Competitive AL Central Up For Grabs

Welcome back, baseball. We missed you.

A long offseason in the books with dramatic changes around the league and a grueling Spring Training season completed, baseball is set to resume this week with games that actually count in the standings once again with players on rosters whom you may have heard of before.

Every division saw its fair share of changes and the American League Central Division was no exception. With all of the moving and shaking completed, the Central could be one of the most contested divisions in Major League Baseball.

When compared to their division rivals, the Indians were relatively unscathed by the free agency process after last season and return nearly the same lineup that won 85 games while falling just short of the postseason in 2014. They did so with an inconsistent offense and glaring deficiencies on defense, both of which cost the team enough games in the win column to designate them spectators in October.

The biggest offseason departures for the Tribe were aging designated hitter Jason Giambi, who was not re-signed after being limited to a .133 batting average over 26 games in his final MLB season, and minor league prospect Joey Wendle.

The biggest of the names joining the club in Cleveland were slugger Brandon Moss, acquired for Wendle after an injury-plagued 25-homer season in Oakland last year, and pitcher Gavin Floyd, whose attempt to return from a significant arm injury has already been dealt a potentially season-ending setback.

While the Indians hope that the starting rotation continues to develop and the offense provides more production with the addition of Moss and return to health of Jason Kipnis, Michael Bourn, and Nick Swisher, here is how the rest of the division’s offseasons stack up to the quiet one of the Tribe.

Detroit Tigers

Key Offseason Subtractions: SPs Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello; RPs Phil Coke, Jim Johnson, and Robbie Ray; OF Torii Hunter; IF Eugenio Suarez

Key Offseason Additions: SPs Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon; RP Tom Gorzelanny; OFs Yoenis Cespedes and Anthony Gose

The reigning AL Central champions suffered arguably the biggest blow to any team in the division when free agent and former Cy Young pitcher Scherzer signed a mega contract with the Washington Nationals, taking his 39-8 record and 3.02 ERA in 65 starts over each of his last two All-Star seasons to the National League while leaving a notable void in the team’s starting rotation. Compounding things, the team also dealt six-year Detroit veteran Porcello to the Boston Red Sox, with his salary inflating to $12.5 million through arbitration and with his free agency and likely departure from town on the horizon following the 2015 season.

The two-fifths turnover of the starting rotation has been replaced by players somewhat lacking similar experience. The team traded for Simon, an All-Star for the first time last season with the Cincinnati Reds in his first full season as a starting pitcher. They also dealt pitcher Ray, acquired when they dealt another starter, Doug Fister, last season, to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team trade that returned Greene from the New York Yankees.

Greene and Simon will slot into a rotation behind Price, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez. Price will begin his first full season in Detroit and will be the number one starter on the staff. Verlander is already battling injury and is coming off of his worst season since 2008.

The bullpen, a significant source of stress for Tigers fans in recent years, remained relatively unchanged. Lefty Coke was not resigned after the season, but the team did bring back Joba Chamberlain and signed Gorzelanny from Milwaukee. Joe Nathan will continue to close out games and late season acquisition Joakim Soria will be waiting in the wings in the event Nathan cannot handle the duties.

The offense lost Hunter, who returned to the Twin Cities to end his career where it all began with the Minnesota Twins, but did re-sign Victor Martinez. To replace the .286 average, 17 homers, and 83 RBI Hunter supplied its offense, the team acquired Cespedes as the return for Porcello. They also acquired Gose, a speed threat on the field, in a trade from Toronto.

The Tigers have a potent lineup, especially in the middle with Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Martinez, and Indians-killer J.D. Martinez. The Tigers will need to have their rapidly aging roster avoid the injury bug and a bullpen that posted the worst batting average allowed, second worst WHIP, and third worst ERA in the AL to stabilize without significant additions in the bullpen corps.

Kansas City Royals

Key Offseason Subtractions: SP James Shields; RP Aaron Crow; OF Nori Aoki, Raul Ibanez, and Josh Willingham; 1B/DH Billy Butler; IF Johnny Giavotella

Key Offseason Additions: SP Edinson Volquez and Chris Young; DH Kendrys Morales; OF Alex Rios

The surprise of the AL and the league’s pennant winner, the Royals took several hits to their lineup and will have to hope from rebound years from a few of their offseason acquisitions to find the same success in 2015.

The biggest departure was Shields. “Big Game James” had his second consecutive successful season in Royal blue, going 14-8 with a 3.21 ERA in 227 innings, and turned his work into a four-year, $75 million deal with the San Diego Padres late in the offseason.

The right-handed Volquez joins his sixth Major League team and returns to the AL for the first time since 2007. His 13-7 season with a 3.04 ERA in 32 games for Pittsburgh last season was his best season since his breakout rookie and All-Star season with Cincinnati in 2008. He will join a rotation composed of flamethrower Yordano Ventura, southpaw Danny Duffy, and veterans Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas. Young, the 6’10” soft-tossing righty is in the mix as a possible fill-in for the rotation as well as relief help after a 12-9, 3.65 ERA season in Seattle last year.

