2016 American League Central Preview

Expect Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera to once again make an impact with his bat. Photo Courtesy: Keith Allison
Expect Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera to once again make an impact with his bat this season.
Photo Courtesy: Keith Allison

By Alex Gustafson

Expectations for the division were exceeded in 2015 when the Kansas City Royals won their first World Series title since 1985 in October. The 2016 American League Central is uncertain at this point. I see the Royals winning the division with the Tigers coming in second, (thanks to a potent offense once again which has become the Tigers calling card) followed by Cleveland in third, thanks to a strong starting rotation although there is uncertainty surrounding their batting order. The White Sox in fourth due to the team’s unpredictable back third of their starting pitching rotation and Minnesota in last due to roster turnover which makes 2016 unpredictable for the Twins.

Note: All statistics compiled from team depth charts on mlb.com.

Kansas City Royals (95-67, 1st in Central in ’15)

Starting pitching
There is no true big three in the rotation of the defending champions. It is unclear whom will be the 2016 Opening Day starter will be. Keep an eye on these three starters from last year’s rotation: Edison Volquez (13-9, 3.55 ERA, 200.1 IP and 155 K’s), Yordano Ventura (13-8, 4.08 ERA, 163.1 IP and 156 K’s) and veteran Chris Young. To succeed and fend off two solid teams in Detroit and Minnesota, Ned Yost will need Volquez to produce statistics similar to 2015, Yordano Ventura to lower his ERA a few points and add to his innings pitched and Chris Young (11-6, 3.06 ERA, 123.1 IP and 83 K’s) needs his innings pitched numbers as well to not tax the team’s dominant bullpen.

Relief pitching
Greg Holland was a member of the Royals’ World Series championship team and is no longer with the team after tearing his UCL towards the end of the 2015 season. Keep an eye on these three members from last year’s team: Luke Hochevar (1-1, 3.73 ERA, 50.2 IP and 49 K’s), Kelvin Herrera (4-3, 2.71 ERA, 69.2 IP and 64 K’s) and Wade Davis (8-1, 0.94 ERA, 67. 1 IP and 78 K’s). If these three pitchers are not over used during the season I expect the back end of the Kansas City bullpen to remain dominant.

Infield
Eric Hosmer, (.297, 18 HR, 97 runs batted in and 33 2B) who recently voiced that he is interested in a long-term contract after he had the most productive offensive season of his young career. I look for Hosmer’s statistics to drop off slightly but for the first baseman to remain productive on offense once again. Veteran second baseman Omar Infante (.220, 2 HR, 44 runs batted in and 23 2B) provides steady defense and efficient offense abilities. I expect the same type of production for the upcoming season. Alcides Escobar (.257, 3 HR, 47 runs batted in, 20 2B and 17 SB) saw a decrease in his batting average but that was the only statistic with significant drop off from his final 2014 season statistics. Third baseman Mike Moustakas (.284, 22 HR, 82, runs batted in and 34 2B) had the best offensive season of his career hitting only .212 in 2014.

Outfield
Lorenzo Cain (16 HR, 72 runs batted in, 34 2B and 28 SB), like Moustakas, had his best offensive season after a string of productive seasons as the team’s leadoff hitter. Expect another productive season from Cain in the middle of the Royals’ batting order. Left fielder Alex Gordon (.271,13 HR, 48 runs batted in and 18 2B) signed with the team after declining a qualifying offer earlier this off-season. I believe that Gordon will be productive once again. Perspective rightfielder Jerrod Dyson recently sustained an oblique strain that will likely cause him to start the season on the disabled list. This injury provides an opening for players such as veteran minor league player Paulo Orlando (.249, 7 HR, 27 runs batted in and 14 2B) and journeyman utility man Travis Snider (.232, 4 HR, 28 runs batted in and 12 2B) to showcase their abilities to skipper Ned Yost and General Manager Dayton Moore.

Detroit Tigers (74-87, 5th in Central in ’15)

Starting pitching
Justin Verlander (5-8, 3.38 ERA, 133.1 IP and 113 K’s), Jordan Zimmermann (13-10, 3.66 ERA, 201.2 IP and 164 K’s) and Anibal Sanchez (10-10, 4.99 ERA, 157.0 IP and 138 K’s) form the new “Big Three” in the Motor City. Zimmermann came to the team via free agency after spending his entire career with the Washington Nationals. I look for Zimmermann to provide a reliable second starter for Detroit behind Verlander. These three pitchers provide strength to an area that was a weakness for the 2015 club. Only the fourth and fifth positions in the starting rotation remain in question.

Relief pitching
Bullpen performance has been an issue for the previous four seasons. While the additions of Francisco Rodriguez (1-3, 2.21 ERA, 57.0 IP, 62 K’s and 38-of-40 in save opportunities) and Mark Lowe (1-2, 3.79 ERA, 55.0 IP and 61 K’s) the the possibility of veteran stability in the bullpen, I remain concerned about the young, developing and inexperienced middle relievers the Tigers will rely on in 2016.

