The American League Central produced its first wild card in seven years in 2013, as Cleveland managed to snatch a playoff berth. But Detroit has dominated this division in the 2010s so far, with few challenges from below. Will a challenger finally rise out of the Midwest to challenge the Tigers and the rest of the American League's elite in 2014?
First Place: Detroit Tigers
The Tigers have a long history, but it isn't exactly storied. In 113 seasons of play, the club has reached the postseason just 15 times. Last season's Tigers won a third straight division championship, their first run of three consecutive regular season titles (division championships or league pennants) since the 1907-1909 seasons. The Tigers' current form is something none of their living fans have ever seen, and a remarkable accomplishment for the organization and the players who have made it happen.
The club will be visibly different this season. Manager Jim Leyland has retired, Jhonny Peralta departed in free agency and Prince Fielder and Doug Fister were jettisoned through trades. Brad Ausmus takes the helm at manager, and Ian Kinsler fills the club's seemingly perennial hole at second base. But more or less, this is the same team that has dominated the American League Central this decade. Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in the league by both statistics and aesthetics. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer could spend September dueling each other for the Cy Young Award. Any of these three players could end up as the league's most valuable player, and they are probably the three best players in the American League Central.
This Tigers team has major holes. Jose Iglesias' shin injury leaves the team debating various undesirable options like the unknown Hernan Perez (.461 OPS in 36 career MLB games) and the known Alex Gonzalez (.686 OPS in 1,600 career games) at shortstop. Nick Castellanos, the new third baseman with Cabrera shifting back to first, has an impressive hitting track record in the minor leagues, but he has a less-than-refined glove. He was never considered a natural at third, and time spent in the outfield (thanks to Cabrera blocking him at third) didn't help his development there.
But the Tigers have had little trouble winning the currently weak division with roster holes in the past. The 2012 club, for example, won 88 games despite getting well below replacement performances at second base (Ryan Raburn, Danny Worth, Omar Infante), right field (Brennan Boesch) and designated hitter (Delmon Young). It hasn't mattered because the talent at the top has been more than enough to offset initial roster holes.
The personnel Detroit has on hand looks to be plenty to cruise into the playoffs, as it has for the past few years. Just getting to the playoffs is not satisfactory anymore in Detroit after three years of postseason agony, but the Tigers are strong enough now to wait until the trade deadline to make any major fixes.
Second Place: Kansas City Royals
It is little consolation for a fan base that hasn't seen the postseason since George Brett, Bret Saberhagen and the 1985 World Series champions, but last year's Royals finally showed some life. Their 86-76 finish was their best since 1989 and their first season above .500 since 2003.
The addition of James Shields in particular seemed to galvanize the Royals. He led the league in starts (34) and innings pitched (228.2) and was the main catalyst as the club shaved 145 runs allowed off its 2013 total. Kansas City's 601 runs allowed in 2014 was its lowest since 1972 (excluding strike-shortened seasons). Shields is a free agent after the season, only adding urgency to a season seen as a huge test after last year's near-miss.
Ervin Santana is gone, but the Royals have reinforcements in the form of Yordano Ventura, a 22-year-old slinger from the Dominican Republic capable of hitting triple digits on the radar gun on command. He appeared capable in three major-league starts last season (15.1 IP, 6 ER, 3.52 ERA, 11 K, 6 BB). He averaged 97.5 MPH on his fastball over last year's brief stint, a number that easily eclipsed league leader Matt Harvey's 95.8. There will likely be growing pains, but Ventura has the stuff to dominate. Shields and Ventura will have to carry the rotation, as Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen can eat up innings but are unlikely to muster anything beyond a league-average performance at best.
Oddly, it was the lineup that cost the Royals a postseason spot last year, as the 2013 club scored 28 runs fewer than the previous season and its fewest since 1992 (again, strike caveats apply). A Royals revival will require former top prospects like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to hit like the stars they were advertised to be in the minors. If they can join Alex Gordon and Billy Butler as All-Star caliber hitters, they might have enough punch to catch Detroit. Otherwise, they'll be limited to a wild card.
Third Place: Chicago White Sox
After a quick peek through the MLB futures lines at Bovada, the White Sox look like the most undervalued team in baseball, at just 33:1 to win the American League and 12:1 to win the American League Central, with a win total over/under set at 75.5. It's easy to understand why there isn't much hype around the club, which finished 63-99 last season, has had one of the worst farm systems in baseball for a few years and hasn't made the playoffs since 2008. So what's there to like?
Primarily, it's the pitching staff. Chris Sale has emerged as a true ace over two consecutive All-Star seasons and should compete for the Cy Young Award again. Jose Quintana, the new owner of a five-year, $21.5 million contract extension, was quietly brilliant in 2013, as he hurled 200 innings with a 3.51 ERA and 164 strikeouts. This one-two punch helped the White Sox pitching staff record a 108 ERA+ last year, tied for fifth in the American League with the Red Sox. The back-end names this year are a bit different -- prospect Erik Johnson and reclamation project Felipe Paulino rather than Dylan Axelrod and Andre Rienzo -- but with the help of the game's best pitching coach in Don Cooper, White Sox pitchers should once again rank in the league's top half.
