Forecasting the 2016 Season: AL Central

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1. Kansas City Royals:

Last year’s World Series winners return the overwhelming majority of their offensive firepower, with eight of the club’s nine starting bats back in the fold (not including midseason pickup Ben Zobrist). The lone player missing: right fielder Alex Rios, who was an expensive placement level player the past two seasons. Speed demon Jarrod Dyson is slated to take over and should have no issue posting a 3.0+ win season thanks to his base stealing prowess and defensive aptitude.

As for the rest of the offense, well, there’s reason to believe it’ll be an even better group collectively in 2016. Only one player, third baseman Mike Moustakas, performed better than expected last year – particularly when it came to handling southpaws; he posted an .823 OPS against them in 2016 after two seasons in which he barely topped a .550-mark. So he might be a candidate for noticeable regression (though, he did handle them well enough in 2012). Otherwise, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Sal Perez, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Kendrys Morales all fell within their reasonable expectations. And there’s Omar Infante – who single-handedly brought down the entire offense, or tried like hell to. After posting a career worst 44 wRC+, there’s no way he – or replacement Christian Colon – can possibly be that bad in 2016.
KC’s rotation definitely falls short of division rival Cleveland as they’re scheduled to run out Edinson Volquez, Ian Kennedy, Yordano Ventura, Chris Young, and Kris Medlen (while leaving out young southpaw Danny Duffy). But when you’re pitching in front of (A) easily the best defense in the game and (B) a top notch, shut-it-down-after-sixth-inning relief staff, a lot’s not going to be asked of the crew.
I’m not entirely certain there won’t be a World Series hangover, but they looked poised to be a dangerous group – especially if the rotation can consistently work through the sixth inning.
Bottom Line Record: 91-71

 

2. Cleveland Indians:

I already did an in-depth analysis on how the Tribe will fare in the 2016 season. In short: better than last year’s preseason ballyhooed group. The rotation is clearly one of the top groups in the game with five potentially above-average starters in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin. The front office upgraded the team’s biggest black hole, third base, with the signing of rotund third baseman Juan Uribe. The bullpen should remain strong – or at least better than half of relief corps in baseball. The lone question, seemingly, will be whether the outfielder will weigh down the entire team.

Bottom Line Record: 88-74

 

3. Chicago White Sox:

This is such an…odd team. At first glance, one would assume that the Sox are kind of caught in this perpetual state of deciding whether to rebuild or push all their collective minor league chips – which aren’t many – to the center of the table and face down a one- or two-year window at contention.

With that being said, it’s a better team than one would expect.

Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, and Adam Eaton are above-average big league regulars. Melky Cabrera, Austin Jackson, and Brett Lawrie are all capable of stringing together a 2.0-win campaigns as well. And that’s not including the potential emergence of shortstop prospect Tim Anderson, who’s likely going to be mentored by Jimmy Rollins within a couple months.

On the other side of the ball the club has an elite starting pitcher (Chris Sale), one of the most underrated starters in baseball (Jose Quintana), another young hurler that could very likely ascend towards the aforementioned duo (Carlos Rodon), and a veteran that apparently fixed an issue he had with tipping pitches. That’s not including a top flight closer (David Robertson) and a couple other potentially useful bullpen arms.

But there are two issues at hand:

(1.) lack of depth. Sure the system has Tim Anderson waiting in the wings as well as last year’s first round pick Carson Fulmer to help bail out the rotation. But if one of the big boppers goes down, then what?
(2.) Defense. Last year the Sox finished 26th in team UZR/150. In two of his last three seasons Jimmy Rollins has posted his two worst defensive showings. Brett Lawrie, who was once touted for his ability to pick it at third, was an absolute mess at second and third bases last season. And the tandem of Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia run down fly balls about as well as the little old lady down the street. Meaning: There’s not a whole lot of hope for the club to take a Cleveland-like leap forward on defense.
Bottom Line Record: 79-83

4. Detroit Tigers:

At some point, one would figure, that the club’s escalating payroll and veteran-laden team would simply push the Kitties back into a rebuild mold, but new GM Al Avila handed out another pair of high-dollar deals during the offseason as he inked left field Justin Upton and right-hander Jordan Zimmerman.

