Clearly the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins were not about to let the Chicago White Sox and GM ,Rick Hahn, have all the offseason fun. After snagging Jeff Samardzija (2.99 ERA in 2014) and David Robertson (39 saves in 2014), it looked like the Southsiders greatly improved their chances of taking the AL Central crown for the first time since 2008. Despite the huge moves made by divisional opponents, Tigers GM ,Dave Dombrowski, went un-phased and proceeded to roll up his sleeves in an “I don’t think so!” moment, flipping up-and-coming starter, Rick Porcello, for Boston Red Sox slugger, Yoenis Cespedes. Many people questioned the decision to send off Porcello, but Dombrowski countered by taking advantage of the Cincinnati Reds presumed fire sale by acquiring All-Star, right-hander, Alfredo Simon, for infielder, Eugenio Suarez, and minor league pitcher, Jonathon Crawford. Not to be outdone by the Sox and Tigers, Twins GM, Terry Ryan, decided to join the party too, handing pitcher, Ervin Santana, a four-year, $55 million deal to lead the rotation. Let’s not forget the move the Cleveland Indians made before the storm of Winter Meetings news, acquiring Brandon Moss‘ power bat to anchor a lineup that already features Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the landscape of this all-new, super-competitive AL Central.
Chicago White Sox: Outside of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, the White Sox had rotation and bullpen issues abound. The bullpen’s 4.28 ERA (28th in the league) and 36 saves (fifth fewest in baseball) were not contributing to a winning atmosphere. To address these apparent issues, Rick Hahn brought in a proven closer, David Robertson, who had more saves to his name in 2014 than the Sox did as a team. Robertson will bring stability to the bullpen by becoming the primary closing option, pushing youngsters like Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka into sixth or seventh inning, set-up roles. The team also brought in left-handers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings to provide a more veteran presence in the pen.
To back up Chris Sale, Hahn pulled off a move for All-Star, right-hander, Jeff Samardzija, who could be easily be considered a top of the rotation starter on many other teams. A 7-13 win-loss record does not tell the whole story when it comes to Samardzija, whose electric stuff led to a stellar 2.99 ERA and 202 punch outs in 219.2 innings with the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics in 2014.
The lack of production from Adam Dunn and the now retired, Paul Konerko, had to be addressed as well, so the team inked slugger, Adam LaRoche, to a two-year deal. LaRoche will be a solid source of power and provide good production behind Jose Abreu in the lineup. The core of Sale, Samardzija, LaRoche, Abreu, Avisail Garcia, and Adam Eaton will make the White Sox a force to be reckoned with. The addition of Melky Cabrera is nothing to brush aside either, as the 30-year-old hit .301 with 16 home runs and 73 runs batted in a productive 2014 season with the Toronto Blue Jays. He will be a clear upgrade over Dayan Viciedo in left field, as he adds another catalyst to an offense that now carries a good bit of firepower.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals are going to come out in 2015 with fire in their stomachs. I suppose this could be true of any team fresh off a World-Series loss, but the Royals will be this team in 2015. Yes, they lost Billy Butler to the A’s but replaced him with a similar player in Kendrys Morales. Yes, Morales is a few years older than Butler, but both saw significant production drops in 2014. While Butler got a three-year, $30 million deal from the A’s, the Royals saved $13 million by giving Morales a two-year deal worth only $17 million. Morales has rebound potential if healthy, and could be a nice piece if he mirrors his 2013 stat line: .277/34 2B/23 HR/80 RBI/.785 OPS. Outside of that swap, the Royals have maintained most of their core outside of James Shields, who is one of the premier free agents this offseason. If the Royals can retain Big-Game James, they will be the exact same team they were in 2014, and will still be just as dangerous. Even if Shields ends up walking, the Royals still have a good crop of young pitchers, and could bring in a veteran like Edinson Volquez, Jake Peavy, or Aaron Harang to anchor the rotation. The Royals are primed for contention again, and will be coming out for the 2015 season with a big chip on their shoulders.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers have been at the center of a lot this offseason. First is the whole Max Scherzer ordeal. Will he re-sign? Will he go somewhere else? How will the Tigers fill the hole in the rotation if Scherzer does walk? How high are they willing to bid? Well, it is likely we will not see a resolution to the whole situation until January, as we have not heard any news out of Scherzer or his agent, Scott Boras. Next on the list is the trade with the Red Sox, sending Rick Porcello to Bean Town in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes. Dealing away Porcello weakens the rotation even further if Scherzer walks away, given Justin Verlander‘s decline and Anibal Sanchez‘s questionable health. The team got a temporary solution in Alfredo Simon if Scherzer does walk, however, he is just a band-aid at the moment due to his status as a free agent following the 2015 season. IF Scherzer ends up coming back, the Tigers still have the same formidable rotation they had in 2014, especially if Verlander can find his stuff again. On top of that, the Tigers would have a lineup featuring Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes, and J.D. Martinez respectively. If Scherzer walks and Verlander continues to slide, the Tigers still have the same potent offense, but a rotation full of question marks. The Tigers fall back to earth has opened up the race to the AL Central crown for everyone else in the division.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. While everyone else was out making acquisitions and pulling off big trades, the Cleveland Indians made themselves better without making anyone say “Wow, look out for the Indians!”. Despite a lack of moves, other teams should look out for the Indians, because they are quietly a very potent team. After bringing in first baseman/outfielder Brandon Moss from the A’s, the Indians lineup looks like this:
Michael Bourn (.260 BA in 2014)
Nick Swisher (.233 BA 51 RBI in 2014)
Michael Brantley (.311 BA 82 RBI in 2014)
Carlos Santana (.242 BA 24 HR in 2014)
Yan Gomes (.242 BA 20 HR in 2014)
Jason Kipnis (.256 BA 25 SB in 2014)
Brandon Moss (.244 BA 24 HR in 2014 with A’s)
Lonnie Chisenhall (.268 BA 16 HR in 2014)
Francisco Lindor (.242 BA in 240 AB in 2014)
The Indians lineup has a lot of potential, especially in the long ball category, but they also have the potential to be efficient as well. Shortstop and top prospect, Franciso Lindor, certainly gives the team an intriguing and dynamic option moving forward. With a few more games under his belt, he could be the type of player who can energize the team during the dog days of August. On a separate note, haven’t we all learned by now to never question Terry Francona‘s leadership skills? Didn’t he teach us that in 2004?
Minnesota Twins: I owe the Minnesota Twins an apology, ladies and gentlemen. Not long ago, I wrote an article applauding their signing of outfielder, Torii Hunter, but I said this signing alone would not be enough for the Twins to contend in this now ultra-competitive AL Central. I said they needed a front line starter, someone to lead their rotation, someone they could go to in a do-or-die, game seven situation. Although he did do a great job for the Twins last year, Phil Hughes is not that guy. Well folks, apparently the Twins knew this too, so they went out and signed Ervin Santana to a four-year, $55 million deal. Santana had a 3.95 ERA in 196 IP last year, and can be the ace the Twins need to stay in the game. The Twins have a solid lineup with Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Joe Mauer, and now Torii Hunter as the anchors. If Santana and Hughes can help guys like Kyle Gibson and Trevor May grow and use their potential abilities, the Twins rotation looks a lot stronger, as well as, primed for success.
The AL Central has become one of premier divisions to watch in 2015 with every team adding key pieces to stay competitive. It is definitely shaping up to be one of the most intense divisional races going down the stretch into October. It will be a must watch.
Jake Hasan, MLB Correspondent for Baseball Essential
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