The Detroit Tigers have reigned supreme over the American League Central Division for four straight seasons. Apart from the Minnesota Twins, the other three teams have each taken turns as chief opposition. This offseason, both the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians added serious firepower to their clubs in an attempt to finally unseat the Tigers and claim the division for themselves.
Five players in particular have the potential to become real thorns in the Tigers' paws. All but one came to the Central from American League teams, so even casual Tiger fans have heard their names, but we'll be seeing a lot of these guys as key pieces of our divisional rivals.
As the famed Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu once wrote, "If you know the enemy, and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." So, let's see who we're dealing with here.
Brandon Moss: 1B/OF, Cleveland Indians
Having dispatched the Oakland A's from the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013, Brandon Moss is a slugger many Tiger fans will recognize. Moss spent his last three seasons anchoring the middle of the A's lineup. The Cleveland Indians acquired him this offseason in a trade for infield prospect Joey Wendle.
Moss was drafted in 2002 by the Boston Red Sox, and later spent several seasons bouncing between the majors and minors with both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies, before finally enjoying a huge breakout season with the A's in 2012.
Over three seasons in Oakland, Moss hit 76 home runs, bolstering pedestrian batting averages with good walk rates and game-changing power from the left side of the plate. He opened the 2014 season with a red-hot first half, hitting 21 home runs and looked to be on the way to the best season of his career at age 30.
Unfortunately for Oakland, Moss dealt with an injury to his right hip throughout the second half that completely sapped his power, and was a big factor in the A's collapse in the latter half of the season. Still, he was last seen launching a pair of epic bombs in the Wild Card game against the Royals, and would have been the hero if not for the Royals amazing comeback victory.
Moss had surgery in the offseason to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, but by all reports he's healthy, and will add a lot of punch to an already solid lineup for manager Terry Francona and the Indians. Like many left-handed power hitters, Moss hits most of his dingers to right field, and Progressive Field should be a friendlier ballpark for him than Oakland's Coliseum. Moss strikes out in over a quarter of his at-bats, but he draws walks well, and can handle left-handed pitching. However, his power waxes against righthanders, and Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will no doubt find himself needing solid work from his lefty relievers to keep Moss in the ballpark.
While Moss is an extremely patient hitter, he swings and misses a ton, and is vulnerable to high heat in the zone. Steamer projects Moss to hit .248/.330/.484 this season, with 28 home runs. If he's healthy, he's capable of clearing 30 bombs playing half his games in Progressive Field.
It remains to be seen if the addition of Moss will be enough to boost Cleveland's offense substantially beyond their middle of the pack status. They'll need a bit more than that, particularly as most expect some regression from Michael Brantley after a career-year. But if second baseman Jason Kipnis can produce something much closer to his breakout 2013 season -- and Moss rebounds from injury as expected -- it'll be a very potent lineup full of left-handed power the Tigers' staff will have to deal with.
Adam LaRoche: 1B/DH, Chicago White Sox
Adam LaRoche was signed as a free agent on a two-year, $25 million contract after playing his last four seasons with the Washington Nationals. The 35-year-old LaRoche will probably see most of his at-bats as the White Sox designated hitter, though he'll be available to spell Jose Abreu at first base as well.
Unlike the man he's replacing (Adam Dunn), LaRoche strikes out about half as much, while maintaining solid walk rates. LaRoche sprays his line drives around the field pretty well, but his ground ball profile makes him a prime candidate for a shifted infield.
Most of his home runs go to the pull field as well, and U.S. Cellular Field should be quite accommodating to his power. He's somewhat vulnerable to left-handed pitching, and like Brandon Moss, LaRoche will be a guy Ausmus has to match his lefties against quite often in the late innings. LaRoche has hit 79 home runs over the past three seasons, and that power from the left side is his calling card. It should pair nicely with Abreu's right-handed thump in the heart of Chicago's lineup.
LaRoche batted .259/.362/.455 for the Nationals last year, with walk and strikeout rates of 14.0 and 18.4 percent, respectively. Those peripheral numbers were the best of his career in his age-34 season. Steamer predicts a bit of regression, and a line of .238/.341/.448 in 2015, with 23 home runs.
Melky Cabrera: LF, Chicago White Sox
Melky Cabrera was the other quality free agent bat acquired by the White Sox this offseason. This lesser-Cabrera is something of a controversial figure, who served a 50-game PED suspension in 2012 after a red-hot first half, and was voted off the postseason roster by his San Francisco Giants teammates.
As Tiger fans are painfully aware, they didn't need him. He spent the past two seasons with the Blue Jays, where he's continued to be a very productive hitter post-suspension. While something of a mediocre leftfielder, Melky should prove a huge upgrade at the plate for the White Sox.
