The AL Central may very well be the best division in baseball this year. With the incumbent champs looking formidable offensively, the White Sox having a balance of speed and power, and the Indians filling the gaps on what was a decent roster from last season this is one of the top divisions in baseball. I know I haven’t mentioned the Kansas City Royals yet, but they actually made some pretty terrible offseason moves that I feel moves them toward the back of the pack despite a trip to the World Series last season. Sure they have their great bullpen in tact, but that bullpen had a lot of extra work last season, so I would not expect the same results this season. Also, in order for the bullpen to be truly be effective you need to have a lead going into the seventh inning, and the Royals are going to struggle to put up runs this season. As for the Twins, they are on the mend, but will not be anything to worry about for another two years at least, but I’m sure they will find a way to play a spoiler role late in the year if given the opportunity.
Now let’s get to the winners of the division, the White Sox, Tigers, and Indians, and yes that is the order of the division this year. It’s really going to be a two-team race between the White Sox and Tigers after they both create a little distant between themselves and the Indians. Before I continue let’s take a quick look at what our friends at Baseball Prospectus are predicting based on PECOTA; Tigers, Indians, White Sox with 5 games separating the Tigers and White Sox. Basically in Vegas that’s called a pick ‘em, so I’m going with the White Sox for a few reasons.
1 – Pitching
The Sox pitching from 1 thru 3 (Sale, Samardzija, Quintana) is the best in the AL Central, and that’s statistically trending, not just my opinion. If you take 3-year average, it’s a wash, the Tigers big 3(Price, Sanchez, Verlander) are .01 better in ERA, but if you look at the statistical trend line, you will see the Sox ERA and innings pitched are trending down and up respectively that sets the improved bullpen up to be used like it was designed, 7th, 8th, and 9th innings specialists. You hope and pray when you play the Tigers you get to their pen.
Another factor is innings pitched by David Price last season, not including the post season; Price pitched a career high 248.1 innings in 2014 that might lead to a decreased workload and less productive season. After Verlander pitched his career high 251 innings courtesy of the Tigers in 2011, he’s since pitched 238, 218, and 206 innings and had a whopping 4.54 ERA last season compared to a 2.40 ERA in 2011.
A disturbing trend if you’re a Tigers’ fan.
2 – Closer/bullpen
No contest!!! Dave Robertson is the best closer in the AL Central and the Tigers are going to parade old man Nathan back on the field again for another ho-hum year, if he makes it the entire season. With the White Sox improving the pen for 2015 with Robertson, Zach Duke, and Dan Jennings along with the solid performances by Zach Putman and Jake Petricka in 2014 the bullpen is one of the best in the majors.
3 – Age
The Tigers are getting older at the core and with age comes injury, that’s a known fact. The chances of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Justin Verlander making it an entire season without injury are slim. In fact, Martinez is coming back from one injury already. This is my opinion, but I doubt any one of them will make it the entire season. While writing this Justin Verlander was placed on the DL to start the season.
4 – Speed/OBP
The station-to-station days are over for the White Sox with adding Melky Cabrera and the promotion of Micah Johnson, along with the subtraction of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. Johnson stole 106 bases over the past two seasons in the minors, while Cabrera adds a faster #2 hitter for the Sox with a higher OBP than the Sox have had since 2005. Overall, the Sox OBP is projected to be 8 points higher this season at .318, while the Tigers are projected down 7 points at .324, which is a 15-point swing for the White Sox. Also, while I wouldn’t consider Adam LaRoche or Jose Abreu speedsters, they bring greater abilities than Konerko and Dunn. The aforementioned projections are courtesy of the PECOTA and Baseball Prospectus.
Obviously, projections are just that projections, but watching the White Sox offensively in Spring Training (means nothing) they look pretty solid. Heck, Jose Abreu is currently batting .518 after 56 at-bats. He had the same number of at-bats in 2014 spring with a .286 average; I would say a year in the majors has benefitted the big man. At the same time, you could look at Jeff Samardzija’s numbers and freak out, but again it all means nothing, especially with the homer friendly conditions in Arizona.
I truly believe the White Sox have what it takes to win the AL Central and make some noise in the playoffs. The question will be how much? You’ll have to read my full season predictions coming a few days.