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AL Central Preview

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Editor's Note: Matt Zylbert, entering his second season with the company, led all of VegasInsider.com last year in baseball during the regular season, while concentrating solely on just -110 over/under bets, as he finished 281-230-30 (55%), including an unbelievable 169-99-16 (63.1%) from July 6 through the conclusion of the season. Thus, make sure you invest with him all season long for guaranteed profits! It’s a fact that nobody studies over/unders more than Zylbert, let alone with the human psychology technique that he implements concerning starting pitchers, and it shows in the results every year.

AL East Preview · AL West Preview
 
Kansas City Royals

In 2013, the Royals finally broke through in a big way, eclipsing the .500 mark for the first time since 2003. However, with the way they played throughout much of the year, it’s apparent that they were left hungry in the end after just coming up short in the wild card hunt. And with that, there’s a lot of optimism around this young group that, for the most part, has grown up together in the Royal farm system, as they seek to graduate to that next level. The potential is certainly there, having a young core consisting of very solid players that are capable of even more.

Billy Butler, for the most part, has fulfilled his potential in propelling this lineup for the past handful of years, but he also may see a huge boost from first baseman Eric Hosmer, who had his best year to date a season ago while quietly leading the AL in multi-hit games. Mike Moustakas, after a disastrous start to his campaign, got back on track over the final couple of months and is definitely someone the Royals will need steady production from, which he can deliver, if they are to reach the postseason. Alex Gordon, aside from his outstanding defensive abilities, is another key contributor at the plate, while Salvador Perez proved last year he can be a constant on both sides of the ball. The Royals added Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante this offseason to give an extra something to the batting order and in the field.

Pitching was this club’s strength in ’13, as they boasted the best team ERA in the American League last season. A lot of that had to do with the aggressive trade for ace James Shields, who was everything Kansas City hoped for while registering another terrific season on par with his usual numbers. The surprising emergence of Jeremy Guthrie also played a critical part in the strong pitching, as he led the Royals in wins. The other guy on this staff that topped 200 innings, Ervin Santana, is no longer with the organization, but the addition of Jason Vargas should absolutely help fill that void, while the return of Danny Duffy is an item that has huge potential for their 2014 outlook, as the southpaw was once one of the more promising prospects in all of baseball before Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf.

If their starting pitching remains excellent, the Royals have a real shot of garnering a playoff berth, especially since their bullpen was kept the same, minus the recent season-ending injury to Luke Hochevar. They were one of the best units last year, and still having a combo Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, and Tim Collins, among others, team up to get the ball to Greg Holland in the ninth, there’s real potential here. As long as their offense improves and shows up more times than not, they have the ability to ultimately dethrone the Tigers and win this division.

Predicted Record: 90-72

Detroit Tigers

Three straight years now, the Tigers have come oh-so close to winning a world championship, but each time, they’ve come up just short. In the process, they did nab three division titles and an American League pennant in 2012, but after falling to the eventual-champion Red Sox in last year’s wild ALCS, their window is closing. If they are to finally pull it off, it will be without the man who has led them in each of those three seasons, not to mention the prior six, Jim Leyland, who stepped down following Detroit’s heart-breaking exit. Enter former Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus, the club’s new manager, and he’s inherited quite a roster.

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In fact, he has probably the best pitching rotation in the American League, led by two guys who would be aces pretty much anywhere in baseball, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Verlander is actually coming off a bit of a down season - at least by his superhuman standards - but did look superb in the postseason when it counted most. Scherzer, meanwhile, was so good that he captured his first AL Cy Young award. The Tigers’ rotation takes a hit with the loss of Doug Fister, but they’re replacing him with youngster Drew Smyly, who flashed some promise in his first stint as a starter two years ago. With Anibal Sanchez also still there, the starting pitching should remain in tip-top shape. The bullpen will also be of similar stature, as despite losing Joaquin Benoit, they gained Joe Nathan, a more proven and established closer. Joba Chamberlain was also brought in to join Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque amongst the set-up men.

