Spring training preview: American League Central
This week from Monday through Wednesday, SI.com baseball experts Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe will break down what to watch for in each team's camp as part of our spring training preview by looking at the Big Change, Big Question and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2015. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in big-league camp this spring but has not yet debuted in the major leagues. Today's preview: the American League Central.
Kansas City Royals
The Big Change: Hello, Ian Kennedy
With the surprising return of leftfielder Alex Gordon via a four-year, $72 million deal, the most substantial change to the Royals' roster this past winter was the signing of Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million contract. The righthander will nominally fill the Jeremy Guthrie/Johnny Cueto slot in the rotation, but just how effective he'll be is an open question given his 4.28 ERA (85 ERA+) and 4.51 FIP in 168 1/3 innings for the Padres in 2015. He’s been more or less that bad—with an 85 ERA+—while averaging 190 innings and 0.5 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) over his last four seasons.
The Royals are banking upon Kauffman Stadium being a more homer-suppressing ballpark than Petco Park in recent years; that their defense is miles better than that of the Padres (consider the outfields: Gordon, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and new rightfielder Jarrod Dyson versus Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp is no contest); and that Kennedy's reunion with pitching coach Dave Eiland (they crossed paths from 2007 to ‘09 in the Yankees' organization, albeit not for very long) should bear fruit. The good news is that, playoffs aside, Guthrie and Cueto combined for a 5.52 ERA in 229 2/3 innings with the Royals; even Kennedy should be able to beat that.
The Big Question: Can the Royals three-peat as AL champions?
It's something that hasn't been done since the Yankees won four pennants in a row from 1998 to 2001, and indeed it's a tall order for any team, no matter its level of payroll and resources. Even fresh off a thrilling 2014 playoff run, virtually no one saw the Royals as threats to win the AL Central, let alone another pennant. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system forecast the team for 72 wins, FanGraphs for 79, and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS for 81. For it all to come together, it took a team exceeding its Pythagorean record by five wins to gain home field advantage in the postseason, three lineup regulars setting career bests in OPS+, and lightning to strike again (more or less) with regards to an historically elite bullpen.
By definition, those aren't the sorts of things a team can bank upon happening again, no matter how many warm fuzzies are induced by talk of good team chemistry. That's not to take away from the Royals' accomplishments, which owe plenty to the astute moves of general manager Dayton Moore. He waited out some lean years with homegrown talents Gordon, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, lefty Danny Duffy, et al.; landed Cain and closer Wade Davis in trades whose focal points were elsewhere; and was able to deal from a deep stockpile of prospects to bring in Cueto and second baseman Ben Zobrist prior to the trade deadline. Kansas City’s success also owes much to a coaching staff whose eye for detail paid off at the most critical junctures of the season and whose ongoing support helped provide maximum return on unheralded free-agent signings such as starter Edinson Volquez, designated hitter Kendrys Morales and reliever Ryan Madson.
While this year's edition of PECOTA has already elicited the usual howls for the Royals' 76-win forecast, the defending world champions aren't going to sneak up on anyone this year. The roster hasn't changed all that much, save for the arrival of Kennedy, the departures of Cueto, Zobrist and Madson, and the return of reliever Joakim Soria. And as you can see elsewhere on this page, the other teams in the division haven't stood still. Once again, it's going to take some favorable breaks to go with the talent in order for the Royals to get back to the World Series, and history says the odds are against it.
The Big Prospect: Kyle Zimmer, SP
"Zimmer would be a top-10 prospect as a starter if he had any history of staying healthy," wrote ESPN's Keith Law in ranking the 24-year-old righty 94th on his Top 100 Prospects list. Indeed, the No. 5 pick of the 2012 draft out of the University of San Francisco has thrown just 216 2/3 professional innings in four seasons and dealt with elbow, shoulder and lat issues that culminated in an arthroscopic cleanup after the 2014 season. In 2015, he threw 64 innings split between Class A and Double A, posting a 2.39 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts per nine and averaging 4.5 innings per turn over his seven late-season starts, only one of which went past 54 pitches.
