February 15, 2014

Looking for answers in the AL Central

Key questions for each of the Royals’ rivals in the AL Central and things to ponder in the other five divisions.

Q: Will announcer Hawk Harrelson be happy?

In an interview with CSN Chicago, Harrelson said of last year’s 99-loss squad: “That was the worst performing team ... that I have ever been associated with as a player and as an announcer.” At least management did something about it. This year’s opening-day lineup will feature four different starters from the team that opened 2013 against the Royals: outfielders Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton, third baseman Matt Davidson and first baseman Jose Abreu, the Cuban slugger Chicago hopes will add some needed power. Chris Sale anchors what could be a solid starting staff, which includes former Royal Felipe Paulino. If Paulino thrives, it no doubt will lead to gnashing of teeth from fans here.


Q: Can they do it again?

After a dreadful 2012 season in which they won just 68 games, the Indians qualified for the wild-card game last year with 92 victories. Pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir (351 innings, 24 victories) are either gone or expected not to return, so Danny Salazar will need to step up and Cleveland may lean on Excelsior Springs native Shaun Marcum. Still, the projections (FanGraphs’ ZiPS and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA) aren’t kind to the Indians’ pitching prospects this season. It’ll be interesting to see how catcher Carlos Santana’s conversion to third base goes, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera must bounce back (.242, 14 homers in 2013) or he may cede his spot to the franchise’s top prospect, Francisco Lindor.


Q: How long will the window stay open?

The Tigers are favored to win a fourth straight AL Central title and you need look no further than the rotation for the reason why. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander have Cy Young awards in their homes, and Detroit is so loaded with starters, it seemingly gave Doug Fister to Washington, opening the door for Drew Smyly. If there is a reason to worry in the Motor City (other than the Lions’ perpetual sad state), it’s the age of some of the key players. Verlander is 31 and coming off an injury. He’s also thrown 1,761 in eight seasons. Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera turns 31 in April, new closer Joe Nathan is 39, outfielder Torii Hunter is 38 and DH Victor Martinez is 35. But there is a new kid on the block: Nick Castellanos is 22 and will take over at third base.


Q: What about the offense?

There was plenty to fix for the Twins, who were 13th in the American League in runs scored a year ago, while allowing the second-most runs in the league. The rotation was upgraded with the additions of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, but the lineup offers little beyond Joe Mauer, who is switching from catcher to first base. The good news for Twins fans is that top prospects outfielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano had solid ZiPS projections from FanGraphs. The bad news? Neither is expected to have much of an impact this season. It also remains to be seen what effect (if any) will be felt on the team with general manager Terry Ryan undergoing treatment for cancer.

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