Swinging for the Fences: 2014 AL Central early outlook
An early preview of the division and which teams to watch out for
It's been a winter of changes in the AL Central thus far as all five teams have made moves in hopes of making the division race more competitive next season.
The Tigers continue to push for a championship while the Indians and Royals hope to push to the next level after celebrating winning seasons in 2013. Meanwhile in Minnesota and Chicago, the Twins and White Sox are trying to get back on track after disappointing seasons.
Here is a team-by-team analysis of how they've either improved or gotten worse over the offseason thus far:
Detroit Tigers (93-69 in 2013):
Detroit once again came up short of a World Series ring in 2013. This offseason, they've continued to search for the one final spark to push them over the edge.
The question is whether or not they have accomplished that goal with the moves they've made so far this winter. They've found their long-awaited dominant veteran closer in Joe Nathan as well as signing right-hander Joba Chamberlain to improve their bullpen. They also brought in All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler to make their infield better as well as adding outfielder Rajai Davis to improve their outfield depth and add more speed to their lineup.
All quality moves to be sure, but their losses have also been significant.
While they did get Kinsler, it cost them their cleanup hitter in Prince Fielder, who will now be hitting bombs in Arlington, Texas. Of course, that role is easy to fill again with the greatest hitter of our generation in Miguel Cabrera. The problem is they can no longer boast of having the 'pick your poison' kind of one-two punch in their lineup that they had with Cabrera and Fielder. Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez are solid hitters, but whether they actually provide the same kind of protection Fielder offered Miggy remains to be seen.
The second biggest loss was that of Doug Fister in a trade to the Nationals. That's not to say that they don't still have the best starting rotation in the division, or the league for that matter, but I do believe his presence will be missed at some point as the anchor and innings-eater in the middle of the rotation. They got a decent utility infielder in Steve Lombardozzi as well as a solid young left-hander in Ian Krol and a prospect with upside in Robbie Ray.
The bullpen was one of the few areas of weakness for the Tigers the last couple seasons. Nathan is by far a big step up from Jose Valverde. However, they did lose Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras to free agency and will be without Drew Smyly in the bullpen since he will more than likely move to the rotation. Can Joba return to form? Will Ian Krol and Bruce Rondon pan out? On paper, the bullpen looks better, but there are still questions.
Make no mistake, the Tigers are still the team to beat in the division, but of the last three seasons that Detroit has dominated in the Central, the team as it stands right now seems to be more beatable than they were back then.
Cleveland Indians (92-70 in 2013):
It was a season of many great memories for fans in Cleveland in 2013 as they made the playoffs for the first time in six years. Their busy offseason prior to the year, which included the signings of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, raised expectations, but not to the level of 92 wins and a playoff berth. But it was mainly the lesser acquisitions that made the bigger stories. The Ryan Raburns and Scott Kazmirs that really helped drive the season as much as anyone.
So can Terry Francona take his team to the next level?
As I discussed in last week's column, the primary areas of concern for the Tribe coming into the offseason were in the rotation, the back of the bullpen and a couple areas in the lineup.
So far, they have their new closer in John Axford and have also added veterans Matt Capps and Scott Atchison on minor league deals as additional relief depth. In the rotation, the only significant move they've made is adding veteran right-hander Shaun Marcum on a minor league deal, but they could still make another move. And in the lineup, they've signed outfielder David Murphy to a two-year deal, re-signed first baseman David Cooper to a major league contract and brought in Jeff Francouer and David Adams on a minor league deals.
There hasn't been the one big move yet to instill confidence in the casual fan again after losing key players such as Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez and Joe Smith to free agency. Not that a move like that isn't coming, but Chris Antonetti has actually done a solid job filling the holes they've needed to this offseason under the constraints of their payroll.
Personally, I would feel better about them if they added another reliable starter, but the depth they currently have isn't terrible. Guys like Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer have plenty of potential, but it's about getting the right mentality. Marcum has been successful in the past, but he needs to prove he's healthy and durable again.
The offense as it is already has potential to be one of the top in the league. Swisher and Bourn are expected to perform better, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana may not have reached their ceiling of potential yet and guys like Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes can repeat or improve on their 2013 performances to make this offense just as good, if not better than last season.
Kansas City Royals (86-76 in 2013):
The Royals were probably the biggest surprise in baseball in 2013 after a busy offseason where they brought in ace pitchers James Shields and Ervin Santana, the latter of whom they have lost to free agency. They already had arguably the best young lineup in the division, but had to improve their pitching staff to become legitimate contenders.
After their first winning season in a decade even though they missed the playoffs, Dayton Moore has already been busy making improvements to the roster, including finally finding a big league second baseman in Omar Infante as well as signing veteran left-hander Jason Vargas and trading for outfielder Norichika Aoki.
Like the Indians, the Royals had their peaks and valleys on offense, but they still have potential to become one of the top lineups in the league. Adding two quality contact hitters in Aoki and Infante should help to improve their consistency. Aoki would probably bat leadoff and move Alex Gordon to the #3 or #5 spot to help protect Billy Butlerand Eric Hosmer.
Even despite their acquisitions last offseason, Kansas City's biggest area of concern remains the starting rotation. Whether or not Santana's performance in 2013 was a fluke, they still have to replace that production and it's questionable whether Vargas can match that.
