AL Central Could Stake Claim to Baseball’s Best Division

There was a time when the American League Central Division was barely a blip on the radars of those around the baseball world.

Through much of the late 90s and 2000s, the Wild Card Era, the AL East was the toast of the sport with the Red Sox and Yankees in contention every year. There always seemed to be a few dangerous teams in the West who were considered possible spoilers to the AL East strongholds.

In the game’s Junior Circuit, the Central Division was playing third fiddle. In the late 90s, the Indians were always dangerous and a threat to win a World Series. The rest of the division, however, was pretty forgettable during the Tribe’s run.

Once the Indians run of success ended, it was the Minnesota Twins who stepped up and took control of an otherwise down-trodden Central. In those days, the division became known as Comedy Central. There was one excellent team and four pretty bad ones for the better part of the first decade of the Wild Card and expanded playoffs.

Even in the mid-2000s, when the division was not quite the joke it had been, the stars of the game and top story lines were elsewhere.

Over the last few years, however, the tide has begun to shift. The Yankees have not been a real threat to win a championship in a few years. The Red Sox won a World Series in 2013, but book-ended that storybook campaign with a pair of last-place seasons.

In the last two years, the AL Central has sent three different teams to the postseason in the Indians, Tigers and Royals. The Royals went to the Fall Classic this past year.

The stars and big free agents have started going to the AL Central. The division’s dark days are long gone. Now, the AL Central will have pair of teams, in Kansas City and Detroit, entering the 2015 season in the discussion as World Series favorites. After back-to-back solid years, the Indians should be a little better in 2015 and have a shot to contend with the division’s big boys. The White Sox have made some splashy moves this offseason and are considered, by some, a darkhorse in the division. There you have four teams in the Central who could make noise as serious postseason contenders.

No longer can teams from other divisions look at the schedule and see a run of AL Central teams as a breather. In 2014, the Tigers, Royals and Indians were all good teams. All three have improved this winter.

The Tribe added power-hitting Brandon Moss to a lineup that sorely needed a big bopper in the middle of the order. He will strength what was the team’s biggest weakness in 2014. Cleveland had its entire team from last year locked up for next season and stands to lose nothing from a team that won 86 games, on the heels of a 92-win Wild Card 2013 season.

The Tigers lost starting pitcher Rick Porcello via trade and may lose 2013 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to free agency. However, with Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, David Price and Alfredo Simon on hand, the rotation should remain strong for the team from the Motor City.

As for their offense, Detroit added Yoenis Cespedes in dealing Porcello to Boston. Cespedes will make an already dangerous lineup even better.

The Royals will likely see ace James Shields depart via free agency. However, Kansas City has been quite busy this winter doling out deals to Kendrys Morales and Kris Medlen as well as keeping its bullpen, the team’s strength, in tack. Despite the loss of Shields, the Royals are expected to remain a contending team with the young talent they have.

There you have last season’s three playoff contenders getting better or staying the course. On top of that is what the White Sox have done to improve a team that won 73 games last year despite having a Cy Young candidate in Chris Sale and Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. The Windy City squad has bolstered its lineup with additions of Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera. Sale will now be followed in the rotation by Jeff Samardzija, an ace in his own right. Chicago now has real closer in David Robertson, a former All-Star and closer with the Yankees.

The AL Central Division has come out of the shadows over the last few years. Players winning MVP awards, Cy Young trophies, Manager of Year honors and Rooke of the Year have cast a spotlight on the division. Now it appears consistent winners will propel the AL Central into a new category – potentially the strongest in the sport.

The 2015 season is not going to be a cake walk for anyone in the Central this year. No longer is there one great team and four average or below average ones. Now, with apologies to the Twins, the division boasts four teams who can enter next season with real claims as potential playoff clubs. Any one of the four could realistically win the division with a break here or there. This summer, the teams in the Central better be ready from the outset as even a little stumble out of the gate could put someone behind the eight ball in much more loaded the division than it once was.

This is no longer Comedy Central. Instead, it is now a hub for what could be some great baseball. With names like Verlander, Sale, Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Samardjzija and host of young talent, the division will garner attention. Wins and pennant chases come August and September will throw even more light on a now tough group.

The division may be more up for grabs this coming season that it ever has been since its inception in 1994. That is good thing to now have so much quality baseball where it was once hard to find.

Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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