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MLB Opening Day 2016: AL Central preview

Can last season's World Champions repeat?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is just around the corner. In the interest of preparing you for it, the writers here have come up with a short preview of each team. For each team, we chose either the make-or-break story of that team, the thing that other teams would try to copy should ultimate victory occur, or the most important thing for that team to have a successful season. It could be some or all of the above. We then selected a single statistic that represented that story.

The AL Central did not turn out as expected. The Royals won the division, while the Tigers finished last. The Indians and White Sox crashed and burned relative to expectations, while the Twins made an unexpected run at the playoffs. The Indians, Royals, and Twins mostly stood pat in the offseason, the Tigers upgraded their bullpen, and the White Sox underwent a huge roster overhaul. Coming into the season, the Royals have to be the favorites as the defending champions, but each of these teams could easily give the Royals trouble.

Royals

Make or break stat: Starting rotation ERA

2015 value: 4.34 (22nd)

The Royals’ trademark, despite the bullpen stuff, is their defense. Their entire strategy revolves around their home ballpark; its spacious confines place a premium on defense as well as gap power and contact. It is difficult to hit home runs, but the park inflates doubles and triples due to the large outfield space. The starting rotation depends on their defense – Ian Kennedy is the highest strikeout pitcher there. This team’s rotation is built to divert plate appearances to its defense, which is not a skill highly valued in the market. The Royals do not want to pay a premium for pitchers, who will break your heart, so they have gone after contact-oriented pitchers.

If the Royals’ strategy succeeds, any regression from the also-contact-oriented offense could be offset. Moreover, it would show the league that premium dollars do not have to be spent on pitching for a winning team (Ian Kennedy’s contract notwithstanding). If the rotation just can’t hold it together, however, any sort of offensive outburst may not be enough to keep them around.

Further reading: The most important player for the Royals this season

-Kevin Ruprecht

Twins

Make or break stat: WAR from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano

2015 value: 1.5 fWAR

It’s hard to see the Twins making a deep run into the playoffs without real contributions from their pair of 22-year-old wünderkinds, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Both have been hyped as top-tier talents for what feels like forever, and both are likely to get their first full chance to live up to the hype this season. If they do, and the Twins do play in a seven-game series, it may be taken by some as a repudiation of the modern, Dombrowski-esque view of top prospects. To be fair, the Twins have never been particularly close to contention in the last few years, where trading long-term value for immediate help made a lot of sense. But last year, when they were in a playoff spot for a substantial portion of the year and the temptation to trade for immediate help must have been strong, Minnesota’s front office resisted the urge. In 2016, if they succeed, it’ll be due in part to reaping the rewards of that patience.

Team Prospects in 2015 BA Top 100 2015 WARP from those players 2016 Proj WARP from those players
Cubs 6 9.5 10.3
Twins 5 2.5 10.1
Mets 7 5.6 6.2
Dodgers 4 3.1 5.9
Red Sox 7 3.5 4.5
Astros 2 2.7 3.9
Phillies 3 2.6 3.9
Nationals 6 1.9 3.8
Diamondbacks 6 2.3 3.2
Rays 3 0.9 3.1
Padres 3 0.2 3.0
Cardinals 3 1.0 2.6
Reds 3 0.6 2.3
Indians 1 3.3 2.3
Blue Jays 4 0.4 1.6
White Sox 3 1.8 1.5
Yankees 2 0.7 1.5
Rockies 5 0.0 1.5
Rangers 5 0.2 1.4
Angels 2 1.2 1.1
Pirates 5 0.0 0.9
Giants 1 0.6 0.7
Brewers 2 0.0 0.7
Royals 4 0.0 0.5
Braves 1 0.1 0.4
Orioles 2 0.0 0.3
Tigers 0.0 0.0
A’s 1 0.0 -0.1
Marlins 2 0.5 -0.5
Mariners 2 0.0 -1.1

