As you may have heard, Sports Illustrated jinxed the Indians made a bold prediction that the Indians would win their first World Series since 1948 this year.
It’s far from a baseless prediction. With the Yankees on a downswing, the Red Sox constantly shuttling between last place and first place, and no obvious dominant teams, the AL has never seemed more wide open. The Indians have a young core, two emerging stars, and all the necessary pieces to jump at the chance to fill that void.
Yet it’s the AL Central the Indians need to concern themselves with first and foremost. After all, the Indians have to play each of these teams 19 times, and they finished behind two of them, the Tigers and the Royals, in 2014. Plus winning the division would save them from the randomness of playing in the one-game wild card playoff. So before we go ahead and crown the Indians, let’s first make sure that they’re actually the best team in their division. Let’s take a look at their three main competitors in a tough division (sorry, Minnesota).
The Tigers have become the evil empire of the AL Central, winning four straight division titles while spending roughly 35 percent more than the second most expensive division team, according to Baseball Reference’s payroll estimates for 2015.
(Side note: The Indians have actually become the lowest-payroll team in the division, with the Twins and the Royals—the Twins and the Royals!!—projected to outspend them by $24 and $28 million, respectively.)
But the cracks are starting to show in the Tigers’ façade. Justin Verlander hasn’t looked much like Justin Verlander lately, and his contract is already being mentioned among the worst in baseball. Miguel Cabrera was still very good in 2014, but he wasn’t the world-beater he was the two years prior, and when you have no other skills but hitting, that’s worrisome. Victor Martinez was great last year, but he’s 36, and how much longer can he keep this up? Not to mention that the Nationals have stolen away Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, and the bullpen was atrocious last year and looks no different this year.
On the other hand, this is still a team with a million good players, from David Price to Cabrera to Ian Kinsler. The rotation matched us with any in the AL, and the lineup is also very good, provided players like JD Martinez can match last year’s numbers. The Tigers still have to be considered the division favorite; however, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine them falling back to second or third place this year. They’ve left the door open; can the Indians take advantage of it? Or will the…
Chicago White Sox
beat them to it? Along with the Padres, the White Sox made the most strides toward fielding a competitive team this offseason, bringing in Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, and Adam LaRoche. The staples of the lineup for years were Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn; now those two are gone, their spots taken by LaRoche and Jose Abreu, the Cuban import who impressed last year and who, if he keeps developing, could become the game’s best power hitter as soon as this year.
However, this is still the same team that went 73-89 last year. These are good players they brought in, but are they enough for the 20-win boost it would probably take to win the Central? They have some good building blocks in Chris Sale, Abreu, Adam Eaton and Samardzija, but I don’t know if this is a roster that can win a division just yet.
Kansas City Royals
And now we come to last year’s pennant winners, the Kansas City Royals. It sure was fun to watch them in last year’s postseason, but is any of that sustainable?
The Royals have an amazing defense, and a potentially league-best bullpen. But who is going to hit for them? Alex Gordon is solid but unspectacular; same goes for Salvador Perez; Eric Hosmer could be good; Mike Moustakas might finally put it together. Otherwise they’re relying way too much on Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios to have seasons they’re probably just not capable of having anymore.
Also, who are their starting pitchers? Without James Shields, there’s no real ace on this staff, unless you think this is Yordano Ventura’s year. (I can just see the cringeworthy “Ace Ventura” headlines now). They have Kris Medlen, but who knows what they can expect from him; Edinson Volquez has roughly zero chance of repeating last year’s perormance; Danny Duffy is still an unknown. Fangraphs doesn’t have them projected to have a single pitcher worth more than 2 wins this year. That doesn’t sound like a division winning team to me.
In short: not to get overly optimistic, but it looks good for the Indians. The Royals have serious pitching and hitting issues; the White Sox are solid but not as strong all-around as Cleveland; and Detroit is star-studded but could be in decline. The door is more open than it has been in years; if all goes well, the Indians may well end up on top of this division for the first time since 2007.