We are 42 days away from the beginning of the 2016 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Wednesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. We begin our series with the American League Central.
Last season, the AL Central felt so bunched together that I openly speculated that it was the most likely to reach Sports Illustrated writer Jay Jaffe's Utopian vision of #TeamEntropy, which would involve all five teams still in the hunt, maybe even tied, on the final days of the season. (This is an oversimplification of Jaffe's idea, but you get the drift.) You could've picked the fifth team first and the first team fifth, heading into the year, and had pretty much the same chance of getting it right. The whole division was jumbled up.
One year later, there isn't a division with a clearer delineation from "favorite" and "everyone else" than the AL Central. The Cleveland Indians came within one run -- one measly ninth-inning run, off an Aroldis Chapman who couldn't throw fastballs anymore -- from winning the freaking World Series, and they've upgraded in the offseason. Meanwhile, the rest of the division seems to have taken a step backward. The Indians are the biggest lock on the board for the 2017 postseason. Can anyone else in the division make any noise?
AL Central predicted order of finish
5. Chicago White Sox, 68-94
I've predicted the White Sox to win this division the past two seasons, so don't be the least bit surprised if this is the year they break through and have a crazy championship season.
OK, be very surprised, because the White Sox have now, at last, started to rebuild. Their trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton reconstructed the farm system essentially overnight. Chicago now has one of the top 10 farm systems in the game, not to mention the player many consider the top prospect in all of baseball, Yoan Moncada, whom we will see in a White Sox uniform very soon, maybe even the beginning of the year. They're not done dealing, either: Jose Quintana will likely be gone by the Trade Deadline, and Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier and David Robertson might not be far behind him. Everything must go.
This is the way baseball works now, and while White Sox fans will miss Sale and the gang, this was the only real option the White Sox had after years of falling short of their perhaps own misguided expectations. This year will be a slog, but it will be a productive slog. I look forward to mistakenly predicting Chicago to win the division in 2019 and for years afterward.
4. Kansas City Royals, 74-88
Royals fans are, once again, frustrated with all the projections systems picking them to finish far below where they believe the team's talent lies, but the thing about projections based on statistical trends is that while you can run from them for a year or two, you can't hide. Kansas City is in the uncomfortable spot of having much of the key parts of its roster becoming free agents after this year, but not having enough talent in total to maximize that into a One Last Rodeo season. (The Yordano Ventura tragedy broke the hearts of the Royals and left them without one of their few emerging talents left.) There's no team in baseball in more peril if they get off to a slow start: With Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar all in their walk year, if Kansas City is five games under in May, the front office's phones will not stop ringing.
The Royals have a few things going for them outside those impending free agents, from the newly extended Danny Duffy to the potential of Jorge Soler to the underrated day-to-day brilliance of Salvador Perez. But the bearish record I have predicted here is because this team is probably going to be 10-plus games out of first by the Trade Deadline with too many teams between them and the AL Wild Card spots. Which will leave them no choice but to start the rebuild by shipping out all those veterans whom they won't be able to re-sign. Which means August and September could be awfully brutal in Kansas City this year. It might be a long, difficult climb back. This little boomlet era appears to be over.
But it was all still totally, totally worth it.
3. Detroit Tigers, 78-84
With the sadness of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's passing last Friday, one wonders how much longer the Tigers can continue like this. Detroit has always been willing, out of desire to get Illitch that championship he so clearly lusted after, to spend whatever it took, to treat every year like the last year of history. With him gone, it might be time to face reality: The Tigers' apocalypse might be upon us.
To be fair, there have been nods to the idea that the Tigers are not a bottomless pit of money. The trade of Cameron Maybin seemed to hint in a change of direction from general manager Al Avila, but none of the other players rumored to be on the market -- Ian Kinsler! J.D. Martinez! Justin Verlander? Miguel Cabrera? -- ended up going anywhere, and you don't even hear the rumors much anymore. Will Detroit be able to hang around long enough to -- all together now -- give it One More Run? It's tough to see how this team would be any better than the one that missed the playoffs last year. The question is not whether the Tigers are finally gonna break this thing up. The question is whether it's already too late.
At least there is still the eternal incredibleness that is Cabrera. He will be 94 years old, with the rest of the planet in flames and only cockroaches still alive, and he will continue to do this.
2. Minnesota Twins, 81-81
Hey, why not, right? OK, so it's a little strange to predict a winning record for a team that lost 103 games last year: That's a 21-game improvement! Yikes!
But bear with me here. The Twins have some serious breakout potential. I think this is the year all the young players take the step forward we were waiting for them to take last year. Byron Buxton hasn't shown much consistency, but he also seems to do something on the field once every game that takes your breath away. There's all sorts of power here, from Miguel Sano to Max Kepler to Brian Dozier to even Byungho Park, who many projections systems are still high on. And don't sleep on that Jason Castro signing: He not only gives Minnesota some pop from the catching position, he also has elite framing skills, of utmost importance with a staff like the Twins have.
Sure, the Twins' rotation is not particularly scary, to say the least. Jose Berrios is the only pitcher with much upside, though PECOTA is high on Tyler Duffey, oddly. Minnesota has also upgraded its defense, which should help that contact-oriented rotation. Look, the Twins aren't going to blow anybody away this year: I still only have them as a .500 team. But there are some raw materials to work with here, and in a division in which three of the five teams might be dropping all the talent they can at the Trade Deadline, the Twins are one of the two on an upward trajectory.
The Twins might be fun this year. Really.
1. Cleveland Indians, 98-64
The scariest thing -- or the most discouraging thing, if you're a Cleveland fan still playing what-if -- about the Indians coming so close to winning the World Series last year is that they did it without so many of their key pieces. No Michael Brantley. No Carlos Carrasco. Barely any Danny Salazar. The Tribe's strength last year was its rotation, but by the time the playoffs came around, the team was starting Trevor Bauer even after he'd messed up his hand with a drone. It was a makeshift, skeleton crew in the playoffs last year. And the Indians nearly won the darned thing anyway.
So now, look out. Carrasco and Salazar are locked and loaded. The Indians have Andrew Miller for a whole season. Brantley still is having shoulder problems, but they're not as bad as they once were: Anything he can give them is gravy, because they are no longer counting on him. Francisco Lindor looks like he's ready for an AL MVP Award-winning season. And, oh yeah, Cleveland signed Edwin Encarnacion, one of the top power bats in the game.
The Indians have the best lineup in the AL Central, the best rotation in the division and (by far) the best bullpen. There are still defensive questions, but picking Cleveland to win this division is the easiest call on the board. But after last year, winning the division won't be enough. This is a team built to win a World Series. The Tribe looks like as good a bet as anybody.
Next week: The National League West.