MLB – American League Central Preview 2017

As the 2017 MLB season approaches, the resident baseball nerd here at FirstandMonday.com will be rolling out his pre-season previews, one division at a time.

In this installment, we meander back over to the American League to check in on the defending AL champs and their competition in 2017.

1. Cleveland Indians

2016 record: 94-67

They were so close. Up three games to one on the lovable losers from Chicago’s north side, the Indians came painfully close to ending their championship drought last season, but then it all came crashing down and the Indians are now the (not so) proud owners of the longest active championship drought in baseball. But, it’s a new year and the Tribe look to be in prime position to make another run. The offense returns mostly intact, but they’ll get two pretty big boosts. First, from the return of left fielder Michael Brantley, who missed most of 2016 due to injury, and second through the addition of DH Edwin Encarnacion from the Blue Jays. The now 34 year old Encarnacion slugged out 42 home runs and 127 RBI last season in Toronto, and should add some much needed punch to the Cleveland line up. This team struggled a little to score runs at times last season, but the addition of Encarnacion, the return of Brantley and the further maturation of budding young stars SS Francisco Lindor and CF Tyler Naquin should see the Indians offense improve this season.

Cory Kluber once again leads the rotation and he’s real good. He’ll be followed up by Carlos Carrasco, who missed some time in 2016, but when he’s on the mound he’s a more than solid #2. Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin look to round out the rotation, and they can be a more than reliable group, especially if Bauer can find some consistency. Oh, and if he could avoid anymore misadventures with drone play, that could be helpful too. Did we talk about the bullpen yet? Because that’s all that was discussed during the 2016 World Series. Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen are one of the absolute best back ends money can buy. If the rotation can just keep Cleveland in the game into the 7th, they’re going to win most of the time.

Key player: LF Michael Brantley (combined 10.2 WAR in 2014 and 2015.) As we mentioned above, Brantley missed most of 2016 (151 games, to be exact), so his return is big, big stuff for the Tribe. He had a huge 2014 season, and a return to anything close to that production could put this team in line to go head to head with Boston for the AL crown.

2017 projection: 96-56, #2 seed in AL

 

 2. Detroit Tigers 

2016 record: 86-75

So after you get past Cleveland, this division looks like a whole lot of “meh”. With that, the first stop on the “meh” train is in Detroit. Miguel Cabrera is still there and he’s the anchor of this offense. Miggy hasn’t finished a season with a batting average under .300 since 2008, and that’s pretty daggone amazing. Elsewhere, the AL’s second most punchable face, 2B Ian Kinsler. had a big rebound season in 2016 in the power department that saw him jump back in to 28 home runs. He hit just 11 the season prior. What this team could really use though is some consistency out of left fielder Justin Upton, who had an extremely up and down 2016 after signing on with Detroit in a big free agent deal. He’ll make 22+ million this year, so more than the 2 WAR he posted last season would be nice.

Out on the mound, Justin Verlander got his groove back last season, which was a welcome sight to see in the Motor City, seeing as how he makes as much money as the GDP for some small island countries. His 6.6 WAR was easily his best since 2012, and many think he was robbed out of the 2016 AL Cy Young which went to Boston’s Rick Porcello. Young Michael Fulmer, who burst onto the scene last year with an 11-6, 3.06 ERA rookie campaign, will assist Verlander in the rotation, along with Jordan Zimmermann. Much like Upton, Zimmermann was another high priced piece that Detroit added prior to the 2016 season, only to see him post one of the worst seasons of his career to date. His issues were largely injured related though, and he looks to be ready to go in 2017. Promising young lefty Daniel Norris looks like he’ll hold down a position in the back end of the rotation as well. Oh, and K-Rod is their closer. He had 44 saves in 2016. Who knew? Detroit fans, probably.

Key player: SP Jordan Zimmermann (just 19 starts in 2016, averaged 30+ in five previous seasons with Washington.) When he’s healthy, Zimmermann is a very, very good #2 starter, and if Detroit can get that kind of production out of him, along with continued success by Verlander and Fulmer, then they could make a serious run at a wild card spot.

2017 projection: 84-78

 

3. Kansas City Royals 

2016 record: 81-81

Remember when the Royals won the World Series? Somehow it seems like a long time ago, but it really wasn’t. So many of the names out in the field are the same, but this team has just lost a little of it’s luster. The injury bug bit this team hard last season, which saw Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain all miss significant time. A big dip in offensive production from Eric Hosmer didn’t help matters either. All of those guys return, while the line up also sees the addition of new DH Brandon Moss, who comes over after hitting 28 home runs for St. Louis last season. He’ll hit some long balls, but he’ll also get out, well, a lot. Be surprised if he hits over .240. Overall, with improved health, the offense should be a tick better in 2017 when all things are considered. Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain are all in the final year of their respective contracts, so big production in a walk year could be the key for the Royals to make one last run before the band that won the World Series has to break up.

