Only one division gets to claim the World Series champion each season, and the American League Central is home to the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals have made it a habit to defy expectations, and that’s what they did on their way to their first championship in 30 years. They got incredible pitching and defense, and their offense was potent enough to dispatch the New York Mets and claim the title.
The question this year is whether or not the team can repeat that magic in 2016. They will have to do so without a couple of key players, and they will have to deal with a couple of improving teams as the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers look to dethrone them.
1 Kansas City Royals
The Royals’ strengths will remain their strengths, as their bullpen and defense will continue to be the envy of the league in 2016. Having players like Wade Davis, Salvador Perez (whom the team agreed to a contract extension with earlier in the offseason), and Lorenzo Cain will ensure that they won’t suffer a dramatic drop-off in those areas.
The big question remains how the team’s lineup will react to losing a couple of trade deadline acquisitions. Ben Zobrist has migrated north to join the Chicago Cubs, and Johnny Cueto moved out west to see if he could help the San Francisco Giants in their quest to win yet another title in an even-numbered year.
Even with those question marks, Ned Yost always seems to get the best out of his players, and we expect him to continue to do so in 2016.
2 Chicago White Sox
The Adam LaRoche saga has generated plenty of headlines for the White Sox this offseason, but what they’ve done to strengthen their roster should be the bigger story as the team departs from Camelback Ranch.
Adding a stalwart player like Todd Frazier is going to give the team a jolt of electricity in their lineup. Brett Lawrie could also help out big-time in the infield, and adding Austin Jackson to the outfield not only gives the team a defensively solid presence in center field, but it also allows Adam Eaton to shift into a more comfortable corner outfield spot as well.
The big questions for the White Sox revolve around a couple of key holdovers from last season. Can Eaton keep up his second half numbers from last season? Can Carlos Rodon take the next step in his development as a major league pitcher and play a big role in the team’s rotation? Is there any way that Avisail Garcia can continue to decimate pitching the way that he did during the team’s Cactus League slate?
We see improvements in the White Sox this season, and although they still have some question marks to address, they have all the makings of a team that could reach October if things fall their way.
With that said, we do have them falling just short of a wild card berth this season.
3 Detroit Tigers
The AL Central is one of baseball’s most open divisions this season, and the Tigers are a perfect example of a team that could finish in any of the top three spots and surprise absolutely no one.
Their lineup is still stacked, with players like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez being joined during the offseason by free agent acquisition Justin Upton. Their rotation is also bolstered considerably from last season, with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez being joined by Jordan Zimmermann.
The big questions for this team revolve around Verlander, who will need to stay healthy for the Tigers to be competitive, and around their bullpen. The team added Francisco Rodriguez to help shore things up, but will that be enough in a division that will be tough to get separated from the pack?
4 Cleveland Indians
The Indians made less high-profile moves than the Tigers did this offseason, but they certainly have improved their roster in the process.
Having a full season of Francisco Lindor at shortstop will certainly help things, as will adding a speedy left-fielder in Rajai Davis. Mike Napoli could very well provide some pop at first base as well, and a winning veteran like Juan Uribe is always a welcome addition.
Unfortunately for the Indians, they don’t have the rotation depth to compete with the top three teams in the division, at least on paper, and it will be interesting to see if they can overcome those challenges.
5 Minnesota Twins
The Twins are a team that always hangs around in the standings, but it’s tough to envision them competing for a division championship this year.
Yes, they do have one of the absolute best prospects in baseball, with Miguel Sano serving as a one-man wrecking crew, and they did add a big-time player from overseas to the mix, as they welcome Byung Ho-Park to the squad, but will that be enough to compete with the moves that other teams have made this offseason?
We’re thinking no, but there are always surprise teams in baseball, and the Twins could be one of those if they can get a suspect starting rotation to perform above expectations.