew have done a great job of building the White Sox talent base, making a series of shrewd moves that have turned Chicago’s other team into a roster with some of the best talent in the game. But this roster is simply incomplete, and the team looks a year away from legitimate front-line contender to me. Jose Abreu, Chris Sale, and Jeff Samardzija is a hell of a start, but Hector Noesi, Avasail Garcia, Micah Johnson, Conor Gillaspie, and Tyler Flowers are not the kind of guys you want to depend on while making a postseason run.

If the Sox can re-sign Samardzija — and by many accounts, keeping him off the free agent market was their goal when they traded for him — and make a few more nifty role player adds over the next 12 months, I might very well take the White Sox as my 2016 favorites for the division, but I just see too many holes for 2015. If Don Cooper can really make Noesi and John Danks productive, and get anything from the team’s relievers not named David Robertson or Zach Duke, he should go directly into the Hall of Fame. The White Sox five or six best pitchers are terrific, but their next six are as bad as any in baseball.

Perhaps Hahn will pull of a few more in-season pickups to address some of the roster’s issues, and the star power at the top will carry the team until reinforcements arrive. But more likely, this is a team that will be good when their top three starters are on the mound and pretty awful on days they aren’t. Patch a few holes and this team is ready to make some noise in October; I just don’t think they have enough duct tape to get there this year.

Minnesota Twins

Rebuilding often isn’t fun, but it does provide opportunities to take risks that winning teams can’t afford; you can give 500 at-bats to a “AAAA player” to see if the scouts got one wrong, or you can take a gamble on a failed top prospect who once projected as an ace and might be able to find that again. That’s how the Twins ended up with Brian Dozier and Phil Hughes, and those two bets have given them quality above-average players at two difficult positions to fill.

Unfortunately, the Twins have spent nearly every other position on the field not making similar bets, so instead of high-upside gambles, Hughes and Dozier are surrounded by aging mediocrities like Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, Torii Hunter, and Kurt Suzuki. Sure, they’re going to give Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas a look, but in a year where contending is almost impossible, Minnesota probably should have taken some more fliers on upside plays rather than trying to limit their downside potential.

The resulting combination is a team that will not be good nor likely very interesting, and the Twins are mostly just spinning their wheels until Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are ready. For their sake, those two better live up to the hype and do so fairly soon, because until they arrive, the Twins will likely be mostly irrelevant.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Uncle Mumbly
9 years ago

and it’s pretty unlikely that everything goes right for the Royals two years in a row.
To be fair, I’m not really sure you can say everything went right for the Royals last year. In the playoffs, sure. But the regular season was far from a dream season.

Moustakas was so bad he actually got sent down to AAA. Hosmer was replacement level with Infante not far behind and Butler was godawful. That is a big chunk of what was supposed to be their core players producing pretty much no value.

Uncle Mumbly
9 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Bad things being offset by good things is hardly “everything going perfectly.”

If I get my arm cut off but win the lottery I wouldn’t exactly call that a perfect day.

Uncle Mumbly
9 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Mumbly

Again, thats still not the same thing.  Bad outcomes being offset (or even exceeded) by other good outcomes happening is not a case of “everything going right” Losing $500 dollars in 10 hands at the black jack table then winning $600 in one hand is not “everything going right”. Its actually alot of things going wrong and one thing going right. 
Your wording makes it seem as if the Royals had some dream season where the planets aligned and they had zero setbacks. And the only way they will win this year is if the same highly unlikely thing happens. Which isnt the case at all. The fact is that alot of the Royals had alot of things go wrong for them last year.

I mean, unless you think the Royals plan was to get a combined 0 WAR out of Moustakas, Hosmer, Infante and Butler.

9 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Mumbly

KC just had a record better than one would expect even if everything were to go right.

9 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Mumbly

The positive breaks were larger in magnitude than the negative breaks.

9 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Mumbly

The Royals shouldn’t be the favorite, but I think they are closer to 37% likely to win the Central and the Indians are closer to 10%