Similar to the Marlins, the Royals are also dealing with the death of one of their own, after Yordano Ventura died in a car accident during the offseason. Ventura didn’t have the greatest 2016 season, but his death certainly leaves a mark on the team and this starting rotation. The group will seemingly be lead by Ian Kennedy and young lefty Danny Duffy, who will be a decent enough one-two. The rest of the group, and this is where it gets a little scary, looks to be rounded out by the shaky veteran arms of Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas and Travis Wood. You know who that strikes fear into the heart of? No one, nowhere. Well, except Royals fans.

Key player(s): CF Lorenzo Cain (played just 103 games in 2016). Cain is the Royals best player, but multiple injuries in 2016 forced him to miss a lot of games, and it was the biggest drop in a very full injury bucket for KC. For them to even have a prayer of making a playoff run this season, Cain needs a big season. Even if he wins the AL MVP, I’m not sure it would be enough.

2017 projection: 77-85

  4. Minnesota Twins

2016 record: 59-103

Is this team ready yet? No, but the stars are finally beginning to align and the plan is coming together. 3B Miguel Sano and CF Byron Buxton SHOULD be the center pieces for this team for years to come, and while Sano spent all of last season flashing his big power potential, Buxton spent a lot of time riding the struggle bus. Most feel he’s far too talented not to overcome his early career woes. 2B Brian Dozier, who was subject of some hot and heavy trade rumors in the offseason, hit 42 home runs last season and will likely pace the club once more. But will be still be a Twin by seasons end? He’s signed through 2018, so he seems like a prime trade-deadline piece to be on the move if he plays well but Minnesota struggles again overall.

From the pitching side of the coin, veteran righty Ervin Santana looks to lead the Twins rotation after a pretty stellar 2016 season. His record, 7-11, was more indicative of the team than of himself, as he posted a 3.8 WAR, the second best of his career. He’s not an ace, but this team also isn’t a contender. I’m not sure the rest of the rotation is even worth mentioning, but here goes. Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes. One young pitcher with a little intrigue, Jose Berrios, looks like he will probably be in the rotation too. Yay! This team needs pitching badly.

Key player: CF Byron Buxton (.220 batting average through his first 140+ MLB games). Buxton, once one of the top prospects in all of baseball, has had trouble finding his footing thus far in his (still short) major league career. His defense has been solid, but his bat has left a lot to be desired and the Twins badly need for him to be the guy everyone thought he could be if their grand rebuild is ever to truly reach it’s crescendo.

2017 projection: 74-88

5. Chicago White Sox

2016 record: 78-84

So the White Sox just decided to go on and blow the damn thing up. Gone are ace Chris Sale, off to Boston in a blockbuster deal that saw the pale hosers gain one of the best prospects in baseball in 2B Yoan Moncada, and Adam Eaton who was shipped off to the Nationals for Lucas Giolito and others. But did they REALLY blow it up? 3B Todd Frazier is still there, as is power hitting 1B Jose Abreu. But how long are they still in town for? It’s a valid question, as you’d think GM Rick Hahn might like to try to unload those guys too. Half-assing a rebuild is no way to go through life in baseball, after all. But for now, those two will try to keep this offensive boat afloat. Moncada may start the season in the minors, but look for him to end it in Chicago, barring injury or unexpected slumpitude.

Speaking of not going all-in on the rebuild, one of the best #2 starters in the game Jose Quintana is still in Chicago, despite scores of other teams trying to pry him away in the offseason. In each of the last four seasons, Quintana has pitched between 200 and 208 innings and has finished with an ERA between 3.20 and 3.51. Talk about consistency. He’s not an ace, but in a world where good (and young, and controllable, and left handed) starters are gold, he’d fetch a kings ransom at the deadline. Young lefty Carlos Rodon looks to follow Quintana in the rotation, and he’s shown a little promise over the past two years. He’ll need to take a step forward in 2017 though, or risk being relegated to a back end arm moving forward. For now, the back end is made of old, uninspiring guys like James Shields, Derek Holland and Miguel Gonzalez. All just place holders for what comes next.

Key player: SP Jose Quintana (5.2 WAR in 2016). While many of our key players are in need of a rebound or a further progression, Quintana simply needs to do what he’s been doing so the White Sox can cash in at the trade deadline. He’s still just 28 and under affordable team control through 2018. If Hahn doesn’t trade Quintana for a boatload mid-season, he should be fired.

2017 projection: 70-92

If you missed our earlier installments, you can check them out below.

NL East HERE

NL Central HERE

AL East HERE

Follow us on Twitter @firstandmonday and slide into our free message boards.