Look at their team. The Royals can’t win it? Right? Right?
This is, of course, exactly how Kansas City fans would prefer all of baseball to analyze their team, because the whole us-against-the-world thing has produced two pennants and a World Series title in the past two years.
What we have here, though, will play right into their hands, because the American League Central joins the American League East as perhaps the only divisions in baseball in which all five teams have legitimate designs on the postseason (and we can debate the level of legitimacy of those designs all summer).
One thing we know: The Royals may be excellent at the game of baseball, but those who pore over numbers and spit out formulas are hardly enchanted. Check out the forecasts from the two analytics Web sites we’re checking with in our preview capsules – and digest the rest of the division from there.
2015 record and finish: 81-80, third
2016 FanGraphs projection: 84-78, first
2016 Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection: 90-72, first
Significant additions: 1B Mike Napoli, OF Rajai Davis, RP Tommy Hunter, RP Craig Stammen
Significant losses: SP Shaun Marcum, 3B/1B Chris Johnson, IF Mike Aviles
Why they’ll win the division: The rotation finally converts performance and ability to wins.
Corey Kluber surprisingly won the American League Cy Young award in 2014. Last year, his ERA jumped from 2.44 to 3.49, and his record said he went 9-16. Lousy year, right? Not so. Kluber had a lower WHIP than his Cy Young year (and was third in the AL), ranked sixth in the AL in FIP (fielding independent pitching, which eliminates defensive factors) and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings. This all indicates Kluber is still excellent, and his results should follow. Say that for the entire Cleveland staff. No rotation in baseball posted a higher strikeout rate (24.2 percent). Cleveland starters led the AL in WHIP and in FIP. Danny Salazar is coming off his first 185-inning, 30-start season and throws the ball harder than all but three AL starters – a tick faster than teammate Carlos Carrasco, who checks in at 94.5 mph with his average fastball (down from Salazar’s 94.9). The guts of the Indians rotation ranks among the AL leaders in strikeout percentage: Carrasco second (29.6 percent), Kluber fourth (27.7), Salazar fifth (25.8) and Trevor Bauer ninth (22.9). That’s a rotation with enough pure stuff to push a team to a division title.
Most significant question: Is Francisco Lindor ready to carry a team?
Jason Kipnis is one of the game’s best second basemen, a two-time all-star coming off his best season (.303 average, .823 OPS). But Lindor turned 22 in the offseason. He is coming off a 99-game rookie debut in which he hit .313, slugged 38 extra-base hits in 438 plate appearances and posted an .835 OPS that trailed only fellow rookie Carlos Correa (who beat Lindor for rookie of the year honors) among shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances. He has the talent. Offensively, this could be his team. The questions: With opening day just his 100th major-league game, can he endure a full season the way he did his first four months? Will the league figure him out at all?
Spring training battle to watch: Rajai Davis and Collin Cowgill vs. the void in left field
Regular left fielder Michael Brantley had surgery to repair damage in his right (non-throwing) shoulder in November. This leaves a slew of folks trying to fill in for the first month or two of the season, led by former Tigers player Davis. Brantley, though, is coming off two superb seasons — .319 average and .876 OPS with 90 doubles and 35 homers in 2014-15 combined – and is a staple in Cleveland’s lineup. His injury will test the Indians’ depth early and put pressure on Davis, Cowgill and others.
Did you realize?: How much of a playoff drought this is in Cleveland?
We know, we know, if you live by the lake, you’re all too aware. (And LeBron hasn’t won a title with the Cavs yet, either, has he?) But in the eight seasons since they blew a 3-games-to-1 lead in the ALCS to Boston, the Indians have played one playoff game – hosting the wild-card game in 2013, which they lost to Tampa Bay. The only other teams without a division series appearance since that time: Seattle, Miami and San Diego.
Kansas City Royals
2015 record and finish: 95-67, first, won World Series
2016 FanGraphs projection: 79-83, fourth
2016 Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection: 76-86, fifth
Significant additions: SP Ian Kennedy, RP Joakim Soria, C Tony Cruz
Significant losses: SP Johnny Cueto, 2B/OF Ben Zobrist
Most significant question: Can Yordano Ventura take the next step?
When the Royals returned to the postseason in 2014, they had James Shields as a veteran presence to lead them there. When they made another run last season, they imported Johnny Cueto to fortify the rotation midseason, adding to a seasoned mix which also included veteran Edinson Volquez. But the most talented pitcher in the Kansas City rotation is Ventura, the hard-throwing, hot-headed 24-year-old right-hander. Last year, he was named the Royals’ opening-day starter, but after 12 outings he had a 4.68 ERA and was sent to the minors. He returned in July and was better (3.66 ERA) the rest of the way, but was hit hard in five postseason starts (.303 average against, 6.43 ERA). Even though Volquez returns and the Royals added Ian Kennedy for depth and innings, only Ventura has the kind of stuff to carry the Royals for stretches – potentially back to the playoffs for the third straight year.
