AL Central Preview

Miguel Cabrera was so close to the World Series last season. Can the Tigers hold off young, hungry teams like the Indians and Royals in the Central?

Chicago White Sox

A youth movement is makings its way to U.S. Cellular Field. Through multiple trades and free agent signings the White Sox have added some nice young pieces. In the off season they made a big splash and signed Jose Abreu, the Cuban defector, to a six year deal to be their first basemen for many years. He is joined by the middle infield of Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez and Cole Gillaspie, who is just keeping the spot warm for Matt Davidson. Adam Eaton is the new sheriff in center and their is pop on either side in Dayan Viciedo and Avisail Garcia. Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko will platoon at designated hitter and Tyler Flowers will be full time behind the plate. Chris Sale has had a phenomenal past two seasons and will anchor the Sox rotation. Jose Quintana and John Danks will be the core of the rotation with youngsters filling out the rest. Hard throwing Nate Jones will take over the closers role with Matt Lindstrom and Donnie Veal setting up the late innings. The White Sox have infused youth into their lineup, but their rotation is still suspect which will make postseason baseball in Chicago a few years away. (Scott Boutcher)

Jose Abreu was given 6 years to play a solid first base and bat cleanup in Chicago.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians surprised the baseball world last season and landed in the one game playoff. Unfortunately they lost to the Rays, but they know now they are good enough to play with the big boys. Carlos Santana has been playing a good amount of third base in spring training but will most likely DH in 2014. The middle infield of the Tribe is superb both defensively and offensively with Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera. Nick Swisher is nice for the Indians because he can play first and the outfield for Francona. Michael Bourn is the speedster at the top of the lineup that can chase down anything in center. Michael Brantley is quick in left and they add a veteran bat in David Murphy to right field. Yan Gomes is a young guy they really like and want him to take most of the reps behind the plate. Cleveland’s rotation flies under the radar but throws some good, young arms at you. Justin Masterson will be the ace and is on the cusp of being a top guy in the American League. Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber showed flashes last season, but must prove it for a full season. The Indians went out and got John Axford to close out games with solid guys like Vinny Pestano, Cody Allen and Marc Rzepcznski standing right behind him. Now that this team has gotten a taste of postseason baseball they are very hungry for more of it. (Scott Boutcher)

Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera form one of the best middle infields in baseball.

Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Tigers made another playoff run in 2013 but the way it ended left a sour taste throughout the Motor City. The starting pitching in the ALCS was incredible for both teams but arguably the Tigers showed that they had one of the best rotations in baseball. The ability for the Tigers, and particularly Juaquin Benoit, to implode in late situations manifested itself at the worst possible time. Combine that with Prince Fielder’s mediocre play in all facets and the World Series potential was lost for 2013. Within days of the end of the season we learned that Jim Leyland would not return as the skipper in 2014. Aside from the obvious impact to Marlboro sales it means the Tigers will be a very differently managed team. Brad Ausmus has been rumored to get his shot in the bigs for a few years now and all indications are that a newer school approach will dictate decisions whereas Leyland was a stalwart, old school manager.

Dave Dombrowski made several moves in the off season including sending Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. The Tigers will pay a significant portion of Fielder’s salary but it also means the infield will have a dramatically different look in 2014. For starters Miguel Cabrera’s experiment at a late career switch back to 3B will end. Cabrera acclimated himself as well as could be expected but was always out of position and a return to 1B should take some mileage off in the field allowing for a greater emphasis on his true talents. Cabrera remains one of the top hitters in major league baseball and a threat for another triple crown. The expectation is that his consistently gawdy numbers will continue in 2014 and 40/130/.330 is a fair estimate to start from. Kinsler will add an every day solid bat at 2B as opposed to the Omar Infante and friends rotation. 3B will be the team’s long awaited emerging threat, Nick Castellanos. Long heralded as a top prospect this will be the year the Tigers expect his development to start paying dividends. Alex Avila will return behind the plate and if he stays healthy the Tigers expect his numbers to improve from a 2 year slump following a standout 2011 season. Finally for the infield there’s Jose Iglesias. Iglesias hit .259 for the Tigers after a blazing .330 for the Red Sox up until his trade but the Tigers will likely expect him to be around that .260 mark and be extremely happy with that. The reason for said happiness is Iglesias’s tremendous defensive capabilities. Overall the infield is much improved defensively compared to one of the worst in the bigs last year. DH is likely to be primarily Victor Martinez and while everyone keeps waiting for V-Mart to slow down, he’s been capable for so long that the long awaited downturn may hold off yet another season. The outfield will retain Torrii Hunter and Austin Jackson in 2014 with Hunter in right and Jackson up the middle. Hunter’s performance in 2013 was surprising in that the expected drop in numbers never came and he was a vital part of the team’s run. The hope is that he continues to be a leader on and off the field. Austin Jackson’s struggles in the playoff were another in a long line of single player issues for the Tigers in the playoffs. Jackson’s lack of plate discipline led to inning killing strikeouts with freakish regularity. With preparation and work Jackson remains a guy who, at 27, could breakout and no one would be surprised. Jackson’s outfield play remains excellent – he positions well and although not as fast as you’d like takes excellent lines and makes plays that faster guys don’t because of their positioning. Rajai Davis and Andy Dirks are expected to split time in left but Davis will be the focal point early with Dirks on the DL. Davis brings a greater element of speed to the Tigers that has been lacking in recent years. It will be interesting for Tigers fans to see speed on the base paths as the team has been one of the least productive at taking extra bases for the last 3 years.

