The Royals dethroned the four-time division champion Tigers in 2015, survived in the Division Series against the Astros when they were six outs from elimination and down four runs, then rolled through the Blue Jays and Mets to win the World Series, Kansas City's first since 1985 and the AL Central's first since the White Sox in 2005.
And yet ... the AL Central may be wide open. Here's the path to the playoffs for each team:
2015: 95-67, +83 run differential, won World Series
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 77-85
2015 payroll: $128.8 million
2016 estimated payroll from Baseball-Reference: $113.4 million
For the sixth consecutive season, the Royals improved their win-loss record -- going from 65 to 67 to 71 to 72 to 86 to 89 to 95 wins -- and topped it off with that World Series title.
So how do they get back to the summit? Notice the projection above: As the rosters are currently constructed, FanGraphs has the Royals as the worst team in the division. (Royals fans will point out that the various projection systems weren't keen on the Royals in 2015 either.) It's been a quiet offseason so far. The team has lost trade deadline pickups Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist while re-signing pitcher Chris Young and bringing in Joakim Soria to replace the injured Greg Holland in that late-game bullpen slot. Alex Gordon remains a free agent, as does Alex Rios (no loss there), so their starting corner outfielders right now are Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando.
That's not going to cut it. That could be an acceptable platoon for one corner, but if there's room left in the budget -- the Opening Day payroll in 2015 was $112 million, same as their current projected payroll -- they should sign an outfielder or a pitcher, or both. While the Royals are still reportedly pursuing Gordon, they've also shown interest in starters Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo and Wei-Yin Chen. Improving the rotation is a good idea: The Royals's starters were 12th in the AL with a 4.34 ERA while throwing the fewest innings.
One reason for that dour prediction above, however, is the projected performance of Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. FanGraphs valued those three at 13.9 WAR in 2015; their projected number for 2016 is 9.1 WAR. Considering the outfield corners and the hole at second base (Omar Infante/Christian Colon), those three have to hit like they did in 2015 and not 2014. Even if that happens, the bullpen and defense will once again have to be stellar.
2015: 83-79, minus-4 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 79-83
2015 payroll: $108.3 million
2016 estimated payroll from Baseball-Reference: $109 million
Are the Twins ripe for further improvement ... or ripe for disappointment? It could go either way.
On one hand, the Twins have: A full season from Miguel Sano, rookie Byron Buxton taking over in center field, possible improvement from Eddie Rosario, outfielder Max Kepler and his .416 OBP in the minors winning a job at some point, and a potential impact bat in Korean DH/1B Byung Ho Park.
On the other: Sano is moving to the outfield and that could be a disaster of Hanley Ramirez proportions, Buxton may need more time in the minors after his major league struggles (44 strikeouts, six walks), Rosario had a .289 OBP, Park is a wild card, and the rotation and bullpen still look more mediocre than playoff-worthy as Twins pitchers were last in the majors in strikeouts once again.
The Twins ranked eighth in the AL in runs and ninth in runs allowed. So they'll need significant improvement in one of those areas or slight improvement in both. The other issue to consider is that the Twins outperformed their BaseRuns total by 10 wins. In other words, they were very good in clutch situations on their way to 83 wins, but clutch performance isn't a repeatable skill.
Unless rookie starter Jose Berrios is ready to be a No. 1 or 2 right away, the key for the team seems to be the offense making big strides and, in particular, how the outfield takes shape. Can Sano handle the defense to go with the 30-plus home runs he'll hit playing every day? Is Buxton ready to produce? If Rosario is just a .289 OBP guy, will Kepler be ready to take over? A Sano/Buxton/Kepler outfield could be terrific, but it's more likely to be terrific in 2017 and beyond than 2016.
2015: 81-80, +29 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 87-75
2015 payroll: $86.9 million
2016 estimated payroll from Baseball-Reference: $72.7 million
The Indians were the opposite of the Twins: Their BaseRuns win total was 89; they won 81 games. They were particularly poor in bases-loaded situations, hitting .212/.304/.372, but the biggest culprit was the pitchers performing worse with runners in scoring position. Overall, the Indians allowed a .237/.297/.386 opponents' batting line; with RISP, opponents hit .269/.344/.425. Check out the three big starters:
Overall: .288 wOBA
Empty: .259 wOBA
RISP: .344 wOBA
Overall: .285 wOBA
Empty: .268 wOBA
RISP: .331 wOBA
Overall: .299 wOBA
Empty: .294 wOBA
RISP: .287 wOBA
Kluber and Carrasco were much worse with runners in scoring position. This could be a real thing -- for example, a sign that they have trouble working from the stretch -- but it could just be one of those things that happened. Kluber was fine with runners on base in 2014, as was Carrasco.