Butler, the team’s designated hitter for the last eight years, was one of the first players in the offseason to relocate, joining the Oakland Athletics on a three-year, $30 million pact. Aoki, the team’s ignitor at the top of the order, returned to the NL after one year with the Royals and jumped from one pennant winning club to another, joining the World Champion Giants.

They were replaced on the roster by Morales and Rios. Morales became victim to the qualifying offer, as teams shied away from the switch-hitting DH following a 23 homer, 80 RBI season in 2013 with Seattle. After signing after the draft with the Minnesota Twins, he was dealt back to the Mariners after a slow start and finished the season with a .218 average and just eight home runs in 98 games. Rios saw his power all but deplete in his first full season with the Texas Rangers. He hit .280 on the season, but had just four home runs and drove in 54, the third-lowest total of his eleven-year career.

The Royals surprised many last season as the young roster followed their veteran leadership to a late season surge into the postseason. With many of the older players moved on, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez will be forced to lead their speedy teammates in creating as many runs as possible without any significant thump in the lineup.

Chicago White Sox

Key Offseason Subtractions: P Andre Rienzo; C Josh Phegley; IF Marcus Semien; OF Jordan Danks and Dayan Viciedo

Key Offseason Additions: SP Jeff Samardzija; RP David Robertson, Zach Duke, and Dan Jennings; 1B Adam LaRoche; 2B Gordon Beckham; OF Melky Cabrera; UTIL Emilio Bonifacio

The Chicago White Sox were one of the most active teams around the league in the fall and winter, spending some big bucks to supplement an otherwise young and unproven roster. They have generally been regarded as having been the AL’s winners of the offseason. That, however, does not always translate to wins on the field. Just ask the 2013 Miami Marlins.

The Sox shelled out for Samardzija, Robertson, Cabrera, and LaRoche, signing all to sizable multi-year deals.

Samardzija joins Chris Sale and Jose Quintana in the rotation to provide the club with some strength at the top of the rotation while the club waits for highly touted pitching prospect Carlos Rodon in the coming months.Samardzija was 7-13 last season while splitting the season between the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics organizations. A free agent after the season, he has a lot of money riding on his season and will once again have the spotlight on him as the team’s Opening Day starter with Sale out with an injured foot.

Robertson and Duke will plug the hole in the back end of a bullpen that blew 21 saves in 57 chances last year while compiling a team ERA of 4.38, third worst in all of baseball. Duke will set up for Robertson, who saved 39 games in pinstripes last season with the unenviable task of replacing arguably the greatest closer in the history of baseball in New York.

Cabrera joins Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia in the outfield, bringing his .301 average, 16 homers, and 73 RBI that he hit north of the border for the Blue Jays last season. His presence should inject some runs into the lineup, especially hitting around Jose Abreu and LaRoche.

The Sox will score more runs with the additions to the offense. Their pitching staff as a whole should be improved enough to keep them contending with the top three teams from last year, but how much of an improvement the club has after a 73-89 2014 season remains to be seen.

Minnesota Twins

Key Offseason Subtractions: DH Kendrys Morales; RP Anthony Swarzak

Key Offseason Additions: SP Ervin Santana; RPs Blaine Boyer and Tim Stauffer; OF Torii Hunter and Shane Robinson

The poor Twins just cannot seem to catch a break.

Despite some younger players showing some promise at the Major League level and some highly touted pieces on the farm, longtime manager Ron Gardenhire’s tenure ended after 13 seasons at the helm. In his baker’s dozen, he took the Twins to the postseason six times and had winning records in eight years, but the team has won no more than 70 games with a disappointing roster over each of the last four years.

With Gardy gone, Hall of Famer Paul Molitor takes the reins of an extremely young lineup that could very well be looking at another season a dozen games below the .500 mark.

The Twins will very likely host a roster largely composed of players under the age of 30, but one of their biggest offseason acquisitions is already gone for half of the season.

The 32-year-old Santana, who looked to slot in nicely in a rotation with Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco, Kyle Gibson, and Tommy Milone as another veteran leader, was suspended for 80 games for the use of performance enhancers. Santana, who is with his fourth team in four years, was 14-10 with the Atlanta Braves last season and signed a four-year, $55 million deal with a club option this offseason.

The other of their main offseason acquisition, Hunter, is 38 and in what should be the final year of his career in his return to Minneapolis. He and the returning Joe Mauer will be looked to mentor the likes of Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas, and the other young up and coming players on the roster. Of the projected starting nine for the Twins, only Hunter, Mauer, and catcher Kurt Suzuki are 30 years or older.

The Twins continue to show growth, but they may not achieve a competitive level of success until some more of the big name prospects, like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, can crack the Bigs and contribute on an every day basis.

***** **** *** ** * ** *** **** *****

Predictions for the division have varied for all the clubs. Some believe that the rebuilt White Sox will surprise and run away with the top spot. Others feel that the Tigers have yet to be tamed and until someone can steal the throne, it is theirs to keep. The Royals could just as easily make the same claim as the returning AL Champions. The Indians have been anointed the World Champions by some publications and fourth place in others.

The best part of it all is that everyone starts Sunday night with a clean slate and that anything can happen over a 162-game season.

The race for the AL Central crown begins this week. It is anyone’s race.

Let the wild ride begin. Remember to enjoy it along the way.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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