Sunday is the last Sunday without regular-season Major League Baseball games. Monday is the last Monday without regular-season Major League Baseball games. And so on. It is almost here.
Thus, it's time to kick matters off. Over the next three (week)days, I'll be previewing each division, two a day: the Centrals today, the Easts on Monday and the Wests on Tuesday. Then, next Thursday, we'll do my big all-encompassing MLB preview, with awards, playoff picks and a general rundown of the grand themes of the season. On Friday, this Central Illinois Cardinals fan will attempt to wrap his arms around the fact that the Cubs are finally here, they've finally returned and what that means for what I consider to be baseball's greatest rivalry. The season is so close now, and I'm elated to get to even talk about this stuff.
But we'll get to all that. First, a preview of the Central divisions.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Predicted record: 71-91
Last year really just turned out to be a bust, didn't it? Well, not a bust necessarily: More just a completely useless year. Byron Buxton's and Miguel Sano's injuries basically eradicated half the point of last season for the Twins, and even though some players made some strides -- Phil Hughes, Oswaldo Arcia, Danny Santana -- 2014 just felt like a waste.
It was a strange way for Ron Gardenhire to go out; his departure was the only real thing that went down in 2014, and even that was handled in a business-as-usual-nothing-to-see-here fashion we've come to expect from Minnesota. Paul Molitor is a logical choice for manager, but he's also a safe one: It's definitely no signal of a new direction. So 2015 basically looks like the season 2014 was supposed to be: Get Buxton and Sano (and Jose Berrios) some seasoning, call them up late in the year and then get to building the next great Twins team. If you want more Twins preview, just go to any Twins preview from last year, erase the phrase "Phil Hughes is a question mark" and replace "Gardenhire" with "Molitor," and you've essentially got it. 2014 was a ghost ship. Minnesota can get back to the plan this year.
Kansas City Royals
Predicted record: 77-85
This hurts me more than it does you, Royals fans, but I don't really understand what your team did this offseason. Obviously, re-signing James Shields was never going to happen, but replacing him, essentially, with Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales was an odd choice, particularly in that ballpark. (Am I crazy, or wouldn't you rather have Billy Butler at three years, $30 million rather than Morales at two years, $17 million? We are all still pretending Morales is someone he isn't.) But picking on Morales isn't the point: The point is that the Royals are acting like they were some juggernaut last season that just needed to be kept together and tweaked at the margins.
They obviously weren't. October was fun and all -- it was actually amazing -- but those weren't the 2014 regular-season Royals. This was a slightly-above-.500 team (with Shields) that needed the league to require a lower-than-usual number of wins to reach the AL Wild Card Game in the first place. Kansas City acted this offseason like October was its normal resting level -- that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain are gonna hit like that all the time, that you really can just have three dominant relievers (who will never get hurt or decline in any way!) and that'll take care of everything -- rather than a hugely entertaining overachievement. The Royals are gonna pay the price this season.
Predicted record: 81-81
Listen, I see it. I've read Jonah Keri and seen the Sports Illustrated cover like the rest of you. I get why people might be excited about the Indians. That rotation looks potentially devastating, and injuries killed Cleveland last year more than any other team this side of Texas.
But for a hipster World Series pick, the Indians have a lot of questions. Their defensive strategy essentially boils down to "get Francisco Lindor here and have him just catch everything." Michael Brantley had a breakthrough superstar year, but was that the ceiling? There's a wide assumption that Jason Kipnis will turn around from last year, but that's guesswork at best. All those pitchers look ready for a breakout … but when do pitchers ever break out when you expect them to, nevermind three all at once? Brandon Moss is a nice addition but is he the reliable 25-homer guy everyone wants him to be, particularly when he's in his 30s and just off a hip surgery? And Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher are nightmares right now. The notion that this is the Indians' year seems to be based on a series of presumptions powered by magic thinking. And I get it! Indians fans are excited -- they sold out Opening Day in 11 minutes -- and baseball is better when Cleveland is rocking, so to speak. But seeing this as a runaway division winner requires a lot of squinting.