Scouts love Zimmer's arsenal, which includes a 92–95 mph fastball with movement, a hammer curve that generates swings and misses as well as ground balls, and a changeup; all of those grade out as plus pitches, with a slider that's at least average. He also has above average command and repeats his delivery well. It's all there except health and stamina; if Zimmer had those, many believe he'd be a legitimate No. 1 starter. The Royals have given some consideration to moving him to the bullpen, where he could take his place among their fearsome late-game crew. With no obvious need at either end of the staff for the moment, Kansas City will keep him on the rotation track, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the team gives him a look in short stints later in the year.
The Big Change: New Park
Relax, Target Field hasn't gone anywhere; it remains one of the majors' best venues, particularly if you want your snack of choice on a stick. The new Park in question is the team's free-agent signing from South Korea, Byung-ho. The 29-year-old slugger spent nine years in the KBO, the last five of them starring for the Nexen Heroes, and in 2015, he hit .343/.436/.714 with a league-high 53 homers, up from 52 the year before. The Twins signed Park to a four-year, $12 million deal, having won his rights by bidding $12.85 million for his posting fee—a comparatively minor expenditure, even for a small-market team, and a better investment than the contracts of starters Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana, even if some of Park's power gets lost in translation.
Fitting him into the lineup isn't trivial, however. Park is a first baseman, but that spot is occupied by Joe Mauer, who's signed through 2018. Bumping him to full-time designated hitter duty, which is the plan, means that Miguel Sano, whose "natural" position is third base—currently occupied by Trevor Plouffe—must learn to play rightfield, an entirely new position for him. The 6’4” slugger is being tutored on the finer points of the position this spring by guest instructor Torii Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner.
The Big Question: Will Byron Buxton break out?
Though he played 46 games for the Twins last year, Buxton accumulated only 129 at-bats, one short of the minimum to exhaust his rookie status. Thus, he's still eligible for Rookie of the Year honors and prospect lists, and in fact, the major ones all rank him as the second-best prospect in the game behind Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. I could have included him below if the Twins didn't have another ready prospect to highlight and if not for fact that, to these eyes, the 22-year-old centerfielder’s development is the single most compelling thing about a team that last year crossed the .500 threshold for the first time since 2010.
There’s no denying that Buxton, who topped most prospect lists in 2013 and ‘14, endured a rough season in ‘15. Recalled from Double A in June, he played in just 11 games before losing six weeks to a sprained left thumb. While he hit .305/.367/.500 with 22 steals and 13 triples in 72 minor-league games, he managed just a .209/.250/.326 line with an ugly 44/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio at the major league level, illustrating just how overmatched he was. "He wasn't ready to hit in the big leagues, having trouble with breaking-ball recognition and having some holes in his swing exploited," as MLB.com’s prospect team noted.
As the consensus around those rankings suggests, it's too early to panic. Between the thumb and 2014 wrist and concussion woes, Buxton has only made 763 plate appearances over the past two seasons, losing significant developmental time and yet still showing off a set of tools that is nearly without rival—particularly his game-changing speed and strong arm, which give him positive value even if his bat is slow to come around. He'll have to make the right adjustments to unlock his full potential, and the Twins are at least entertaining the notion that he'll start the year in the minors, with Eddie Rosario or Danny Santana holding down centerfield in his absence.
The Big Prospect: Jose Berrios, SP
A 2012 supplemental first-round pick from Puerto Rico, the 21-year-old Berrios is a 6-foot, 185-pound righty who split last year between Double and Triple A, posting a 3.03 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts per nine (against just 2.1 walks per nine) in 166 1/3 innings. He comes into this year ranked among the top 30 prospects on the major lists.
Berrios throws a 92–96 mph fastball, a plus curve and an above-average changeup that has a chance to become a plus pitch as well. Occasionally, he has a tendency to overthrow the heater, which straightens it out and gets him into trouble high in the strike zone. "He has the command and control, the secondary stuff and the poise to succeed in the majors now," wrote Law, who placed him 26th on his list.
Berrios isn't currently penciled into a rotation slot, but Nolasco, who's given the Twins a 5.64 ERA over 35 starts in two seasons, is on thin ice despite being owed $25 million through the end of next season, and lefty Tommy Milone, who pitched to a 3.92 ERA in 128 2/3 innings last year, isn't a lock. Tyler Duffey, who posted a 3.10 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine in 10 starts last season, is also in the mix for a spot behind Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson. So is Trevor May, whose 4.43 ERA in 16 starts owed plenty to a .346 BABIP in that capacity; his 3.35 FIP reflects his strong peripherals, and his mid-90s heat isn't easily dismissed. All of which is to say that Minnesota’s rotation is in flux, but Berrios is too good not to get a shot at starting for what could be a very interesting team.
