Is the AL Central the best division in baseball? Maybe. The AL East is pretty damn good too.
But after a flurry of offseason moves, the AL Central is primed to be the tightest division in all of baseball.
The Detroit Tigers have dominated recently, winning the crown the past four seasons – but that run may finally end in 2015.
For the first time in awhile, the ever rare four-team race could be on our hands.
Since 2002, there have been 19 “three-team races.” Criteria for a three-team race is a team being within seven games of the leader and above .500. There can be exceptions, but in my research there was only one—the 2006 NL Central which saw the Cardinals win the division with a paltry 83-78 record. While that division was a shit show, it was still a tight race.
The tightest race occurred in 2007, when the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West by 1.5 games. That means in 13 seasons, with six divisions, only 19 times have three teams come down to the wire.
Only once has a true four-team race happened, and that was the 2005 NL East.
The Atlanta Braves prevailed over the Philadelphia Phillies by two games, with the New York Mets and Miami (Florida) Marlins seven games back at 83-79. Even fifth place Washington finished with a record of 81-81.
History doesn’t bode well for the AL Central, but with the talent in the division it’s certainly something that can be achieved.
Let’s take a look at what the division’s teams did to get better this offseason.
Chicago White Sox
Key Additions: Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, Dan Jennings, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Jeff Samardzija
Key Departures: None
Rick Hahn’s feverish spending this offseason has vaulted the White Sox to the top of the division. After a 73-89 finish to the 2014 season, something had to change quickly with no impact bats waiting in the minors. Hahn signed Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to solidify his batting order, and surprised everyone when he reeled in Jeff Samardzija.
He shored up his bullpen by signing Zach Duke and David Robertson, then trading for Dan Jennings. Hahn didn’t just check off a couple boxes, he checked them all off.
Oh, and he dumped Dayan Viciedo, which in itself is a huge positive.
X-Factor: Adam Eaton
If Eaton can repeat what he did in 2014, he will be the perfect table-setter for the players hitting behind him.
Key Additions: Gavin Floyd, Brandon Moss
Key Departures: None
Cleveland just barely missed the playoffs in 2014, finishing four games back of Kansas City at 85-79. Despite their failure to reach the playoffs, they didn’t feel the need to go crazy this offseason. They added a power bat in Moss and a solid back-of-rotation starter in Floyd – although he’ll be limited after reinjuring his arm.
The Indians are banking on both bounce back seasons from their veterans and the development of young players. If all goes right, they should have no issues repeating 2014.
X-Factor: Carlos Carrasco
There is no denying that Carrasco was spectacular last season, but we need to see him do it again. If so, he and Corey Kluber will form one hell of a 1-2 punch.
Key Additions: Yoenis Cespedes, Tom Gorzelanny, Anthony Gose, Shane Greene, Alfredo Simon
Key Departures: Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer
How do you lose two of your best pitchers and not sign anyone to replace them? You trade for them, at least in theory. Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene will be given the monumental task of somehow replacing Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.
Especially since Porcello was traded for Yoenis Cespedes who is an absolute head case and to be quite frank, overrated.
This is how you are dethroned as the AL Central king. While everyone around them got better, Detroit somehow got worse.
A 90-72 repeat doesn’t look likely.
X-Factor: Nick Castellanos
Castellanos didn’t exactly light the world on fire during his rookie campaign, but it was acceptable. He’ll get a shot to prove himself at his natural position (third base) and he should feel more comfortable at the plate this time around.
Kansas City Royals
Key Additions: Brian Flynn, Kris Medlen, Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Edinson Volquez, Chris Young
Key Departures: Billy Butler, Aaron Crow, James Shields
It’s never easy for a small market team to stay at the top, and after finishing 89-73 and making it to the World Series in 2014, the Royals needed to get better without breaking the bank.
James Shields turned into Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen. Billy Butler turned into Alex Rios. It seems as if GM Dayton Moore is relying heavily on further progression from young players like Chris Antonetti, and hoping Mike Moustakas finally has a breakout campaign – not just a good postseason.
X-Factor: Yordano Ventura
Ventura has big shoes to fill after the departure of James Shields. Can he rise to the occasion? I think so, but asking him to do more in addition to what he did last season is dangerous.
Key Additions: Torii Hunter, Ervin Santana, Tim Stauffer
Key Departures: None
If there is one team that could totally turn the AL Central upside down, it’s the Twins. Don’t be fooled by their 70-92 record last year. This is a very young team with quite a bit of talent.
Prospects don’t always come out of the gates blazing, and last year was that season for many of their young players. Adjustments and progression will be the key words for the Twins in 2015. Ervin Santana was a big get, but only if you get the 2013 or 2014 version. If he pitches like the 2012 version, it could get ugly quick in Minnesota.
Hopefully, Torii Hunter realizes he has more value as a mentor instead of spewing his personal beliefs, which he has done before. Overall, the Twins got the upgrades they needed in the offseason, now it all just needs to start coming together.
X-Factor: Kyle Gibson
A breakout is upon us with Kyle Gibson. He didn’t post a shiny ERA in 2014, but his peripheral stats are very encouraging. He’s very good at keeping the ball on the ground and inside the park.
If there’s one thing we know about the 2015 AL Central, it’s that the playing field is unprecedentedly level. The Tigers managed to get worse on paper while the Indians and Royals remained about the same. The White Sox went into full on “win now” mode, and even the Twins improved.
The depth of the AL Central gives hope to the exciting prospect of a four-team race. Is it a stretch? Of course. Don’t expect a 90-win teams to come storming into September, but the Tigers, White Sox, Royals and Indians all seem like reasonable candidates to fall in the mid-to-upper 80s.
While the Central may not have the talent level of the AL East, it’s certainly the most balanced, which will make it the tightest in the American League.
Good luck picking a champion.