Baseball! AL Central

Posted: 12/19/2013 by levcohen in Baseball

Time for a check-up on the AL Central. It feels as if the Royals have taken a step up this offseason while the Tigers have made a lot of interesting moves.

Detroit Tigers:

The first move the Tigers made was the mega trade of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. On the surface, it looks like a big win for the Texas Rangers. Fielder is not yet 30, plays a position that is not demanding, and if he has a hot April he could reach 300 home runs by 30. Yes, he had a bad season (for him) last year that was compounded by a terrible playoffs, but there are good signs: he has missed 13 games total in the last eight years and just one in the past five years. So it’s safe to say that Fielder is the most durable player in baseball. And the Tigers traded Fielder for Kinsler, a second baseman on the wrong side of 30. Kinsler, unlike Fielder, has had an extensive injury history and is quite clearly on the downside of his career. But in making that trade, the Tigers were able to free up a lot of money. And they used it to, among other things, sign a new closer, Joe Nathan. Nathan is a risk, but he was one of the best closers in the game last year and could continue to thrive.

The Tigers also made a curious trade, dealing Doug Fister, who has been an above average starting pitcher over the last few years, for a few unproven parts headlined by the fantastic Steve Lombardozzi. In all seriousness, Lombardozzi has not shown much in his short MLB career. The Tigers should be fine at starting pitcher, as they are still headlined by their fantastic Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez trio and backed up by a slowly developing Rick Porcello (4.32 ERA last year.. Tigers 1st rounder in 2007). Drew Smyly, who was terrific in relief last season, should join the rotation.

The Tigers aren’t necessarily done, and they shouldn’t be. Right now, the Royals have really improved and the Indians should also be a threat in the Central. And the Tigers could probably use a corner outfielder. The LF-RF combo of Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter will almost certainly not worked, even though it worked decently last season. Dirks is a platoon left fielder at best, and Hunter is really aging and could be an injury issue. I would lobby for the Tigers to make a splash by signing the best remaining free agent, Shin Soo-Choo. Choo would help a lot. He plays great defense at either corner outfield position (and serviceable in center field) and had one of the best on-base percentages in the MLB last season. Choo could play left field and hit leadoff, and the Tigers could presumably play a lineup that looks like this:

LF Choo
RF Hunter
1B Miguel Cabrera
DH Victor Martinez
2B Kinsler
CF Austin Jackson
3B Nick Castellanos
C Alex Avila
SS Jose Iglesias

By the way, while the trade of Fielder doesn’t look perfect on paper, I think it will make the team better. Particularly the defense. Miguel Cabrera was terrible at third base, and now he moves back to his more natural and less strenuous first base. Meanwhile, Jhonny Peralta departs for the much better fielding Jose Iglesias. Nick Castellanos, the Tigers top prospect, is a good hitter and a solid fielder. He moves into the starting lineup at third base and if anything should help defensively.

Bottom Line: The Tigers made some head-scratching moves, but I still think that they are the odds-on favorite to win the AL Central. Their defense will improve, their pitching is good, and they have the best hitter in the planet in Miguel Cabrera. The Fielder loss will hurt, but they still have the pieces.

Kansas City Royals:

The trade for Norichika Aoki. The signing of Omar Infante. The signing of Jason Vargas. Individually, none of these additions stand out, but together they mean that the Royals could well be on the cusp of the playoffs this season. I think that Aoki is one of the most underrated players in baseball. He made his debut in 2012 at age 30, and in the two years since has hit a total of 18 homers with 87 RBI. It’s easy to see while people overlook him. Aoki, though, is a perfect two-hole hitter. His OBP was .355 in his first year. It was .356 last season. That’s a really good number in today’s MLB, and he should fit in well behind Alex Gordon (average OBP of .357 in the last three seasons) and in front of Eric Hosmer (.353 last season) and Billy Butler (five straight seasons with at least a .360).

As you can see, this isn’t going to be a very powerful lineup, but it will be one that gets on base. And the signing of Infante, a slightly above average second baseman (about 3 wins above replacement consistently), fits right in. Infante’s on-base percentage was .345 last season and had a very good .795 OPS. Slightly above average players like this are valuable commodities, and players that every good team needs.

Another player who fits the “slightly above average” label is Jason Vargas. Vargas is an innings eater, another thing that everyone needs. He will put up an ERA around 4 and will be a fine #3 or #4 starter for the Royals.

