MLB Coverage: Chicago & Kansas City Hope To Challenge In AL Central

The Detroit Tigers will open the season as a top-heavy favorite to win the American League’s Central Division. The same was true at this time last year though, and the Chicago White Sox led the division by as many as 4 ½ games in September. Is there a darkhorse stalker lurking again in the AL Central? Let’s take a closer look at both the White Sox, along with a veteran-fortified team in Kansas City.

Chicago was supposed to be rebuilding last year, although when they got into contention unexpectedly, GM Kenny Williams made the wise strategy shift and dealt for some veteran players—Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers, etc to take a shot. Now the White Sox have the appearance of rebuilding again. Youkilis and Myers are gone, as is catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a franchise staple and one of the few remaining links to the 2005 World Series champs. All that remains of the glory days of the Ozzie Guillen era is first baseman Paul Konerko, who is still a very productive player, but is also 37 and has experienced modest slippage each of the last two years.

The future of the White Sox lineup is Dayan Viciedo, the left fielder who hit 25 home runs in his first year in the majors last year. Viciedo still has considerable development in the recent of his offensive game—from plate discipline to contact hitting, but he’s at least delivered on some of his considerable potential. But the offense overall is a problem. Adam Dunn had a bounceback year, with 41 home runs and his usual truckload of walks that turned  a .204 batting average into a respectable .333 on-base percentage. Alex Rios remains a good, not great player in right field. Alejandro de Aza is decent at getting on base. Other than that, it’s liabilities everywhere.

It’s the pitching that will have to put Chicago in the division race and that means the Big Three of Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd have to deliver. Each of the top two had ERAs in the low 3s, and Floyd can at least be relied on to take the ball 30-plus times a year and chew up innings. The White Sox have reason to be pleased with 24-year-old Jose Quintana, who had a 3.76 ERA in 24 starts a year ago, and if they can get John Danks back healthy sometime in the summer, this can be a very good rotation. The bullpen is somewhat problematic—it’s not a bad setup team, but most contenders have decent setup crews. Addison Reed is the question mark. The closer’s ERA of 4.75 was much too high last year, but he’s only 24 years old and at least he got his feet wet pitching the ninth inning.

Chicago’s in a position a lot like they were a year ago. The focus should be getting younger, but there’s enough veteran talent that they’ll at least be competitive, and with a good couple months, it would again be worth Williams’ while to  go add a veteran bat if the GM thinks he’s got a shot at beating out Detroit. For now though, South Side fans should just be happy if they get a winning season. That’s the standard the smart money in Las Vegas has given them, with an Over/Under of 80.5 on their projected wins. I’d learn to the Over.

Is the long drought in Kansas City finally over? Royals’ fans have been given a lot of talk about all the young talent their team has, but while it’s produced a few good individual players, there’s never been any team success. The organization finally figured they’d better do something different, so they went and loaded up on veteran pitching, trading for James Shields, then adding Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie. The Royals also got Wade Davis from the Tampa, as part of the deal for Shields, and 35-year-old holdver Bruce Chen remains on staff, at least consistent in turning in his innings.

I’d be optimistic about Kansas City’s pitching this year, and we have to at least go back to the days of Mark Gubicza in the early 1990s before you could say anything like that. Shields has been a steady #1-caliber starter since 2007. Maybe not Cy Young material, but not far from it. Santana has his ups and downs, but there’s more to like than dislike. Davis pitched exclusively in relief last year in pitching-rich Tampa, but was effective (2.43 ERA) when he did so, and had ERAs in the low 4s when he spent the season in the rotation. And keep in mind that the Royals have generally produced effective bullpens over the last several years. It just hasn’t gotten any attention, because the starters weren’t good enough for it to matter.

Now it’s up to the young players in the lineup to deliver on their hype. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are at the corner infield spots and have high expectations, but delivered low performance a year ago. The Royals will also rely on well-regarded youth in centerfield with Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez at catcher. The reliable in the lineup are Alex Gordon in left field and Billy Butler at DH.

The role of prime challenger to Detroit is wide open in this division and Kansas City has as good a shot as any of the other four teams. Their win total in Las Vegas is 78.5 and I’m going Over.

*TheSportsNotebook’s previous MLB coverage looked at Detroit and Cleveland in tandem, and also evaluated Minnesota as part of a group of World Series longshots.