The Tiger’s other major move in the off season was a trade other GMs, fans, and media have labeled as puzzling that sent Doug Fister to the Nationals for Robbie Ray and Ian Krol. While on the surface it provides a level of fiscal sense with Max Scherzer up for FA at the end of the season the Tigers may find themselves less happy down the road with this trade. Even without Fister the Tigers rotation is freakishly scary. Justin Verlander’s playoff performance showed that he’s still one of the most dominating pitchers in the game with tenacity and the ability to throw late in games. Verlander is a special pitcher and expectations are that he’ll be in the Cy Young conversation again in 2014. If Verlander isn’t good enough for you lets go to exhibit B – Max Scherzer. 2013 Cy Young winner with a blistering 21-3 record. Scherzer is a different type of pitcher than Verlander with great control at a slightly lower velocity. In a contract year if he repeats his 2013 totals he’ll be staring at a $20mm/Season contract. If Verlander/Scherzer don’t do it for you I give you exhibit C – Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez’s 14-8 record betrays that he pitched one heck of a season for the Tigers with a 2.57 ERA, tops in the AL. Sanchez is yet another blend of righty with a combination of pitches that contrasts with Verlander’s heat and Scherzer’s location. Rick Porcello will likely be the #4 and while he’s been touted as potential for years now he likely is a mid rotation pitcher. He could see a numbers improvement in 2014 due to the restructured infield as a greater % of his hits have come along the ground. Finally the tail will likely be Drew Smyly. Smyly will be the lone lefty and may end up in the 4 spot to give some greater variation to the rotation. He’s got some stuff and pitched well in the bullpen but re transitioning to starters innings will do him well. The bullpen sees some of the instability out the door with Joe Nathan the closer from day 1. With arms like Al Albuquerque, Joba Chamberlin, and Bruce Rondon there’s still a degree of wildness but the back end should be more solid than in 2013.

Overall the 2014 Tigers look like a different shade of 2013. The changes made were targeted in nature and should improve the adaptability of the club. They should win the AL Central again as the other teams in the division haven’t done enough to catch them and will likely battle it out for 2nd place. Expect Detroit to win between 92-100 games and make another run at the World Series. (Michael Bedard)

Scherzer took home the AL CY Young in 2013 so expectations are high in 2014.

Kansas City Royals

If the World Series Champion was based off of potential, the Royals would have been champs the last two years. All the scouts are waiting for the Royals to get better, but it just is not happening and the postseason drought has dragged on. The addition of James Shields a year ago bolstered the starting rotation and the bullpen was solid in 2013, but the lineup is just not putting it all together. However, adding the likes of Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki might inch them closer to making the playoffs. They will need Billy Butler to have a bounce back year, along with Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar. Alex Gordon will need all the help he can get throughout the lineup in order for this team to finally get over the hump to the playoffs. They need to maximize its run support with Gordon likely dropping down in the lineup. It is the same every year, but 2014 could be the year the Kansas City Royals sneak into the playoffs. (Kevin Langner)

After a promising 2013 season, Billy Butler is getting closer to the playoffs.

Minnesota Twins

There wasn’t much that went right for the Twins last season and now franchise player Joe Mauer is making the switch for catcher to first base. As the highest paid player on the team Mauer must carry the burden on offense and hope that the Twins pitching staff improves. Yankees castoff Phil Hughes is looking for a fresh start and pitching outside of Yankee stadium may be just what he needs. There are other pitchers on the staff you may have heard of like Ricky Nolasco, or Mike Pelfrey, and they will be depended on to help the Twins contend in tough AL Central division. It seems like forever since the Twins glory days in the early 1990’s and fans of the team will continue to wait for another championship. This team seem is simply not good enough reach the post season this year. There is nowhere to go but up for a team that won 66 game and had the worst starting rotation in baseball. (Glenn Coyle)

Mauer will be full time at first base this season.

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