Spring training 2014: Touring the AL Central

Let's take a look today at the only division in baseball where the Astros could finish third.

In TCB's continuing coverage around the globe, we take a closer look at the AL Central. This division has been the domain of the Motor City Kitties, and this year appears to be no different. Coming off of a 93-69 season, DETROIT made some off-season moves designed to lighten their financial load, and improve their defense. They traded 2012's big off season acquisition (and I do mean BIG), Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for a very pissed-off Ian Kinsler. In doing so, they lightened their financial load by some 93 Million over the next 5 years (not including the 30 mill Detroit is paying Texas to pick up their overpay), allowing Detroit to move the ill-equipped Miguel Cabrera to move from 3rd base to 1st, and allowing them to move highly regarded prospect Nick Castellanos back to his natural position at 3rd. (You may remember Castellanos, the Astros passed on him in the 1st round in 2010 to take the easily forgotten Michael Kvasnicka with their 33rd pick). Castellanos ended up going to the Tigers with the 44th pick at an over-slot 3.45 mill bonus.

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Detroit Tigers

Detroit was not done shedding salary. They traded arbitration eligible Doug Fister (he of the 14-9 3.67 era in 2013) to the Washington Nationals for 2 players expected to fill reserve roles with the club, plus a pitching prospect. Was Fister hurt? Pundits everywhere were underwhelmed with the return Dave Dombroski received for Fister in what was the head-scratching-est trade of the offseason.

Still, these Tigers are the clear favorite in the Central, and Vegas favorites to go to the World Series. Any team with the MVP and the Cy Young returnees have to be good. And they are. With Cabrera now at first, Kinsler at second, Castellanos at 3rd, and defensive wizard Jose Iglesias at short, they will be an improved defensive infield, certainly on the left side. With ground ball pitchers Rick Porcello (56%GB rate) and Anibal Sanchez(48%), an improved defense will certainly translate to wins.

The outfield begins with Austin Jackson, now entering his age-27 season in his prime. An outstanding defender, Jackson has cut his K rate, has a decent .337 OBP, and is headed for a big season. Torii Hunter keeps plugging along, at age 37 (!) he hit .304 with 17 bombs. He doesn't run anymore, and his defense is not GG caliber any longer, but he should contribute out of the 2 hole for another year. Left field, with the loss of Andy Dirks for 12 weeks to surgery, becomes the sole responsibility of Rajai Davis. At age 32, Rajai still stole 45 bags last year in part time ab's, but brings little else to the table.

The starting rotation, even without Fister, is one of the best in baseball. What can you say about a rotation where Kate Upton is dating the #2 starter? While Justin Verlander looks to bounce back at age 31 from a sub-par season that saw him go 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA and 1.31 WHIP, he looked unhittable in the post-season (23 innings pitched, 1 run), and is now gearing up from off season "core" surgery. The Cy Young returnee, Max Blue/Brown Scherzer, is coming off a 21-3 season (in MLB Tanaka!), and looks in mid-season form already. Anibal Sanchez had his best season ever at age 29 last year, and will slot in the 3 spot. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly will round out the rotation, both could be sneakily effective this year.

The Tigers also raided the Rangers closer cookie jar, signing Joe Nathan in free agency. Nathan has arguably been one of baseball's best 3 closers the past few years, and shows no signs of slowing at age 39. Future closer Bruce Rondon, former something Joba Chamberlain, former Astro Octavio Dotel, unhittable wild man Al Alburquerque and Phil Coke round out the staff.

Finally, there's a new sheriff in Detroit and his name is Brad Ausmus. Taking over for Jim Leyland, I know all Astros fans are rooting for McDreamy to succeed in Detroit. Projected record:95-67.

