This is a change from the past three decades: The rest of the American League Central Division spent its offseason trying to match what the Royals did in 2014.
Namely, get to the World Series.
No one in the AL Central expressly set out to knock the crown off the Royals (remember, the Detroit Tigers won the division last year), but each team made upgrades during the winter. And it’s set up the Central as arguably the most competitive division in baseball.
To wit: The Cleveland Indians, who missed the playoffs a year ago, are the darlings in many publications’ preseason predictions (notably Sports Illustrated and Grantland).
Chicago White Sox
▪ Big moves they made: Added Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera to the lineup and Jeff Samardzija to the rotation, and bolstered the bullpen with closer David Robertson and Zach Duke.
▪ Why they’re a threat to the Royals: The Sox lost 13 of 19 games against the Royals, but many of those defeats came in the late innings. Wade Davis got four wins against the White Sox in 2014, and who can forget Terrance Gore’s mad dash from second to win a game in the ninth? Chicago’s bullpen should be better, and LaRoche and Jose Abreu should be middle-of-the lineup mashers.
▪ Why they’re not a threat to the Royals: If Chris Sale’s foot injury is worse than it seems, Chicago is in trouble. Teams that make a huge offseason splash often fail (the Toronto Blue Jays are a recent example). Plus the back end of the rotation and the bottom of the lineup don’t look intimidating.
▪ Big moves they made: Traded for right fielder Brandon Moss, who has hit 76 homers in the last 2 1/2 seasons.
▪ Why they’re a threat to the Royals: The rotation is anchored by Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, but Carlos Carrasco (1.30 ERA, .179 opponent batting average in his final 10 starts) and Trevor Bauer (3.67 ERA at home vs. 4.87 on the road) are key pieces, too. The middle of the infield may define the Indians’ season. Super shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor should get the call at some point and second baseman Jason Kipnis has to rebound from an awful 2014.
▪ Why they’re not a threat to the Royals: The offense is still suspect. Nick Swisher will open the season on the disabled list, but he was dreadful last season. Moss struggled in the second half of last season, and the speed of Kipnis and center fielder Michael Bourne is declining.
▪ Big moves they made: Added outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Anthony Gose, and let Max Scherzer go to the Nationals as a free agent.
▪ Why they’re a threat to the Royals: Well, they have won four straight division titles. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler give Detroit a chance to score a lot of runs. David Price is arguably the best starter in the division.
▪ Why they’re not a threat to the Royals: Whew, that bullpen. Joe Nathan anchored a relief corps that nearly cost the Tigers the division title and they didn’t do anything to improve. Justin Verlander’s ERA+ has gone down in three straight seasons since he was the MVP. That’s a trend.
▪ Big moves they made: Former Royal Ervin Santana joins the rotation, but he’ll have to sit out 80 games after testing positive for steroids. Torii Hunter returns to the outfield. And Paul Molitor is the new manager.
▪ Why they’re a threat to the Royals: Before his suspension, it was possible Santana, plus Phil Hughes and Rickey Nolasco, could all have huge seasons and push the Twins into contention. The reality, however, is that Joe Mauer is the Twins’ best hitter, his numbers slipped last year and he’s now 32. Also, the Twins play awful defense.
▪ Why they’re not a threat to the Royals: This is a bridge season for the Twins, whose farm is stocked. Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Kohl Stewart, Alex Meyer, Jose Berrios and Nick Gordon are all in the top 40 of MLB.com’s top prospects. That won’t help the Twins this season, though.