By Ryan Mayer
Opening Day is right around the corner. As the calendar gets ready to turn to April, we prepare for another spring/summer full of the thrills of the diamond. With spring training games starting to wind down and teams heading back to their hometowns to get the season started, it’s time for some previews of how we project each division to play out. Follow along with us throughout the week as we go around the horn.
2015 Division Winner: Kansas City Royals
Projected Order of Finish
1) Kansas City Royals
2) Cleveland Indians
3) Chicago White Sox
4) Detroit Tigers
5) Minnesota Twins
Kansas City Royals- The Royals are once again projected by many of the advanced projection systems to come up short of 80 wins, continuing a spring tradition in which the advanced systems hate on the Royals and the Royals promptly roll through the season in permanent “eff you” mode. The core of this team are all still young and in their primes, yet they’re expected to fall of from back-to-back World Series appearances. Maybe that happens. But, let’s consider all factors here.
First, there’s the bullpen, which is still sparkling. Some of the sheen has worn off with Greg Holland not returning to the team, but having Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera at the back end. They added Joakim Soria via free agency and having a full year of Luke Hochevar will certainly help.
The rotation is full of the same kind of solid, if unspectacular names as it has been the past couple of years now. Edinson Volquez is the presumptive ace, with Yordano Ventura behind him. After that some combination of Ian Kennedy, Kris Medlen, Chris Young and Dillon Gee will fill out the final three rotation spots. The odd man out would expect to be operating out of the bullpen.
The line-up once again features Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. What they can get out of Jarrod Dyson will remain an interesting question as he’s continuing to recover from a right oblique strain.
Cleveland Indians- The Indians never recovered from a tough start to last season and combined with various injuries to key players found themselves finishing just above .500 on the season at 81-80. They did however bring up their shortstop star of the future in Francisco Lindor who did not disappoint in his 99 game debut posting a .313/.353/.482 line with 12 homers and 51 RBI. With Lindor getting a full season and their rotation back fully healthy, the Indians will push for the division title.
Corey Kluber leads a rotation that struck hitters out at the highest rate of any team last season according to FanGraphs. All of those arms are back and healthy this season and one would expect that kind of performance to continue. The bullpen was a strength last year too, despite not having any real big-name guys as part of the unit.
Where this team has unknowns is in the line-up. First, both Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall will be starting the season on the DL while recovering from shoulder surgery and a wrist impingement respectively. That leaves the Indians without their two expected starting corner outfielders for at the very least the first two weeks, maybe the first month of the season. There’s also the question of what they will get out of 36 year old 3B Juan Uribe or on the opposite end of the spectrum, 24 year old Tyler Naquin will be patrolling center field for the first time in the majors. Mike Napoli is another year older and coming off a year of hitting .224 in Texas.
Chicago White Sox- The White Sox feature one of baseball’s ten best pitchers in lefty Chris Sale and one of the game’s most feared hitters in Jose Abreu. Yet, the talent surrounding them, particularly in the infield wasn’t good enough last season and led to the 76-86 record.
The rotation is far more than just Sale as young lefty Carlos Rodon proved to be as good as the White Sox expected him to be when they selected him with the 3rd pick of the 2014 Draft. The Sox also feature Jose Quintana who, has hit 200 innings each of the last three seasons all with a 3.51 ERA or lower. He’s the definition of consistency. That’s to say nothing of the veteran John Danks and a possible revival of Mat Latos’ career.
The offense added Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, Al Avila, Jimmy Rollins and Dioner Navarro to try and solidify an infield that was well below average last season. Frazier has been good the past two years averaging 32 homers and 84 RBI. Lawrie was a once highly promising prospect who hasn’t quite lived up to that potential. The White Sox are hoping he can finally fulfill that potential to combine with Frazier in providing protection in the line-up for Abreu. Avila has always been a light hitting catcher while Rollins’ production has continued to drop off the past couple years.
The bullpen was right in the middle of the pack last season and David Robertson will be back once again to lock down the ninth inning. If some of those additions mesh well with the current stars, this team could be dangerous.
Detroit Tigers- A rare rough year for the Tigers saw GM Dave Dombrowski get shown the door. New GM Al Avila went out this winter looking to fill the holes created by the trades of Yoenis Cespedes and David Price prior to last year’s deadline. He did so by signing Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman, which would seem to be a downgrade from Price. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of talent here, the questions mainly focus around some of that talent regaining its former glory.
That starts in the rotation where if spring is indicative of anything, Justin Verlander seems to have found his former dominance posting a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings allowing just 16 hits while striking out 11. The Tigers are betting on Daniel Norris finding the form that once made him a top prospect, but so far this spring that hasn’t happened. Norris is now injured and there’s currently no timetable on his return. The rest of the rotation has the aforementioned Zimmerman, always solid Anibal Sanchez and likely journeyman Mike Pelfrey.
They did upgrade the bullpen, which has been an issue for years, by bringing in Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson to bolster a group that was one of the worst in the league with a 4.38 ERA last season.
The offense has a couple of young guys that will need to step up if this team is to make a serious playoff run. Nick Castellanos, catcher James McCann and center fielder Anthony Gose all need to have better years to help the core of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler. Victor Martinez is still dealing with a balky left hamstring at the moment. He may be back by opening day, but he’s coming off a career worst season hitting .245/.301/.366 with just 11 home runs and 64 RBI. The Tigers will need him to return to his productive best in order for the playoff hopes to stay alive.
Minnesota Twins- The Twins were a surprise team last year and they were in the playoff race until the last two weeks of the season. There’s plenty of young talent here, but there’s a bunch of question marks too. A lot would have to break right once again for the Twins to contend for a playoff spot this season.
The line-up is expected to get a boost with the addition of Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, who’s projected to hit 30 home runs this season. The Twins will get full years out of top prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton this season, with another top prospect in Max Kepler possibly joining the team mid-season. The question marks come from what the team will get out of Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar. If those two make leaps forward and Buxton reaches his potential after last year’s struggles, this line-up will be tough.
The rotation is filled with guys that are solid, but unspectacular. Ervin Santana is expected to be the ace, with Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco and Tom Milone filling out the rest of the spots. It could get a boost if the team’s best pitching prospect Jose Berrios can come up and make an impact this season. His combined 14-5 record with a 2.87 ERA in 166.1 innings split between double and triple-A last season would seem to indicate he’s not too far away from making his debut.
The bullpen will be solid with Trevor May and Glen Perkins combining for a potent combination in the late innings. The youngsters performances will determine just how high this team can climb this season.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.