They were so good last season that Cleveland almost won it all before the Chicago Cubs finally managed to win the World Series. They have a shrewd, personable manager in Terry Francona. They have that most important ingredient of all, pitching. The pitching staff is not so brilliant that it brings to mind the glory days of Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, Ray Narleski, Don Mossi and Herb Score but it is very deep and young with the throwback bullpen work of Andrew Miller now available for the entire season. They have power and they have speed. For the most part, they also have the under rated quality of defense anchored by the brilliant young shortstop Francisco Lindor. There is only one thing that might jinx them and hold them back from ultimate success. That is that horrible, racist image of Wahoo Sam, the goony looking mascot that is ugly in the extreme and embarrassing to look at unless you are the sort of insensitive lout who thinks that Birth of a Nation is a great movie.
The Central Division of the American League should be theirs for the taking this year because two of their most recent rivals, Detroit and Kansas City, appear to be fading from contention at the same time that the Indians are getting better. Cleveland should be stronger because, in addition to Miller, they will have star left fielder Michael Brantley back in the lineup after he missed all but eleven games last year. Right now sterling second baseman Jason Kipnis and the usual right fielder, Lonnie Chisenhall, are on the disabled list but when they return Cleveland will have a wealth of talent and versatility. Tyler Naquin performed well in 116 games last year and can handle center field while Abraham Almonte is no slouch filling in for Chisenhall. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are the catchers and they both are strong defensively while each of them batted under .200 in 2016.
Jose Ramirez will man second base until Kipnis is back and then probably start at third base. The 24 year old played all over the infield and outfield last year and hit .312 with 76 runs batted in. Cuban import Yandy Diaz plays third now and projects to be the same type of versatile player Ramirez has been.
We all witnessed the work of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer late last season and with Tomlin the old man of the group at 32, chances are that we will continue to see the starters perform well for quite a while. Besides Miller, the bullpen features effective right handers Cody Allen,Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, and Bryan Shaw. Boone Logan joins Miller as the only lefties.
The Kansas City Royals were the team looking like the wave of the future in this division a couple of short seasons ago but they slipped badly last year to a .500 record and do not appear to be rebounding well. A solid core remains with shortstop Alcides Escobar, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and tower of strength catcher Salvador Perez. However the pitching staff, even before the tragic loss of Yordano Ventura, was not looking so solid. Now top notch reliever Wade Davis has been traded to the Cubs for right fielder Jorge Soler. A pair of ex-Cubs, starter Jason Hammel and reliever Travis Wood, are aboard to help out. You can’t say the Royals have bad pitching, but it’s not nearly as scary to opponents as it was in ’14 and ’15. Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy are pretty good starters and lefty Jason Vargas still has time to break through. Nate Karns, who was 6-2 with a 5.15 earned run average for Seattle, is also there.
Raul Mondesi is a good second baseman who may eventually hit and can already run. Mike Moustakas is back at third base after missing 135 games last year and Cheslor Cuthbert showed talent as his replacement in 2016. Christian Colon will again be around to spell people in the infield. Paulo Orlando emerged as a good hitter with speed in the outfield. So the Royals will be tough, but probably not as tough as Cleveland.
Detroit’s time of contention appears to be past. The combination of a smattering of speed mixed with guys who hit the ball hard but don’t move so fast produces nice looking offensive statistics but not so many runs and the Tigers seem permanently committed to using outfielders who cannot cover all of their vast outfield space. Thus, despite a high quality defensive infield of shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers are not a fun team to pitch for unless, like Justin Verlander (16-9,3.04),you strike a lot of batters out. Michael Fulmer has come along to help out. Francisco Rodriguez,one time fireballing closer, is now 35 but produced well for Detroit last season. I don’t put value on saves numbers (he had 44) but in 61 games he had a decent ERA and 52 strikeouts in 58 and one third innings. Jordan Zimmermann has had much better seasons as a starter than his 9-7, 4.87 year for the Tigers last year but he is not a strikeout type guy. Lefty Matt Boyd was mediocre and lefty Daniel Norris was pretty good in 13 starts. We all recognize Miguel Cabrera as a bad ass future hall of famer and Victor Martinez still stings the ball at 38 but much of his prowess goes for naught since the big leagues don’t permit courtesy runners. J.D. Martinez, currently confined to the disabled list, is another guy who clogs up the base paths if he doesn’t hit it out. James McCann is a first rate defensive catcher who hits well enough and he is backed by returning former Detroit catcher Alex Avila, who went off to the White Sox for a while. Nick Castellanos hits with power and is adequate at third base and Kinsler provides power and speed along with his great defense. Justin Upton will never win a gold glove in left field but he continues to hit with great power and he is not yet 30 years old. Andrew Romine is a valuable all around bench player.
A lot of dreamers are selecting the Minnesota Twins as the 2017 dark horse. While they don’t have to do much to improve over 2016’s 59 victories, the Twins are still far from contention, mainly due to their lack of pitching strength. They signed catcher Jason Castro to help with the young staff and he would seem to have his work cut out for him. Ervin Santana is a good ace at age 34, and lefty Hector Santiago has been okay. Adalberto Mejia is a highly touted lefty acquired from the Giants in the trade for Eduardo Nunez. Phil Hughes is well past the great expectations part of his career and I frankly don’t know jack about the rest of the staff for the twin cities.
Brian Dozier, who had 82 extra base hits, 18 stolen bases, and 99 RBI last year is a real star because he also plays a very good second base. Jorge Polanco at shortstop and Miguel Sano at third may be up and coming stars but they apparently both need to clean up their glove work. Sano hits the long ball. Joe Mauer, one time all world catcher, is now confined to first base and designated sitter after his concussion of 2013 and his batting numbers have dwindled to run of the mill but we’re all rooting for him. Byron Buxton is a speedy, strong armed center fielder but so far his offensive numbers are more like Rick Manning than Kirby Puckett. He will be flanked by Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right. All show potential and none are over 26 years of age.
Since they don’t have Chris Sale anymore, the Chicago White Sox might have Yoan Moncada some day. That’s their big story. In the meantime, they promise to be less boring if not more victorious than in their recent past. Once the next great Cuban star, Avisail Garcia has looked rather ordinary so far. He’s in right field and the largely unknown Jacob May is in center. Melky Cabrera patrols left field with a good arm and good power numbers. Todd Frazier plays third base and hits lots of home runs. Tim Anderson was impressive in 99 games as the shortstop last season. He hit .283 with 9 home runs and average defense. Tyler Saladino was similarly impressive at second base while Jose Abreu produced like a first baseman with size should, hitting .293 with 25 homers and 100 RBI.Omar Narvaez is the promising new catcher.
Without Sale, the White Sox still have quality on the mound with lefty Jose Quintana (13-12,3.20 last year),lefty Derek Holland, who was 7-9 with Texas,Miguel Gonzalez, and the somewhat puzzling James Shields, who was a combined 6-19 with a 5.85 ERA with the Sox and San Diego last year. The bullpen was pretty sturdy last season with right handers Nate Jones and Dan Jennings getting most of the work and David Robertson “closing”.
So it looks good for Cleveland. If they blow it, blame Wahoo Sam.