(Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)
Today, we take a look at the AL Central. Previews are given in alphabetical order; standings predictions will be released before Opening Day.
Chicago White Sox
2016 Record: 78-84 (4th in AL Central, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $141,208,186 (16th)
Offseason Moves: White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn did just about everything he could this past winter to give his fan base a reason for optimism, a feeling the South Side faithful haven’t experienced for years. The wins won’t pile up in 2017, but trades with the Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals officially branded the White Sox as rebuilders and set them up for success in 2020. Hahn dealt ace Chris Sale to Boston for top prospect Yoan Moncada, outfielder Luis Basabe, and RHPs Michael Kopech and Victor Diaz. A day later, the tear-down continued, with Chicago dishing leadoff man Adam Eaton to the Nats for pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning. Those two trades were the big ones, though the White Sox also acquired LHP Derek Holland to make up for the loss of righty Matt Albers.
2017 Outlook: The White Sox don’t expect to see much return on those megadeals for quite some time—certainly not this coming season. Losing Sale hurts, as he worked well with underrated starter Jose Quintana and youngster Carlos Rodon in forming a solid 1-2-3 punch. James Shields will likely take a spot in the rotation once again (yikes), with Miguel Gonzalez and Derek Holland filling out the bottom end. Chicago will just look for improvement from its youthful core in 2017, as the team doesn’t stand much of a chance to compete in a division featuring the 2016 AL champions.
Players to Watch: The Tradeables
Look for the White Sox to be big-time sellers at the trade deadline, and a host of players—from Todd Frazier to Melky Cabrera to David Robertson—should be up for grabs. A good rule of thumb: If you’re over 28 and you can still play decent baseball, start to consider putting your house up for sale. July 31 isn’t far away.
– Billy Stampfl
2016 Record: 94-67 (1st in AL Central, AL Champions, lost to CHC in World Series)
2016 Payroll: $114,707,868 (22nd)
Offseason Moves: Key departures from 2016 include Jeff Manship, Mike Napoli, Coco Crisp, and Rajai Davis. Key additions include Austin Jackson, pitchers Boone Logan and Steve Delebar, and Edwin Encarnacion.
2017 Outlook: Coming off a huge postseason run in 2016, the Indians have a few considerations in their 2017 approach. The key to their success this year will be whether their fatigued starting rotation, especially Corey Kluber (who pitched 215 innings), will recover properly after overshooting inning maximums during the postseason. With Carlos Carrasco back in the mix after a season-ending hand injury in September, the rotation will need to stay healthy if they are to match or surpass their performance in 2016. The need to stay healthy also applies to outfielder Michael Brantley, who will be finally returning from bicep surgery (hopefully in time for Opening Day). With the major addition of high-profile free agent Edwin Encarnacion, we can expect some bolstering of the team’s power from the likes of Francisco Lindor and others. Overall, with few major losses and one huge addition, we can be certain that the Indians are capable of a performance similar to last year’s, but the health and longevity of their players could be their biggest opponent and potential downfall in 2017 (especially after
Players to Watch: Tyler Naquin
The AL rookie of the month in June and July of 2016 is entering a defining season. If he can post similar numbers that he did in 2016 (like his 1.219 OPS in June), he has potential to become a strong asset in future years. Andrew Miller, a key acquisition from 2016, is also a must-watch as a major bullpen contributor. This also goes along with whether the team continues to make the unconventional bullpen decisions that revolutionized postseason performance. Tribe fans will also hope to see Danny Salazar, who posted a 1.91 ERA in June, return to the form he presented in the first half of 2016. Lastly, of course, will be Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 42 home runs and posted a .529 slugging percentage in 2016. Although the effect of this addition will be assuredly positive, it will be interesting to see his impact on his new teammates and whether he will measure up to his own potential in a bigger ballpark.
– Ambria Hopfe
2016 Record: 86-75 (2nd in AL Central, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $205,894,085 (4th)
Offseason Moves: No firesale for the Tigers. Everyone expected the team to begin selling as soon as GM Al Avila shipped Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels. After that, however, not a single starter was traded. The Tigers traded for former Rays CF Mikie Mahtook to replace Cameron Maybin, but the Tigers have yet to announce the winner of their CF competition. Additionally, the team selected RP Daniel Stumpf in the Rule 5 Draft from the Royals and brought back C Alex Avila on a one-year-deal.
