AL Central Preview
March 28, 2016
By Matt Zylbert
Sign up to receive daily news from VegasInsider
Editor's Note: Matt Zylbert is coming off another fantastic year with MLB Win Totals, as he was 18-11-1 in last year's baseball preview. In 2014, he was even better, going 21-9 with MLB Win Totals, while astoundingly predicting the exact records within three games or less for literally half the league (15 of 30 major league teams), which led the entire country for that season. In two of his three seasons on VegasInsider.com, he has finished in first-place in the company in baseball over/unders. Furthermore, he was the only analyst in the country to successfully tab the Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays to make the playoffs. Don't miss out on his winners this season. Click here!
Cleveland Indians - Predicted Record: 91-71
Despite being embattled in a discouraging trend that has seen the team regress in all three years under manager Terry Francona, the fact remains that the Indians are actually entering the new campaign with three consecutive winning seasons. While they haven't advanced past the AL Wild Card Game within that span, there is hope that a deep young pitching staff that just oozes potential can get them back into the playoffs.
One through five, it's a group that really has promise. Of course, it all begins with former AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who is coming off a down season by his standards, but most would agree that he was actually better than his final numbers. Carlos Carrasco is getting a lot of hype in fantasy baseball circles, and perhaps rightfully so, as he's shown some high-ceiling potential throughout his still-young career. So has Danny Salazar, a notable strikeout artist that, if he can just cut down the walks, has the ability to be an All-Star pitcher. There's Trevor Bauer, who is very good to have in the No. 4 slot, while Josh Tomlin is a fine innings-eater at the bottom of it. Stacked rotations can pace the way for teams like this one, and if this staff stays healthy collectively, they have a real shot of propelling the Indians on a run. They can get some quality relief work as well, with Cody Allen installed as the closer and the underrated Bryan Shaw as his main setup man.
Offensively, Cleveland doesn't have as much to brag about, but they could still have enough, led by a solid nucleus of talent. Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and the returning Michael Brantley -- as long as he's able to overcome offseason shoulder surgery -- is a nice trio of hitters to lean on, and are definitely capable of sustaining their success another year. The x-factor, though, in this lineup just might be sophomore shortstop Francisco Lindor, who has potential to be really special. His growth and performance could play the most pivotal role in where this team ends up at season's end. Yan Gomes also has a chance to finally break out if he can stay healthy, while veterans Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe are fine to have as role players. With such talented starting pitching leading the way, as long as the offense can perform decently, the Indians will emerge as one of the league's surprise teams in '16.
Kansas City Royals - Predicted Record: 84-78
One year after narrowly losing the World Series in seven games, the Royals were able to get back to the Fall Classic in 2015 and secure their first championship in 30 years, doing so in decisive fashion opposite the Mets while further solidifying their standing as one of baseball's perennial powers. Heading into the new season, does this look like a team that can pull off a repeat?
Well, one thing to their advantage is that they've largely been able to keep the same group together, which is always a plus when you're coming off a championship run. That is especially true as it concerns their fine offense, which has boasted the same core for awhile now. Of course, some of the most recognizable names are World Series MVP Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas, all of whom rank in the top-half of the league at their respective positions. ALCS MVP Lorenzo Cain, who emerged in a big way last season, is still here, too, as is slugging designated hitter Kendrys Morales. Up and down the lineup, it's a very balanced group, and one, as often on display throughout '15, that can be absolutely relentless. With that same approach, the Royals offense should continue to keep them in ballgames.
But ah, here's where Kansas City could fall apart; their starting pitching is definitely suspect. Johnny Cueto is no longer in town, and in his place is Ian Kennedy, whom the club inked over the offseason. That's a pretty noticeable downgrade. Yordano "Ace" Ventura regressed a bit last year from his impressive rookie campaign, and really, the only stable pitcher in this rotation now appears to be Edinson Volquez, something that isn't exactly desirable when you're trying to pull off back-to-back titles. Expecting Chris Young to repeat his renaissance season of a year ago will also be a tough sell. Luckily for the Royals, they still do sport one of the strongest bullpens anywhere, as despite not having Greg Holland for the year, they now have the unhittable Wade Davis locked in as the closer, while Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and Luke Hochevar are as good a set-up trio as you can have. With such a questionable pitching staff, though, not to mention the improvement of their fellow AL Central residents, it could be a struggle for KC to even get back into the playoffs.
Detroit Tigers - Predicted Record: 82-80
It was a hard fall from grace last year for the Tigers, who entered 2015 with four consecutive AL Central titles, not to mention one World Series appearance over that span. Not only did that streak end, it came to a crashing halt, as Detroit crashed all the way into the division cellar. But it wasn't just the team's fault, having to deal with considerable injuries to some of their star players all year long, while most of their rivals were rapidly improving.
If their lineup can stay healthy this time around, it really can be as good as any around, still consisting of such premium sluggers like former Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, and now Justin Upton, whom was signed over the winter. In addition, let's not forget about former All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler pacing these mashers atop the batting order. Cameron Maybin and Nick Castellanos have some pop as well. Without question, the Tigers offense is capable of outscoring anybody.
While Detroit's hitting should be a dependable constant, the same cannot be said of their starting pitching, which will be far from any sort of certainty. There's still Justin Verlander here, and while he had a solid rebound campaign last season, he's now years removed from his prime. They managed to sign Jordan Zimmermann over the winter, someone who will definitely provide an upgrade for this pitching staff, but with Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey and Daniel Norris behind him, it's just not a very encouraging group overall. The bullpen, though, looks like it has enough quality arms to be stable. The Tigers will receive an upgrade at closer with the addition of Francisco Rodriguez, and with Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe serving as his setup men, their relief corps could rank above many when all is said and done. Ultimately, the Tigers should at least get much closer than last year in trying to retain their Central division throne, but at the same time, it wouldn't be a surprise if they settled in the middle of the pack.