In 2015, the Twins had five players in the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list and ranked eighth in WARP from those players, all of which came from Buxton and Sano. In 2016, PECOTA projects those five players to produce 10.1 WAR, with Buxton and Sano joined by minor contributions from Alex Meyer, Nick Gordon, and Jose Berrios, and the Twins trail only the Cubs as a result. If a team needs a surprising performance to push it over the hump, it makes much more sense to place your hope in young players than old. Our own Nick Stellini described what he thinks it would take for the Twins to contend, and not surprisingly, three of the four things he listed were surprising production from a young player (Buxton, Sano, and Berrios). But you can also see this in the projections themselves. The non-Buxton/-Sano player with the highest projected WARP is Brian Dozier, and the gap between his mean PECOTA projection and his 90th-percentile projection (the best case scenario, essentially) is 2.0 WARP, compared to 2.5 for Sano and 2.7 for Buxton. Not only are Buxton and Sano expected to be better, they also have a higher probability of lighting the baseball world ablaze with a breakout year. It’s abundantly clear that if the Twins come within striking distance of the World Series, it’ll likely be because Buxton and Sano hit their upside and paid back Minnesota’s patience in full.

-Henry Druschel

Indians

Make or break stat: # of pitchers above 200 strikeouts

2015 value: 2

The Indians are projection darlings, several systems' favorite for the top spot in the competitive AL Central. But stop us if you’ve heard this one before—projections were also enamored with Cleveland last year, and while the Indians managed a winning record (albeit just barely), they spent the bulk of the season outside the playoff race.

The most impressive part of this team, by far, is starting pitching. The rotation is among baseball's best, led by Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, strikeout artist Carlos Carrasco, and exciting upstart Danny Salazar. Kluber and Carrasco put up more than 200 strikeouts apiece last year, and Salazar was just behind them with 195. This year, the trio could make the record books—if all three top 200 Ks, they’ll become just the fourth team in history to boast such a concentration of high-strikeout pitchers. But, as the Indians proved last year, sharp starting pitching can do only so much. Though things began to click for the team in the final months of the season, a first half featuring abhorrent defense made consistent winning difficult. A rather dull winter means this year's team is largely similar to last year's, and weak spots remain, particularly in the outfield.

The starting pitching will almost undoubtedly be there for Cleveland, but whether the rotation is a historically good fun fact or the engine of a playoff team will depend on the position players being consistently effective in a way that didn't happen last year.

-Emma Baccellieri

White Sox

Make or break stat: Position player WAR

2015 value: 3.2 (fWAR - 30th), 12.2 (bWAR - 28th)

The White Sox had some serious issues getting consistent production from their position players last year. Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu were the only position players who held their own for the whole season; Trayce Thompson came up late but got traded this offseason. Eschewing rebuilding, the White Sox opted to hit the trade and free agent markets for improvements.

Eaton and Abreu along with Melky Cabrera are just about the only returning position players. Austin Jackson will play center, Todd Frazier will play third, Jimmy Rollins will play shortstop, Brett Lawrie will play second, and Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro will play catcher. Avisail Garcia will probably get some plate appearances at DH, where his lack of a glove will not hurt. That’s almost a completely new lineup; if that configuration clicks, the White Sox could be fearsome with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon leading the rotation. If the pieces don’t fit together, the White Sox will fall to or near the bottom of the AL Central again.

-Kevin Ruprecht

Tigers

Make or break stat: Bullpen WHIP

2015 value: 1.44 (Tied with Phillies for 27th)

The Tigers having a bad bullpen is like the Giants winning the World Series in even years and the Orioles having injured pitching prospects. It just happens and that’s a fact that the universe has designated as law. That’s why Al Avila is conducting a science experiment of sorts. Unlike Dave Dombrowski, Avila went out and actually acquired good relievers. He traded for Francisco Rodriguez and Justin Wilson and signed Mark Lowe. The Tigers now have a somewhat acceptable back end to their bullpen.

Will that be enough? Detroit relievers as a group had an AL-worst 1.44 WHIP. All three of these men had WHIPs below 1.15, and Rodriguez has a long history of being very good at pitching. However, he’s also got quite a bit of mileage on him. Lowe reemerged as being a reliable reliever for the first time since 2012. The Tigers are betting on those two to repeat last year’s performances; there are worse gambles to make. However, with the last two spots of the Tiger rotation being shaky at best, and Anibal Sanchez seemingly always feeling some sort of balkiness in his arm, another bad showing from the bullpen will be a deathblow to Detroit’s playoff hopes.

-Nick Stellini