2017 Outlook: The Tigers were close to making the playoffs in 2016, but ultimately missed the playoffs due to long injuries to Jordan Zimmermann, Nick Castellanos, Cameron Maybin, and J.D. Martinez, along with an injury early in the season to James McCann which led him to struggle at the plate for the remainder of the season. You can’t just blame injuries, however. As mentioned in my full preview, the Tigers went 4-14 against the Cleveland Indians and 7-12 against the Kansas City Royals, ultimately finishing with a 38-37 record vs. the AL Central when they had averaged over 43 wins against their division the past four years. Had the Tigers won 43 games against their division, they would have at least have made the AL Wildcard Game and perhaps have won the division. The stars are still producing. JV should have won the AL Cy Young after posting an MLB-high 6.6 rWAR, while Kinsler posted a 6.1 rWAR, and Miggy a 4.9 rWAR. The young guns are performing well, as Fulmer won AL Rookie of the Year and Daniel Norris showed signs of brilliance, seeing his K% on his fastball rise from 12.1% to 22.8% and the BB% only rise from 5.7% to 7.1%. Should the Tigers see a couple of their young stars break out (yes, the Tigers have young players) and the veterans stay mostly healthy, the team is still as big a threat as any team in the American League. That said, Zimmermann regression, another J.D. Martinez injury, and streaky play could make the Tigers sell at the All-Star Break.
Player to Watch: Daniel Norris
As mentioned, Daniel Norris’s fastball evolved last year. The centerpiece of a trade for David Price in 2015, Norris has projected as a #2 starter for years and was a top 20 prospect overall back in 2014. The Man in the Van is ready to break out in 2017 and was on pace to post a 4.33 rWAR in 2016 had he pitched a full 200 innings. If Daniel Norris lives up to his potential in 2017, no one will be debating whether he could become better than Michael Fulmer: the real debate may be whether he could become better than Justin Verlander (though the answer is probably no).
– Zane Harding
Kansas City Royals
2016 Record: 81-81 (3rd in AL Central)
2016 Payroll: $145,220,358 (15th)
Offseason Moves: The 2015 World Series champions took a step back in 2016, finishing at the .500 mark and watching AL Central rival Cleveland dominate much of the postseason. What’s unfortunate for Royals fans is that the front office didn’t make many acquisitions this winter, watching RHPs Wade Davis, Dillon Gee, Edinson Volquez, and OF Jarrod Dyson leave town. Kansas City did, however, pick up starters Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, while the team also added Jorge Soler as a much-needed power bat in the lineup.
2017 Outlook: The Royals face an uphill battle in dethroning the Indians in 2017, though the return of their core—made up of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez—will help mightily. Pitching could be a problem area, as the starting rotation will rely on contributions from Hammel and Wood, and the bullpen will have to make up for the loss of Davis.
Player to Watch: Danny Duffy
Not a stud prospect or an established ace, Danny Duffy will nonetheless be Kansas City’s most important pitcher. Though his numbers looked good last year—12-3 with a 3.51 ERA—his FIP was a bit high (3.83), indicating he benefitted from some luck. He’ll need to step up in 2017 in his role as staff ace.
– Billy Stampfl
2016 Record: 59-103 (5th in AL Central, missed playoffs)
2016 Payroll: $106,235,357 (24th)
Offseason Moves: The Twins added Ryan Vogelsong, who will turn 40 in July, to pitch out of the bullpen, along with adding C Jason Castro to start behind the plate (replacing C Kurt Suzuki). Miguel Sano will move to 3B to replace the new Oakland A, Trevor Plouffe. Finally, the Twins added OF Drew Stubbs and lost LHP Tommy Milone and RP Pat Dean (though, after the seasons the Twins saw from Milone and Dean, things truly could not get any worse in their positions).
2017 Outlook: Yikes. The Twins were the absolute worst team in baseball last year after some media outlets projected them to finish 2nd in the AL Central behind the Cleveland Indians. Brian Dozier did have a brilliant season, knocking 42 HR as a second baseman and finishing with a 6.5 rWAR, and Ervin Santana did post an under-the-radar 3.7 rWAR. Additionally, Max Kepler quietly put up the team’s third highest rWAR in his rookie season. The team elsewhere, however, was a disaster. The rotation’s ERA+ numbers are as follows: 124, 82, 65, 82, and 73/52 (the fifth spot was split between two starters, with that abysmal 52 belonging to top prospect Jose Berrios). Further, the team posted an absolutely horrible 4.57 FIP. The lineup was slightly below average, as the team’s wRC+ was a 95. The lineup was okay, and big years from Miguel Sano, Brian Dozier, Max Kepler, and others could help the Twin’s cause. The pitching did not improve during the offseason, however. It could be a very long year for Twins fans.
Player to Watch: Jose Berrios
What in the world was that? I don’t care if you’re a traditionalist when it comes to stats or into sabermetrics: Jose Berrios was absolute garbage in 2016. 3-7 W/L, 8.02 ERA, -1.7 rWAR (!), 6.20 FIP (!!), and 58.1 IP. The Rays Season Preview was teased by redditors due to a John Madden-like statement (“The key to Ray’s success this year will be the pitching and scoring runs”), but I’m going to one-up that one right now: Jose Berrios was not a good pitcher in 2016. Look. This guy was a top prospect for years. If he does not turn things around soon, then the Twins are in deep trouble. (I could say the same about Byron Buxton, who began to show signs of life late in 2016, but as I said, the Twins need pitching more than they need hitting right now.)
– Zane Harding