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Cleveland Indians

There are two other contenders in the Central, although most think they are Wild Card contenders at best. Last year saw Cleveland surprise everyone and finish 92-70, a mere 1 game behind Detroit. They improved a whopping 24 wins in 2013, and did this with a 78 million dollar payroll. It's natural to think they over-achieved in 2013, and will return to mean in 2014, but manager Terry Francona has worked his magic here and shouldn't be counted out.

The Tribe adds Yan Gomes to their everyday lineup at C, and he has Jason Castro potential. 11 bombs and a .294 BA in 322 at bats last year, won him the starting gig for 2014. It's not like Carlos Santana could catch and throw at the MLB level, he's better suited to DH. He was moved to 3rd base in winter ball, but that experiment seems to have failed as well. Nick Swishalicious mans 1st base, Lonnie Chisenhall is given his LAST(?) chance to play everyday 3rd, and the middle infield of Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera are both above average. In Kipnis' case, WAY above. Cabrera suffered a decline in both offensive and defensive output, and in his last year of his contract, is playing for another contract elsewhere. That's because the phenomenal Francisco Lindor is waiting in the wings with gold glove defense and an OBP somewhere north of .400 in AA last year. In Kipnis, the Indians have a perennial All-Star second baseman who many believe will surpass Robinson Don't you know as the premier keystone sacker in the league. He is entering his age 27 season and Cleveland Rocks is anxiously awaiting the Lindor-Kipnis double play combo to be in place for years to come.

The Outfield is manned by Michael Bourn in center, coming off a disappointing season at age 30 that saw his steals drop from 42 to 23; his BA drop from .274 to .263, and his defense, always a plus, that seemed to suffer as well. Was he dealing with an injury that slowed him? Perhaps, but aren't you glad Astros fans that your hometown team didn't sign him to a long term deal last year to take him well into his 30's? I am.

Michael Brantley had his best year last year and will man left, while a platoon combination of former Ranger David Murphy, and streaky power hitting Ryan Rayburn will attempt to produce league average numbers in right. The rotation is lead by Justin Masterson again, a pitcher that never seems to get his full due. After an age 28 season of 14-10, 3.45/1.20, one of baseball most extreme groundballers (60%) is poised for more success. He is the only really proven member of this staff. With the departure of Ubaldo Jimenez to Baltimore, and reclaimation project Scott Kazmir to Oakland, the remainder of the rotation is made up of unproven talent. Corey Kluber came out of nowhere last year, Zach McAllister emerged as an acceptable back end of the rotation starter, and Carlos Carrasco continues to try to come back from TJ surgery The real wild-card however is 24 year old Danny Salazar, who started the wild card game for Cleveland last year on the strength of a rookie season that saw him post an 11.2 K/9, 3.12/1.13 era/whip in 52 innings. He's the defacto 2 and he looks like a good one.

The bullpen is lead by former Brewers closer John Axford, as the combination of FedEx pot delivery and general ineffectiveness led to Cleveland not signing Chris Perez. Axford had his struggles in Milwaukee, looked better after a mid-season trade to St. Louis, and will get first shot at the closer job, with Cody Allen sitting in reserve. The rotation looks not-ready for prime time, and some regression is in order. Projected record: 88-74.

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Kansas City Royals

The Kansas City Royals were 6 games behind Cleveland last year, but I expect them to make up the gap in 2014. Yes, they made a trade in the 2013 offseason that had everyone shaking their heads, sending Will Myers, Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery to Tampa for James Shields and Wade Davis. But, a funny thing happened. Shields pitched like an ace, gave the rotation stability, and led the Royals to a respectable 86-76 record. The pitching was good, the defense was great (lead by 3 gold glovers in Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer), and Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar were excellent as well. Pitching and defense were their strength. But what about their hitting? It has long been projected that all the KC prospects would come up and MASH! But, it largely hasn't happened. Gordon fell way off, as did Moustakas. Hosmer had a good 3rd season, and Perez started the year hurt, but performed well once he returned. Cain underperformed and was oft-injured and Billy Butler saw his HR output diminish by half (29-15). Simply put, the Royals didn't score enough runs to make the playoffs.