Spring training battle to watch: Omar Infante vs. Christian Colon
The Royals don’t typically make big plays in free agency (more on that in a bit), but they also rarely whiff to the degree that they did on Infante – not so much the money ($30.25 million) but the years (four, from 2014-17). Last summer, they had to trade for Zobrist at midseason because Infante was, quite simply, the worst offensive second baseman in the game. No player who received 400 plate appearances last year posted a worse OPS than Infante’s .552. (Doubling it still falls short of Bryce Harper’s best-in-baseball 1.109.) Into the mix comes Colon, a 26-year-old utility man who had one postseason plate appearance for last year’s Royals. It turned into the go-ahead single in the 12th inning of the clinching fifth game of the World Series. A first-round pick in 2010, Colon has hit .300 twice in the minors. This is likely his last, best chance to win regular playing time – with a seemingly easily displaced impediment in his way.
Did you realize?: Alex Gordon’s modest contract was the richest in club history by $17 million?
Some agents and executives expected the Gold Glove-winning left fielder would get around $90 million over five years. Gordon’s four-year, $72-million deal with the Royals is around that in average annual value, but it clearly represents a hometown discount that shows how much the Nebraska-bred, homegrown Royal valued staying with the team with which he came up and made history. Such a deal barely makes a ripple in baseball these days. But for Kansas City, it was historic, trumping five-year, $55-million contracts given out to – guess. Can’t place it? Mike Sweeney and Gil Meche(!). The Royals later gave Kennedy five years and $70 million.
Chicago White Sox
2015 record and finish: 76-86, fourth
2016 FanGraphs projection: 81-81, tied for second
2016 Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection: 82-80, second
Significant additions: 3B Todd Frazier, IF Brett Lawrie, C Alex Avila, C Dioner Navarro, SP Mat Latos
Significant losses: SP Jeff Samardzija, SS Alexei Ramirez, C Geovany Soto, 2B Gordon Beckham, OF Trayce Thompson
Most significant question: Can they score any runs?
For a team that boasts the thump of Jose Abreu – his .904 OPS over the past two years ranks fifth in the AL – this wouldn’t necessarily seem to be a problem. But the White Sox managed just 622 runs a year ago, last in the league, just 3.8 per game. They were last in OPS (.686), last in slugging percentage (.380), second-to-last in on-base percentage (.306). The trade with Cincinnati for Todd Frazier (which also involved sending prospects to the Dodgers) was meant to address that. The two-time all-star has a career OPS of .784, but beware of his home-road splits – which no longer benefit from playing in cozy Great American Ball Park: .278 average and .833 OPS at home in 2015, but just .233 and .733, respectively, on the road. Adam LaRoche hit .207 as the primary designated hitter a year ago. Melky Cabrera was granted 683 plate appearances and managed 12 homers. The additions of Frazier, Brett Lawrie and Alex Avila won’t completely turn around the offense. Some under-performers will have to improve, too.
Spring training battle to watch: Tyler Saladino vs. a black hole at shortstop
The White Sox declined to pick up the $10-million option on incumbent Alexei Ramirez, saying goodbye to their shortstop of the last eight years. Not a terrible decision given the best the market yielded Ramirez was a one-year, $4-million deal with San Diego. But the solution appears to be to move Saladino, who played 60 games at third base and 11 at short as a rookie, over to short permanently. Saladino is 26, and his minor-league performance is all over the map — .630 OPS in Class AA in 2013, but .830 OPS in Class AAA a year later. But if the White Sox intend to contend – and they say they do – why aren’t they out signing free agent Ian Desmond, who remains on the market as pitchers and catchers report?
Did you realize?: How quietly effective Jose Quintana is?
Chris Sale is the White Sox’s best pitcher, and arguably the best in the American League. Carlos Rodon is the flashy first-round pick who is threatening to break out this season. John Danks is the can’t-get-rid-of-him veteran, and Mat Latos was signed to a one-year deal for help at the back end. But the last three years, Quintana’s ERAs have been 3.51, 3.32 and 3.36. His WHIPs have been 1.220, 1.243 and 1.270. He has thrown 200, 200-1/3 and 206-1/3 innings. And the only American League starters who have accumulated more wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs) are David Price, Sale, Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez.
2015 record and finish: 74-87, fifth
2016 FanGraphs projection: 81-81, tied for second
2016 Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection: 79-83, tied for third
Significant additions: SP Jordan Zimmermann, OF Justin Upton, RP Francisco Rodriguez, SP Mike Pelfrey, RP Justin Wilson, RP Mark Lowe, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Significant losses: RP Al Alburquerque, C Alex Avila, OF Rajai Davis, RP Ian Krol, RP Joe Nathan, SP Alfredo Simon
Most significant question: What does Justin Verlander have left?