Bottom Line: Signings like these are what helps put teams over the top. If the Royals get some production out of their younger players (Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy come to mind), they should be good. And they also will probably have one of the best bullpens in baseball. Greg Holland quietly put up one of the best seasons by a reliever ever last season while pitching for most of it at age 23. He had a rocky start to the season (4 runs allowed in the first 2 innings, at which point he was rumored to have lost his closing job), but after that threw 65 more innings and gave up just 5 earned runs. That’s incredible. In that span, he allowed 36 hits, 14 walks, and had 100 strikeouts. Almost Koji Uehara-esque. So yeah, with Holland and co. in the pen and three valuable new signings, the Royals will make a run for at least a wild card. But they do need to replace Ervin Santana in the rotation.

Cleveland Indians:

I’ve been kind of disappointed in the Indians’ offseason. Instead of upgrading their starting rotation, which was the achilles heel in an otherwise amazing season in which the Indians surprisingly made a run at the playoffs, they left it be. They lost one of their best starters, Ubaldo Jimenez, and their rotation will now be Justin Masterson (4.03 career ERA), Corey Kluber (214 career innings), Zach McAllister (277), Danny Salazar (52), and Carlos Carrasco (238). Only Salazar has a career ERA under 4; Carrasco’s is 5.29 and he is coming off a season with an unflattering 6.75 ERA. So yeah, they could really use an ace. Or something. Well they signed John Axford to be closer. That can only end poorly, right?

With that being said, the Indians should still have a potent offense. They have Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana in the middle of the lineup, and they are surrounded by good players.

Bottom Line: I like the Indians. I just worry that they are going to regress if they don’t address their starting pitching issue. They could still do it (Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and possibly Masahiro Tanaka are still on the market), but I’m skeptical.

Chicago White Sox:

The White Sox are really doing well. They are rebuilding, and they are doing it well. This winter, they’ve added three players who should become part of their long term starting lineup. They signed Jose Abreu from Cuba to an intriguing 68 million dollar deal. Abreu is high-risk, high-reward, but it looks like he has a lot of talent and hitting ability (he could immediately be inserted into the 3-hole). Then, they dealt pitcher Hector Santiago for outfielder Adam Eaton. This is a perfect buy-low. Eaton was a popular pick to win rookie of the year last season before his injury, because in his short audition in 2011 he had a .382 OBP. He could end up as a terrific leadoff hitter, and he just turned 25. Last, the White Sox traded closer Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks (they are really building a great rapport with Arizona, it seems) for third baseman Matt Davidson. This was probably my favorite move for Chicago. If Davidson is even an average third baseman (and I think he should be above average), he will be worth more than even an above average closer. Reed was solid last year, but by the time the White Sox are ready to contend, he might be on the downhill slope, so it was a great trade for Chicago.

Bottom Line: The White Sox managed to add three young bats to their starting lineup while holding on to their only “untouchable”, Chris Sale, who could have a Cy Young in his future. Things are looking bright, and there could be more moves in the future.

Minnesota Twins:

The Twins are in an interesting situation. Their rotation has been so bad recently that they had to sign both Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. I liked the Nolasco signing, while I didn’t like the Hughes signing. Those moves make it seem like the Twins are trying to contend this year. That seems pretty far-fetched, as they still just don’t have enough talent to succeed. I see a few above average players (led by Joe Mauer), but not many. The team looks different, foreign somehow, without Justin Morneau, who was shipped to the Pirates last season. With Morneau gone, it looks like Mauer will make the full time move to first base, which is great for his career. The catcher will be Josmil Pinto, one of the Twins’ top prospects. In limited time last season, Pinto was fantastic, with a .342/.398/.566 triple slash in 83 at bats. Those stats prorated over a full season would be great, but that’s not what the Twins or anyone else expect. Pinto becoming even an average catcher would be great for the franchise because it would close another hole. And the Twins have a lot of those holes.

The Twins will have the best chance to contend when their young superstars, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, reach the majors, which could be around 2o15. Buxton and Sano are ranked as the top 2 prospects in baseball, not just in the Twins, by most scouting websites, and they could be two of the best hitters in the league in the future. Buxton, believe it or not, has been compared favorably to Mike Trout. Sano had a 1.079 OPS last year in AA as one of the youngest players in the FSL. Both players are 20 years old.

Bottom Line: With Buxton, Sano, and other young talent developing in the wings, Twins fans have a lot to look forward to. But for now, they might just have to wait. Look out for Minnesota in 2015.

Projected standings:
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Kansas City Royals
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

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