Offensively, the Tigers took a huge gamble at the start of the offseason when they traded Prince Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler, which could be the main move that either makes or breaks this squad in 2014. Yes, Kinsler fills a dire need at second base with Omar Infante gone, but Fielder has always been one of those unique power bats that you could always count on to make a huge impact, and beyond that, he was also the key presence that protected the game’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, in the Detroit lineup. The Tigers do have other options, though, to replace his production, as they still have Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, each with their own more-than-respectable track records in the big leagues. Austin Jackson also remains, having maintained his status as one of baseball’s most dynamic lead-off hitters.

Other than them, though, things get a little murky. Highly-touted prospect Nick Castellanos is being given the chance to sink or swim right away, as he takes over third base with Cabrera shifting across the diamond to first. At catcher, Alex Avila is coming off a nightmarish 2013 so that’s another question mark. Rajai Davis was added for outfield depth, but he’s really nothing more than a speedster with minimal power. With their AL Central rivals closing the gap, it’ll be tough for this year’s Tigers to secure a fourth straight division title. The tide is turning.

Predicted Record: 87-75

Cleveland Indians

Nobody was more on target with the surprising Indians in 2013 than this author, after talking them up and promising that Over 76.5 Wins was the best bet on the board. Fortunately, with then-new manager Terry Francona at the helm, these Indians did not disappoint at all, smashing the low expectations set for them as not only did they exceed .500 by a wide margin, they also made it to the AL wild card play-in game. There, however, they fell short thanks to a lack of offense, but, given how consistent they were throughout the whole season, that was more of an anomaly than anything, and luckily for Cleveland, it’s pretty much the same group that will be entering 2014.

At the top of this batting order is one of the best lead-off men in the American League, Michael Bourn, with the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis directly behind him, and it is those two who comprise one of the better middle-infield pairs in baseball, with Kipnis having real potential of being a top-five second baseman for years to come. Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher are still there as well to provide some heavy lumber, while Michael Brantley is someone who brings a lot of different things to the table. The Indians, not to be content, also brought in David Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, and Nyjer Morgan to serve as solid depth.

If this club is to have a downfall, it more likely will be associated with their pitching, which will be missing two of their key stalwarts from a year ago, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, both of whom made more starts than any other pitcher for the Indians. However, with Justin Masterson returning at the top of the staff, and the influx of youth right behind him in Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Carlos Carrasco, not to mention Trevor Bauer, there may be enough pitching here after all. Salazar is the most promising of the bunch, cementing that sentiment with a truly clutch performance in the play-in game, and even if any of the others falter, there are some above-average insurance options like Josh Tomlin and Shaun Marcum waiting in the wings.

The bullpen turned out to be a successful bunch in ’13, and may only get better with the addition of John Axford replacing the departed Chris Perez, who was a huge disappointment last year, to be the new closer. Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Vinny Pestano, and Marc Rzepczynski are all acceptable bullpen specialists capable of providing a smooth bridge to the ninth, which should ensure Cleveland’s late-inning work remains steady. The Indians should be right around where they were last year, and with more experience together, just may take that next step.

Predicted Record: 79-83

Chicago White Sox

Coming off an 85-win season in 2012, the White Sox entered last season with some pretty high expectations. Living up to said expectations proved to be laughable, though, as the club ended up in the AL Central cellar, just narrowly avoiding 100 losses in the process. While it was a huge step back for a franchise that seeks its first playoff appearance since 2008, Chicago’s South Side residents find themselves devoted to an extreme youth movement that can only be pushing them forward from here on out. It all begins with their centerpiece star, Chris Sale, who has emerged as one of baseball’s elite starting pitchers over the past couple of years, and he’s still just in his mid-20’s. Jose Quintana is of similar age and has already established himself as a consistent dependable option in the middle of the pitching rotation.

Other than those two, the rest of the youngsters, like Andre Rienzo and Erik Johnson, are all relatively unproven, although they do have some potential, while longtime ChiSox hurler John Danks serves as the lone veteran presence. The bullpen, meanwhile, has some older guns to work with, as it will either be Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, or Ronald Belisario that get first dibs at replacing the departed Addison Reed as the team’s closer.

