Buster Olney just wrote that the American League Central may be the best division in baseball.
Does the division still belong to Detroit? Or is this the year the Tigers finally get caught? Here's the path to the playoffs for the AL Central teams:
2014: 90-72, plus-52 run differential, lost in ALDS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 86-76, plus-48
The Tigers have won four straight division titles, so it's not that difficult to envision a fifth straight division title, even if the club ends up losing Max Scherzer in free agency. Just stay the course.
Even without Scherzer and the traded Rick Porcello, the rotation features David Price, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, a sneaky good pickup from the Yankees. Price essentially replaces Scherzer, but the key will be getting a bounce-back season from Verlander, who went 15-12 albeit with a 4.54 ERA. Remember, Verlander had core-muscle repair surgery during the 2013-14 offseason, so it's possible he was never 100 percent during the season. An offseason of rest and normal conditioning exercises could help him return to the Verlander of the past.
The Tigers traded Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes, giving the club maybe the strongest middle of the lineup in the league with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Cespedes, a foursome that could each hit 25-plus home runs. Even if Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez regress some, you can expect Cabrera to have a better season after he played through a painful ankle and foot injury. He had surgery after the season to remove bone spurs and had two screws inserted in his right foot to help repair a stress fracture. Even with those injuries, he hit .313 with 25 home runs and a league-leading 52 doubles. A healthier Cabrera could return to hitting .330 with 40 home runs.
The Tigers acquired Anthony Gose from Toronto, and while his bat is questionable, he'll give the team a defensive upgrade in center field over the Austin Jackson/Rajai Davis combo. Replacing Torii Hunter in the outfield with Cespedes will also help; Cespedes rated plus-12 defensive runs saved in left field last season while Hunter rated minus-17 in right field. It's not a direct position change, as J.D. Martinez will shift over to right field, but the defensive improvement in a Cespedes/Gose/Martinez outfield could easily be worth four wins or so. Making Davis the backup outfielder also helps strengthen the bench. Then you have the return of slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias. We're not using to thinking of "defense" and "Tigers" going together, but the Tigers will have their best defensive team in years.
Yes, the bullpen. The offseason isn't over yet. I expect GM Dave Dombrowski to make a move or two here. Plus, the Tigers won 90 games with last year's bullpen. Even a small upgrade there should add a few wins.
2014: 89-73, plus-27 run differential, lost World Series
2015 projection: 81-81, minus-3
Ninety feet short. Ninety feet. It was a dream season for the Royals, who finished the regular season just a game back of the Tigers, won a classic wild-card game and then steamrolled the Angels and Orioles in the postseason before running into Madison Bumgarner in the World Series.
Can they do it again? Sure. Yes, James Shields is a likely departure, but let's be honest here: They're not losing Bob Gibson. Shields was a workhorse and certainly a positive mentor to some of the young guys in the rotation, but he was worth 3.3 WAR last year; that can be replaced. You still have Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy to anchor the rotation. Ventura posted a 3.20 ERA as a rookie, and Duffy quietly posted a 2.53 ERA in his 25 starts. That could be a dynamite 1-2 combo as both see their workloads increase. I'd like to see the Royals add another starter behind Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie to fill out the top five.
But the rotation wasn't the strength of the team anyway. The bullpen returns the dominant Greg Holland-Wade Davis-Kelvin Herrera trio and will get Luke Hochevar back. Hochevar missed all of 2014 but posted a 1.92 ERA in 2013. Yes, maybe the Royals will have four sub-2.00 ERA relievers in 2015. Or five, if rookie Brandon Finnegan remains in the bullpen. With a bullpen like that, the Royals don't need a great rotation.
Plus, the defense will remain intact, and we saw in October how well the Royals play defense.
That leaves the offense, and there are reasons to be optimistic about improvement here. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez all had bad seasons at the plate, but all played the season at 25 or younger. Even in a conservative estimate, you can see all three creating at least 15 more runs; 45 more runs is about four or five extra wins. The team has signed Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios as free agents. Neither had a good 2014, but Rios struggled with thumb and ankle injuries. Both are just a year removed from solid seasons, however, and could turn out to be offensive upgrades over Billy Butler and Norichika Aoki.
And don't underestimate the confidence of a young team. The Royals have smelled October and tasted the World Series. They'll want to get there again.
