Danville, Kentucky— The AL Central represents America’s best. It’s a division of friendship, veterans, and baseball men. It’s a division with World Champion teams. At its best it’s the best way to spend a summer, while at its worst it’s still better than most division’s best. These are the cities of the heartland because their people’s determination in the face of economic peril, winter, or child support payments remains strong. Today, we begin previewing America’s League, the American League. The big picture is that Game 163, which came so tantalizingly close to happening in 2014, is likely to happen in the 2015 AL Central Division. While nobody can predict the outcome of that game, TWTW Sports will attempt to predict the other 162 games.
Coming off a University of Kansas basketball-esque 4 straight AL Central Division titles, Detroit has played host to a baseball renaissance since the city’s appearance in the World Series in 2006. However, doubters would tell you that the Detroit Tigers’ window for an MLB championship is slamming faster than your fourth wife’s front door after you drop your kids off for the week. Whether or not this window of opportunity shuts or is shattered open by a 94-mile-per-hour yellow-hammer curveball rides on the back of one man: Justin Verlander.
The nerds would tell you that this team is unable to absorb the loss of Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and the inevitable regression that the cruel passage of time brings to aging superstars. But those aren’t the storylines that educated baseball fans are paying attention to. The Detroit Tigers 2015 season will live or die on the arm of the face of its franchise: Justin Verlander. A few things about the Tigers are locks: MVP/Triple Crown Winner Miguel Cabrera, MVP-snub Victor Martinez, lottery-ticket J.D. Martinez and Yoenis “La Potencia” Cespedes will hit roughly 75-90 dingers collectively. The bullpen will allow roughly 200 dingers collectively and introduce many Michigan-natives to the dangers of alcoholism. And defensive wizard Jose Iglesias will dazzle us with highlight reel-plays, having healed and studied under the tutelage of Omar Vizquel in the offseason. None of these factors will translate into a 5th AL Central title and playoff run without Justin Verlander.
Nerds would point to his declining velocity and strikeouts, peripherals, and maybe his super-model girlfriend. But nerds don’t actually watch the games. It’s true that 2014 Justin Verlander looked like something out of Space Jam, as if aliens had stolen his talent, due to a core-muscle surgery in the off-season that disrupted his training routine. But folks, this man has thrown two no-hitters. He is an MVP. A Cy Young winner. He took a no-hitter into the 6th inning vs the offensive power-house American League Champion Kansas City Royals last season. Not 16 months ago he single-handedly defeated the Oakland Athletics in the 2013 ALDS, allowing 1 run in three playoff appearances by sheer willpower alone. Max Scherzer is the type of pitcher that would labor to pitch 6 innings before he left the game, effectively throwing Mike Ilitch’s money into Detroit’s bullpen dumpster fire. Justin Verlander feels humiliation and emasculation at the idea of leaving a game. After 2015 there will be no doubt who the true ace of the Motor City is.
Folks, this is a man who burns to once again scale the mountain of success. Will he return to the heights of his 2011-2012 seasons, throwing 100 miles per hour in the late innings? That remains to be seen. What is clear to anyone who actually watches the games, however, is that the Central Division should be scared of the idea of a winner like Justin Verlander having a full off-season to work out and hone his pitching arts. Verlander is a come-back kid in a come-back city. Folks counted the bankrupt city of Detroit and its auto industry out in 2008, and the nerds have done the same for the nearly-bankrupted 2015 Detroit Tigers. Only, the nerds aren’t counting on the bailout that is a rejuvenated future Hall-of-Famer JV, smashing the window of opportunity open with his signature curve-piece. As I write this piece, Justin Verlander has struck out 3 batters in 2 innings of scoreless work during his first Spring Training appearance. Pencil in the Tigers for 87 wins and at least a Wild-Card appearance.