The lineup, meanwhile, is following a similar blueprint. Yes, still in place are veterans Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, who you can usually count on to generate run production, but outside of them, it’s just about all young players looking to carve their niche on this roster. Specifically, the White Sox will see what they can get out of Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, Jose Abreu, and Josh Phegley over their first full seasons in Chicago, and if most of those guys end up producing, there’s a chance to compete as early as this season. If they can also get Alejandro De Aza, Alexei Ramirez, and Dayan Viciedo back on track, coupled with expedited development out of their younger players, it could be the difference in trying to catch their rivals off guard and make an impact in this division.

More likely, though, there will be a lot of growing pains along the way, as Chicago takes a long look at their key players of the future. Being in the AL Central, though, presents the best opportunity for such a youth-dominated group - at least relative to the other divisions in the American League, and thus, returning to .500 is certainly a possibility for 2014.

Predicted Record: 74-88

Minnesota Twins

Not too long ago, the Twins were the team to beat in the AL Central. Over the past few years, however, they’ve fallen on some hard times, having lost more than 95 games in each of the past three years. They did escape the division cellar in 2013, though, and despite this franchise’s hardships in recent years, there might be some potential for them to return to relevancy. For one, at the very least, the club did immediately address their main need, starting pitching, something they finished dead-last in baseball a year ago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they “addressed it” with the signings of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, two guys who haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Nolasco has been pretty good in the past, but attaining the responsibility of leading a staff while opposing American League lineups regularly might lead to a regression, while Hughes experienced a severe regression in his final year in New York. Samuel Deduno and Kevin Correia must contribute numbers similar to their 2013 performances for this team to have a chance. At the very least, they do have a fine bullpen, as Glen Perkins was tremendous in his first full season as the closer, even making the all-star team. To their credit, the Twins rarely relinquished a late-inning lead last season.

Offensively, the Twins clearly revolve around one man, former MVP and three-time batting champion Joe Mauer. He’s a world-class hitter, and moving him to first base might end up being a smart move, as it will keep him healthier, and therefore ensure that he is in the lineup for most of the season. However, with the little talent surrounding him, it will still be difficult putting runs on the scoreboard. Josh Willingham was supposed to be one of the other big guns in this batting order, after coming to Minnesota last year, but struggled through injuries in enduring a disastrous campaign. If he can somehow bounce back and return somewhat to his 2012 form, it will be a huge step in the right direction.

Other than him, it’s mostly young, unproven bats, with the main one to look out for being Oswaldo Arcia, who actually led all American League rookies in home runs last year, something he should definitely build on. The Twins also brought back Jason Kubel for his second go-around in Minnesota, and, despite a horrendous 2013, if he can stay healthy, that could end up being a nice bonus that pays dividends in the middle of their lineup. More likely, though, this is still an organization in the middle of rebuilding mode. With the majority of this division clearly still superior, the Twins might have another long season on their hands.

Predicted Record: 68-94

Final Say on the AL Central: Compared to the other divisions in the American League, this is probably the most clear-cut of the three groups. You have the Twins and White Sox anchored towards the bottom in obvious rebuilding modes, although that’s not to say each of those clubs has no chance of making any serious noise in 2014. There have been several times in the past where young teams came out of nowhere to reach the playoffs, but it just seems like it won’t be enough to combat the other three more-talented rosters. Kansas City’s rebuilding project seems to have hit its stride after last year’s breakthrough campaign, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them take that next step forward, given how long their main core of youngsters has been playing together now. Plus, everyone forgets how excellent their pitching was a season ago. The Indians have a nice combination of veteran leadership and emerging youth, and it was that mix that was the big reason why they took big steps forward last year, so they’re a contender if they can pick up where they left off, albeit with much higher expectations. Detroit has owned the division in each of the past three seasons, but this is the most talent their rivals have had in awhile. Pulling off something four years in a row is always tough, especially when that fourth year is distinctly the most challenging. It looks like there will be a new king in the AL Central, and Royals +450 to accomplish that appears to be the best of all the divisional futures bet in the American League.

  
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