Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 Predictions: AL Central

This is a continuation of my series from the other day predicting the 2014 season. Here’s the AL East article for those who missed it. Now, let’s get right into the AL Central predictions.

AL Central
Tigers-93 Wins/99 Pythagorean Wins (based on run differential)
White Sox-63/67

What should be different:
The Tigers only won 93 games last year, which might seem weak for a division winner, but they also had a much better run differential than that. However, they probably hit the upper extreme of their run differential, as any team in the 100-win area will; that’s why even the best teams struggle to win 100 games in consecutive seasons. A starting point of 93 wins seems fair.

On top of that, they had a confusing winter. The biggest change is probably the loss of Doug Fister, who was approximately a 4 and a half win pitcher (by Fangraph’s WAR) last season. In his place will be Drew Smyly, who’s probably an average 2-win pitcher. However, Fangraphs also say that Smyly was a 2-win pitcher in the bullpen last year, although the newly acquired Joe Nathan will help to offset that. The outfield looks about the same; Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter both return, while Andy Dirks is hurt but scheduled to get most of the playing time. Alex Avila at catcher will probably improve just because him playing a full season if he isn’t better than last year (less than 1 WAR). The infield shuffled a bit, with the big changes being rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos replacing Prince Fielder (probably not a major change), Ian Kinsler taking over for Omar Infante at second (also probably not a big change) and Jose Iglesias out for a while at short. That last one will hurt, as Iglesias and Jhonny Peralta combined for about 4.5 wins last year.

Still, between Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez, it’s a solid core in place. You might expect some regression from that group just because they were so good last year, but it also wouldn’t be crazy to expect a repeat. The team is probably weaker overall due to the losses of Fister and Peralta/Iglesias, but I still think they’re the favorites, and a low-90s win total doesn’t seem out of the question.

For as much as the Tigers look weaker, the Indians look to be in an even worse place. Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir both left this year, and I’m not really sure where they’re going to replace that value. Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, and Corey Kluber all look decent, but there’s not much after those three. Maybe Trevor Bauer bursts onto the scene, but we shouldn’t just expect any prospect to instantly dominate. The lineup looks more or less like last year’s, so solid for an AL Central team (in the AL East or West, I’d be a little more concerned). I’m not sure if anyone there will improve. Maybe Jason Kipnis or Carlos Santana improves to All-Star or MVP level? Maybe Michael Bourn plays like he did in Atlanta? Those would help. I can see them having a winning season, but I’m not sure I see them as likely playoff competitors.

If I had to bet on the most likely team to challenge the Tigers for the division crown, I’d go with Kansas City. I’d like them even more with Wil Myers, but oh well. I think Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas’s steps forward bode well for this year, but maybe I’m buying too heavily into small sample size. Sal Perez, Alex Gordon, Norichika Aoki, Billy Butler, and Omar Infante are all solid-to-great options, and considering that Infante is replacing the tire-fire that was their second base hole last year, it’s even better (did you even remember that Miguel Tejada played last year, despite it being just last year?). They’ll need at least one of their young pitchers (Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, or Kyle Zimmer) to step up behind James Shields, though, because a 2-through-4 of Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen is pretty uninspiring. It’s not too much worse than last year’s situation, though (another season from Ervin Santana might have been nice, but I can see why they balked at his price), and they have a strong bullpen. I like their chances more than Cleveland’s, at least.

The Twins and White Sox will almost certainly be bringing up the rear of the division. The summary of the next two reflections, in case you only want to read the teams with good playoff odds: I like the Twins better long-term and the Whtie Sox better for this year. A lot of the Twins’ best talent is still a ways out in the minors. I don’t really know what else to say about Minnesota, though. For 2014, it’s Joe Mauer and not much else in the pros. They didn’t really make any substantial improvements, although they’re pretty clearly rebuilding. At least they have a good farm system.

The White Sox will be bad, but they might not be as bad as I first expected. I haven’t looked at the rest of the league, but they could even find themselves in the running for the annual “Team That Everyone Thought Would Be Bad But It Turns Out Wasn’t That Bad” award. I like the potential of young recent additions Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson, Avisail Garcia. Not enough to bet anything on them, but I think the strategy behind their offseason dealings was solid, and might pay off in the long term. Also, the front of the rotation looks good between Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, but I have no comment on the rest of their starters. It’s a very shallow team, though (well, there is more talent here than on the Twins at least, but that’s not saying much…). In the end, I think they’ll be better than last year, but still probably have a losing record.

Final Prediction
White Sox

This division feels a lot weaker than the Al East, which I suppose isn’t too shocking. I would worry a lot more about the Tigers’ chances if the Indians and Royals hadn’t taken steps back themselves. At least with the Royals, the step back was small and justifiable, but it’ll still be hard to replace Santana. Possible, but difficult. Maybe the White Sox surprise people and pick up a few more wins than expected, but I think the gulf from 3 to 4 in the division is pretty big.

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