American League Central Preview

American League Central Preview

American League Central Preview
By Steve Merril
Covers.com

The American League Central might be a two-team race between Detroit and Kansas City, unless Chicago or Cleveland takes a step up this season. It appears Minnesota is still a year or two away from contention.

Chicago White Sox (63-99, -32.18 units)

Division odds: +800
Season win total: 76

Why bet the White Sox: Chris Sale is becoming an ace in the starting rotation. Chicago also has two other southpaws in the rotation with Jose Quintana and John Danks. The White Sox can really give trouble to teams that struggle against left-handed pitching. Jose Abreu has arrived from Cuba and has the talent to help an offensive lineup that struggled at times last season

Why not bet the White Sox: The bottom of the pitching rotation is a huge question mark. The bullpen is also suspect with Nate Jones at a closer. The offense revolves around Adam Dunn, who struck out 189 times last season. Gordon Beckham is no longer a power hitter and the rest of the lineup is highly unreliable.

Season win total pick: Under 76 wins

Cleveland Indians (92-70, +24.92 units)

Division odds: +650
Season win total: 80.5

Why bet the Indians: Cleveland has a solid 1-2 punch in its starting rotation with Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar. Salazar proved himself worthy enough to pitch in the team's playoff game against the Rays last season. The offensive lineup is solid with Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana manning the middle.

Why not bet the Indians: The rest of the pitching rotation is mediocre with Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin most likely rounding things out. The bullpen is a mess with John Axford trying to hold down the closer spot. He has struggled the past two seasons and has not pitched well since 2011. The bench is aging and will not help an offensive lineup that failed to score consistently last year.

Season win total pick: Under 80.5 wins

Detroit Tigers (93-69, -11.50 units)

Division odds: -275
Season win total: 90

Why bet the Tigers: Despite trading away Doug Fister, the Tigers still have one of the best pitching rotations in the league. Even when Justin Verlander was not at his best last year, Max Scherzer stepped up and become the team's ace. Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello man the third and fourth positions of the rotation with Drew Smyly getting the fifth spot. Miguel Cabrera is back for another year as the two-time defending MVP. Victor Martinez provides protection and should post better numbers than last season.

Why not bet the Tigers: There are still question marks in the bullpen. Joe Nathan is an upgrade at the closer position, but he is now one of the oldest players in the league at 39 years of age. There is a lot of uncertainty and question marks in the middle relief spot. Can Bruce Rondon finally pitch to his potential? Offensively, Ian Kinsler has some big shoes to fill as the Tigers traded away Prince Fielder.

Season win total pick: Over 90 wins

Kansas City Royals (86-76, +6.36 units)

Division odds: +650
Season win total: 82

Why bet the Royals: The rotation has improved with Jason Vargas stepping in. The lefty is on his third team in three years, but he will now have a strong defense behind him. Greg Holland was incredible as the closer last year, giving up just 40 hits in 67 innings pitched. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon now have help in the lineup with Omar Infante batting ahead of them. Infante will get on base, while the two big sluggers bring him in.

Why not bet the Royals: Mike Moustakas has still not lived up to his potential. Alcides Escobar hit only .234 last year, but he will continue to be in the lineup because he is strong defensively. The bottom of the pitching rotation is shaky with Danny Duffy and Wade Davis among those vying for the final spots, although this will be less of a weakness if Yordano Ventura gets the job.

Season win total pick: Over 82 wins

Minnesota Twins (66-96, -7.12 units)

Division odds: +3,000
Season win total: 70.5

Why bet the Twins: It is hard to find reasons to back the Twins. They do still have one of the best hitters in the league with Joe Mauer, plus Josh Willingham will provide good protection in a lineup. They are trying to fill the holes in the pitching rotation with veterans Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes who have pitched well in the past. Glen Perkins is an All-Star closer who converted on 90 percent of his save opportunities last year.

Why not bet the Twins: Minnesota's pitching rotation had a horrendous 5.26 ERA last season. Kevin Correia and Scott Diamond were among that group of misfits. Miguel Sano is out for the season with Tommy John surgery. While Perkins is an excellent closer, he might not get many chances with a poor starting rotation and awful middle relief that is likely to blow leads.

Season win total pick: Under 70.5 wins

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Re: American League Central Preview

AL Central Preview
By Matt Zylbert
VegasInsider.com

Kansas City Royals

In 2013, the Royals finally broke through in a big way, eclipsing the .500 mark for the first time since 2003. However, with the way they played throughout much of the year, it’s apparent that they were left hungry in the end after just coming up short in the wild card hunt. And with that, there’s a lot of optimism around this young group that, for the most part, has grown up together in the Royal farm system, as they seek to graduate to that next level. The potential is certainly there, having a young core consisting of very solid players that are capable of even more.

