Wednesday, March 29, 2017

2017 AL Central Predictions

The American League Central is the division that has represented the American League in each of the previous three World Series. In all three instances, the formula was nearly identical: strong starting staff, a lights-out bullpen and a plethora of young talent. It seems as though Cleveland is the class of the division and doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. But, Kansas City has one last shot with their championship core before several important contracts expire. And, if they don't sell off, Detroit looks ready to compete for their own shot at the crown. Who will be the last team standing? It's 2017 Predictions, AL Central style.

5. Minnesota Twins
In the championship formula mentioned above, the first piece of that puzzle was a strong starting pitching staff. Such is not the case in the Twin Cities. Ervin Santana is the ace of the staff and is known more for his PED suspension then for his frisbee of a slider, and would hardly qualify as a staff ace on any other team in this division. Behind Santana in the rotation is: former Yankee Phil Hughes - who still has yet to figure it out, Tyler Duffy - one of the only young bright spots in this rotation, and little known youngsters Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios. The Twins do have an excellent closer in the form of All-Star left-hander Glen Perkins, but outside of that, not much else to speak of. Offensively, they have the best power-hitting second baseman in the game, team captain Brian Dozier.  But, they lost Dozier's power-hitting pal Trevor Plouffe to the A's this winter. Between Plouffe's departure and last season's trade deadline sale of 3B/SS Eduardo Nunez to San Francisco, Minnesota will now look to rookie Jorge Polanco to man the hot corner at Target Field this season. The Twins outfield has some definite rising stars in the forms of Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton. However, their overall team inexperience and lack of talent will be the major contributing factors as to their taking last in the Central division in 2017. 

4. Chicago White Sox 
I don't believe there is anyone that took the retooling model that Yankees GM Brian Cashman laid out during last year's trade deadline any more seriously than Chicago's Vice President of Baseball Operations Kenny Williams did. This winter, Williams used Cashman's blueprint to acquire the game's top positional prospect Yohan Moncado and four other players in a trade with the Red Sox for superstar lefty Chris Sale. Days later, Williams then pulled the "magic act" of the off-season by moving centerfielder Adam Eaton to Washington for the Nats two top pitching prospects, Lucas Giolito(No. 1 pitching prospect in MLB) and Ronaldo Lopez. The VP has several other players that he and the White Sox could receive massive returns for, including Todd Frazier, Jose Quintana, David Robertson and possibly even Jose Abreu. If no other moves are actually made, this roster still has plenty of talent to compete in the division. On the infield to go along with Frazier and Abreu, the White Sox have another one of these young budding star shortstops, Tim Anderson, from whom they expect big things and whom they just inked to a long contract extension. Along with Quintana, the Sox have the electric Carlos Rodon, and seasoned veterans James Shields and Derek Holland. Additionally, Nate Jones is a young, effective bridge to the closer Robertson. But alas, I do believe they will sell throughout the season and at the trade deadline, leading them to collect the fourth spot in the division. 

3. Detroit Tigers
This team may have been the most difficult to predict in all of the American League due to the off-season rumblings that they were going to be "sellers" rather than looking to improve their roster, which was evident by their lack of any major additions this winter. They're starting rotation is one of the stronger in the league, with such players as 2016 Cy Young Award candidate Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmerman and the '16 Rookie of the Year winner Michael Fulmer. Their batting order is sparked at the top by the seemingly perennial All-Star Ian Kinsler. Not to mention, Detroit has one of the most daunting middle of the lineups in the game, with future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, the ageless wonder Victor Martinez and the heavy hitting J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton. And with Francisco Rodriguez at the backend of the bullpen, teams will have to certainly put some distance between themselves and the Tigers in order to pull out a victory on a nightly basis. But, The start they get off to will be vital to determine whether or not they will be selling off at the trade deadline. And I believe that they, in fact, will be sellers at the deadline. Just leaving them a little short come playoff time.

2. Kansas City Royals
The 2015 World Series champs are not quite the playoff powerhouse they once were. At season's end, four of the Royals major contributors to their '15 title team will become free agents, including superstar first baseman Eric Hosmer, shortstop Alcedes Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain. When you have that many players in the contract year, you typically can assume that all of them will be playing their respective butts off for that next big contract.  Which could beg the question why would they be finishing second? Well, tragically the Royals lost their ace Yordanno Ventura in a horrific car accident this winter, and don't really have anyone to replace him at the top of the rotation. Team USA pitcher Danny Duffy will do his absolute best to try to fill the void, but such a task is by no means easy. Kansas City shipped off back up centerfielder and speed threat Jarrod Dyson to Seattle for starting pitcher Nathan Karnes. They also have former Yankee Ian Kennedy, Chris Young, Dillon Gee and free agent signee Jason Hammol to round out their staff. Another big move the Royals made this winter was moving all star closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for the powerful bat of Jorge Soler. In order to fill the void left by the departure of Davis and former closer Greg Holland, the Royals signed their old ninth inning man, Joakim Soria. Whether it be playing for a new contract or playing for a fallen teammate, it should be another really good year of quality baseball in Kansas City this season.

1. Cleveland Indians
Now I know that I picked them to finish fourth in the division a season ago, but I am absolutely drinking the Kool-Aid served up in Rock City this season. For starters, Cleveland added maybe the biggest bat to their already loaded lineup when they signed free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. The Tribe also get Michael Brantley back from a 2016 season-long injury, which is like signing the second best bat available and not having to pay any extra money for it. These two jump in the middle of a batting order that includes All-Stars Jason Kipnis and Fransisco Lindor, much improved Jose Ramirez and a guy that could vry well win a batting title some day in Carlos Santana. On the other side of the field, the Indians possess one of the strongest rotations in all of baseball, including Cy Young runner up Corey Kluber, rising stars Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, and a guy who had one of the gutsiest playoff performances in recent memory, Trevor Bauer. Terry Francona may have started a movement in the bullpen game with his use of Andrew Miller in the 2016 postseason; a relief "ace" that can be deployed at any time during the course of a game to bail you out of a jam whenever you need it. And when you mix in quality arms like Boone Logan, Brian Shaw and Zach McAllister to get to their outstanding closer Cody Allen, you have a team headed for a deep run in October.

Bring on the belly-aching. 

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Sorry for the Capatcha... Blame the Russians :)