Spring training is winding up, in order for opening day in one week; starting the most gruelling contest of any sport- 162 games – where all baseball skills are tested and health plays a major role in defining the great teams from the good, culminating in the post season. We will preview each division before opening day, and appropriately begin with the Division which provided the World Series champions in 2015, the American League Central, here is a team by team preview:
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
The champions had a solid off season, managing to come to terms with OF Alex Gordon, to keep the elite core group of positional players together another season. This spells trouble for all opponents, particularly the divisional rivals who have to meet them 18 times each; if health prevails the likes of Moustakas, Cain, Escobar, Perez, Gordon and Hosmer are capable of continuing the dominance that won them the World Series last year.
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If there was any worry in the off season it may have been the bullpen, after Ryan Madson left and Greg Holland underwent Tommy John surgery, but the acquisition of Joaquim Soria surely allayed these worries. The backend of the bullpen looks particularly strong with Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera setting up Soria. Also the rotation is boosted by the addition of Ian Kennedy to accompany Ventura, Volquez, the retained Chris Young, Duffy, Medlen and Vargas due back mid season. Ultimately, the Royals will be the team to beat in their division, and that will prove a monumental task for all of the divisional rivals.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
The White Sox had a very busy offseason highlighted by the trades for Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, providing a clear upgrade in the Infield. Thrifty free agency signings such as Mat Latos and Austin Jackson are a little risky but could prove to be outstanding value if the performance is of good quality from either of the veterans. The Jackson acquisition is vital, allowing Melky Cabrera to move to DH, following the controversial departure of Adam LaRoche.
Jackson will now get everyday CF duties with Adam Eaton pushing over to LF and is certainly an upgrade, compared to Melky’s defensive deficiencies. Jimmy Rollins joined on a Minor League deal and appears to be the everyday SS to start the year, giving Saladino more develop time in Triple A. The Rotation looks stronger with Latos, but another trade deadline addition if they are in contention looks probable. The bullpen looks to be largely intact from last season with only slight personnel changes, who aren’t feature relief staff. Catching duties see two new staff members with Al Avila hopping ship from Detroit and Dioner Navarro also joining, this seems to be a very solid combination.
The White Sox surely can contend with key core components of the team contributing daily, particularly Abreu, Eaton, Frazier and Melky, and Sale providing elite hurling every 5th day. All these components will need to excel in an exceptionally tough division to advance to October, fans ought to be optimistic about this happening.
The Indians will look to compete with the development of an elite pitching staff, easily as good a top 3 of the rotation as any in the big leagues. These 3 Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar form the core of what should be many wins for the Indians and provide the Royals with very stiff challenges to win this tight division.
The concern for the Indians is their Outfield, with Brantley being the only outfielder one can confidently predict to excel daily, and even he is set to start the season on the DL after offseason shoulder surgery. The Infield and Catching positions is much stronger for the Indians and ample depth to cover the injuries which interrupt every team, at some point in the season. The bullpen looks strong with Cody Allen closing and a host of other power-arms providing good relief from an exceptional rotation.
Still as rare as it is late in spring training it would not surprise to see the Indians trade one of their star young hurlers for an everyday outfielder, if the opportunity arose, certainly by the trade deadline this type of speculation will be rife if the Indians are near contention. Overall, the Indians can be confident of improving on their 81-80 2015 record, and pushing towards a post season appearance.
Tigers owner Mike Illitch made headlines in the offseason, making clear the cost of winning is irrelevant, proving his willingness to pay by agreeing to huge 9 digit contracts with Jordan Zimmerman and Justin Upton. Adding to this they traded for Francisco Rodriguez, a fine addition to the bullpen which was needed. Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson also added to the changes in the new-look bullpen, which still appears to be an area that could be upgraded.
The outfield looks very good, with Upton in Left, Gose and Maybin manning CF and JD Martinez in Right. And the Infield appears set similarly to last year with superstar Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias and Nick Castellanos. Saltalamacchia was added to solidify the Catching situation, partnering McCann and Holaday. The rotation looks very good with quality depth, keeping Greene, Boyd, Norris and Pelfrey fighting for the remaining two spots following Verlander, Zimmerman and Anibal Sanchez. Detroit look strong and probably may look to add another big bat at the deadline to solidify their chances of October action if in contention. Contention is right where this group of quality players ought to be provided health is maintained by key players like Cabrera, Verlander, Upton and Iglesias.
The Twins had a relatively quiet offseason, really only adding Byung Ho Park from Korea who looks likely to man the DH position or 1B and could be a real steal if he can bring his form from the unpredictable Korean League. The only other major change to the roster was the swap of Hicks for John Ryan Murphy who looks set to take the lions share of atbats from Kurt Suzuki. There are exciting young stars in Minnesota who could upturn any predictions in this division, such as Buxton, Sano, Rosario and the continued development of Arcia and Santana. The bullpen looks strong with Perkins closing and Jepsen and Fien among the senior staff members looking to dominate.
The rotation could be questionable if Nolasco or Milone cannot find their best form, though Hughes and Gibson will look to build on stellar recent seasons. The 2016 Twins could really pressure all of the divisional rivals and find themselves in October competing for a title. Mauer, Hughes, Plouffe and Dozier will need to lead the young stars to greatness if this is to be the case.
The American League Central Division is in my opinion the toughest division in the league to preview, due to the tightness of these 5 franchises. Any one of them could make October and seek glory, more importantly in substantiating this analysis though, none of them are rebuilding or not in win now mode. This is going to be a division decided by a few games with a playoff for a wildcard berth very possible, I can’t see any of these teams having overall losing seasons.
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