This is part two of the Mattingly’s Sideburns 2015 MLB Preview and Predictions series. For part one on the American League East, click here.
The rest of my 2015 season preview and predictions series kicks off two weeks after Opening Day, but better late than never.
The AL Central is fun again. Three teams in this division are being picked consistently to make deep runs into October, and that’s not even including the team from this division that actually did make a deep run in October last year. There are a ton of questions in the division and I’m setting out to answers them all. Or at least most. One or two. Are the Tigers too old? Are the Indians too young? Can the Royals really do that again? Did the White Sox really go from pretender to contender in the span of two weeks? Are the Twins a baseball team? Let’s find out.
**Note: 2014 BaseRuns Record information can be found at FanGraphs, and is their method for determining how good a team actually was in 2014 based on their underlying statistics, essentially stripping away any luck or flukey-ness from a team’s actual record.**
5. Minnesota Twins
2014 Record: 70-92
2014 BaseRuns Record: 74-88
Runs Scored: 715
Runs Allowed: 777
Almost all fifteen teams in the American League entered the season with a reasonable hope for playoff contention. The Twins are the most glaring exception. For a team that has averaged just 66 wins over the past four seasons and still lacks a strong core of major league talent, penciling them into last place in the Central is one of the easier calls to make. Being in rebuilding mode might not necessarily even be a bad thing for Minnesota in 2015, though. With the rest of the division looking as strong as it has in years, it’s likely that Minnesota’s best bet is to bide their time and aim for contention in another year or two. But in the mean time, the Twinks will still offer some compelling reasons to watch.
Let’s start with the biggest bright spot from the 2014 roster, pitcher Phil Hughes. Hughes paid off in a big way for the Twins after they signed him to a 3-year, $24 million dollar deal last offseason. Freed from the homer-happy confines of Yankee Stadium for the first time in his career, Hughes began pounding the strike zone without mercy, leading baseball with a 56.4% zone rate. As a result, Hughes broke the all-time record for strikeout-to-walk ratio (K:BB), with an incredible 11.63 mark (186 strikeouts against just 16 walks all season). The Twins were so convinced of Hughes’ transformation that, despite having him under contract for another two years, they decided they wanted him for even longer and inked him to a new 5-year, $58 million dollar extension in December.
A few months later the Twins would lock up another of their young stars, this time the 28-year-old second baseman Brian Dozier. Dozier is coming off a career year in 2014 in which he slugged 23 homers and swiped 21 bases, posting 4.8 wins above replacement (WAR), a mark that trailed only Ben Zobrist, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler and Jose Altuve among second basemen last year. Dozier will slot towards the top of a lineup that was surprisingly productive in 2014, scoring the fifth most runs in the AL. All seven of the Twins position players to reach at least 300 plate appearances were above average, with Dozier and rookie Danny Santana leading the way. While Santana and catcher Kurt Suzuki are in line to see substantial regression from their flukey BABIPs (batting average on balls in play), a bounce-back campaign from Joe Mauer could help mitigate those losses if he’s able to shake the injury bug. Beyond that, the impending major league debuts from top prospects Miguel Sano, Alex Meyer and Byron Buxton (ranked the number two prospect in baseball by Baseball America) should keep Twins fans interested in 2015 even if they spend most of the summer wallowing around at the bottom of the standings.
Path to the Playoffs: The Twins would need a lot to go right to make any kind of run in 2015. Beyond needing Hughes and Dozier to keep all of their 2014 gains, Minnesota would need resurgent years from Mauer and Torii Hunter, and likely some kind of impact from at least one of their rookies. Even that might not be enough to overcome a pitching rotation that stands to be one of the worst in baseball behind Hughes, particularly after the newly-signed Ervin Santana was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for the anabolic steroid Stanozolol this spring. Root for Hughes and Dozier to lock themselves in as franchise cornerstones. Be excited for the kids getting called up. Watch in awe as the 39-year-old Hunter attempts to play the outfield. Just don’t expect a winning season.