To win just 63 games with such good pitching requires some putrid hitting. Last year's White Sox fielded six different players who posted negative WARs (Baseball-Reference version) in at least 200 plate appearances: catchers Josh Phegley and Tyler Flowers, designated hitter Adam Dunn, outfielder Alejandro De Aza, infielder Jeff Keppinger and first baseman Paul Konerko. Konerko is getting phased out this year on a retirement tour, De Aza and Keppinger appear to be slated for bench roles and Phegley will start the year in the minors.
We can expect some improvement just by default, as 2013 marked the first time the White Sox failed to break 600 runs since 1976. New Cuban slugger Jose Abreu should take kindly to the homer-friendly fences at U.S. Cellular Field, and improvements from youngsters like Avisail Garcia and Flowers as well as newly acquired center fielder Adam Eaton should help the club break free from last year's stagnation. Matt Davidson, acquired from the Diamondbacks with Eaton, could be up from the minor leagues later in the year to give a boost at third base.
The White Sox probably aren't ready yet. Ttheir bats are either too young to fulfill their potential or too old to hit like they used to. But Chris Sale and friends in the pitching staff could be good enough to keep the South Siders competing longer than expected this year if some of those young hitters can take a step forward.
Fourth Place: Cleveland Indians
After a surprise run to the playoffs in 2013, Cleveland was willing to essentially stand pat in the offseason. Drew Stubbs and Chris Perez are out, David Murphy and John Axford are in. Carlos Santana is moving to third base, and Yan Gomes will take over behind the plate, and that's about it for changes at Progressive Field.
Santana and Jason Kipnis played like stars last season, but the real story behind Cleveland's success was a remarkably productive set of role players. Ryan Raburn hit 16 home runs in just 87 games to produce a .901 OPS (153 OPS+). Gomes, who started the season as the backup catcher before taking more regular duty, had 31 extra-base hits in 88 games and an .826 OPS+. These two players alone combined for 6.8 WAR (Baseball-Reference version) in 599 plate appearances, a performance that would be good enough to win the MVP award some years. Raburn has had an up-and-down career to this point, and Gomes has played just 131 major league games. To expect MVP-level performance from this pair again would be over the top.
But the offense should be good overall once again, as 2013 free agent additions Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher give the lineup depth that was missing in earlier parts of the decade. Much like 2013, the question marks lie in the starting rotation. Justin Masterson was solid atop the rotation last year, but has yet to post two above-average seasons in a row in his career. Danny Salazar showed a blazing fastball in a short time up last season and should be able to fill Ubaldo Jimenez's shoes, but he has dealt with injuries throughout his young career. After that, it's a hodgepodge of iffy options. Corey Kluber has just an 88 ERA+ in 36 career starts, and Zach McAllister (93 ERA+ in 50 starts) isn't much better. Josh Tomlin is coming off Tommy John surgery and has never posted an ERA below 4.25. Carlos Carrasco, the initial depth option, has a 5.29 ERA in 238 MLB innings.
Cleveland was not expected to compete last year, but it rode strong performances from a number of unlikely sources to a wild-card berth. It was an impressive run, but the same problems that made the Indians unlikely to repeat in 2013 remain in 2014. All credit to them if they can prove the doubters wrong again.
Fifth Place: Minnesota Twins
As a new resident of Minneapolis, I cannot wait to see what Target Field looks like with a competitive Twins team in September. The stadium is beautiful. Minnesota baseball crowds have been fantastic when the team is fighting for championships. During a pennant race, downtown Minneapolis could become a high-energy baseball heaven in August and September.
Unfortunately for Twins fans, and fortunately for cheap-ticket-hoarding transplants like myself, Minnesota is set for another basement dwelling season in 2014.
By the end of last season, the Twins were lucky to field four major-league quality hitters in their lineup. Joe Mauer's concussion and the trade that sent Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh made things difficult, but the much-needed help in the form of gigaprospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano won't come until either next year or September of this year, when the Twins will be well out of the race. Mauer remains a franchise cornerstone even with his move to first base. Second baseman Brian Dozier and outfielder Oswaldo Arcia -- and maybe Aaron Hicks in centerfield -- are the only names in the projected Opening Day lineup that appear likely to stick around for the next contending Twins club.
The Twins focused on fixing a horrible pitching staff this offseason. The 2013 club started 11 different players and had only one (Kevin Correia) start more than 30 games. The club's 4.55 ERA was second-to-last in the American League. Additions of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes should help, as they have at least been major-league quality pitchers for the last few years. They won't fix the rotation, but for the foreseeable future, the free-agent market is barren, so the Twins made an understandable decision to spend the money they have now on getting some capable pitchers to fill out the rotation once the first wave of minor-league talent arrives.
Little will matter for the Twins, coming off their worst three-season stretch in franchise history, until that minor-league talent matures and reaches Minnesota. But hey, look on the bright side: At least the Metrodome is finally gone.