Predicted record: 85-77
The whole world's comin' to an end, Mal. The Tigers have been acting like it's all about to collapse any minute now for a half-decade. We should always be encouraging owners to go for it, spending like crazy to win the World Series, but the way the Tigers did so was begging for a reckoning. Now, that reckoning is almost here. And Miguel Cabrera's eight-year, $248 million contract hasn't even started yet.
So, with the rest of the division starting to close in on the Tigers (and it's not like they really blew all those AL Central teams away back when they weren't teetering), can they sneak out one more division title? (They haven't lost it since 2010.) So much of this seems to come down to Justin Verlander, doesn't it? If he's a middling No. 3 or 4 starter, that rotation starts to look thin, with a lame-duck David Price, a hanging-in Anibal Sanchez and a ton of flotsam. The offense is relying way too much on J.D. Martinez actually being the player he was last season rather than the one he was every season before that, and all told … man, am I crazy, or is this the weakest lineup Detroit has put up in a decade? But hey: The Tigers will always have their bullpen!
This is what happens when it all starts to erode: This is the crumbling of an empire. Do the Tigers have one more, 2006-Cardinals-like last-gasp run left in them? It's now or never.
Chicago White Sox
Predicted record: 88-74
It was just three years ago that the White Sox had one of the worst teams in the Majors and had one of the worst farm systems. And here they are. It's amazing what one Cuban superstar and an aggressive, opportunistic front office can do.
Chris Sale's injury is a worry, obviously, but it's not an arm issue and it's really looking like he'll be ready for an April 12 start. So when you add Carlos Rodon to the mix, the starting pitching starts to look like a legit strength: Could the White Sox, of all teams, have the best rotation in the division?
And it's funny how much of a difference Jose Abreu can make. Abreu turned out to be a far better hitter than even the most optimistic projections had foreseen, able to hit for average and power, and that transforms the whole lineup. Suddenly you've got a terrific one-two in Adam Eaton and Melky Cabrera, protection for Adam LaRoche and the real possibility of an Avisail Garcia breakout. (He is only 23 after all.) The White Sox went out and spent on the bullpen this year with David Robertson, and, suddenly, out of nowhere, they look like the most complete team in the division. I think they're the ones who end the Tigers' streak.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Predicted record: 74-88
For what it's worth, if the Reds were in the AL Central, I think they could be a legitimate contender, and this record accounts for the real possibility that Cincinnati could be a crazy seller at the Trade Deadline and thus fall apart the last two months. The problem is that the Reds are in the NL Central, arguably the best division in baseball, and there will be zero margin for error.
There are definite ways the Reds contend this year. Joey Votto is still a superstar, and Jay Bruce can't be that bad again. But that rotation, man, after Johnny Cueto and the competent Mike Leake, it could be awful. The fact that Jason Marquis could make an Opening Day rotation in the year 2015 makes me wonder if we're appropriately scanning the earth in a thorough enough fashion for pitching arms. There's still top-tier talent here -- Aroldis Chapman should be illegal -- but there is real, real collapse potential here as well, and maybe quite early. If Cincinnati falls out of the race, the club will have to trade both Cueto and Chapman and who-knows-who-else. The problem for the Reds is that three teams in their division are already way ahead of them in building for the future: Cincinnati probably should have done it a year ago, or maybe even two. The Reds better get off to a hot start, because if they don't, this is going to be a lonely place in August.
Predicted record: 79-83
The Brewers have one of the most underrated fan bases in sports -- they were in the top 10 in attendance yet again last year, despite a down year -- and because of that, there's sometimes a temptation not to tear it down when maybe they should. So the Brewers have hung in there, year after year, and while they're never embarrassing, you can see now maybe why they should have done what the Cubs did while they had the chance.
There's talent here: Jonathan Lucroy is finally get the national love he's deserved for years now, Carlos Gomez has blossomed into the player he was projected to be, Ryan Braun should rake now that he's healthy and that rotation has fewer question marks than some of their division foes. (The Adam Lind acquisition is nice too: Look, Milwaukee, an actual first baseman!) But this still looks like a team that's pleasant and adequate, but just not quite good enough. You can see the Brewers taking a step forward if Jean Segura rebounds, if Jimmy Nelson figures it out, if the bullpen holds together. But there's not enough top-end talent to break through into the division's clear top three.
