Spring Training is here! Hallelujah! The dismal, dark, cold, terrifying, depressing off-season is behind us. Now to the bright future of the 2017 baseball season. No longer do we ask who the Royals will sign or who will the Royals trade? Now we want to know who will win the division and can the Royals get back to the playoffs? Well, I’m going to use some science* right here in front of your eyes to definitively** answer that first question
* Using a loose definition of science.
**Alternatively definitive, perhaps.
For each position I will award five points to the team with the best player at the position, four points for the second best, and so on, except for starting rotation where it will be 15 points, 12 points, etc.
To determine the players at each position I’m using a combination of the depth charts on each team’s official website, the Steamer projections available for free on FanGraphs.com, and the knowledge I’ve acquired through reading and listening to a variety of other sources.
Kansas City, Salvador Perez - 5 points
Detroit, James McCann - 4 points
Minnesota, Jason Castro - 3 points
Cleveland, Yan Gomes - 2 points
Chicago, Omar Narvaez - 1 point
Salvy is still the cream of the AL catcher crop, but James McCann is not far behind. They’re both 26 and have a lot of time left on their contracts for their respective teams, so this should be a long-lived rivalry. The other three catchers are all giant question marks. Yan Gomes had a terrible season last year, but has been able to produce offensively in the past; Jason Castro had an amazing 2013 season but saw his ISO and BABIP both drop 50 points the following year and they've never recovered, his defense is acceptable; and Omar Narvaez played in 34 games last year and failed to stand out in any meaningful way.
Detroit, Miguel Cabrera - 5 points
Cleveland, Carlos Santana - 4 points
Chicago, Jose Abreu - 3 points
Kansas City, Eric Hosmer - 2 points
Minnesota, Joe Mauer - 1 point
Even at 33 years old Miguel Cabrera figures to be in the running for best first baseman in baseball and is in a class of his own in the AL. Carlos Santana is no slouch, though. There is probably as a large a gap between him and third as between him and first. Fangraphs/Steamer sees Jose Abreu and Eric Hosmer as basically the same player, I give the edge to Jose Abreu because he’s at least done it - where it is have a truly outstanding offensive season - before but if Hosmer is going to have a breakout, at 27 and in a contract year is the time for him to do it. Joe Mauer can draw a walk with the best of them, and even managed to pump up his ISO a bit last year but also cemented himself as a liability on the basepaths and he looks much older at 33 than Miggy does.
Minnesota, Brian Dozier - 5 points
Detroit, Ian Kinsler - 4 points
Cleveland, Jason Kipnis - 3 points
Chicago, Brett Lawrie - 2 points
Kansas City, Whit Merrifield - 1 point
Second base is traditionally a position manned by light-hitting and fleet-footed, defense-first players. Not so in the AL Central. The top fourguys all hit the ball a ton and field with varying degrees of effectiveness - Kinsler is the best, Kipnis isn’t bad, but Dozier and Lawrie will make plenty of mistakes. I am actually a big believer in Whit Merrifield’s potential as a late bloomer. But after a scorching hot start to his MLB career abruptly transmogrified into one of the coldest stretches imaginable he’s going to have to prove himself all over again before he can taken seriously as a lineup threat. His glove should be more than passable, at least.
Kansas City, Mike Moustakas - 5 points
Cleveland, Jose Ramirez - 4 points
Detroit, Nick Castellanos - 3 points
Chicago, Todd Frazier - 2 points
Minnesota, Miguel Sano - 1 point
Mike Moustakas had an amazing breakout season in 2015 and looked even better before getting hurt in 2016. There is no reason to believe he won’t be just as good in 2017, if healthy. Beyond the bat, he’d be in line for a Gold Glove if he didn’t play in the same league as noted hot heads Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson. Jose Ramirez’ extremely good season last year was disguised by the star turns of Francisco Lindor and Tyler Naquin, the continued dominance of Cleveland’s rotation, and the mid-season acquisition of Andrew Miller which was all anyone wanted to talk about for the rest of the year. The projection systems, however, see him as a candidate for regression in both ISO and BABIP to something between his 2015 mediocrity and his stellar 2016.
Nick Castellanos finally put his swing together in a way that was productive and that seemed to help his confidence in his defense at third which saw improvement as well, allowing him to be an overall positive contributor for the first time in his major league career. Todd Frazier and Miguel Sano are both guys who will hit long, long home runs and strike out a ton. Frazier gets the nod over Sano because he has a much better glove - despite being only average.
Cleveland, Francisco Lindor - 5 points
Detroit, Jose Iglesias - 4 points
Chicago, Tim Anderson - 3 points
Kansas City, Alcides Escobar - 2 points
Minnesota, Jorge Polanco - 1 point
Francisco Lindor is in the conversation for best shortstop in the league. That’s the same league that has Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts in it. He seems to do everything well, is capable of stealing a base, hitting for power and average, and playing defense as good as anyone in the league. Jose Iglesias plays pretty good defense and can hit, sometimes. Tim Anderson could be very good if he comes into his bat the way the White Sox hope he will while also playing a good short stop.
Alcides Escobar has lost a step on defense and never had much of a bat. Jorge Polanco actually projects to be better than Esky next year, but I’m betting on a slight rebound from the Royal - not enough to make him good, but not quite as bad as last year, either - and the situation in Minnesota doesn’t seem likely to foster prospect growth in a way that makes me confident Polanco can get where his tools might otherwise take him.