Billy Butler, for the most part, has fulfilled his potential in propelling this lineup for the past handful of years, but he also may see a huge boost from first baseman Eric Hosmer, who had his best year to date a season ago while quietly leading the AL in multi-hit games. Mike Moustakas, after a disastrous start to his campaign, got back on track over the final couple of months and is definitely someone the Royals will need steady production from, which he can deliver, if they are to reach the postseason. Alex Gordon, aside from his outstanding defensive abilities, is another key contributor at the plate, while Salvador Perez proved last year he can be a constant on both sides of the ball. The Royals added Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante this offseason to give an extra something to the batting order and in the field.

Pitching was this club’s strength in ’13, as they boasted the best team ERA in the American League last season. A lot of that had to do with the aggressive trade for ace James Shields, who was everything Kansas City hoped for while registering another terrific season on par with his usual numbers. The surprising emergence of Jeremy Guthrie also played a critical part in the strong pitching, as he led the Royals in wins. The other guy on this staff that topped 200 innings, Ervin Santana, is no longer with the organization, but the addition of Jason Vargas should absolutely help fill that void, while the return of Danny Duffy is an item that has huge potential for their 2014 outlook, as the southpaw was once one of the more promising prospects in all of baseball before Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf.

If their starting pitching remains excellent, the Royals have a real shot of garnering a playoff berth, especially since their bullpen was kept the same, minus the recent season-ending injury to Luke Hochevar. They were one of the best units last year, and still having a combo Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, and Tim Collins, among others, team up to get the ball to Greg Holland in the ninth, there’s real potential here. As long as their offense improves and shows up more times than not, they have the ability to ultimately dethrone the Tigers and win this division.

Predicted Record: 90-72

Detroit Tigers

Three straight years now, the Tigers have come oh-so close to winning a world championship, but each time, they’ve come up just short. In the process, they did nab three division titles and an American League pennant in 2012, but after falling to the eventual-champion Red Sox in last year’s wild ALCS, their window is closing. If they are to finally pull it off, it will be without the man who has led them in each of those three seasons, not to mention the prior six, Jim Leyland, who stepped down following Detroit’s heart-breaking exit. Enter former Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus, the club’s new manager, and he’s inherited quite a roster.

In fact, he has probably the best pitching rotation in the American League, led by two guys who would be aces pretty much anywhere in baseball, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Verlander is actually coming off a bit of a down season - at least by his superhuman standards - but did look superb in the postseason when it counted most. Scherzer, meanwhile, was so good that he captured his first AL Cy Young award. The Tigers’ rotation takes a hit with the loss of Doug Fister, but they’re replacing him with youngster Drew Smyly, who flashed some promise in his first stint as a starter two years ago. With Anibal Sanchez also still there, the starting pitching should remain in tip-top shape. The bullpen will also be of similar stature, as despite losing Joaquin Benoit, they gained Joe Nathan, a more proven and established closer. Joba Chamberlain was also brought in to join Bruce Rondon and Al Alburquerque amongst the set-up men.

Offensively, the Tigers took a huge gamble at the start of the offseason when they traded Prince Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler, which could be the main move that either makes or breaks this squad in 2014. Yes, Kinsler fills a dire need at second base with Omar Infante gone, but Fielder has always been one of those unique power bats that you could always count on to make a huge impact, and beyond that, he was also the key presence that protected the game’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, in the Detroit lineup. The Tigers do have other options, though, to replace his production, as they still have Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, each with their own more-than-respectable track records in the big leagues. Austin Jackson also remains, having maintained his status as one of baseball’s most dynamic lead-off hitters.

Other than them, though, things get a little murky. Highly-touted prospect Nick Castellanos is being given the chance to sink or swim right away, as he takes over third base with Cabrera shifting across the diamond to first. At catcher, Alex Avila is coming off a nightmarish 2013 so that’s another question mark. Rajai Davis was added for outfield depth, but he’s really nothing more than a speedster with minimal power. With their AL Central rivals closing the gap, it’ll be tough for this year’s Tigers to secure a fourth straight division title. The tide is turning.

Predicted Record: 87-75

Cleveland Indians

Nobody was more on target with the surprising Indians in 2013 than this author, after talking them up and promising that Over 76.5 Wins was the best bet on the board. Fortunately, with then-new manager Terry Francona at the helm, these Indians did not disappoint at all, smashing the low expectations set for them as not only did they exceed .500 by a wide margin, they also made it to the AL wild card play-in game. There, however, they fell short thanks to a lack of offense, but, given how consistent they were throughout the whole season, that was more of an anomaly than anything, and luckily for Cleveland, it’s pretty much the same group that will be entering 2014.

