The Detroit Tigers have won the American League Central Division four years in a row. Each year presents them with a different primary challenger. Last season, it was the Kansas City Royals who came within a game of unseating Detroit. The previous season, the Cleveland Indians finished a game back. A year before that, it was the Chicago White Sox finishing second.
Following two straight titles by one-game margins, the Tigers have lost ace pitcher Max Scherzer, traded Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly, and replaced Torii Hunter with Yoenis Cespedes. The team has upgraded their defense, downgraded their starting rotation, returned a powerful lineup, and hope to have upgraded their beleaguered bullpen.
The Kansas City Royals barely squeaked into the playoffs, then barely squeaked past the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card play-in game, and then went on to the World Series before falling to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Kansas City presented Detroit with few problems during the regular season when the two teams met on the field, with the Tigers winning 13 of 19 contests. Still, the one game margin of victory was too close for the comfort of most Tigers’ fans, as the Royals led the division in the final month of the season.
The Royals also lost their ace starting pitcher, James Shields, who signed with the San Diego Padres. They will try to patch up the rotation with Kris Medlen and Edinson Volquez. They have replaced long time designated hitter Billy Butler with Kendrys Morales, and outfielder Nori Aoki with Alex Rios. They return all the important members of their much lauded bullpen, anchored by Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Hererra, and Jason Frasor.
The Cleveland Indians have been the quietest team in the division over the winter. The Tribe added first baseman- outfielder Brandon Moss, who figures to play the outfield most games. Otherwise, they return a pitching staff that led the American League with a 3.33 fielding independent pitching (FIP) ratio in 2014, led by Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. Cleveland has parted ways with long time shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and pitcher Justin Masterson. They are counting on young players like shortstop Jose Ramirez and starting pitcher Danny Salazar to improve enough to boost the club above their 85 win season a year ago, when they finished five games out of first place.
The Chicago White Sox, on the other hand, were very busy in the offseason. After trading for starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, Chicago should have a vastly improved rotation that features three of the top 15 starters in the major leagues from a year ago, including perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale and the unheralded Jose Quintana. They also signed former Yankees’ closer David Robertson to bolster a bullpen that pitched to a 4.38 ERA and 4.22 FIP in 2014.
Offensively, Chicago will replace retiring Paul Konerko with Adam LaRoche, and outfielder Dayan Viciedo with Melky Cabrera. They are also expecting Avisail Garcia to be healthy for a full season. Few would argue that the White Sox are the most improved team in the division, but after finishing with just 73 wins and finishing 17 games behind Detroit in 2014, have they done enough to close the gap?
The Minnesota Twins, who ruled the roost in the division before the Tigers' recent reign, are now the team that is again left out of the playoff conversation. After winning just 70 games and finishing last in 2014, their answer was to bring back Torii Hunter to play right field and add Ervin Santana to the starting rotation. Otherwise, they will roll the dice with what they had a year ago.
One big advantage that the Tigers have had each season that they have won the division is that they have handled their closest rivals with ease in head to head competition, going 13-6, 15-4, 12-6 and 12-6 against the Royals, Indians, White Sox, and Indians the past four seasons, respectively.
Which team do you think will be the Tigers’ toughest division rival in 2015?