Predicted record: 88-74
This is an optimistic prediction for the Cubs, to be sure, at least with the number of wins, but it's not as optimistic as some of what you're seeing out there. For the Cubs to be the division winners some want to paint them as, you not only need all their hitters to take major steps forward, they all have to do it at the same time. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant -- they're all going to be studs, but are they going to be studs right now? Probably not.
Still: This is far from a training year. That rotation looks steadied, finally, and the way the Cubs look on Opening Day is going to be a lot different than they look in September. (Just like Wrigley Field, hopefully.) Rany Jazayerli made the convincing case in Grantland that the Cubs have the flexibility -- if they can get some of those hitters to keep them above water in June and July -- to be able to floor it, maybe even going for some big names at the Trade Deadline. (They seem ideal trade partners with the Reds, frankly.) The talent is there right now, and there's more coming. This is a particularly top-heavy year in the NL: There are obvious division winners in the East and the West, with maybe a Wild Card contender or two behind them, and then all these teams in the Central. Can the Cubs beat out the Padres for the second NL Wild Card? The Giants? The Mets? I see no reason why not. And then after that: Look out.
Predicted record: 90-72
The Cubs have taken all the headlines, but the Pirates have more recent success -- two playoff appearances in a row! -- and are built almost as smartly as the Cubs and the Cardinals moving forward. (Though they might not have the cash.) The Bucs are stacked with young budding talent -- unless every Cubs hitter explodes into stardom, this is the best lineup in the division -- and happen to have the second-best baseball player on the planet in Andrew McCutchen.
And you know what was really impressive about Pittsburgh? The Pirates made the playoffs last season. Remember, last year was supposed to be the transition year, the bridge from their breakthrough year to all the young talent coming in 2015 and beyond. And they made the playoffs! The Bucs are one of the most innovative teams in baseball, particularly involving defensive shifts, and they've found every little edge they could. It has paid off. And now all the talent is coming. There are some questions about the starting rotation, but there's help coming in that regard to. It wouldn't surprise me one whit if the Pirates win the division this year.
St. Louis Cardinals
Predicted record: 93-69
The Cardinals are still the strongest team in baseball's strongest division. (Obvious "they're my team I wrote a whole book about how much I love them" caveats here.)
The key to the Cardinals' offseason -- and maybe their future -- was the acquisition of Jason Heyward, another one of those Cards moves that came out of nowhere but, in retrospect, made a ton of sense. They had to give up solid starter Shelby Miller, but the Cardinals arguably have too many starters right now: There are three solid contenders (Carlos Martinez, Jaime Garcia and Marco Gonzales) fighting it out for the fifth starter spot. They were able to deal from strength to get Heyward, who can instantly transform this sometimes-moribund St. Louis offense, especially if he can recapture some of his old power. The Cardinals have encouraged Heyward not to worry as much about setting the table for teammates the way he did in Atlanta: The club wants him to knock the ball off and over walls. Heyward deepens the whole lineup, particularly with a healthy Yadier Molina and an emerging Kolten Wong, both big improvements over 2014. The key to the Cardinals' offense might be first baseman Matt Adams: If he can hit with more power, particularly against left-handers, the lineup looks decidedly more potent. Still, St. Louis' offense is the biggest question mark.
Rotation-wise, the Cardinals look stronger than they have in years. Adam Wainwright still has some health questions, but the Cards shouldn't have to rely on him to carry such a heavy load this year, thanks to workhorses John Lackey and Lance Lynn in the rotation and, especially, Michael Wacha, who not only has looked healthy this spring, but dominant. (He looks like the Cardinals' No. 1, to be honest.) The Cards also fortified the bullpen in the Heyward trade with Jordan Walden and look, for now, not to have any major holes. An injury to either Molina or Jhonny Peralta could destroy everything the Cardinals are trying to build, but otherwise, they remain the team to beat.
Monday: The AL East and the NL East