2015 Idiot Prediction: 70-92
4. Kansas City Royals
2014 Record: 89-73
2014 BaseRuns Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 651
Runs Allowed: 624
Some would think I was being too hard on the defending American League champions by placing them in fourth place, and that was before they won eight of their first ten games to start the 2015 season. But despite the Royals already doing their damndest to make me look stupid, I stick by my prediction. A lot of work has been done over the past few days to figure out how predictive an early winning streak is for a team. Both Joe Sheehan and Russell Carleton found that a hot start to the season doesn’t necessarily mean much when it comes to the final standings. Bad teams sometimes have good weeks and vice versa. If a bad team wins seven games in a row in mid-August, nobody bats an eye. In that case we understand that four months of crappy play outweighs seven good games. But it’s a lot easier to get carried away with numbers in mid-April because those are the only numbers we have. This will be a recurring theme for the rest of these team previews. While my opinion might be slightly altered for some teams based on what’s happened over the first two weeks of the season, it’s best not to jump to conclusions after just 5% of the season. Everybody sing along:
As fun as the 2014 Royals were, the truth is that they had to have a lot of things go right to end up where they did. They outplayed their BaseRuns record by eight games and only survived the Wild Card play-in game by the skin of their teeth. If one more thing goes wrong for Kansas City in that game, they are sent home and the narrative surrounding them is resoundingly different. That’s what getting hot for a few weeks in October can do for you.
When you consider that the Royals were really a lot closer to a true-talent .500 team than their 2014 record indicated, and then you subtract James Shields from that roster, you start to see why I might be low on them for 2015. The offense is largely the same as last year, with the only changes being Kendrys Morales in at DH for Billy Butler and Alex Rios taking over for Nori Aoki in right field, moves that are likely washes at best. The thing is, offense was not the team’s forte as it was, ranking just ninth in the AL in runs scored in 2014. In order for KC to take a step forward with the sticks they’d be banking on post-hype hitters Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to finally jump to the next level. While both guys put on a show last October, asking them to repeat the feat for a full 162-game season is a bit of a longshot.
The loss of Shields in the rotation is a dramatic one, particularly when you consider that his replacement is Edinson Volquez, whom the Royals signed to a 2-year, $20 million dollar deal this offseason. Despite a decent season in Pittsburgh last year, Volquez has a much larger and more trustworthy reputation for being, for the lack of a better word, dreadful. Volquez posted ERAs above 4 in every season from 2009-2013, including two such seasons in which he was north of 5.70. The Royals would need to see youngsters Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy come into their own as starters in order to counteract the departure of Shields, easier said than done for a pair with less than 100 major league starts combined and looming injury concerns for each.
Path to the Playoffs: Most of what I’ve said about the Royals has been negative thus far, but all hope is not lost. KC’s bread and butter last season was their combination of elite defense with a lethal bullpen, both of which they still have. As hard as it is to expect large steps forward from guys like Hosmer and Moustakas, it is perhaps a bit easier to buy happening with the Royals, who helped Alex Gordon blossom into a superstar after being labeled as a bust early in his career. Still, if you buy that the Royals outplayed their true talent level last year, are worse this year, and saw the rest of the division get even stronger, it’s hard to see more October fireworks from Kansas City this year. Also, Ned Yost.
2015 Idiot Prediction: 77-85
3. Chicago White Sox
2014 Record: 73-89
2014 BaseRuns Record: 75-87
Runs Scored: 660
Runs Allowed: 758
No team in the American League did more to improve themselves this past offseason than the White Sox. Maybe the most impressive part about their makeover was that the front office recognized the need for it at all. It would have been easy to sit back and continue on the rebuilding path like the division-mate Twins, aiming to strike a few years down the line. Instead, GM Rick Hahn and company realized that the south siders were sitting on a goldmine with ace pitcher Chris Sale and Cuban slugger Jose Abreu. To have continued floundering at the bottom of the division for a few years would be to waste their talent. So the Sox instead set out to retool their roster and wound up turning in one of the most efficient and impressive offseasons in recent memory.
In the span of just a few weeks the Sox signed Adam LaRoche to replace the retired Paul Konerko at DH, signed David Robertson and Zach Duke to bolster their bullpen, traded for Oakland starter Jeff Samardzija and then signed left fielder Melky Cabrera for good measure. That quintet of acquisitions was good for 11.2 wins above replacement (Fangraphs version) in 2014, and filled the most glaring holes on the ChiSox roster. It was as impressive a winter as any and transformed the franchise from a rebuilding team with a few superstar players into a complete roster with an immediate shot to contend.