The Big Change: Better infield defense
As so often happens, the Indians stumbled out of the gate, losing 19 of their first 29 games and torpedoing their hopes of a postseason berth. A major culprit in that slow start was their defense, which around that time was on pace for the lowest defensive efficiency—the rate of converting batted balls into outs—of any team in the past century, leaving their pitchers without adequate support. The situation eventually turned around thanks in large part to the arrivals of Giovany Urshela at third base (pushing Lonnie Chisenhall to rightfield to replace Brandon Moss) and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Francisco Lindor at shortstop (replacing Jose Ramirez); the team actually finished sixth in the league in defensive efficiency (.699), seven points above league average.
This time around, Cleveland will start the season with Lindor (+13 Defensive Runs saved in 98 games), accompanied by Jason Kipnis (+1 in 124 games) at second and incoming free agents Juan Uribe (+32 for the Dodgers before slipping to a still-respectable +2 last season) at third and Mike Napoli (+3 in 111 games) at first. The light-hitting Urshela is likely bound for Triple A, and Carlos Santana (-4 in 132 games at first base) will serve as the primary designated hitter—an alignment that should hopefully translate into a more consistent team-wide performance from wire to wire.
The Big Question: How much will the Indians get out of Michael Brantley?
After solid performances from 2011 to ‘13, Brantley broke out in ‘14, setting career highs in homers (20), slash stats (.327/.385/.506), OPS+ (148) and WAR (6.8) en route to a third-place finish in the AL MVP vote. He wasn't quite as good last year (.310/.379/.480 with 15 homers, a 130 OPS+ and 3.4 WAR), due in part to injuries that limited him to 137 games overall and just 118 in the field. After missing time in April and August due to lower back stiffness, he tore his labrum in his right shoulder on Sept. 22 while diving for a ball and played in just two of the team's final 13 games. Alas, he had hit .332/.383/.549 over his final 200 plate appearances before the injury.
After trying to rehab the shoulder, Brantley underwent arthroscopic surgery on Nov. 9, with a projected return to game activity in five to six months. Last week, Cleveland.com's Paul Hoynes noted that Brantley's "return is still hazy. Maybe late April or early May." The most likely scenario has free-agent addition Rajai Davis filling in for Brantley in leftfield, with Abraham Almonte in center and Chisenhall in right. The righty-swinging Davis will likely to shift to center against tough lefties, with righties Collin Cowgill and Joey Butler as the top candidates to spell him in left.
The dropoff from Brantley to Davis, who hit .258/.306/.440 for a 104 OPS+ last year and owns a 91 OPS+ for his career, is substantial. But the bigger concern is whether Brantley's surgically repaired shoulder will allow him to produce at something close to his 2014–15 level, particularly early on. For some reason, the Indians have developed a knack for slow starts, having gone a combined 29–44 (.397) in their last three Aprils (plus one March game), offsetting their .570 clip from the remaining months.
The Big Prospect: Tyler Naquin, OF
The Indians placed an impressive five prospects on Baseball America's Top 100 list, but none of the quintet—outfielders Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier, lefties Brady Aiken and Justus Sheffield, and first baseman Bobby Bradley—were invited to big-league camp or are expected to make their major league debuts before 2017. The highest-ranked prospect invited to camp is Naquin, who ranked sixth on BA's team list and seventh on that of ESPN (which had all of the aforementioned but Sheffield among its Top 100).
The 15th pick of the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M, Naquin is a 24-year-old centerfielder who split last year between Double and Triple A, batting a combined .300/.381/.446 with seven homers and 13 steals in 84 games before sustaining a concussion in a collision with a wall in late July; he played in just seven more games after that. Law described Naquin as "a potential 70 defender in center with an 80 arm" and pointed out that adjustments in his swing led to harder contact last year. Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawford called him "a perfect fourth-outfield prospect," highlighting his ability to play all three outfield positions, though BP’s 2016 annual also noted that "his level swing plane robs him of in-game power and underscores his lack of other standout tools."
