MLB season preview: The best reason to watch every AL Central team

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Friday March 24th, 2017

As Opening Day approaches, the one thing every team can count on for the long season ahead is hope, whether to make the postseason this year or to build toward a brighter future in days ahead. Yet no matter how competitive they are, all 30 teams will have at least one reason for their fans to stay interested for the next six months. Before the season kicks off, SI.com will explore the best reason to watch each team in 2017, starting with the AL East clubs on Thursday, March 23 and continuing with the AL Central (March 24), AL West (March 27), NL East (March 28), NL Central (March 29) and NL West (March 30).

Chicago White Sox: Something great is being built on the South Side

In time, the core of the White Sox will feature Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada in the lineup and Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon anchoring the rotation. That might not be until 2018 or perhaps even '19. Until then, enjoy Abreu's power, take delight in the five-tool promise of Moncada and salivate over the potential of those young pitchers, none of whom are older than 24. This season will be like a trailer before the movie starts, but at least it’s a preview of something that looks to be great.

Cleveland Indians: Andrew Miller-led bullpen hoping to finish the job

The Indians may have built the bullpen of the future, but it happened purely out of necessity. After starting pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar were shelved by injury late last season, manager Terry Francona was forced to navigate the postseason by trying to get five innings out of his starters before turning games over to his lights-out bullpen trio of lefthander Andrew Miller and righties Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen. It worked so well that Cleveland made it to Game 7 of the World Series despite getting nearly as many innings from its relievers (64 2/3) as its starters (69 1/3) in its 15 postseason games.

With a 162-game schedule and the return of Carrasco and Salazar, that structure isn't likely to be sustainable. But Francona has seen how effective it can be to not hold his relievers, especially a weapon like ALCS MVP Miller, to predetermined roles. The same amoeba-like structure—Miller in the fifth! Miller in the eighth!—could be a difference-maker for the Indians this summer and get them another chance at a title in the fall, to say nothing of the impact it could have on how games are managed and rosters are constructed across baseball in years to come.

Detroit Tigers: The Two Justins

Detroit has other pieces who will have to play key roles if the Tigers are to return to the postseason in 2017 after a two-year absence, such as slugger Miguel Cabrera, second baseman Ian Kinsler and pitcher Michael Fulmer, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. But their chances at reaching October will increase if ace Justin Verlander and outfielder Justin Upton can show the kind of consistency that made both of them stars but has eluded them in recent seasons. Verlander rebounded from a pair of down seasons to go 16–9 with a 3.04 ERA and a league-best 254 strikeouts, helping him to a (controversial) second-place finish in the Cy Young voting. He's entering his age-34 season, his 13th in Detroit. Upton, meanwhile, played his first year in Motown in 2016 and, at 29, still has time to be an impact player for years to come. And while his OPS+ declined for the second straight year last season, he hit 13 homers and drove in 28 runs in the season's final month and is entering what could be the walk-year of his contract.

Kansas City Royals: Is this the last dance for the former world champs?

Outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are all free agents after this season. It is unlikely the Royals will sign all four (a humble prediction: they lock up Cain and Hosmer and let Escobar and Moustakas walk), so this will almost certainly be the last run for the group that helped Kansas City win the AL pennant in 2014 and the World Series the next year. After slumping to a .500 finish last season, do the Royals even have one more title chase in them? With uncertainty surrounding the health of catcher Salvador Perez, who hurt his knee in the World Baseball Classic, and with the tragic loss of pitcher Yordano Ventura, it's unclear if Kansas City will even make it through the July 31 trade deadline with all those pieces in place. Catch them while you can.

Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton is ready for his breakout season (right?)

The No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, Byron Buxton was ranked as the game's top prospect by Baseball America prior to the '14 season before tumbling all the way to No. 2 in both '15 and '16. Yet in 138 major league games over the past two years, he has hit just .220 with a .672 OPS and 12 home runs. He hit nine home runs in 29 games in the final month of last season, however, and at 23, this could finally be his breakout year. The Twins don’t have a lot going for them, and their pitching—featuring an AL-worst 5.08 ERA last year—is atrocious. Watching the development of Buxton and dreaming about where he might one day lead this team might be the only reason for Minnesota fans to tune in after the All-Star break.

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