Of course, more offense would be nice. Yan Gomes has to do better than a .267 OBP. Carlos Santana, now moving to DH, is capable of better power numbers. Lonnie Chisenhall's transition to right field went smoothly, but he still posted a sub-.300 OBP. Francisco Lindor will have to prove that his 99-game debut, in which he improved on his minor league numbers, is the real thing. Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli aren't solutions as much as spare parts. I would have liked them to bring in another big bat; as of now, the payroll is below their 2015 budget, so maybe there's room for a surprise signing.
One final note: The Indians had losing records against all four division rivals. April -- they went 7-14 last April -- will once again be important as they'll be without Michael Brantley as he recovers from shoulder surgery. The scheduling hitch: The Indians play only nine division games in April. That could be a good thing.
2015: 76-86, minus-79 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 81-81
2015 payroll: $120.3 million
2016 estimated payroll from Baseball-Reference: $118.4 million
The White Sox have now had three straight losing seasons and haven't had back-to-back winning campaigns since 2005-06. But in a way the Sox are admirable: They refuse to give in and tank and start over. In other words, they're not trading Chris Sale. This season won't be an exception: After last year's offseason haul (Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Zach Duke) didn't work out, they're at it again as GM Rick Hahn traded for Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie.
The dividends there could be in the range of 5-6 wins, mostly because the players those two are replacing were terrible: The White Sox were last in the majors in wOBA at both third base and second base. So while Frazier and Lawrie aren't big OBP guys -- the White Sox were next-to-last in the AL in OBP -- they'll still be significant offensive upgrades, and Frazier's power should carry over from one good home run park to another.
Another key path to the playoffs will be better team defense. Only the Mariners and Phillies were worse than the White Sox according to the defensive runs saved (DRS) stat. As Buster Olney reported a couple days ago, the White Sox could still sign another outfielder. If it's Denard Span or Dexter Fowler, that would allow them to move Adam Eaton to a corner, displacing Avisail Garcia. Eaton was minus-14 DRS in center field and Garcia was minus-11 in right, but Eaton should be better in right or left, so they could improve defensively at two positions.
Two other reasons the White Sox could be better: Sale, for all his dominance (274 strikeouts in 208.2 innings), posted a 3.41 ERA and his fielding-independent pitching was 2.73, so if those two numbers align, he should win more than 13 games. Carlos Rodon went 9-6 with a 3.75 ERA as a rookie in 23 starts but has the raw stuff to make a leap forward. Note that over the final two months he posted a 2.28 ERA in nine starts as opponents hit .209 against him.
2015: 74-87, minus-114 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 79-83
2015 payroll: $164.0 million
2016 estimated payroll from Baseball-Reference: $170 million
With an aging roster and a thin minor-league system, the Tigers have no choice but to try to re-tool and see if the Miguel Cabrera/Justin Verlander Tigers have one more playoff run in them. So far they've added Jordan Zimmermann to the rotation, traded for Cameron Maybin to take over in center, added relievers Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe and ... well, they signed Mike Pelfrey to a two-year contract even though he's never had back-to-back good or healthy seasons.
Will these additions make the Tigers contenders? According to the FanGraphs projections, not yet: They're still just a 79-win team. Remember, Zimmermann is essentially replacing David Price, who made 21 starts with a 2.53 ERA before getting traded. The outfield will be without the 4.0 WAR that Yoenis Cespedes provided before his trade. Rodriguez and Lowe were very good in 2015, but it was also Lowe's first 50-inning season since 2009. Maybin may not be much of an improvement. The defensive runs saved metric didn't like his defense in 2015, crediting him with minus-16 DRS.
The way for the Tigers to return to the top of the division is to get better seasons from Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez and Verlander. Those three combined for just 0.7 WAR after contributing 8.4 WAR in 2014 and 12.3 in 2013.
There is speculation the Tigers will dig into owner Mike Ilitch's pockets for a left fielder -- Cespedes or Gordon or perhaps Justin Upton. Ilitch says he wants to win. He's 86 years old. The family's net worth is an estimated $5.4 billion, according to Forbes. Pay up, Mike. Sign that left fielder.