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View from the Porch: Sizing Up The Competition

How will the A.L. Central shake out?
We’re less than two weeks away from baseball being played at the Corner of Carnegie & Ontario and we’re just over a week away from meaningful baseball starting up in Houston on April 6. The talk of the town, for those not obsessed with the Cavs, is the decision to send Danny Salazar to Triple-A with TJ House and Zach McAllister seemingly locking down the final two starting rotation spots.

It’s important to remember that just three years ago, the Indians wound up using Derek Lowe as a middle of the rotation starter with 17 additional starts from Jeanmar Gomez, two starts from Chris Seddon, and four starts from David Huffalupagus. Mitch Talbot made 12 starts with a solid 6.64 ERA in 2012, a season in which both Huff and Gomez made 10 starts apiece.

We all have our own thoughts about what should have happened with the rotation. The key thing to remember is that those awful days are behind the Indians. Should a starter falter, Danny Salazar is now waiting in the wings just two hours down I-71 in Columbus. Josh Tomlin has proven to be a useful, if not league average, depth candidate. Major Leaguers with track records like Shaun Marcum and Bruce Chen are still in the organization, though it remains to be seen how long Marcum will be around. Irrespective of your thoughts on the effectiveness of McAllister or this band of merry men waiting in reserve, the Indians are in a far better position than previous versions of the team. That’s the most important thing. That’s what can be a separator for this team.

In 2010, 2011, 2012, the Indians used 10 different starting pitchers. In 2013, they used nine, including the corpse of Brett Myers before his arm fell off. In 2014, they used only eight, but all eight guys made 14 or more starts. The Indians are in excellent shape here, no matter who makes the Opening Day roster. Starting rotations are fluid throughout the season and the starting five on April 6 probably won’t be the starting five for the final week of the season. It’s the nature of the beast.

This is a good segue into a look at our biggest competition. The Indians are getting a lot of love from national pundits, not just to win the AL Central, but to win the World Series. The first step, of course, is getting to the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if the Indians get in as a Wild Card or as a division champion, with the exception of the one-and-done format of the Wild Card round.

To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best (WOOOOOO!). The Kansas City Royals are, as surprising as it was, the current “best” in the American League since they won it last season. We know that not to be the case and the Royals aren’t even the Indians’ chief competition, but they’re the reigning AL champs until proven otherwise.

The Royals enter this season with a lot of question marks. The main one centers around finding a way to replace James Shields’s 227 regular season innings worth of production. Shields was the anchor of what wound up being a better pitching staff than most expected, due in large part to Kansas City’s excellent defense. Yordano Ventura, who had elbow soreness last season, is now the de facto ace with free agent Edinson Volquez expected to pick up the slack.

Like the Indians, the Royals bullpen pitched a lot. Unlike the Indians, the Royals bullpen pitched an extra month. Greg Holland finished with 76 appearances. Wade Davis finished with 86 appearances. Kelvin Herrera made 81 appearances. That’s not far off of what the Indians did as a bullpen, but the leverage situations in the playoffs add stress to every pitch. This Tweet said it all for me:
Offensively, the Royals still have very little home run power and have a lineup comprised of guys that walk at a below average rate. It worked for them because they made up for the lack of power by stealing bases at an excellent rate and kept game scores low because of their defense. It’s fair to ask if they will be that lucky this season. (My answer is no.)

Moving to the Chicago White Sox, the winners of the offseason award for most improved American League team. The White Sox added a lot. Adam LaRoche will provide protection for Jose Abreu as a powerful left-handed bat that makes contact more often than not. Jeff Samardzija is part of an excellent front of the rotation with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Phenom Carlos Rodon may actually make the rotation. The bullpen is improved with David Robertson and Zach Duke.

There are still flaws on this team. Micah Johnson is an unknown as second base. Chris Sale’s avulsion fracture to his landing foot may be more of a long-term problem than people are suggesting. There’s a lot of “replacement-level” left on the White Sox roster and no depth. This is still a poor defensive team. There are a lot of improvements and the White Sox have gotten some love in the preseason betting markets. However, depth is a major concern. Over 162 games, teams need to have replacements ready to go. If Corey Kluber got hurt, it would be a lot less crippling for the Indians than if Chris Sale got hurt. Same with if Jose Abreu or Carlos Santana got hurt. The White Sox are a top-heavy team, but that also leads to a decent ceiling.

The Detroit Tigers are in far worse shape than people think. Justin Verlander left his Spring Training start on Friday with “triceps cramping”. That may be something or it may be nothing. However, with 530.1 rotation innings to replace from Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, and Max Scherzer, the Tigers are in a tough spot. A full season of David Price will replace some of them, but Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene are not particularly exciting.

The aging lineup has already shown some cracks, with Victor Martinez experiencing knee soreness in his surgically-repaired meniscus. Miguel Cabrera is coming off of major foot and ankle surgery, his second big offseason procedure in as many years. Jose Iglesias, the de facto starting shortstop, missed nearly all of 2014 and had an awful Spring Training.

The Tigers still have a dangerous lineup with a lot of #righthandedpowerbats to strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. The bullpen is a major concern with rebuilt Joakim Soria in light for save opportunities with aging Joe Nathan on the decline. Rebuilt flamethrower Bruce Rondon will probably be closing by mid-May, which leaves nobody in middle relief. The Tigers are a huge payroll team in line to severely underachieve.

The Minnesota Twins are a scrappy bunch and have a new voice in the clubhouse with rookie manager Paul Molitor. Among players with at least 147 plate appearances last season, 12 rated above league average in wRC+. There’s some underappreciated talent on this club in the form of players like Brian Dozier, Oswaldo Arcia, Trevor Plouffe, and Kennys Vargas. The problem is that most of those players have glaring flaws as well.

The starting rotation will be anchored by Phil Hughes, who had a record-setting season in terms of K/BB ratio, but there’s not a lot of excitement behind him. Kyle Gibson is still vying to live up to his pre-draft hype. Ervin Santana was signed to eat innings while the Twins wait on younger players. Ricky Nolasco and likely fifth starter Tom Milone are below replacement-level.

The Twins are waiting for Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Alex Meyer to show up. They’re a thorn in the side of a lot of teams, however, because they work counts, score runs, and seem to do what it takes to stay relevant. They’re not as big of a pushover as some might think.

Ultimately, there’s one thing that separates the Indians from everybody else in the division and that’s depth. The Indians are in a great position to withstand the inevitable injuries that arise during the season. They also have the best starting rotation by a large margin and potentially the best bullpen, if the reports are true about the Royals bullpen being fatigued. The Indians probably have the second-best offense behind Detroit.

All in all, the Indians should be the favorite to win the AL Central. They are the least flawed team in the field and have the best depth. The team is a far cry from just a few years ago, when the front office wasn’t even sure who the 1-2-3 in the rotation would be, let alone the 4-5 and the depth. There were far fewer questions this offseason. There are never certainties in sports, but the Indians certainly have more answers than their division brethren.

Because the Indians play 76 games against these teams, or just under 47 percent of their games, it’s important to win within the division. That’s especially true of this season. If the Indians want to be a factor in October, it starts with beating the Royals, White Sox, Tigers, and Twins.
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