At the top of this batting order is one of the best lead-off men in the American League, Michael Bourn, with the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis directly behind him, and it is those two who comprise one of the better middle-infield pairs in baseball, with Kipnis having real potential of being a top-five second baseman for years to come. Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher are still there as well to provide some heavy lumber, while Michael Brantley is someone who brings a lot of different things to the table. The Indians, not to be content, also brought in David Murphy, Jeff Francoeur, and Nyjer Morgan to serve as solid depth.

If this club is to have a downfall, it more likely will be associated with their pitching, which will be missing two of their key stalwarts from a year ago, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, both of whom made more starts than any other pitcher for the Indians. However, with Justin Masterson returning at the top of the staff, and the influx of youth right behind him in Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Carlos Carrasco, not to mention Trevor Bauer, there may be enough pitching here after all. Salazar is the most promising of the bunch, cementing that sentiment with a truly clutch performance in the play-in game, and even if any of the others falter, there are some above-average insurance options like Josh Tomlin and Shaun Marcum waiting in the wings.

The bullpen turned out to be a successful bunch in ’13, and may only get better with the addition of John Axford replacing the departed Chris Perez, who was a huge disappointment last year, to be the new closer. Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Vinny Pestano, and Marc Rzepczynski are all acceptable bullpen specialists capable of providing a smooth bridge to the ninth, which should ensure Cleveland’s late-inning work remains steady. The Indians should be right around where they were last year, and with more experience together, just may take that next step.

Predicted Record: 79-83

Chicago White Sox

Coming off an 85-win season in 2012, the White Sox entered last season with some pretty high expectations. Living up to said expectations proved to be laughable, though, as the club ended up in the AL Central cellar, just narrowly avoiding 100 losses in the process. While it was a huge step back for a franchise that seeks its first playoff appearance since 2008, Chicago’s South Side residents find themselves devoted to an extreme youth movement that can only be pushing them forward from here on out. It all begins with their centerpiece star, Chris Sale, who has emerged as one of baseball’s elite starting pitchers over the past couple of years, and he’s still just in his mid-20’s. Jose Quintana is of similar age and has already established himself as a consistent dependable option in the middle of the pitching rotation.

Other than those two, the rest of the youngsters, like Andre Rienzo and Erik Johnson, are all relatively unproven, although they do have some potential, while longtime ChiSox hurler John Danks serves as the lone veteran presence. The bullpen, meanwhile, has some older guns to work with, as it will either be Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, or Ronald Belisario that get first dibs at replacing the departed Addison Reed as the team’s closer.

The lineup, meanwhile, is following a similar blueprint. Yes, still in place are veterans Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, who you can usually count on to generate run production, but outside of them, it’s just about all young players looking to carve their niche on this roster. Specifically, the White Sox will see what they can get out of Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, Jose Abreu, and Josh Phegley over their first full seasons in Chicago, and if most of those guys end up producing, there’s a chance to compete as early as this season. If they can also get Alejandro De Aza, Alexei Ramirez, and Dayan Viciedo back on track, coupled with expedited development out of their younger players, it could be the difference in trying to catch their rivals off guard and make an impact in this division.

More likely, though, there will be a lot of growing pains along the way, as Chicago takes a long look at their key players of the future. Being in the AL Central, though, presents the best opportunity for such a youth-dominated group - at least relative to the other divisions in the American League, and thus, returning to .500 is certainly a possibility for 2014.

Predicted Record: 74-88

Minnesota Twins

Not too long ago, the Twins were the team to beat in the AL Central. Over the past few years, however, they’ve fallen on some hard times, having lost more than 95 games in each of the past three years. They did escape the division cellar in 2013, though, and despite this franchise’s hardships in recent years, there might be some potential for them to return to relevancy. For one, at the very least, the club did immediately address their main need, starting pitching, something they finished dead-last in baseball a year ago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they “addressed it” with the signings of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, two guys who haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Nolasco has been pretty good in the past, but attaining the responsibility of leading a staff while opposing American League lineups regularly might lead to a regression, while Hughes experienced a severe regression in his final year in New York. Samuel Deduno and Kevin Correia must contribute numbers similar to their 2013 performances for this team to have a chance. At the very least, they do have a fine bullpen, as Glen Perkins was tremendous in his first full season as the closer, even making the all-star team. To their credit, the Twins rarely relinquished a late-inning lead last season.

