We are 26 days away from the beginning of the 2016 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Tuesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. We began our series with the American League West , the National League East and the NL West. Now, the AL Central.
Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe gives regular updates every September on what he calls Team Entropy. To let Jaffe explain Team Entropy: "If you've embraced the modern day's maximalist menu of options that allow you not just to watch scoreboards but also to view multiple games on multiple gadgets, then you want MORE BASEBALL in the form of down-to-the-wire division and wild-card races, extra innings and tiebreaker scenarios. You want MLB schedule-makers crying 'Uncle!' while you go quad screen with MLB.tv. Welcome to Team Entropy, friends." What you want, then, is a five-way tie, or as close as you can come to it. You want something close to 1967, when four teams nearly tied for first in the AL. You want madness down to the end.
No division is ever going to end up with a five-way tie, but the 2016 AL Central gives us our best shot at some legitimate madness down the stretch. I look at all five of these teams, and they all look perfectly decent. None is spectacular, none terrible. It's difficult to see any team winning more than 92 games … but it's equally difficult to see any of them losing more than 75. That's a recipe for madness. That's perfect for Team Entropy.
Now, it probably won't work out that way. One team will collapse; one team will pull away late. But one can dream. You could shuffle all five teams in the AL Central and put them in any order, and it could happen. No other division is like that. Whoever is picked last could finish first. Whoever is picked first could be last. It's that sort of division.
AL Central predicted order of finish
5. Minnesota Twins, 77-85
All right, all right: I know. Everything should be pointing up for the Twins this year. They've got Miguel Sano for a whole season. They've got Byron Buxton for a whole season. They've brought in Byung Ho Park, and who knows what he's capable of. Brian Dozier is the quietest potential 20-20 guy in the league. And, oh yeah, the team won 83 games last year. You're telling me the Twins are six games worse? Please.
Totally fair points! But:
• That team wasn't really an over-.500 team last year. The Twins had had a good first month and were, essentially, a 77-85 team the rest of the way.
• I don't see how Minnesota's pitching is any better than last year, and I'd argue it'll be worse. It's essentially the same, but older, and the only real upside the rotation has is the potential arrival of Jose Berrios, someone who can actually strike people out (unlike everyone else in this rotation). Strikeouts are the most abundant, arguably most important resource in baseball in 2016, and the Twins still get less of them than everyone else. That's a problem.
• This division is weird, man. The Twins have a lot of talent, but it all feels either a year way (Buxton), a few years overdue (Joe Mauer) or unproven (Park). Every AL Central team has a lot of uncertainty. I just think Minnesota has a little more.
The Twins aren't a "last-place" team, and in the AL, where everyone's competing (unlike the NL, where essentially six teams are sitting this year out), they probably wouldn't finish last in any other division. And they could even win this thing. But they still feel a year or two away. The Twins are a likable, young, exciting team: I look forward to this prediction being very wrong.
4. Detroit Tigers, 79-83
It is to the Tigers' credit -- and the always a little uncomfortable, "We gotta win for the octogenarian owner before he … uh … another year passes!" motivation -- that they didn't pull a full rebuild like the Braves, Phillies, Reds and so many others after things went sideways on them last year. I argued last July, right before they traded David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, that Detroit's window had closed. But then the Tigers went right out and signed Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann in the offseason, and they think they're contenders again.
In this division, the Tigers absolutely could be, but I don't know why the same problems that crept up last year wouldn't show up again. Upton for Cespedes is probably a slight improvement, but Zimmermann for Price is a downgrade, making those exchanges a wash at best. So you are once again crossing your fingers that an extreme-veteran team stays healthy enough to make one … last … run. And maybe it is! Maybe Miguel Cabrera plays 150 games. Maybe both Martinezezeses, J.D. and Victor, stay on the field all year. Maybe Ian Kinsler, who will turn 34 in June by the way, is the spark plug atop that lineup, still. Maybe Justin Verlander has found it again. Maybe Mike Pelfrey … maybe, maybe, maybe.
It seems more likely that several of these guys are going to break down, and the top-heavy Tigers have little resources to replace them. If everything falls exactly right for Detroit, it could win this division. But it appears more likely that most things aren't going to go exactly right, and there could be serious implosion potential. I split the difference a bit with 79 wins and fourth place. There's some 2006 Cardinals potential for the Tigers, an inferior team taking advantage of a jumbled division and then catching lightning in a bottle come October, at last giving a long-sought-after title to one of the lesser incarnations of the franchise. But I suspect we'll be back here again next year, with the Tigers thinking they're just one more big signing away … and everybody just being another year older and closer to the end.