Jeremy Guthrie is a #3 starter at best. Danny Duffy has only pitched in 17 games (major and minor leagues combined) since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Wade Davis is not a reliable starting option after his regression last season. Bruce Chen is a free agent. Luke Hochevar hasn't panned out as a starter. They have prospects like Yordano Ventura waiting in the wings, but I'd look to sign another starter if I were the GM.
The big thing the Royals have going for them is their bullpen, which may not have anyone who throws less than 95 mph in it. Greg Holland had an All-Star year as their closer racking up 47 saves. Tim Collins, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, Luke Hochevar and others will be back again next season to make up probably the best bullpen in the league.
Overall, I'd expect the Royals to improve in 2014 if they can get their starting pitching in order. Their lineup and guys like Mike Moustakas can perform better, but I believe they're still moving in the right direction.
Minnesota Twins (66-96 in 2013):
The Twins have been one of the more active teams on the market, particularly on the pitching side by signing free agents Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to multi-year deals. But despite their efforts, Twins fans may be in for another long season as the rebuilding efforts continue. They may win a few more games, but as far as competing with the Tigers, Indians and Royals for the division title, I wouldn't get their hopes up.
Nolasco is a decent pitcher capable of eating innings, but he's nowhere close to being an ace that strikes fear in the heart of opposing lineups. Neither is Hughes. They are upgrades over several of their current starting pitching options as they continue to rebuild their staff and hopefully able to bridge the gap to prospects they have coming up. In addition, they re-signed veteran starter Mike Pelfrey to a two-year deal despite his poor performance in 2013.
Their lineup has taken a bit of a hit this offseason with the departure of catcher and outfielder Ryan Doumit to Atlanta in a trade. Of course, they've already lost former MVP Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh during the season and has now signed with the Rockies this offseason. Doumit will be replaced by Kurt Suzuki, who the Twins have signed to a one-year contract and will likely assume a good chunk of the catching duties with Joe Mauer officially moving to first base.
While they do have exciting young players such as Oswaldo Arcia on the rise, it may still be another year or two before the Twins are playing meaningful baseball again.
Enjoy the All-Star Game this season in the meantime, Minnesota!
Chicago White Sox (63-99 in 2013):
As bad as things were on the South Side for baseball last season, the White Sox could be an X-factor in the division in 2014. Jose Abreu could prove to be the slugger they need to rebuild their offense around. With six-time All-StarPaul Konerko announcing that 2014 will be his final season, the timing could be perfect.
Now personally, I don't have high expectations for the Sox in 2014, but they did nearly win the division in 2012 with almost the same team. But they'll only go as far as their pitching staff, which has plenty of question marks. Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are in all likelihood their #1 and #2 starters to start the year. After that, you have Andre Rienzo, John Danks (if healthy) and not much else. The losses of Jake Peavy and Hector Santiago are probably going to hurt.
The offense has a lot of "what-if's" as well as far as whether newly-added rookies like Abreu, Matt Davidson andAvisail Garcia will pan out and whether veterans such as Konerko and Adam Dunn can return to form. If it all works out just right, they could have a dangerous offense again, but that's asking a lot.
I don't know if Hawk Harrelson can survive another year like last season, though.
Indians sign Scott Atchison and Jeff Francouer to minor league deals... Once again, news has been slow as league officials and front office staff are just returning to work after the holiday break. Cleveland has been busy already though by adding veteran reliever Scott Atchison and outfielder Jeff Francouer on minor league contracts with spring training invites.
Atchison appears to be another Francona recruit since he did pitch for him in Boston from 2010-2011 and had a career best ERA of 1.85 in 2012. Whether he makes the team is something that will work itself out in spring training, but off the bat, he seems like another Matt Albers type of pitcher that could come in and eat a few innings here and there when a starter departs early.
Jeff Francouer is one of those "Why not?" types of minor league signings. If he comes into spring training and plays well, then maybe they find a spot for him. If not, no harm. He hasn't played well the last couple years, but he did hit .285 with 20 home runs and 87 RBI in 2011 with the Royals, plus he has one of the best throwing arms in the game. It's also worth noting that he has undergone LASIK eye surgery this offseason to improve his vision and he has decided to switch to a lighter bat in 2014.
If I were to make a prediction right now, I'd say the AL Central is a three-team race between the Tigers, Indians and Royals that could come down to the wire. All three teams have strengths and weaknesses that could keep them on more of an even playing field. Detroit still has the best rotation, the Royals have the best bullpen, Cleveland has the best bench and coaching staff, etc.
I must say thank God for baseball talk right now during this deep freeze. I've also booked my hotel reservations for a week in Goodyear, Arizona during spring training in March. I couldn't be more excited for that and the upcoming season. Hopefully it proves to be another good one for the Tribe and a competitive one for the AL Central.
Follow me on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake for all the latest Cleveland Indians news and baseball chat.
Hard to believe that we are worried about losing Ubaldo and Kazmir after how each was viewed heading into the season....
Tribe definitely will need some bounceback years to compete, much like they needed last year. Here's hoping the get them!
But...if Axford gets back to where he was and Bourn, Swisher, and Pestano have bounce-back years, and Salazar can win 13 games to replace Ubaldo's 13 wins, and some combination of Bauer, Carrasco and Tomlin can win 11 games to replace Kazmir, the Tribe could be looking at another 92 win season or even better.