AL 2016 preview: Central division in the Royals’ court

The reigning champion Kansas City Royals made a bold decision to stand pat while watching their top divisional competitors get better.

With the addition of outfielder Justin Upton – .271/.352/.473 career slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage – the Detroit Tigers re-invigorated their bottom-half offense of a year ago. The Chicago White Sox added slugging third baseman Todd Frazier (.257/.321/.463), wily veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins (.265/.325/.420) and second baseman Brett Lawrie (.263/.316/.420) to do the same.

The Cleveland Indians ill-advisedly rested on their laurels, coming off an 81-80 season.

Similarly, the Minnesota Twins only key addition comes in the person of former Korean Baseball Organization’s power hitting designated hitter (DH) Byung-ho Park. Although Park’s monster numbers – 173 homeruns and 492 RBIs combined over the past four seasons – make his acquisition look big, the KBO has no true track record as an MLB hotbed.

The Royals are returning from a campaign in which they finished in the top 10 in both runs scored and earned run average. With the second-lowest homerun output (139) in the AL last year, Kansas City rode speed (AL’s second-most steals, 104) to the pennant and eventual title.

If any of their four competitors are to catch the Royals in the division, it will be the third- or fourth-place finisher, not the second or third.

One of baseball’s best players, 10-time All-Star and two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, has returned to the Tigers’ lineup from a calf and back injuries. And that return appears to come with a solid stroke at the plate – .350/.440/.600 slash through Spring Training.

Five-time All-Star DH Victor Martinez (.302/.367/.467 career slash), limited to 120 games in 2015, has also been granted a clean bill of health. The healthy duo, alongside second baseman Ian Kinsler (.276/.344/.447) and newfound slugger Upton give Detroit perhaps the most daunting lineup in baseball.

A much bigger issue for the “Motor City Kitties,” though, is the poor pitching performance a year ago. Not only was their ERA (4.64) the worst in the AL, they allowed over a quarter-run more than the second-worst – the Boston Red Sox (4.31). To remedy those shortcomings, the Tigers added one of the best available pitching free agents during the offseason.

A new top-of-the-rotation starter, Jordan Zimmermann (career 70-50 win-loss record, 3.32 ERA), not only helps the starting five, his average of 209 innings per season will alleviate the workload of the bullpen. With no pitchers throwing more than 187 innings a season ago, a guy who averages more than six innings per start will shorten the bridge to new closer Francisco Rodriguez (38 saves, 2.21 ERA with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2015).

Like the Tigers, for the White Sox to challenge the Royals it will take improved performances from returning players along with those brought with offseason acquisitions.

Slugging first baseman Jose Abreu is a lock for 30 or more homeruns and 100 ore more RBIs, but Avisail Garcia will need to cash in on his enormous promise, and produce more than 13 homers and 59 RBIs. Four-time All-Star starter Chris Sale (13-11 record, 3.41 ERA in 2015) will need to rebound from what was his worst season, while 2011 All-Star closer David Robertson will need to improve upon 34-save performance of a year ago.

In Cleveland, the addition of aging Mike Napoli, coming off his worst season as a big leaguer, as their greatest claim will not be enough for serious contention.

In the end, though, the AL Central will be the back-to-back AL Champions and reigning World Series Champs’ division to lose. Boasting one of the best bullpens in baseball, a defense to match, a more than formidable starting rotation and a complete lineup, it is no surprise that the Royals are among the favorites to win it all again, though they will drop a couple wins.

 

Final Standings

Royals – 93-69

Tigers – 89-73

White Sox – 85-77

Twins – 80-82

Indians – 74-88