For the first time in his career, Verlander failed to make 30 starts, managing just 20 after missing the first two-and-a-half months of the season. When he returned, the former Cy Young winner and MVP was mostly terrible for six starts – posting a 6.62 ERA. Then something strange happened: He found himself. Over his last 14 starts, he averaged more than seven innings an outing, allowed opponents a .207 average and rang up a 2.27 ERA. If Verlander, who turns 33 Saturday, summons that form this year, then the Tigers have their frontline starter. That’s essential, because even with the addition of Jordan Zimmermann – signed to a five-year, $110-million deal – the Tigers need help in the rotation. The rotation’s ERA in 2015 (4.79) was the worst in the AL – even with David Price for half a season. Someone among Anibal Sanchez (4.99 ERA), Shane Greene (6.88 ERA) and Kyle Lobstein (5.94 ERA) needs a bounce-back as well. Verlander, though, is most important not just for this year, but because his presence will impact the Tigers physically and financially through 2019, when he is owed $28 million annually.
Spring training battle to watch: Victor Martinez vs. time
When the veteran designated hitter signed a four-year, $68-million deal to return to Detroit in November 2014, something didn’t feel right. Yes, major league teams were desperate for offense, and sure, Martinez was coming off a sterling season – a year in which he hit .335, led the AL with a .409 on-base percentage and a .974 OPS. The problem: In the first year of his new deal, his on-base percentage was 134 points lower than his average from the previous year. He played only 120 games. His homers dropped from 32 in 2014 to 11 last season. Now, he is 37. He will make $18 million in each of the next three seasons. Can his body and his stroke hold up for 150 games and 600 plate appearances?
Did you realize?: How good Miguel Cabrera really is?
Of course you did. But sometimes it’s just helpful to look at the back of the baseball card for a reminder. Like last year, when Cabrera led the AL in on-base percentage for the fourth time in six seasons, his .440 mark was 38 points higher than the league’s next best (Mike Trout). Since 2010, major league hitters have produced 12 seasons with an OPS of .999 or better. Cabrera has four of them; only Joey Votto has as many as two. Since 2010, there have been only nine seasons with a .600 slugging percentage or better. Cabrera has three of them; only Jose Bautista has as many as two. Since 2010, there have been 12 seasons with an on-base percentage of .420 or higher. Cabrera has four of them; only Votto (three) is represented more than once. Cabrera will turn 33 this year and is coming off a career-low 119 games, but statistically, he still looks to be very much in his prime.
2015 record and finish: 83-79, second
2016 FanGraphs projection: 78-84, fifth
2016 Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection: 79-83, tied for third
Significant additions: 1B/DH Byung Ho Park, C John Ryan Murphy, OF Carlos Quentin, RP Fernando Abad
Significant losses: OF Torii Hunter, OF Aaron Hicks
Most significant question: Can Miguel Sano play the outfield?
Let’s not make this into a bigger issue than it needs to be, because we know the most important part of this question: Sano can hit. In his first 335 major league plate appearances last year, he slugged .530 and hit 18 homers – and struck out an incredible 119 times. But in 80 games last season, he served as the designated hitter 69 times and never once played the outfield. Now, with the signing of Byung Ho Park, a 29-year-old from Korea who can play first or DH, the Twins have Trevor Plouffe at third, Joe Mauer at first and likely Park more days than not as the DH. Sano, then, moves to a corner outfield spot. The hope for the Twins is two-fold: that his defense is solid enough that it isn’t a total distraction, and that his commitment to working in the outfield doesn’t take away from his offense.
Spring training battle to watch: Byron Buxton vs. his own body
Once the top prospect in baseball, Buxton survived a terrible 2014 – in which he lost time to a wrist injury, a concussion and a broken finger – to make his major-league debut last summer. But 11 games into his big-league career he suffered a broken thumb and missed nearly two months. He finished 2015 with just 46 games in which he hit just .209. If the Twins are going to threaten their results from last season – in which they were in the wild-card race until the final weekend – chances are Buxton, 22, will have to stay on the field and begin to reach some of his potential.
Did you realize?: How much contact Twins pitchers induce?
This is the era of the strikeout in which it is oddly valued as a wipeout tool from the mound but shrugged off by hitters who consider it on par with most any old out. Debate that all you want, but the fact of the matter is the Twins are outliers here. Last year, all major league pitchers struck out more than one of every five batters they faced – 20.4 percent. Twins pitchers were last in the majors at 17 percent. Opposing hitters made contact on 81.8 percent of their swings – highest in the majors. When Twins pitchers threw the ball in the strike zone, the contact percentage jumped to 88.9 percent – again, highest in the majors. Can an entire staff survive in modern times without swing-and-miss stuff?
The Post’s Preseason Picks Series
Feb. 8: National League East
Feb. 9: National League Central
Feb. 10: National League West
Feb. 16: American League East
Feb. 17: American League Central
Feb. 18: American League West