Questions about the Royals' AL Central rivals focus on White Sox pitcher John Danks, Indians pitcher Corey Kluber, Tigers DH Victor Martinez and Twins outfield prospect Byron Buxton.
Jesse Johnson - Anthony Grupposo - Mike Dinovo - Mark J. Rebilas
In four seasons, the American League Central has transformed from a division with one winning team into arguably the deepest division in baseball.
Three different AL Central teams (Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland) have made the AL playoffs in the last two years, and up to four teams could contend for the division crown this year. Sorry, Minnesota.
The defending AL champion Royals, the four-time defending division champion Tigers, the retooled White Sox and the strikeout-happy Indians all should challenge for the division title, potentially creating an exciting and incredible playoff race.
But each of them is not without question marks entering 2015. Here’s a look at the most pressing question facing each of Kansas City’s division foes.
CHICAGO: What kind of depth do the White Sox have after Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija?
The White Sox traded for Samardzija in the offseason to add a right-handed complement to their stellar left-hander Chris Sale at the top of the rotation. Sale could have won the AL Cy Young Award last season (12-4, 2.17 ERA) if he hadn’t missed half of May with an elbow injury. Samardzija was named to his first All-Star team last season and posted his first sub-3.00 ERA (2.99 combined between the Cubs and A’s) since he became a starter in 2012.
But that’s not Chicago’s problem. The issue lies in the pitchers behind their pair of aces. Jose Quintana has been a solid, above-average starter for the South Siders over the last three seasons, but John Danks and Hector Noesi have struggled since 2011. Danks’ lowest ERA in that span was 4.33, Noesi’s 4.47.
The White Sox might have to test their depth early in the season as Sale recovers from a foot injury sustained this spring. Sale is aiming to not miss any regular-season starts.
CLEVELAND: What does Corey Kluber do for an encore after his Cy Young season?
Kluber came out of nowhere last season to dominate AL hitters and pick up the AL Cy Young Award, racking up 269 strikeouts (second in the majors). He helped the Tribe lead baseball with 1,450 punchouts a year ago.
This season, though, Kluber is on everyone’s radar. He’s not sneaking up on teams. He’s not surprising hitters. It’ll be up to him to follow a season when he averaged seven innings per start and posted a robust 5.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Some regression from a career year is to be expected, but Kluber’s level of dominance could make or break Cleveland.
DETROIT: How healthy and productive will Victor Martinez be?
Martinez had a monster season in 2014, slashing an absurd .335/.409/.565 while protecting Miguel Cabrera in the Tigers’ lineup. Martinez finished second in the AL Most Valuable Player voting as he hit 32 homers and drove in 103 runs.
If Martinez can replicate his 2014 numbers, the Tigers would field a potent lineup with Cabrera, breakout outfielder J.D. Martinez and new addition Yoenis Cespedes.
MINNESOTA: When will Byron Buxton arrive in the majors?
Minnesota struggled through 2014, when it finished 22 games below .500 and 20 games behind the Tigers. But help appears to be on the horizon for the cellar-dwelling Twins.
Buxton, a 21-year-old outfielder, is regarded as the game’s best prospect and could make his major league debut this season. He missed most of last season with a wrist injury,but had a great season in 2013 at both the high-A and low-A levels that drew comparisons to Mike Trout. In 2013, Buxton hit .334 with 19 doubles, 18 triples and 12 home runs and also swiped 55 bases.
If Buxton is anything like Trout, his arrival in Minnesota could turn around the struggling franchise and set them up for future success as well.