The time for baseball is coming, with spring training having opened and exhibition games beginning. When we last left baseball, Madison Bumgarner was reminding us of just how extraordinary the game can be sometimes with his once-in-a-lifetime performance in the San Francisco Giants’ World Series win over the Kansas City Royals. Now it’s a time for a fresh season and fresh storylines and the one that has me most intrigued is the AL Central race.
The Detroit Tigers have won this division each of the last four years, but the gap is clearly narrowing—most obviously by the fact that it was Kansas City who went storming through the American League playoffs. Detroit also has to keep an eye on the Cleveland Indians, who made the playoffs two years ago and posted a winning record last year under the leadership of Terry Francona.
This post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive preview of the AL Central, merely a tone-setter for what we have to look forward to. Each of the three teams have unique angles and reasons why they can win:
*Kansas City may have lost staff ace James Shields to free agency, but the Royals still have the most dynamic collection of young talent in the game. Last September and October they finally put it all together and rather than being a fluke, I think that was the “real Royals” finally coming to life before our eyes.
Now they’re battle-tested and know they can win. The loss of Shields’ innings are going to be missed, but manager Ned Yost still has an extremely deep and talented bullpen.
*Detroit is still the four-time defending champs, the only team that has proven they can do it over a 162-game haul, however much potential and October success Kansas City has enjoyed. But the Tigers now have to do it without Max Scherzer, who left for Washington. And they don’t have the kind of bullpen KC has to fall back on—which is putting it mildly.
The biggest key to the Tigers is going to be whether Justin Verlander can regain his form after getting knocked around in 2014, to the tune of a 4.54 ERA in one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball. It’s also fair to wonder how much wear and tear is on the body of Miguel Cabrera, who has finished each of the last two seasons playing through health problems. I’m deeply skeptical that Detroit will make it five in a row.
*Now we come to Cleveland, more under the radar this season after failing to reach the playoffs last year. I would submit, however, that finishing with a winning record last year was a very quiet sign that the Indians are here to stay. They had almost everything possible go wrong from an injury standpoint and still won more games than they lost and produced a Cy Young winner, in Cory Kluber. What happens if things break their way this season?
There’s precedent for this. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays came out of nowhere to reach the World Series, in much the same way the Indians of 2013 just splashed onto the scene and made the playoffs. The Rays of 2009 slipped back and missed the playoffs, winning 84 games. But the quiet winning season established that the magic of the previous year wasn’t just a one-year wonder before a fall back into oblivion. And Tampa Bay stayed a contender through 2013.
Or consider the Baltimore Orioles, who came blazing out of nowhere to make the playoffs in 2012. The Orioles missed the playoffs in 2013, but finished with a winning record. What happened the next year? Established as a winner, they won the AL East.
The cycle is clear—come out of nowhere and make the playoffs. Then have a fallback year where things don’t go your way, but establish yourself as a winner. Then rev it back up for big Year 3. Cleveland is now in Year 3 of that cycle under Francona and we’ll see if that same pattern holds.
I’m pulling for the Indians and for Tito. I haven’t made a prediction yet, other than this—as a subscriber to the MLB Extra Innings package, I intend to enjoy the entire AL Central race this year.