Offensively the conversation begins with Abreu. The hulk of a first baseman had a rookie season for the ages last year after defecting from Cuba, posting a .317/.383/.581 batting line while mashing 36 homers and posting 5.2 WAR. He won the AL Rookie of the Year award in a landslide and finished fourth in the MVP voting. The most amazing thing about his season, however, was how he dramatically adjusted his hitting approach midseason. For the first half of the season Abreu was a power juggernaut, crushing 29 homers with a completely ridiculous 34.9% homerun-to-flyball ratio. That power took a nosedive in the second half, however, as Abreu’s HR/FB ratio fell all the way to 13.9% and saw him put just 7 more balls in the seats over the remainder of the season. Yet despite that relative power outage, Abreu was actually just as, if not more potent at the plate during the second half. Abreu raised his walk rate from 6.3% to 10.7% and sliced his strikeout rate to 18.1% from 23.4%. He traded in fly balls for more grounders and line drives and saw his batting average spike from .292 to .350. All told, Abreu was equally as lethal at the plate in both halves of the season and he did it largely as two completely different hitters.
With offensive pieces like Cabrera, LaRoche, Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Alexei Ramirez surrounding Abreu in the lineup, the Sox have a chance to be one of the best offenses in the American League. Combining that potential with three of the best pitchers in the American League will help explain the optimism most analysts have for the Sox in 2015. Sale has firmly established himself as one of the five best pitchers in baseball by posting WARs of 4.5, 4.7 and 5.1 over the last three seasons, the entirety of which came before his 26th birthday. Fellow lefty Jose Quintana has been much more under-the-radar but has seen a meteoric rise himself over the past few seasons, going from 1.5 to 3.3 to 5.0 WAR after leaving the Yankees after 2011 as a minor league free agent. Samardzija returns to the Windy City after having established himself as an effective starter with the Cubs for the past three years. Samardzija was traded from Chicago to Oakland in the middle of last year, his best year so far, in which he posted a 2.99 ERA and 4.2 WAR.
Path to the Playoffs: Despite all its potential, the offense does have some question marks. Can Adam Eaton stay healthy? Can Avisail Garcia be the dynamic middle-of-the-order presence Chicago needs him to be? Is Jose Abreu the masher he showed in the first half, the patience prodigy he showed in the second half, or can he once again combine the two into a Miguel Cabrera/Albert Pujols-esque MVP season? Odds are the Sox will have a good offense in 2015. The answers to those questions will determine just how good. The biggest issue facing the White Sox is their lack of reliable fourth and fifth starters. With John Danks and Hector Noesi penciled into those spots, it’s hard to see the Sox jumping all the way to first place in what promises to be a tough division. The one wildcard in the mix is Carlos Rodon, Chicago’s first round pick in last June’s amateur draft. Many scouts believe Rodon is ready for the big leagues right now, and he could overtake either Danks or Noesi in the rotation sooner rather than later. If Rodon can not only survive in the big leagues, but thrive, the Sox might be the team to beat in the Central. There is a lot of downside risk with all that uncertainty, however, and for that I can’t put them higher than third.
2015 Idiot Prediction: 84-78
2. Detroit Tigers
2014 Record: 90-72
2014 BaseRuns Record: 88-74
Runs Scored: 757
Runs Allowed: 705
“The Tigers are the new Phillies” is an idea that’s been floating around in the baseball world for a couple of years now. The premise is that Detroit is winding down after a run of a greatness, foolishly tried to sustain that greatness by locking themselves into mega-contracts with players that are going rapidly deteriorate, and those contracts will soon sink them like an anchor. The 2007-2011 Phillies were on top of the world. Now they own the whole anchor store. The Phillies went from invincible to laughingstock in just about two years, and now everyone is just waiting for that same shoe to drop on the Tigers.
I have not and will not defend the contracts the Tigers have dished out recently. I think there stands a very good chance that not only are the Tigers going to ‘become’ the Phillies, but that they’re going to be even worse off because of the sheer length of the commitments they’re on the hook for. But as things currently stand, they are decidedly not the Phillies. The Tigers still have damn good players and could very well be in line for yet another damn good season.
But the cracks in the foundation are there. Justin Verlanchor — er, Verlander — for instance ($140 million guaranteed over the next 5 years), has already begun that rapid deterioration everyone has been warning about. Verlander cruised from 2009-2012 with one of the most dominant pitching runs in recent history, including a 2011 season in which he was the first pitcher to win the AL MVP since Dennis Eckersley in 1992. The wheels started to wobble in 2013 when his ERA shot up nearly a full run. Last year the wheels came off completely as he posted 4.54 ERA and 1.1 WAR (Baseball-Reference version). Thus far in 2015 he hasn’t even gotten on the mound, making the first DL trip of his career with a triceps issue.