Given Brantley's unavailability, it's not out of the question that a healthy Naquin could break camp with the big club. The Indians do already have 12 outfielders in camp, however, with Shane Robinson, Robbie Grossman, Michael Choice, James Ramsey and Zach Walters (also recovering from shoulder surgery) as the others yet to be mentioned here.
Chicago White Sox
The Big Change: New-look infield
Though they provided more or less adequate defense in 2015, the White Sox got dreadful offensive production from their second basemen (mainly Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson), shortstop (Alexei Ramirez) and third basemen (Tyler Saladino, Gordon Beckham and Conor Gillaspie), all of which played a significant part in the team finishing dead last in the AL in scoring (3.84 runs per game). Understandably, general manager Rick Hahn has been busy making over that unit, with thumping first baseman Jose Abreu as the only member still in place. Ramirez (whose option was declined) is now with the Padres, Beckham has joined the Braves, Gillaspie has signed with the Giants, and Johnson was traded to the Dodgers. Saladino remains, but he’s now in a battle to be the starting shortstop, where his good-field/no-hit skill set is a better fit.
Meanwhile, the new faces are Todd Frazier at third base, Brett Lawrie at second and Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. Frazier, acquired in a three-way deal with the Reds and Dodgers, clubbed a career-high 35 home runs despite a second-half fade. Lawrie, who quickly wore out his welcome in Oakland, was at least healthy and far more productive (.260/.299/.407 for a 92 OPS+) than the guys he's replacing (.222/.275/.305). Rollins, added via a minor-league deal on Monday, is trying to resuscitate his career after a rough season (.224/.285/.358, -0.1 WAR) with the Dodgers.
The Big Question: Can the Sox get more from outfielders Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia?
Well, Chicago can hardly get less than in 2015. Cabrera, who signed a three-year, $42 million deal in December 2014, sputtered to a .273/.314/.394 line and a mere 97 OPS+. That's just the latest maddening turn in an up-and-down career that over the past half-dozen seasons has included three good years worth a total of around 12 WAR and three terrible ones that add up to around 1 WAR. Notably, two of the good seasons were walk years, one of which included a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs that cost him a batting title. Garcia, who once drew comparisons to Miguel Cabrera, hit just .257/.309/.365 for an 89 OPS+, even worse than his performance after coming back from what appeared to be a season-ending torn labrum in 2014. Worse, he was dreadful in the field to the tune of -11 Defensive Runs Saved; in parts of five seasons, he has now tallied -0.8 WAR.
Garcia doesn't turn 25 until June 12, but while his age and raw tools might offer some hope of improvement, his strike zone judgment and propensity for making lousy contact won’t make that an easy task. As for Cabrera, he's 31 and has two more years under contract, so the Sox can't quite give up on him yet. While a move such as trading for the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier or signing free agent Dexter Fowler would make some sense, the latter appears Baltimore-bound, so it will take some creativity from Hahn to find alternatives if the production from this pair doesn't improve.
The Big Prospect: Tim Anderson, SS
The main reason that the Sox let Ramirez walk and are settling for the duo of Saladino and Rollins at shortstop instead of signing free agent Ian Desmond or trading for another long-term solution is the pending arrival of Anderson, who placed 19th on Baseball Prospectus' Top 101 Prospects list and in the 45–50 range for Baseball America, ESPN and MLB.com. A 2013 first-round pick out of a Mississippi community college, the going-on-23-year-old Anderson spent last season at Double A Birmingham, where he hit .312/.350/.429 with 12 triples and 49 steals in 62 attempts.
As you can see from those eye-opening numbers, Anderson has plus-plus speed. While his hit tool grades out as a plus, he's got gap power at best, but the bigger concern is his aggressive approach. He walked just 24 times in 550 plate appearances last year—a rate that recalls that of Ramirez—and struck out 114 times, with breaking balls on the outer half of the plate representing a particular vulnerability. He needs to improve in that area if he's going to take full advantage of that speed as a leadoff hitter instead of an eighth- or ninth-place one.