Infield
Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler (.296, 11 HR, 73 runs bated in and 43 2B), Jose Iglesias (.300, 2 HR, 23 runs batted in and 17 2B), Nick Castellanos (.255, 15 HR, 73 runs batted in and 33 2B) and James McCann at catcher (.264, 7 HR, 41 runs batted in and 18 2B) are the expected starting infielders in Detroit for 2016. Injuries limited Cabrera to 119 games last season but the face of the Tigers franchise remained productive (.338, 18 HR, 76 runs batted in and 28 2B) and I expect him to remain healthy and for his production to be similar to his 2014 statistics. Kinsler’s production this season depends on where manager Brad Ausmus places the second baseman in the batting order. Iglesias must increase his runs batted in total while I see his his batting average dropping from where it was last season. I expect Castellanos to have a similar season to 2015 with a slight rise in his batting average. As for McCann, he must increase his walk total and his runs batted in total to have a successful 2016 season.

Outfield
Justin Upton signed as a free agent this winter and I see the former Arizona Diamondback being productive against the teams in his new division. Anthony Gose enters his second season in the Motor City and after a solid 2015 (5 HR, 26 runs batted in and 23 SB), I expect the former Blue Jay to split time Cameron Maybin in center field and be the team’s primary fourth outfielder. Right fielder J.D. Martinez followed up his successful 2014 season with a productive 2015 to quiet any thoughts that he might be a one season wonder.

Cleveland Indians (81-80, 3rd in Central in ’15)

Starting pitching
Corey Kluber, (9-16, 3.49 ERA, 222.0 IP and 245 K’s) Carlos Carrasco (14-12, 3.63 ERA, 183.2 IP and 216 K’s) and Danny Salazar (14-10, 3.45 ERA, 185.0 IP and 195 K’s) are locks for the rotation with the final two rotation spots up for grabs. These three pitchers provide depth to an otherwise inexperienced starting rotation. I expect all three to perform well in 2016, although they will be relied upon heavily this upcoming season.

Bullpen
Cody Allen (2-5, 2.99 ERA, 69.1 IP, 99 K’s and 34-of-38 in save opportunities) is set as the team’s closer. However, like most teams behind the division champion Royals, there is a lack of solid middle relief with the Indians. Veterans Joba Chamberlain (0-2, 4.88 ERA, 27.2 IP and 23 K’s), Craig Stammen (0-0, 0.00 ERA, 4.0 innings pitched and 3 K’s) and Dan Otero (2-4, 6.75 ERA, 46.2 IP and 28 K’s) are key cogs for middle relief help brought by the club via free agency. Each of these pitchers has the opportunity to be a reliable reliever with the team for 2016.

Infield
Mike Napoli (.224, 18 HR, 50 runs batted in and 20 2B) was brought in to split time with Carlos Santana (.231,19 HR, 85 runs batted in and 29 2B) at first base and provide power to an otherwise punch less middle portion of the lineup in 2015. I expect veteran second baseman Jason Kipnis (9 HR, 52 runs batted in, 43 2B and 12 SB) to maintain his statistics from 2015 and remain an offensive threat in the American League Central. Shortstop Francisco Lindor (.313, 12 HR, 51 runs batted in, 22 2B and 12 SB) had a breakout rookie campaign and he will be classified as a rookie once again in 2016. I expect his batting average to drop but his remaining statistics to hold steady and keep an eye on how he handles a full major league season. The team brought in Juan Uribe (.253, 14 HR, 43 runs batted in and 17 2B) to play third base following Lonnie Chisenhall’s move to right field. I see the offense of catcher Yan Gomes (.253, 12 HR, 45 runs batted in and 22 2B) staying on par with his 2015 statistics as he handles an up-and-coming Indians starting rotation.

Outfield
Lonnie Chisenhall (.246, 7 HR, 44 runs batted in and 19 2B) moved from third base to right field after playing well offensively in the outfield in 2015. The suspension of Abraham Almonte (.250, 5 HR, 24 runs batted in and 12 2B) and an injury to Michael Brantley (.310, 15 HR, 84 runs batted in, 45 2B and 15 SB) leave the center field and left field open for competition until the expected starters return.

Chicago White Sox (76-86, 4th in the division in ’15)

Starting pitching
Only the first two rotation spots are set with Chris Sale (13-11, 3.41 ERA, 208.2 IP and 274 K’s) and Jose Quintana (9-10, 3.36 ERA, 206.1 IP and 177 K’s). Keep an eye on Carlos Rondon (9-6, 3.75 ERA, 139.1 IP and 139 K’s) to have good sophomore season after a promising rookie season and veterans Mat Latos (4-10, 116.1 IP and 100 K’s) John Danks (7-15, 4.71 ERA, 177.2 IP and 124 K’s) must have bounce back seasons to solidify the back third of the Chicago rotation.

Relief pitching
Jacob Turner (6-11, 6.13 ERA, 113.0 IP and 71 K’s) has an opportunity to provide middle relief help to the White Sox bullpen after struggling early in his career as a starting pitcher. I look for Nate Jones (2-2, 3.32 ERA, 19.0 IP and 27 K’s) and Jake Petricka (4-3, 3.63 ERA, 52.0 IP and 33 K’s) to follow up their 2015 seasons with solid performances and to bring experience to a young middle relief portion of the bullpen.