Kansas City, Alex Gordon - 5 points
Detroit, Justin Upton - 4 points
Cleveland, Michael Brantley - 3 points
Chicago, Melky Cabrera - 2 points
Minnesota, Eddie Rosario - 1 point
FanGraphs and I agree that Alex Gordon should bounce back and be a big part of the left field conversation once again. They also think Upton will be better than him, even after the horrid start to his season last year. Perhaps they’re right to think so given Upton is still only 29 years old, but I won’t bet against Alex. Brantley is a huge question mark after missing almost the entire 2016 season and could end up being the best player in left field if the time off didn’t cost him anything, but that’s a big if. Melky Cabrera has still got some juice in his bat but his defense in left field is an adventure, to say the least. Eddie Rosario is a place holder that you can live with if the rest of your team is good. The Twins probably won't be.
Kansas City, Lorenzo Cain - 5 points
Cleveland, Tyler Naquin - 4 points
Minnesota, Byron Buxton - 3 points
Detroit, Mikie Mahtook - 2 points
Chicago, Charlie Tilson - 1 point
Lorenzo Cain has every reason to make this a great season if he wants to get a big contract this off-season; given his age and injury history it may be now or never for him. Tyler Naquin will look to build on a very successful 2016, Byron Buxton will look to show the talents that made him a number one overall prospect in 2014 and number two overall in each of the last two seasons. Michael "Mikie" Mahtook was worth -0.8 fWAR last year for the Rays after being worth 1.8 fWAR in only 41 games in 2015. He’s got some pop and can handle himself defensively, Detroit will be counting on a rebound. Charlie Tilson has two plate appearances and a single to show so far for his big league career, he did put up a 102 wRC+ for the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate last year, which is...well...not exciting.
Detroit, J.D. Martinez - 5 points
Kansas City, Jorge Soler - 4 points
Minnesota, Max Kepler - 3 points
Cleveland, Lonnie Chisenhall - 2 points
Chicago, Avisail Garcia - 1 point
J.D. Martinez is still a beast in Detroit’s outfield, but Jorge Soler could give him a run for his money if he and the Royals can fix the hole in his swing. Max Kepler had a pretty good debut last year and will look to continue it, Lonnie Chisenhall is well-entrenched in his attempt to replicate Alex Gordon’s success of moving from third to the outfield with mixed results and projections. Avisail Garcia looks like a linebacker and has/had the tools to be a great player but never put it together. At this point it seems safe to say he probably won’t.
Cleveland, Edwin Encarnacion - 5 points
Detroit, Victor Martinez - 4 points
Minnesota, Kennys Vargas - 3 points
Kansas City, Brandon Moss - 2 points
Chicago, Matt Davidson - 1 point
Edwin Encarnacion seems likely to dethrone Victor Martinez as the best DH in the AL Central, this year. Both are expected to regress a bit due to age, but Encarnacion has considerably more power, takes more walks, and runs much better than Martinez, which says more about Martinez than the four-years-younger Encarnacion. Kennys Vargas was a three true outcomes hitter last year, walking 13.6% of the time, striking out nearly a third of the time and hitting for a .270 ISO. Brandon Moss can take walks as well, won’t strike out as much, but he probably won’t hit the ball with as much authority either. His best value would be as the strong side of a platoon but it seems unlikely Ned will use him that way. Matt Davidson is a third baseman who doesn’t hit well enough to play there, so the White Sox penciled him in as DH and are praying someone else takes the job from him.
Cleveland: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin - 15 points
Kansas City: Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas, Nate Karns - 12 points
Detroit: Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd - 9 points
Chicago: Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon, James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, Derek Holland - 6 points
Minnesota: Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios, Tyler Duffey - 3 points
If Cleveland's rotation is healthy it’s quite possibly the best in all of baseball. The Royals should have more consistency than the other Central teams, which gets them the nod for second. Detroit has Verlander, who has returned to ace status; Michael Fulmer who was in the Cy Young conversation for a while last year, and Jordan Zimmermann who is always good when healthy - which isn't as often as his team would like. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd could be very good or they could be very bad. Chicago has the current iteration of James Shields as their number three starter, 'Nuff said. Minnesota has the current iteration of Hector Santiago as their number two starter, 'Nuff said.
Cleveland: Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Dan Otero - 5 points
Kansas City: Kelvin Herrera, Matt Strahm, Joakim Soria - 4 points
Chicago: David Robertson, Nate Jones, Zach Putnam - 3 points
Detroit: Francisco Rodriguez, Shane Greene, Justin Wilson - 2 points
Minnesota: Glen Perkins, Brandon Kintzler, Trevor May - 1 point
The best closer on this list is probably Kelvin Herrera, but the best pitcher is definitely Andrew Miller. Cody Allen isn’t a slouch, either. The biggest different between the top two teams and the bottom three is depth. Cleveland has several guys who could have gone in that third best slot. The Royals have a couple. Ignoring contracts and focusing only on results, Putnam and Wilson would probably be cut if they played for KC or Cleveland. Glen Perkins has to prove he can pitch again after suffering an injury followed by ineffectiveness, last year, and honestly Trevor May might be the best reliever they have.
Kansas City: 47
As you can see by this completely scientific and not at all arbitrary measurement system, Cleveland will probably win the division by virtue of being significantly better than everyone else. The Royals and Detroit can both make a run at them if a few things break their way and/or against Cleveland. Chicago and Minnesota are likely just going to be punching bags for the rest of the division, much as they were last year.
So what do you think? Let me know in the comments what you think I got right and where I went terribly, horribly wrong to reach a result that doesn’t peg the Royals as winners of the division with a new record for victories.