Offensively speaking, this is still a dangerous club. Even after seeing his homerun total decline from 44 to 25 to 18, Miguel Cabrera is still one of the most dangerous hitters on the planet. Ian Kinsler’s perennially hovered around the 110 wRC+ mark. Shortstop Jose Iglesias have been a league average bat and slick fielder. Nick Castellanos had a strong second half, batting .269/.322/.478, and could be poised for a big 2016.Upton handled hitting in Petco Park last year, so spending half his games in Detroit shouldn’t slow him down. J.D. Martinez had transformed himself into a Jose Bautista-type late-blooming slugger. The lone question marks on offense are: a pair of replacement level center fielder (Cameron Maybin and Anthony Gose), a quickly aging designated hitter (Victor Martinez), and a suboptimal catching situation (James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia).

But those question marks pale in comparison to the type of issues that potentially linger with the pitching staff.

Justin Verlander had a nice bounce back season in 2015 as he regained his feel for the strike zone and saw a modest uptick in his strikeout rate. If he can stay healthy for 200+ innings, he should be worth about 3.5- to 4.0-wins. Jordan Zimmerman, always one of the most underrated arms in the game, has annually been worth 3.0 to 3.5 wins (sans his 2014 campaign). And Anibal Sanchez is another 3.0-win candidate if (A) he can stay healthy (which he hasn’t the previous two seasons) and (B) rein in his homer issues. After that, it’s a mishmash of questions marks. Mike Pelfrey hasn’t consistently missed any type of wood since his Class AA days in 2006. Shane Greene came crashing back to earth after a breakout 78-inning campaign with the Yankees in 2015. And former Blue Jays top prospect Daniel Norris is dealing with back issues.

And from here the question mark continue to mount.

Closer Francisco Rodriguez developed impeccable control during his last two seasons in Milwaukee, but he’s basically been a replacement level – to slightly better – reliever over the past four seasons. Southpaw Justin Wilson flashes a plus-heater and will likely be the top relief arm in Motown in 2016. Mark Lowe was finally healthy last season, but has totaled just 171 innings since 2010. Blaine Hardy, Drew VerHagen, Alex Wilson, Matt Boyd, and (potentially) Buck Farmer help round out a very iffy staff.

Detroit certainly has its strengths, but their weaknesses – particularly on the pitching staff – will likely doom them to another pre-Dave Dombrowski-type season.

Bottom Line Record: 76-86

 

5. Minnesota Twins: The Twinkies surprised a lot of people – though I can think of one that wasn’t surprised – by finishing second in the AL Central with 83 wins last season. But there’s not a whole lot of hope for another big step forward in 2016 – unless, of course, Byron Buxton puts together a Mike Trout-type season (unlikely).

Joe Mauer hasn’t looked like vintage Joe Mauer for two seasons now. Underrated Brian Dozier isn’t likely going to exceed his production over the previous two seasons – which also could be said for the equally underrated Trevor Plouffe. Last year’s rookie surprise Eddie Rosario cobbled together a 2.3-fWAR season in just 122 games, but isn’t a candidate to improve any more given his higher-ish BABIP (.332) and ability to ignore the walk – placing him squarely in the Eduardo Escobar territory. Kurt Suzuki is slightly better than replacement level. All of that leaves us with youngsters Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton.

Sano absolutely destroyed big league pitching last season, slugging .269/.385/.530 with a 151 wRC+, but he, too, is a candidate for full season regression in 2016. The former third baseman-turned-corner-outfielder strung together a .396 BABIP with a strikeout rate north of 35%. Both of those numbers could send his production crashing back to earth in 2016.

And Buxton, baseball’s top prospect, disappointed greatly during his call-up last season, as well as during his stint in Spring Training this year. That doesn’t mean it’s enough to write his year off yet, but it should provide some caution with respect to expectations.

Minnesota has a decent, innings-eater-type rotation without a whole lot of flair at this point (at least until Jose Berrios makes his debut).

Phil Hughes came crashing back to earth after an impeccable run two years ago. Ervin Santana posted some very Ervin Santana-like numbers, as did Kyle Gibson. Tommy Milone is the quintessential fifth starter. And Ricky Nolasco has been a complete and utter disappointment since moving to the American League in 2014.

Bottom Line Record: 75-87


About

After serving as a video scout/analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Joe Werner began writing at his original site, ReleasePoints.com. He’s since transitioned into his current niche, prospect analysis, at ProspectDigest.com. He has been fortunate — and incredibly blessed — to have some of his work published and mentioned by several major media outlets, including: ESPN, Cleveland.com and the Baseball Research Journal. He can be reached at: JosephMWerner@yahoo.com.