2014: 85-77, plus-16 run differential
2015 projection: 85-77, plus-36
Here's a number that will impress: The Indians had the best second-half rotation ERA in the American League. Cy Young winner Corey Kluber got all the recognition, but he wasn't the only starter who came into his own. Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer is potentially as exciting as any other rotation in the league. That foursome started 94 games in 2014; imagine what it can do with 125 starts. Even No. 5 starter T.J. House posted a solid 3.35 ERA/3.69 FIP in his 18 starts.
Maybe the rotation lacks the Tigers' big names, but it could be the best in the division.
Three other reasons to see a path to the playoffs:
1. Brandon Moss. Acquired from the A's, the All-Star hit 25 home runs, although he was slowed the final two months by a hip injury that required offseason surgery. If healthy, he could produce even better numbers than he did with the A's. (Leaving Oakland and the other parks in the AL West for Progressive Field should help his power numbers.)
2. Jason Kipnis will have a better season. The second baseman created 101 runs in 2013, just 53 in 2014 (in 100 fewer plate appearances), as he played through an oblique injury.
3. Better defense at shortstop. Whether it's Jose Ramirez or top prospect Francisco Lindor, the Indians will have better range than Asdrubal Cabrera provided. One reason the pitching improved the final two months was the departure of Cabrera. (In fact, the Indians rated last in the majors with minus-75 defensive runs saved, so even slight improvement across the field will help.)
Oh, yeah, you also have the guy who finished third in the AL MVP voting in Michael Brantley, the best manager in the division in Terry Francona and an underrated bullpen that had the fourth-best ERA in the AL.
2014: 73-89, minus-98 run differential
2015 projection: 78-84, minus-28
No team has made more big moves this offseason than the White Sox: They traded for Jeff Samardzija without losing any significant pieces from the major league roster and signed outfielder Melky Cabrera, first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche and relievers David Robertson and Zach Duke.
The beauty of those acquisitions is that the White Sox aren't just replacing mediocre production with slightly better production, but below-replacement-level production in some cases. Look at the players/positions:
• Left field: White Sox left fielders hit an ugly .225/.297/.344 and fielded an ugly minus-10 defensive runs saved (second-worst in the majors).
• Rotation: Andre Rienzo, Scott Carroll and Felipe Paulino made a combined 34 starts, went 8-17 and were worth minus-2.3 WAR.
• The bullpen had the second-worst ERA in the AL, better than only the Astros. Robertson has been one of the league's best relievers for years, and Duke changed his arm angle last year and had a dominant season with the Brewers (74 K's in 58 1/3 innings). They immediately become the eighth- and ninth-inning guys.
Of course, the White Sox already have an MVP candidate in Jose Abreu and Cy Young candidate in Chris Sale. They do have a hole at second base right now, but Carlos Sanchez (.293/.349/.412 at Triple-A) should at least be an upgrade over what they got there last year if he gets the job. I'd like to see them find another starting pitcher to line up behind Sale, Samardzija and the underrated Jose Quintana, but GM Rick Hahn may still have a little money to play with.
Ninety wins may be difficult, but few teams can match the front-line talent the White Sox have. If the secondary players improve, the White Sox can raise their first division flag since 2008.
2014: 70-92, minus-62 run differential
2015 projection: 76-86, minus-47
OK, maybe we have to be a little creative when it comes to the Twins. But remember, we're in the age of parity. It may take only 85 or 86 wins to win the Central. So finding an extra 15 or 16 wins is doable if everything breaks right and a lot goes wrong with the other four teams.
A few ways how:
• Joe Mauer has a better season.
• Danny Santana is for real.
• Kennys Vargas develops into a .275, 25-homer DH.
• Brian Dozier gets even better and turns into an MVP candidate.
• The defense improves. The Twins ranked 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved, including minus-50 runs in the outfield. Although the Torii Hunter signing doesn't help here.
• Ervin Santana has a good season. Ricky Nolasco is better. Phil Hughes is great again. Put it this way: The Twins had a 5.07 rotation ERA, worst in the majors. That was more than a run worse than the AL average. They used 12 different starters, and Hughes was the only starter who posted an ERA under 4.47. So, um, yeah, expect a better rotation in 2015.
Look, the offense should be good again. The Twins were fifth in the AL in runs scored and second in OBP last year. And they've cleared out a lot of the offensive deadweight. They scored 42 fewer runs than the Tigers and didn't have anybody who had career years like Victor and J.D. Martinez. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to think the Twins could lead the league in runs. If they're in the race in July, they could add a couple of veteran starters for the stretch run.