This offseason, the Royals made some good moves (trading for Norichika Aoki and signing Omar Infante to a 4 year deal to play the black hole, aka 2nd base for the Royals. They also made some headscratchers, letting Ervin Santana go with a rejected QO, and replacing him with JASON FREAKIN VARGAS. On a 4 YEAR DEAL! For 32 million schekels!

So, the everyday lineup is solid and can improve, their defense rocks, and they have both an ace, and a tremendous closer in Greg Holland. What stops KC from catching Detroit this year is starting pitching. After Big Game James, the rotation is made up of Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen, Danny Duffy, and the aforementioned Vargas, with flamethrower Yordano Ventura in the wings. Quick! Which starting pitcher has thrown the hardest measured pitch in the history of PITCHf/x? That's right Yordano Ventura at 101.9. He's 5'11 180, and in other organizations might be a closer, but KC wants him to find his way into this rotation. If he does, and can refine his arsenal, the Royals may still challenge Detroit. As is, I see them in a wild card race again. Projected record: 88-74

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Minnesota Twins

Quick without looking, who had the 2nd worst record in baseball last year? (I assume you know who had the worst.) The casual fan might say Miami or Minnesota but in fact, at 63-99 it was the CHICAGO WHITE SOX, edging out the Minnesota Twins (66-96) for last place in the Central. Let's look at the TWINKIES first.

Minnesota's current situation bears a strong resemblance to the Astros. There are a number of players on the field that will certainly not be Twins when the prospects arrive. And the prospects are coming. But until they are ready, Trevor Plouffe plays 3rd(Miguel Sano having to undergo TJ surgery), Kurt Suzuki will do the majority of the catching (Josmil Pinto in the wings), Pedro Florimon will play SS (I got no one) and Pirates castoff Alex Presley playing CF( awaiting the arrival of he who shall not be named). Sure, Joe Mauer and his 11 homers will be at first, Brian Dozier and his above average power (18 hrs) will man 2nd, and Oswaldo Arcia looks like a player in right. But Jason Kubel will DH, Josh Willingham will be in left, and overall, the offense looks weak.

But not as weak as the rotation. Offseason additions Ricky Nolasco (Miami) and Phil Hughes (Yanks) will attempt to hold the fort for the prospects, joining Kevin Correa, Mike Pelfrey and someone in what again looks like one of the worst rotations in baseball. Alex Meyer and 1st round pick, 2013 St Pius X grad Kohl Stewart are on the way, and Kyle Gibson hopes to get his career back on track, but until they arrive, joining Sano, Lord Voldamort, Eddie Rosario and Jose Barrios; the TWINS can be caught and passed by your Astros. Projected record: 68-94

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Chicago White Sox

The Pale Hose are in similar straights as the Twins, but without the prospects to give hope. They have one of the best starters in baseball in Chris Sale, and not a lot else readily evident. Since they don't have the prospects, GM Kenny Williams went shopping in the offseason, adding 1B Jose Abreu, (most recently of the Cuban National team), CF Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson in trades(with Arizona) and and will start "Baby Miggy", aka Avasail Garcia in right (acquired from Detroit last year in a deadline trade). They gave up their closer and a starter to acquire both players, and most analysts feel that the Sox did well in both trades. How Abreu, Davidson and Eaton perform will go a long ways towards determining how improved the Sox will be.

After Sale, the rotation scares no one. John Danks is always hurt, Felipe Paulino is coming off of TJ surgery, and while Erik Johnson showed well in his brief call up, he still is a rookie. Jose Quintana has proven to be at least replacement level or slighly better, and the Brazilian bikini wax, aka Andre Rienzo had some limited success in his rookie season of 2013. There is clearly evidence that the White Sox will be better in 2014, but more questions than answers loom. Projected record: 70-92.

That's it from the AL Central. Who do you think will surprise in 2014, either for better or worse?

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