A switch hitter with good numbers from both sides, Cabrera draws his share of walks and has a career .339 on-base percentage. He sprays the ball well with a solid line drive rate, and should be a very steady table setter in the No. 2 hole behind leadoff man Adam Eaton.
He hit .301/.351/.458 with 16 home runs last year for Toronto. Steamer projects a slightly weaker line of .288/.341/.432 with just 12 home runs for the 30-year-old outfielder in 2015.
Jeff Samardzija: SP, Chicago White Sox
In addition to those two veteran bats, the White Sox also made a deal with the Oakland A's for starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Clearly this is a plot by Billy Beane to annoy his old buddy Dombrowski by sending Samardzija and Moss to our Central Division foes.
Samardzija was acquired by Oakland last year from the Cubs in a surprising deal that sent elite shortstop prospect Addison Russell to the Cubs. Samardzija is a prototypical power pitcher. The 6'5", 225-pound starter is a big, hard-throwing intimidator on the mound. Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland would no doubt describe him as a horse, as he's cleared 210 innings each of the last two years.
Samardzija is a rugged, athletic individual who was an All-American in football as a receiver for Notre Dame. He took half of a decade to get into the majors full-time, battling high walk and home run rates in the minors before breaking out in a big way in 2012.
Heat and more heat is Samardjiza's calling card, relying on a splitter and slider to keep hitters off-balance. He also mixes a cutter into his arsenal. He continues to give up more bombs than one would expect, perhaps due to lapses in control, or hanging the occasional slider/cutter high in the zone, and that's unlikely to get any better for him pitching in U.S. Cellular Field.
Generally though, his four-seam fastball and sinker keep the ball on the ground, and he racks up plenty of strikeouts. Samardzija recorded a superb 2.99 ERA, with an agreeable 3.20 FIP in 2014, the best numbers of his career. He's a formidable and much-needed addition to the White Sox rotation.
With Quintana and Sale, Samardzija should form a tough top three that's potentially as good as any top three starters in the division. Steamer projects him to strike out nearly a batter per inning, while walking just under three per nine innings-pitched. They expect some substantial regression in results this season though, forecasting a 3.93 ERA, and 3.72 FIP over 204 innings pitched.
David Robertson: Closer, Chicago White Sox
In 2014, the White Sox's bullpen posted numbers even worse than the Tigers. Help has arrived in the form of former Yankees closer David Robertson. The White Sox inked the 29-year-old free agent to a huge four-year, $46 million deal to lock down the ninth inning, and there appears to be only a handful of better options in the game.
Consistently posting monster strikeouts rates at a career average of 11.99 per nine innings pitched, combined with good walk rates, Robertson is going to be a very tough nut to crack for a comeback victory. He does, however, have some vulnerability to the long ball, and U.S. Cellular Field won't help him in that regard.
Robertson features a nasty high velocity cutter that sits around 93 miles per hour, and his huge stride ensures it gets on a hitter even quicker than they expect. His other signature pitch is a hard knuckle-curve, and it's one of the best in the game. It sits in the low 80s and has some of the sharpest break of any curve in baseball.
Robertson is basically as rock solid as it gets for a closer, but he does have a bit of an inflated home run rate, so he can at times be tagged for a big fly. Look for the Tigers to steal a game or two off him via the bomb in 2015. The rest of the time he should be automatic.
While the White Sox may rue such a lengthy and expensive deal for a reliever eventually, Robertson is a much-needed addition to their bullpen. He saved 39 games in 44 chances last year. Incidentally, Tigers closer Joe Nathan saved 35 in 42 chances, which tells you something about saves, and relief pitching in general. Robertson posted a 3.08 ERA and 2.68 FIP over 64.1 innings. Steamer projects an ERA of 3.03, and 2.87 FIP, with his usual high strikeout and good walk totals.
The White Sox only won 73 games in 2014, so they had a long way to go to become a threat in the AL Central. On paper, I don't think even these four big additions are going to be quite enough. But sometimes a strong influx of talent such as the White Sox procured can become their own force multiplier.
If they find themselves in the thick of things at the All-Star break, they may well take heart, realizing they're every bit as good as any team in the division. If that's the case, then the AL Central is all but guaranteed to be a multi-team dogfight deep into September.
If the Indians and White Sox are ready to take down the Tigers, these five big additions should be a big part of that push. Both teams feature a powerful lineup and good starting pitching at the top of their rotations. And with this increased parity in the AL Central, the head-to-head games between these teams are very likely to determine who comes out on top. For the Tigers to march to a fifth consecutive division title, they're going to have to put down the upstart challengers face-to-face.