2015 AL Central Standings Prediction:
X-Factors: Adam LaRoche, Carlos Rodon
Once again, I'm going with a team that made significant strides this past offseason. The White Sox finished 16 games below .500 last year, but they seemed to improve at just the right places over the course of the winter. Melky Cabrera should be able to contribute extra base hits at the top of the lineup with possible breakout center fielder Adam Eaton. Adam LaRoche should support young superstar Jose Abreu and receive plenty of great pitches to hit in the process. It's clear that it's difficult to win without strong pitching in today's game, and I don't know if there's many "Top 3's" in the American League with as much potential as Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana have. Quintana has been consistently underrated and improving since his debut in 2013, and Sale has the skills to make a run for the Cy Young award, even despite fracturing his foot last week. This is a winnable division, and Chicago's balanced lineup, defense, starting and relief pitching should make them an easy contender in 2015. Key word: should.
2 - Kansas City Royals
X-Factors: Alex Rios, Yordano Ventura, Lorenzo Cain
The Royals made the World Series last year. Can we please acknowledge that? I personally thought I wouldn't be seeing Kansas City win the pennant for quite some time, but their run was truly magical last year. But just like people are going to automatically sign Madison Bumgarner up as the 2015 Cy Young winner, they will also think that the Royals could repeat their historic 2014. Without James Shields, Nori Aoki, and Billy Butler, I don't see how that's possible. Shields led the team not only as the best pitcher, but also in the clubhouse, and newly acquired Edinson Volquez will be filling his spot in the rotation. No disrespect to Volquez, but he's no Shields. Unless Lorenzo Cain and Yordano Ventura take their postseason performances into the regular season and dominate, I see the Royals falling just a bit short of the playoffs. The American League has gotten stronger as a whole, and I think in the right ways too, which could cause this young team to sputter off the tracks and struggle at times. Ned Yost is a good manager, and I don't think last year was a total fluke, but I have a hard time seeing them beat any of the teams I ranked ahead of them this spring.
3 - Detroit Tigers
X-Factors: Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Bruce Rondon
This may act as a surprise to most readers here, as the Tigers have been a consistent player in October over the past decade. They have won the Central the past four years, but this offseason they lost their ace Max Scherzer and rising star Rick Porcello. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, the team's two biggest offensive components; are going into 2015 with health questions. David Price is in the final year of his contract, and if the team spirals early due to injuries he may not even be with the team by the end of the season. Their bullpen has always been a problem for Detroit despite all of their efforts to improve, but Bruce Rondon will be returning and hopefully playing a big role in revitalizing that spot. However, Cabrera and Martinez are still two of the best hitters in the league even while hurt, and Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Kinsler, and JD Martinez will most likely help lead the team into the playoff picture. It all comes down to Justin Verlander's recovery from his core injuries, and if he can take a step back towards his prime seasons the Tigers will be a force to reckon with in 2015.
My biggest problem with the AL Central (and the West for that matter) is that almost every team has a chance of winning the division. I think the only team in this division that can be excluded from the playoff race is Minnesota, who are still a few years away. Because each team in the division plays each other 18 times a year, the teams may suffer worse overall records and it may only allow one team to make the playoffs. It is possible for the Red Sox or Orioles to win wild card spots next year, leaving out possibly better teams from the Central. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out.
4 - Cleveland Indians
X-Factors: Brandon Moss, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Kipnis
Many people are considering the Indians as one of the best possible rebound teams this upcoming season. Coming off a season in which ace Corey Kluber earned a Cy Young Award out of almost nowhere, the Tribe still managed to barely miss the playoffs. Their pitching staff is young but talented, and Carlos Carrasco is this year's Danny Salazar in terms of "the ultimate fantasy baseball sleeper of the year". I just don't see the offense coming together enough for the team to succeed, no matter how dominant the pitching is. Nick Swisher is coming off of multiple knee surgeries, Jason Kipnis had finger surgery and suffered oblique problems throughout 2014, and newly acquired asset Brandon Moss underwent right hip surgery as well. There are far too many things that need to go right for the Indians to surpass the White Sox, Royals, and Tigers to make the playoffs. Is it impossible? Not with Terry Francona calling the shots, but it sure doesn't seem right.
5 - Minnesota Twins
X-Factors: Oswaldo Arcia, Alex Meyer, Byron Buxton
Once again, I don't see much of an improvement with what the Twins have assembled at this moment. I don't think they're an awful team in any way, but I just don't see them stacking up to the rest of the division. Youth is the focus of the organization at the moment, and it should be at least another year before the hype of mega prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Alex Meyer rises. The new addition of Torii Hunter was smart not only because he still is a good hitter but also because he can mentor some of the young outfielders on the team. Kirby Puckett taught Hunter a lot about life in and out of baseball, and his influence may have sparked what has been a magnificent career. Their pitching rotation is headed by former Yankee Phil Hughes, who had an underrated 2014 and could possibly build on that next season as he is still only 28 years old. But no matter how you shake it, this team needs a miracle season to be found at the top of the standings come October.
Division MVP: Jose Abreu
Division Cy Young: Chris Sale
Playoff Teams: Chicago
This division really could swing in any direction over the course of the season. Nobody saw the Royals steamroll of the American League coming, and really any of these teams could do much of the same this year. I picked the White Sox to not only win the division, but I chose their stars as division MVP and Cy Young too. All the new faces in Chicago could cause chemistry issues at first, but I still feel most confident about their chances over anyone else. I would not be shocked to see Cleveland make a late season run, as they have seemed to do over the past couple seasons, nor would I be surprised if Detroit dominates. But the injuries are unavoidable, and these teams have one too many questions for me to logically see them contending for the pennant.
Agree, disagree, or both? Feel free to comment below with your thoughts on what should be one of the most interesting divisions in 2015!