2015 Idiot Predictions: American League Central

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

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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

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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

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