Verlander has seen his fastball velocity go from above 96 mph in his age-26 season in 2009 to between 92 and 93 mph last year at age 31. His consistent mid-20s strikeout percentage took a nosedive all the way to 17.9% as a result. Verlander is not the only pitcher to lose velocity and effectiveness with age. The question is whether or not he can learn to pitch with diminished stuff, or if he’ll continue to be just a shell of his former self.
A healthy and rejuvenated Verlander would go a long way toward pushing the Tigers into October for the fifth straight year. With the departure of Max Scherzer in free agency and the trade of Rick Porcello to Boston, Detroit will be forced to rely on newcomers Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon at the back end of their rotation. While at least Greene offers some nice upside, that rotation, even with the always-elite David Price at the forefront, is a far cry from the dominant staffs Detroit fans have gotten used to over the years. The truth is that the Tigers teams that have been consistently lauded for elite pitching rotations have now become a bat-first team.
Much of that still has to do with lineup staples Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who Detroit re-signed over the winter. But the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes from Boston and the emergence of J.D. Martinez have propelled Detroit from a nice offense to one of the scarier lineups in the league. The latter Martinez went from an Astros cast-off last spring to slashing .315/.358/.553 in Detroit with 23 homers in just 441 at-bats. If his evolution is to be believed (and with 5 more homers already in the first two weeks of 2015, all signs point to yes) then the Tigers just stumbled into an All-Star caliber right fielder. With Ian Kinsler in the mix, Detroit’s 2 through 6 batters will stack up with just about anyone.
Path to the Playoffs: If the lineup should falter then we could see the beginning of the end in the Motor City. Should Cabrera or V-Mart go down with a substantial injury, or J.D. Martinez turn back into a pumpkin, then Detroit will be hard-pressed to make it back to October. If the offense is as robust as it could be, I think Price and Anibal Sanchez will provide enough at the front-end of the rotation that Detroit will contend again, and likely fight it’s way back into the playoffs. This is a weaker Tiger team than we are used to though, and in a stronger AL Central that might mean playing for a wild card berth rather than another division title. If they do get back there, this is probably their last shot. Next stop, Phillyville.
2015 Idiot Prediction: 87-75
1. Cleveland Indians
I thought I was really clever when I tabbed Cleveland as my darkhorse pick in the American League a few months ago. Then a few weeks shy of Opening Day I got this in the mail.
Michael Brantley busted out in a major way in 2014, hitting for a .327/.385/.506 line en route to a top-three finish in the AL MVP vote. His 6.3 WAR more than doubled his next-best season and was sixth best in baseball. Oh, and he also stole 23 bases and was caught just once. Brantley displayed the kind of five-tool mastery that stars are made of. Even if you build in some regression for his 2015 expectations, he’s still likely to be wildly productive. And if his teammates can find some of his good fortune and use it to stay healthy and productive in 2015 then I doubt Cleveland will mind if Brantley is merely really good instead of great.
Jason Kipnis, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher missed more than 150 games combined last season with an assortment of injuries. The absence and overall dismal performance of Kipnis hurt the Indians particularly badly. Many thought Kipnis was on his way to stardom after posting 3.4 and 4.7 WAR seasons in 2012 and 2013. Bothered by an oblique injury, Kipnis struggled to the tune of just 0.8 WAR in 2014, seeing declines in his numbers across the board. Cleveland will hope that a return to form by the 28-year-old, along with Brantley, emerging-stud catcher Yan Gomes and sluggers Carlos Santana and Brandon Moss (acquired in an offseason trade with Oakland) will help the Tribe improve upon an offense that was seventh-best in the American League last year.
As solid as Cleveland’s lineup looks top-to-bottom, the pitching rotation is where the potential really lies. Corey Kluber took the world by storm last year, striking out 269 batters in 235.2 innings with a 2.44 ERA. Kluber trailed only Clayton Kershaw among Major League starters in both Fangraphs WAR and Baseball-Reference WAR with 7.2 and 7.4 marks respectively, earning the 28-year-old the American League Cy Young award. Analysts had tabbed Kluber as a potential breakout candidate prior to 2014 based on his strong finish the year prior, but nobody saw that coming. The scary thing about Cleveland’s rotation is that it is chock-full of similar young breakout candidates, with Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House all flashing hints of dominance. If Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway can coax that dominance from one or two more of Cleveland’s young hurlers, like he did with Kluber last year or Ubaldo Jimenez the year before, the Indians will be a force in 2015.