MLB 2014 Preview: American League Central

Ian Kinsler (above) has taken his skills to Detroit this season.

The author of this article, Ty Whetstone, will be previewing every Major League Baseball team exclusively for Sports Data Research. Each team appears in the order of its 2014 expected finish within the division.

TIGERS

By nearly any metric, the Tigers were a great team in 2013. Finishing 6th in WAR for offense/defense and 1st in pitching (by a mile), the Tigers won 92 games and their third consecutive Central Division title.

Entering this offseason, the Tigers neared the brink of some tough financial decisions with the contracts of Miguel Cabrera, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, and Doug Fister all coming close to an end. A major hindrance to extending anybody was the contract of 1B Prince Fielder, so they traded him to Texas for 2B Ian Kinsler. The Tigers saved around $70MM total in the transaction, though Kinsler still has a significant salary and could be anything from an average to very good player in the short term. A WAR of 3 is not an unreasonable expectation, and they gave up a 3-4 WAR type player to get him. Trading Fielder for Kinsler also gives Detroit the opportunity to move Cabrera back to first and insert prospect Nick Castellanos at third. I am not that high on Castellanos’ bat (yet), because he is still quite young and has failed to own any league above A+. Although his 121 wRC+ in AAA at age 21 is excellent, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a readiness to mash at the MLB level. The Tigers also traded SP Doug Fister to Washington for a decent starter prospect (Ray), a LOOGY (Kroll), and a UIF (Lombardozzi). The deal has been pretty universally panned (here, here, and here), so I won’t touch that part of it. For purposes of the 2014 season, the Tigers essentially traded Fister’s salary for Joe Nathan’s. Nathan is still a great back-end pitcher, but a very good SP is more valuable and the Tigers are now woefully short on depth.

The Tigers are a less talented team than they were last year, but they are still the best team in the AL Central and now they have some financial flexibility going forward.

INDIANS

Full disclosure is warranted here that the author is an Indians fan. The Indians mildly surprised baseball by winning a wild card spot with 91 wins last year. This was a pretty average team (15th in fWAR offense/defense and 16th in fWAR pitching) talent-wise, but they were able to get the maximum results and have a successful season.

This offseason, the Indians, per usual, were not big spenders on the free agent market. They signed OF David Murphy to a deal for 2 yr/$12MM. Murphy is essentially a platoon player, which limits his value, but mashing RHP never goes out of style (they still throw 60% of pitches in MLB) and the Indians paid only a platoon player price. Murphy has been worth as much as 3.9 fWAR (in 2012), but the Indians will be happy with anything more than 1 WAR. The Indians also signed SP Shaun Marcum to a minor league contract with the idea of competing for a rotation spot. Marcum never lost the ability to retire MLB hitters, but he has been hurt frequently throughout his career. Losing Scott Kazmir (2.5 fWAR) and Ubaldo Jimenez (3.2 fWAR) are difficult blows to sustain, but a full year of Danny Salazar and production from fallen prospects Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco could efficiently cover the loss.

The Indians are probably similar to last year from a talent perspective. They have built something like an average team that could be dangerous if things break right. As with the Royals, they could plausibly contend for the division and very possibly contend again for a Wild Card.

ROYALS

Every year someone pegs the Royals as an up-and- coming team. In 2013, the Royals nearly broke through by winning 86 games. Furthermore, they finished 13th in team fWAR offense/defense and 4th in team fWAR pitching. This was a good team.

This offseason, the Royals signed a mixed bag of veterans. Omar Infante signed for 4 yr/$30MM, and in the short term, this is a bargain because he has demonstrated upside (combined WAR of 6 the past two seasons), meaning the Royals can reasonably expect a WAR of 2 this year. Considering the 1.1 fWAR that second basemen posted last year, this is a good investment. Starting pitcher Jason Vargas signed a nearly identical deal (4 yr/$32MM), but he projects to a WAR of 1.5 to 2, and is basically replacing Ervin Santana. This isn’t a big overpay, but the Royals would be wise to sign so only many below average guys at market rates (and Jeremy Guthrie is on staff already, though his deal ends after this year). It’s possible that Kansas City GM Dayton Moore overpaid in trading Will Smith for Norichika Aoki, but Aoki projects to a WAR of 2 to 3 and will make just $2.5MM this year.

The biggest challenge for the Royals this year will be repeating their 2013 pitching performance. They have a great defense and batters like Moustakas and Hosmer have room to grow. Expect this team to be on the brink of contention for the division (plausibly) and the wild card (possibly).

WHITE SOX

After contending for the entire 2012 season, the White Sox finished 63-99 in 2013, a full 30 games back of Detroit in the AL Central. The Sox were completely dragged down by their lack of offense (28th in batting fWAR), but the silver lining is that they finished 8th in pitching fWAR. The departures of Jesse Crain (midseason trade), Jake Peavy (midseason trade), Addison Reed (offseason trade), and Hector Santiago (offseason trade) will make repeating this feat difficult, but Chris Sale and Jose Quintana project to produce a combined 6 to 9 WAR, which is a pretty good start.

The real area for concern for the White Sox is offense, and they have done quite a bit to patch up the holes, though probably not enough to be in contention. They acquired Adam Eaton to play centerfield, and he projects to be somewhere around league average (2 fWAR). He immediately becomes the best White Sox outfielder. They also acquired Matt Davidson, who projects to be approximately a 1-win improvement over Conor Gillespie. Cuban defector Jose Abreu was signed to to play first base. Abreu is difficult to project, though he is likely to perform in the 3 WAR area. That (and the extension Freddie Freeman got from the Braves) seems to make the 6 yr/$68MM gamble a good one for Sox GM Rick Hahn.

Chicago is not ready to contend yet, but the Sox look more like an average team than they did at the end of last offseason. Hahn did a nice job of reshaping his team this offseason without spending a ton of dollars.

TWINS

The 2013 Twins starting pitchers finished 29th in baseball with 4.6 WAR. Kansas City’s James Shields posted 4.5 WAR all by himself—in 643 fewer innings. With top prospect Alex Meyer months away and Vance Worley encountering injuries and ineffectiveness, the Twins signed two pitchers, Mike Pelfrey (2 yr/$11MM) and Ricky Nolasco (4 yr/$49MM), with a strikingly similar ability to deliver results that underperform their peripherals.

Nolasco owns a career 4.37 ERA but a very good 3.75 FIP. Pelfrey’s spread is less pronounced (4.48 ERA vs. 4.17 FIP) but still real. Reasons for these discrepancies? Last year, 145 pitchers threw at least 100 innings, and Pelfrey finished 133rd in strand rate (67.2%). Nolasco’s strand rate (70.2%) was only slightly better. Also, Pelfrey has a 13.2% strikeout rate, good for 104th of 114 pitchers with 600 IP since 2008. Nolasco strikes out batters at a good clip (19.3% for his career), but that number plummets to Pelfrey-like numbers (13.9%) in high leverage situations.

Current estimates place the cost of 1 win to be around $7MM. Given that Nolasco projects to be about a 3-win pitcher and Pelfrey should post at least 1 win if healthy, these deals are good ones in the short term. But a few wins don’t mean much to the Twins when they needed 15-20 to contend.

Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

Ty Whetstone

Ty Whetstone is a lifelong baseball fan that was turned on to Sabermetrics by posting on baseball message boards. In his real life, he works as an accountant. He enjoys traveling with his family and playing golf in his free time.