Sam Mellinger

AL Central may not be the best division, but it could be the most competitive

Royals manager Ned Yost said Monday that he doesn’t expect this season to be harder than last season.
Royals manager Ned Yost said Monday that he doesn’t expect this season to be harder than last season. The Kansas City Star

They gathered here in a ballroom at a luxury hotel for sound bites and handshakes, because that’s what media days are for, and of interest back home is the growing storyline of the American League Central being one of baseball’s best divisions.

It’s nonsense, but then you could say that about a lot of what’s written or said in baseball around this time of year, which is part of the fun and a lot of the charm.

The temptation to push the AL Central as a premiere division is partly out of having a neat storyline, partly because of an offseason influx of free agents, and partly because of the Royals’ push to the World Series.

But it’s also true that no division in baseball was taken with fewer wins than the Tigers’ 90 last year, and with Max Scherzer gone, Justin Verlander a year older, and the bullpen still a mess the Tigers aren’t a good bet to match that total.

So, maybe this is a matter of word choice. Best division? Hardly. But most competitive? Yes. Any team but the Twins could win without a surprise.

“The Tigers have done it, and the Royals have done it,” Indians manager Terry Francona says. “We’re trying to do it. I think we feel like with another year under our belts, we can get involved in that race.”

The Tigers and Royals each lost their best starting pitcher but otherwise return mostly intact. The White Sox had as good a winter as anyone in the American League, filling gaps with Melky Cabrera, Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson. The Twins are a good bet to finish last, but at least added Ervin Santana and Torii Hunter.

All of that and the Indians are the thinking man’s — or, at least, the writing man’s — pick to win the division based on a strong rotation, a bounce-back year from Jason Kipnis, and other good hitters like Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes being in their primes.

“I’d rather be in a division that wasn’t (as competitive),” Royals manager Ned Yost jokes. “But it’ll be more fun.”

The Royals’ place in this division is an interesting discussion. The first projections from Las Vegas have the Royals at 83 wins. Some statistical models, most notably Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system — which, it’s worth noting, has been way off on the Royals the last few years — are even less optimistic.

But statistical projections — like, um, this column — are just guesses, and it’s also worth considering that the Royals may have figured something out last year. Confidence is an important thing, and there are men throughout the industry who talk about noticing small things like Mike Moustakas beating a shift with a bunt or Eric Hosmer showing more patience at the plate or Yordano Ventura pitching so well after being put in a tough spot in the Wild Card game.

Those things matter, too, and to that point the Royals became better prepared for their at-bats through more video study.

The first reaction, of course, is that they could’ve been studying video long before the playoffs but if something unlocked in October perhaps something closer to that approach can be spread across an entire season.

“You learn on that stage how big it is,” Hosmer says. “You pay more attention to what guys (have), and what some guys do. It makes you stay on top of your game, and execute the plan.”

There is something else to be said about the Royals’ ability to perform through those pressures. For the longest time — including in this column — the Royals were consistently criticized for performing just well enough to fall short.

Yost talked about this on Monday, perhaps as openly as he has, when asked if he thought that the upcoming season could be even harder than breaking through in 2014.

“No, it was very hard in 2014,” Yost says. “So I don’t expect it to be harder. We have that belief, and we have that experience on our side now, which we didn’t have before. Those are huge keys.

“We always … we’d get into a big series or on a good run and start to get to first place and it was, ‘OK, now we’re going to take off,’ and we’d trend downward, because we’d get to where we started pressing. … The press conferences centered around, ‘Your team doesn’t play good in front of big crowds.’ … And, really, we didn’t. I knew going into the playoffs we had to play in front of big crowds, so playing in front of big crowds became routine.

“Now they know. We can play in front of the world, under the most intense scrutiny and most intense pressure in the world, and perform. That’s a great experience to have.”

He makes a good point, and there are talking points like this that the Tigers (they always win), Indians (division’s best rotation and manager) and White Sox (most improved) are pushing, too.

At least one of those teams will be greatly disappointed this year by not making the playoffs and, depending on how the Wild Card races shake out, as many as three. Yost’s point about 2015 not being harder than 2014 was introspective. He was talking solely of his team, what he felt from those guys last year and what he’s feeling now.

But that introspection will play out in the context of a division race, and the 76 games they will play against the division will be generally tougher.

That doesn’t make the AL Central baseball’s best division. But it might make it the most competitive, which means the Royals will need to be even stronger than last year.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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