Kansas City Royals
They own the Pennant. Yet, to nerds, the 2014 Royals are a statistical accident. The nerds claim the Royals won way too many close games. They say chicks dig the long-ball, and the Royals are allergic to homeruns. The nerds’ favorite newspaper—Wall Street Journal— called manager Ned Yost a dunce. However, you have to speak a man’s language to understand his genius, and in 2014 anyone that spoke baseball knew Ned Yost and the Royals were for real. Now, these same nerds, including N.E.O. (Nerd, Especially Odd) Nate Silver’s system says the Royals will win fewer than 75 games. Yet, as a man that actually watched the Royals play in 2014, they’ll be playing a 163rd game again this season.
The best case for the Royals regressing is the loss of veteran presence of mind champion James Shields. Shields molded a young club into a seasoned group. In the past, the Royals didn’t know how to win, but James Shields knew. Shields taught the Royals how to carry yourself. Shields added calm when necessary and crazy when the moment was right. Fortunately for the Royals, Shields has taught these young men what they need to know. Yordano Ventura has earned his honorary degree from the Shields School of Poise, while Danny Duffy will complete his final classes this spring.
Outfield defense is to winning championships as to what being a good painter is to good painting: essential. In Centerfield Lorenzo Cain holds it down. Cain is the reigning ALCS MVP. He makes the impossible possible. If you think Kauffman is a doubles park, then you should find a new religion because your God, or, for you atheist nerds, the randomness of science, has led you astray. Cain’s range is possibly only surpassed by teammates Jarrod Dyson, and 3 time Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon.
In the end, a clubhouse is about friendship and the Royals are the best of friends. Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain both chat frequently. Salvador Perez features his friend Lorenzo on Instagram. Additionally, Ned Yost never backs down when the nerds in the media say Mike Moustakas sucks. While other Royals bond by partying— from Eric Hosmer, to all-star Greg Holland. If the Royals hit a rough patch they will be fine. When someone struggles any Royal can come up to another Royals and offer the most beautiful words a man can tell another man, “It will be alright, friend.” Pencil in the Royals for 87 wins and at least a Wild Card appearance.
The nerds would tell you the Twins aren’t even really in the playoff conversation. Once again, I would stress that it is unclear if the nerds watch the games. The Minnesota Twins finished last in the division last year, winning 70 games. However, the team quietly made some under-the-radar moves which demonstrate the immense baseball-IQ of the front office in Minneapolis. The team signed Ervin Santana, known master of the art of pitching and appreciator of the “smell” of baseball, who deserves credit for helping to lay the groundwork for the American League Champion Kansas City Royals’ recent World Series bid. On top of this, the Twins brought back fan-favorite and veteran clubhouse leader Torii Hunter. Nerds love to point out Hunter’s atrocious defense, complete lack of plate discipline and age to dismiss him, but folks, he’s a true glue-guy. Torii Hunter will ensure that the Minnesota Twins get the most out of the roster they have. To me, Tori Hunter is the best senior moment since I found out my Obamacare would cover Viagra. When you factor in the clubhouse chemistry that will be produced as a result of Hunter’s triumphant return home, the addition of Ervin Santana, and the return of dark-horse Cy Young candidate Phil Hughes, this eye test reveals a Twinkies team winning 79 games.
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox made quite a splash in the offseason, signing somebody named Shark, the steroid-using Cabrera, and some bullpen pieces. The White Sox look good on paper: a formidable top of the pitching rotation, and Cuban-sensation Jose Abreu, the best hitter in the AL Central not named Cabrera or Martinez. While the 2015 White Sox will undoubtedly be more competitive than last year’s iteration, this man is not sold on their viability as contenders. For instance, their rotation currently projects to be: Chris Sale, Shark, Jose Quintana, two batting practice machines and possibly John Danks. It is unclear if they even have a 3rd baseman or a catcher on their roster. Consider me skeptical. Pencil in the White Sox for 78 wins.
The Indians have no chance. Don’t listen to any nerds. You can’t make up the loss of an MVP like Jason Giambi. I respect a city like Cleveland, but I can’t see the Indians losing fewer than 100 games given the city’s losing culture and bad luck. Cleveland, enjoy LeBron James coming home because this year in Northeast Ohio, a place where you walked, bled, and ran, it will be the place you cry. If you’re ready to accept the challenge of watching the Indians, then good job coming home, non-nerd.