Infield
Third year first baseman Jose Abreu (.290, 30 HR, 101 runs batted in and 34 2B) had an excellent season in 2015 on the south side of Chicago. Look for another productive season from Abreu, who is starting at first over veteran Adam LaRoche, who recently decided to retire. The team added veteran middle infielders in Brett Lawrie (.260, 16 HR, 60 runs batted in and 29 2 B) at second base and Jimmy Rollins (.246, 13 HR, 77 runs batted in and 24 2)B) at shortstop. I predict solid defense and efficient offense from these veteran infielders. At third base the team acquired Todd Frazier (.255, 25 HR, 89 runs batted in and 43 2B) from the Cincinnati Reds this off-season. Catchers Alex Avila (.191, 4 HR, 13 runs batted in and 5 2B) and Dioner Navarro (.246, 7 HR, 20 runs batted in and 5 2B) were brought in and I expect both of them to provide defense and to handle to team’s pitching staff. However, I am unsure of what to expect offensively from these two veterans.

Outfield
Three outfielders to keep an eye on are Melky Cabrera (.273, 12 HR, 77 runs batted in and 36 2B) in left field, Adam Eaton (.287, 14 HR, 56 runs batted in, 28 2B and 18 SB) in center field and veteran Austin Jackson (.267, 9 HR 47 runs batted in, 25 2B and 17 SB) in the fourth outfielder role. In 2015 Cabrera performed well in his first season with the White Sox, Eaton as the team’s lead off hitter and Austin Jackson, who has been with four teams over the past two seasons. I expect all three to play pivotal roles on the 2016 White Sox roster.

Minnesota Twins (83-79, 2nd in Central in ’15)

Starting pitching
I expect a solid rotation from the Twins who will rely heavily on veterans Phil Hughes (11-9, 4.40 ERA, 155.1 IP and 94 K’s), Ervin Santana (7-5, 4.00 ERA, 108.0 and 82 K’s) and Tommy Milone (9-5, 3.92 ERA, 128.2 IP and 91 K’s) with a series of free agents and minor league players vying for the fourth and fifth positions in the rotation. The team will get a full season from Santana, who was suspended 80 games last season for a positive drug test and to get a bounce back season from Hughes after a strong 2014 season.

Relief pitching
Although Glen Perkins (3-5, 3.32 ERA, 57.0 IP, 54 K’s and 32-of-35 in save opportunities) struggled at the end of 2015, he remains the closer. Kevin Jepsen (3-6, 2.33 ERA, 69.2 IP and 59 K’s) is expected to be the primary setup man and to fill in at closer if Perkins goes down with injury again. Much like the Tigers, the Twins’ 2016 success will be dependent upon their middle relievers such as Trevor May (8-9, 4.00 ERA, 114.2 IP and 114 K’s) whom I see lowering his ERA a few points as he will likely be primary middle reliever and spot starter in Minnesota this season.

Infield
Joe Mauer (.265, 10 HR, 66 runs batted in and 34 2B) and Brian Dozier (.236, 28 HR, 77 runs batted in and 39 2B) are anchored at first and second base, respectively. Shortstop Eduardo Escobar (.262, 12 HR, 58 runs batted in and 31 2B) is the slated starter at shortstop in 2016 and I expect him to put up statistics similar to his 2015 production. Trevor Plouffe (..244, 22 HR, 86 runs batted in and 35 2B) as well has solidified third base with the move of Miguel Sano to right field upon the retirement of Torii Hunter. Mauer is the model of consistency, both at the plate and in the field. I expect no less from the face of the Twins’ franchise in 2016. Dozier’s batting average dipped in 2015 while all his other statistics increased from his 2014 season. I see the second baseman putting up similar statistics in 2016. Trevor Plouffe’s 2015 was similar to Dozier’s an increase in each category and a decrease in batting average. John Ryan Murphy (.277, 3 HR 14 runs batted in and nine 2B) is the expected starter after a trade with the Yankees and I expect him to handle the team’s pitching staff well and be efficient on offense as well in 2016.

Outfield
Byron Buxton (.209, 2 HR and 6 runs batted in) is the starter in center field with the trade of Aaron Hicks to the New York Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy. I expect growing pains from Buxton in what is expected to be his first full major league season, mainly at the plate. Manuel Sano (18 HR, 52 runs batted in and 17 2B) will be tested by fire in 2016 by playing right field without having played the outfield in the minor leagues. I expect growing pains from Sano in this experiment in the field than at the plate. Left field is a battle between Eddie Rosario (.267, 13 HR, 50 runs batted in and 18 2B) and Oswaldo Arcia (.276, 2 HR and 8 runs batted in) for the roster spot. Both possess promise, but only time will tell who makes the final cut.

Predicted Final AL Central Division Standings
1) Kansas City Royals
2) Detroit Tigers
3) Cleveland Indians
4) Chicago White Sox
5) Minnesota Twins