Welcome to my AL Central preview. Unlike stories that go team by team and thoroughly examine each team’s lineups, pitching, and defensive positioning, here we simply ask ask one important question for each AL Central team. Since this is a Cleveland sports site, the remaining six questions are about the Indians. Let’s begin with the defending AL Central and World Series champs.
1. Did the Royals mortgage the future for a World Series title?
First off, every move the Royals made last season was the right move. You win a World Series and every move is justified. But, going into last season, the Royals (according to Baseball America) farm system ranked as the 13th best. This season, that ranking has fallen to 21st. Yes, while the Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist moves looked good at the time, the Royals gave up a lot for three month rentals.
Then there’s their payroll situation. The Royals have seen their payroll increase every year since 2011 (that year, they ranked last with a $36 million Opening Day payroll), and now it is projected to by $132.9 million for 2016 (which only ranks 14th in the MLB, surprisingly). The Royals from 1998 to 2014 never had a payroll over $100 million and consistently ranked in the bottom half of payroll, which leaves one to wonder, how long will ownership keep going with the high payroll. Obviously, winning and bringing in high attendance numbers, along with the TV revenue, has allowed many MLB to expand payroll, but teams like Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Pittsburgh still remain in the low salary range despite their recent success.
Looking at 2017 projected Royals payroll, it bloats up to $179.9 million. Most of that is due to raises from players already under contract, and it projects that the Royals will pick up all options on the six players that have options tied to their contracts. Then comes the potential 2018 crisis, when Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Danny Duffy will all become free agents. Now, the Royals still have plenty of time to replenish the farm system, and management has shown they know how to draft the right players. Still, if I were a Royals fan, as much as I have enjoyed the past two seasons, the future would worry me.
2. Can Bryon Buxton and Migual Sano carry the Twins to the playoffs?
Well, it’s baseball and anything can happen, but the answer is no on this one, at least not this year. For one, the AL Central is stacked this year, and the Twins, despite being a better team than last year’s second place finish, might fall back into last place. We are not jumping on the Bryon Buxton hype train (there’s a high chance he could be a bust), but the potential is definitely there. Many pundits have pointed to Mike Trout’s first taste of the MLB in 2011 where he hit just .220 in 123 at-bats. Last season Buxton in 129 at-bats was only able to hit .209. The minor league numbers of Trout and Buxton look surprisingly similar, so don’t be shocked if Buxton looks like the player we all thought he would be this year. Defensively, he is already there and even if he doesn’t hit, his defense should bring his value up, especially in center field.
As for Miguel Sano, he is already one of the top power hitters in the game, and he has just 18 home runs to his credit. Sure, Sano is going to strike out an ton and doesn’t really have a defensive position (the Twins are sticking him in right field for the time being), but this type of power doesn’t come along often. Sano has 18 career home runs, but he did it in just 80 games and 279 at-bats. If he had played a full rookie season, that’s a 36 home run year from a guy fresh out of AA ball.
The Twins offense ranked 10th in the AL in runs scored in 2015 (with 696), so they should move up in ranks just due to the fact that Buxton and Sano will be given the starting jobs from day one. Throw in guys like Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, and Eddie Rosario, and you have the making of a good offense. Dozier posted his second year in a row scoring 100+ runs with 20+ home runs and 70+ RBI. Mauer, while he may have lost most of his value moving away from the catching position, still makes good contact and gets on base enough to be a plus hitter. And Eddie Rosario hit 13 or more doubles, triples, and home runs in 2015. Still, give it a few more years, let the Twins develop a good pitching staff, and the playoffs won’t be far behind.
3. Will the White Sox off-season frenzy finally pay off this year?
We’ve seen the White Sox make big moves in the off-season only for the team to fall on its face. Last season, they brought in David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, and Adam LaRoche, then proceeded to have the worst offense in the AL, finishing with a mediocre 76-86 record. This off-season, it looks like they finally made the right moves. They traded for Reds slugging third basemen, Todd Frazier, who will team up with Jose Abreu to form a lethal 3-4 lineup combo. Out went shortstop Alexei Ramirez, and in to replace him is Jimmy Rollins. They shored up the catcher slot, signing Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, and second base, trading for Brett Lawrie, fixing their biggest weaknesses in 2015. And they took a low-risk, high upside signing with Mat Latos. Then, early into Spring Training, they added outfield depth, bringing in Austin Jackson on a one-year deal.
Will these moves work? Probably. Todd Frazier is a massive upgrade over the revolving door of third basemen the White Sox fielded last season. In fact if you couple the addition of Brett Lawrie in with Fraizer, here’s the upgrade the White Sox made over last year. In 2015 Carlos Sanchez and Tyler Saladino took the majority of reps at second and third, and were a combined 19 runs better than the league average player at their respective positions. Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie were a combined 59 runs better than the league average player at those positions. Forty run value over replacement players is improvement. The White Sox finished the year at 76-86, but analytics said they played more like a 72-90 team. Just replacing Sanchez and Saladino with Frazier and Lawrie would have increased the White Sox record by 5 wins.
So, the White So will be a better team in 2016. But wait there’s more: their starting rotation. We all know Chris Sale is one of the best in the game, but the White Sox are more than just a one man rotation. Jose Quintana is quietly one of the more consistently good pitchers in the game. Quintana is a near lock for 200 innings, a 20% strikeout rate, and an ERA around 3.35. Carlos Rondon was a little inconsistent in his first run in the majors (and what rookie isn’t), but he showed plenty of the potential that made him the #3 pick in the 2014 draft. Mat Latos is the wild card, 2013 was the last time he pitched effectively over an entire season (2014 he was hurt and 2015 he was hurt and pitched badly). Latos is still young enough (now 28) to re-discover his old form.
4. Shouldn’t the Tigers be more concerned about building for the future?
Yes, and for awhile it looked like they were going the rebuilding route last year. They traded away Yoenis Cespedes and David Price to help replenish the farm system, but even with those trades, the Tigers system only ranks 26th in the MLB (an improvement of four places from its 30th ranking this time last season). However, when you have guys like Miguel Cabrera (still has 8 years and $240 million on his contract) and Justin Verlander (4 years, $112 million remaining) on the books for ungodly amounts of money, you have to go for it. If you’re going to be spending dump trucks of money to field a last place team (Tigers finished 74-87 with a $172.3 million payroll in 2015), you might as well bring in more high priced free agents.
With many people around the league expecting the Tigers to have relatively quiet off-season, management had other plans, instead signing Justin Upton (6 years, $132.8 million) and Jordan Zimmermann (5 years, $110 million). Even with Yoenis Cespedes and David Price on the team, the Tigers were a last place team. And Upton and Zimmermann both represent downgrades over Cespedes and Price. Now, the Tigers can try and ride out one last wave of contention, but the 2013 Phillies thought the same thing coming off a 81-81 season. Three years later and the Phillies have just hit rock bottom and finally have a good farm system in place.
One might say, “There’s no way the Tigers don’t rebound this year, just look at that offense”. You mean the offense that finished 10th in the AL last season? While Miguel Cabrera is still one of the best all-around hitters in the game, he has suffered through injuries over the past three seasons and has seen his HR total go from 44 in 2013 to 18 in 2015. Victor Martinez proved why the Tigers were wrong to re-sign him, as his BA dropped 90 points to .245. Meanwhile, the pitching is essentially the same that had an AL -worst 4.64 ERA. So, the rebuild is inevitable, but who knows when that will be?