Chicago White Sox - Predicted Record: 77-85
There's an argument that could be made that the White Sox were the most disappointing team in the American League last season. With superstar-caliber players featured on both sides of the ball, this was a team that was supposed to take a leap, but ended up taking a backseat in second-to-last place.
One such superstar residing within the south side of Chicago is Chris Sale, the Clayton Kershaw-type ace of the American League who had arguably the most memorable run of any starter in 2015, when he tied the major league record with eight straight starts in which he struck out 10 batters or more. Is there enough beyond him, though? Jose Quintana has been as steady as any mid-rotation pitcher in the game the last few years, but might be a little out of his element cast as the team's No. 2 hurler. Carlos Rodon is a very intriguing prospect with a mega high ceiling, but could experience more growing pains in his sophomore season if he can't cut down on his walks. Meanwhile, John Danks and Mat Latos are below-average options for a major league rotation at this stage in their careers, and their presence could end up being costly for the White Sox. At least the bullpen looks sharp with David Robertson still closing and Nate Jones setting him up along with the resurgent Zach Duke.
Jose Abreu is the other superstar currently logging his prime years in Chicago, and it's his bat that is the main driving force of this lineup. He has another big-time hitter joining him this season on the opposite corner of the diamond, that being regular power threat Todd Frazier (although it cost them Zylbert Guy starting pitching prospect Frankie Montas). Adam Eaton, meanwhile, is not a superstar, at least not yet, but he has developed into a solid leadoff man who has a real leadership-type role on this team. Don't forget about Melky Cabrera either, being someone can still play at a high level when he stays healthy. There's potential with this team, but in such a tough and competitive division, it'll be real difficult again to break through.
Minnesota Twins - Predicted Record: 74-88
Although they did not make the playoffs a year ago, the Twins were undoubtedly one of the surprise teams in all of baseball, hovering around the top of the AL Wild Card hunt all year, even claiming ownership of one of the two spots for much of the campaign as well. They ultimately faded at the very end, but the message was received that they're back on the way up.
Or are they? Their strides last year were impressive, but Minnesota is still a club with glaring weaknesses. For one, their starting rotation is a little concerning. Phil Hughes, after all, is the leader of the staff, but is still prone to getting roughed up on occasion, especially when away from home. While this author has long been a supporter of Kyle Gibson, he may need to pick up his strikeouts if he really wants to ascend into an All-Star-type pitcher and help the Twins progress further. Ervin Santana and Tommy Milone are the other notable arms in place here, and will have to both be successful for Minnesota to make any noise, though that won't be an easy task. Their main relievers are pretty good, at least, as Glen Perkins has been marvelous as the team's closer for a few years now, and he has a fine group setting him up comprised of Kevin Jepsen, Trevor May and Casey Fien.
The Twins offense probably has a higher ceiling, and much of that has to do with the growth of their special youngster over at the hot corner Miguel Sano, who really does have MVP-caliber potential if his rookie showing is any indication. Odds are he's going to be an impact bat for the next several years. Sano is sparking a youth movement that also consists of Byron Buxton, the speedy outfielder that boasts a lot of promise, and Brian Dozier, someone already entrenched as one of the better offensive second basemen in the game. Minnesota will absolutely need more contributions around them, specifically from former AL MVP Joe Mauer, who hasn't been as successful in recent years, but can still swing a solid bat. Trevor Plouffe and newcomer Byung-ho Park will be relied upon as well. Despite an encouraging campaign last year, the Twins might end up taking a step back in one of the more feisty divisions in baseball.
Evaluating AL Central Division Bets
Those looking to bet on Kansas City at +125 to continue their reign should be very weary of their starting pitching this year, as it could be single-handedly be their undoing. Also, the team's mental drive just may not be there this year, after winning it all following a year in which they narrowly lost by seven games in the World Series. Collectively, it's just a much different situation, and will be even tougher with improvements around the division. That's where bettors should consider the Indians at +220, armed with their potentially awesome starting rotation, a quality manager, and one of the game's top managers in Terry Francona. That's probably the best bet within this group. The Tigers are an intriguing bet at +400, as they can outhit anybody, and the pitching staff should ideally be improved after signing Jordan Zimmermann. The problem is their depth is lacking in that area. The White Sox are a very interesting +700 bet, but remember, they were a big disappointment last season, and will enter the new campaign with that annoying off-the-field distraction over Adam LaRoche's son that has pitted the clubhouse against the general manager. Meanwhile, Minnesota made some nice positive strides last year, making their +1000 odds stand out, but more likely than not, they simply won't outlast the other four teams. This is still a young team gradually trying to work its way up.
8-4 +536 L12, 12-5 +911 Run
23-7 L30, 57-22 Run, 39-17 G-Plays
5-1, +417 Record Last 6 Picks
14-5, +956 MLB Playoffs TY
6-2 L8 G-Plays, 8-4 L12 Totals
11-6 L17 Picks, +2,088 G-Plays
9-4 L13 Totals, +2,972 Overall TY
5-1 L6, 9-4 L13 Guarantees
5-1, +442 L6 Picks, 4-0 L4 Totals