3. Cleveland Indians, 83-79
Once again, the Indians are the hipster AL pick. (Every cool baseball writer was picking them last year, and Tribe fans responded to their buzzy Internet love like an old-time Brooklyn bar learning that bearded Portlandians were invading their establishment for cheap PBR. Get out of here. We were perfectly happy being miserable and alone at this bar.) Once again, I don't see it.
There's lots of upside talent here, particularly the two potentially top-shelf, electric talents of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco. Corey Kluber was quietly almost as good in 2015 as he was in '14, and maybe this is the year Trevor Bauer actually gives us something. The Indians will be fun to watch, and that is not nothing.
But the Tribe's lineup has a huge Michael Brantley-sized hole in it, and whether he'll really be healthy enough to be a mainstay in this lineup is the central question of 2016 for Cleveland. If he's healthy, and he's Michael Brantley, this lineup looks a lot thicker, and a lot less reliant on Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli. But without him -- and we still don't know -- it looks thin, at best. I'm not sure the Indians' lineup is good enough with him; without him, it looks like a bunch of middling hitters, some a little above average, some a little below.
You can get a long way with average hitters, and I might be underestimating just how much Lindor can change this whole team. But the Indians are eventually going to have to show why they're supposedly so exciting. It can happen. But the pieces never seem to all be in the right places at the right time.
2. Kansas City Royals, 86-76
Forget projection systems for a second. Imagine what happens if, two years ago, the Royals don't come back in that Wild Card Game against the A's. What happens if they don't come back in that crazy Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the Astros last year? PECOTA might be down on Kansas City, but, frankly, if the Royals hadn't shown all that crazy postseason mojo, the rest of us might be down on them, too. The ball bounces a couple of different ways, and the Royals are the Pirates, a long-suffering franchise that sneaked into the playoffs a couple of times but were bounced out in short order.
It's still tough not to be at least somewhat bullish on the Royals, though, if just because this feels like a group of players with complementary skills all peaking at the exact right time. They have a ceiling, but you can't explain away Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon (welcome back!) and Sal Perez by saying "October kismet!" These are excellent players who have already secured their place in Royals lore and history. This team just won the World Series, for crying out loud. There will be no dismissing them here. Uncle!
But: The keys to the Royals' success have always been facets of the game that are somewhat unpredictable -- specifically, the bullpen. Wade Davis essentially has to be Mariano Rivera -- not just the best closer, but the best over the span of multiple seasons -- and almost no closer has that sort of staying power anymore. Can Kelvin Herrera be just as good this year? Joakim Soria? Tim Collins? Bullpens fluctuate wildly, even the Royals', and if they get even a slight downtick in that area, the rest of Kansas City's roster isn't constructed in a way to make up for it. Never mind the fact that the rotation looks weirdly thin; are they serious about Ian Kennedy? It wouldn't surprise me if the Royals win the division again: They are the Royals, after all, and they take considerable pleasure in mocking everyone for being so consistently wrong about them. But there's one team, one I'm usually wrong about as well, I like a little more.
1. Chicago White Sox, 88-74
Of note: I was extremely incorrect about the White Sox last year, when I picked them to win a division they ended up finishing fourth in. But this time, I mean it.
There's a ton to like about this team, starting with its rotation, which I'd argue has the best 1-2-3 in the division in Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon. Its lineup, particularly now with the addition of Austin Jackson, is thick and deep; if Jimmy Rollins can give them anything at all, there won't be an easy out in the entire lineup. And there's power -- not just Jose Abreu, but new addition Todd Frazier, whose swing might be even more perfect for Chicago's ballpark than it was for Cincinnati's. I know Brett Lawrie seems born to disappoint, but this is a perfect situation and team for him as well: If he can't thrive here, he can't thrive anywhere. I bet he does.
Toss in a sturdy if unspectacular bullpen, and you've got a team that has one of the best lineups in the division, a rotation with huge potential and a division that's there for the taking. There are still plenty of questions here, from the defense to the back of the rotation, but every team in this division has questions. I'm going to be the sucker who backs the White Sox again.