On the other side of the ball, Anderson has the athleticism and arm strength for the position, but his hands and footwork draw concerns; centerfield is a fallback option if he doesn't pan out at short. Given the rough edges of his current game and the possibility of him maturing into a legitimate two-way shortstop, the Sox shouldn't rush him, but he could see major league action by the end of 2016.
The Big Change: A pair of big-deal newcomers
In their first off-season under general manager Al Avila (who took the reins when Dave Dombrowski was fired last August), the Tigers made a big splash by signing two players to nine-figure deals: righthanded starter Jordan Zimmermann (five years, $110 million) and leftfielder Justin Upton (six years, $132.75 million). Zimmermann (who turns 30 on May 23) didn't have his best season in 2015, but his 3.66 ERA and 3.75 FIP still represent a significant upgrade for a rotation that ranked dead last in the AL in ERA (4.78), FIP (4.50) and home run rate (1.3 per nine). As for Upton, he's coming off a .251/.336/.454 showing with the Padres, featuring 26 homers, 19 steals, a 121 OPS+ (matching his career mark) and 4.4 WAR, his highest since 2011.
Upton’s production should help fill the void left by the deadline trade of leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes and provide the Tigers’ lineup with another young, durable thumper to protect against the effects of age and injury upon first baseman Miguel Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez, who combined for just 239 games and 29 homers last year. The fourth stop in five years for the 28-year-old Upton may not be his last, as the contract includes an opt-out after 2017, but one theory that has been voiced before is that he could be better off playing on a separate team than brother Melvin Jr. (formerly B.J.), whose struggles over the past three seasons while the two were teammates were said to have been a mental burden.
The Big Question: How much will the Tigers get out of Cabrera and Justin Verlander?
The Tigers' four-year run atop the AL Central ended last year in part due to the injuries to the team's two highest-paid superstars and the failure of the supporting cast to pick up the slack. Cabrera hit .338/.440/.534 for a 170 OPS+, which was good enough to lead the league in both batting average and on-base percentage for the fourth time, but he missed six weeks in midseason due to a strained left calf and finished with just 18 homers, his lowest total since his 87-game rookie season back in 2003.
Verlander, meanwhile, began the season on the disabled list due to a triceps strain, didn't make his first start until June 13 and was cuffed for a 6.62 ERA over his first six turns. On the heels of his 2014 struggles (a 4.54 ERA and just 6.9 strikeouts per nine), it seemed as though he’d never rediscover his Cy Young-winning form, but while it was too late to save the Tigers' season, he put up a 2.27 ERA the rest of the way, allowing five homers in 99 1/3 innings after serving up eight in his first 34 frames. His final numbers (3.38 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 7.6 strikeouts per nine), though still short of his 2009–12 peak, provide some optimism going forward.
The Tigers are heavily invested in both players, who are heading into their age-33 seasons: Verlander is owed a minimum of $112 million over the next four years, with a vesting option for 2020, and Cabrera is just kicking off an eight-year, $248 million extension that at the time it was signed carried the highest average annual value in history. For as much as owner Mike Illich is willing to put his money into the team, his club will only go as far as the pair can carry it.
The Big Prospect: Michael Fulmer, SP
The lone Tiger to crack the major prospect lists is the 22-year-old Fulmer, a 2011 supplemental first-round pick who was one of the two pitchers acquired from the Mets in the Cespedes trade. "More than one scout told me that Fulmer was not just the most improved pitcher in the Mets’ system, but in all of baseball," wrote Baseball Prospectus' Crawford of Fulmer back in November.
The numbers Fulmer put up in 22 starts—one in high A ball and 21 at two Double A stops—are impressive: a 2.74 ERA with 2.2 walks and 9.0 strikeouts per nine in 124 2/3 innings. His fastball, which gained a couple of clicks to sit 93–97 mph, is even more so, and it's accompanied by a plus slider with downward tilt that was thrown for strikes more consistently in 2015, as well as an average curve and a changeup that some see as fringy but others as solid-average. Noted Crawford, "His command experienced a bump up thanks to an improved ability to repeat his high three-quarters arm slot and delivery."
The big question about Fulmer is whether he can maintain his effectiveness across a larger workload, as he's never thrown more than last year's 124 2/3 innings. If so, his ceiling is as a No. 2 starter, and it's possible he could be in Detroit later this summer, though 2017 is a more realistic ETA.