Offensively, the Twins clearly revolve around one man, former MVP and three-time batting champion Joe Mauer. He’s a world-class hitter, and moving him to first base might end up being a smart move, as it will keep him healthier, and therefore ensure that he is in the lineup for most of the season. However, with the little talent surrounding him, it will still be difficult putting runs on the scoreboard. Josh Willingham was supposed to be one of the other big guns in this batting order, after coming to Minnesota last year, but struggled through injuries in enduring a disastrous campaign. If he can somehow bounce back and return somewhat to his 2012 form, it will be a huge step in the right direction.

Other than him, it’s mostly young, unproven bats, with the main one to look out for being Oswaldo Arcia, who actually led all American League rookies in home runs last year, something he should definitely build on. The Twins also brought back Jason Kubel for his second go-around in Minnesota, and, despite a horrendous 2013, if he can stay healthy, that could end up being a nice bonus that pays dividends in the middle of their lineup. More likely, though, this is still an organization in the middle of rebuilding mode. With the majority of this division clearly still superior, the Twins might have another long season on their hands.

Predicted Record: 68-94

Final Say on the AL Central: Compared to the other divisions in the American League, this is probably the most clear-cut of the three groups. You have the Twins and White Sox anchored towards the bottom in obvious rebuilding modes, although that’s not to say each of those clubs has no chance of making any serious noise in 2014. There have been several times in the past where young teams came out of nowhere to reach the playoffs, but it just seems like it won’t be enough to combat the other three more-talented rosters. Kansas City’s rebuilding project seems to have hit its stride after last year’s breakthrough campaign, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them take that next step forward, given how long their main core of youngsters has been playing together now. Plus, everyone forgets how excellent their pitching was a season ago. The Indians have a nice combination of veteran leadership and emerging youth, and it was that mix that was the big reason why they took big steps forward last year, so they’re a contender if they can pick up where they left off, albeit with much higher expectations. Detroit has owned the division in each of the past three seasons, but this is the most talent their rivals have had in awhile. Pulling off something four years in a row is always tough, especially when that fourth year is distinctly the most challenging. It looks like there will be a new king in the AL Central, and Royals +450 to accomplish that appears to be the best of all the divisional futures bet in the American League.

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Re: American League Central Preview

Win Total Bets - AL Central
By Bruce Marshall
VegasInsider.com

BEST BET...

Maybe we're missing something, because we can't figure out why the Chicago White Sox (75½) are being priced more than 12 wins above their abysmal 63-99 finish, which was even three games worse than the crosstown Cubs. Windy City fans will thus likely have to keep themselves preoccupied with the Blackhawks and Bulls until the Bears open camp at Bourbannais in July. We suspect the propped-up wins projection is a remnant of the 85-win team of 2012 that pushed the Tigers into the last week of the season before surrendering in the Central. Make no mistake, however, the 2014 Chisox are in full rebuild mode. GM Rick Hahn got active in the offseason, shelling out more money for Cuban defector 1B Jose Abreu than the Dodgers did two years ago for Yasiel Puig, while also hoping that a pair of ex-Diamondbacks added in a three-way trade with the Angels, 3B Matt Davidson and CF Adam Eaton, will shine more brightly at The Cell than they did in Phoenix, where they failed to live up to expectations. Early returns are not necessarily encouraging, especially for the once-ballyhooed Davidson, who was beaten out by holdover Conor Gillaspie for the 3B job at Camelback Ranch. Much of the returning lineup saw its production tank in 2013, and how much longer manager Robin Ventura can endure DH Adam Dunn's strikeouts and slumps, and LF Dayan Viciedo's maddening inconsistencies, remains to be seen. Another of those who regressed last summer, 2B Gordon Beckham, likely opens the season on the DL with a strained oblique. And beyond ace lefty Chris Sale, there are nothing but question marks with the staff, where one-time ace John Danks has yet to fully recover from shoulder surgery two years ago and eats up almost $15 million in salary...for the next three years. Meanwhile, with Addison Reed shipped to Arizona in the Eaton-Davidson deal, new projected closer Nate Jones dealt with a strained muscle in his lower torso all spring. We don't even think Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone can bluff about being excited for the prospects on the South Side...it's an "under" for us at The Cell.

THE REST...

Lost in all of the talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates and their 20 straight losing campaigns heading into the last year, the Kansas City Royals (82½) had a streak of futility almost as bad, with only a brief uprising in 2003 breaking a near 20-season sub.-500 slump at Kauffman Stadium. And while the Royals' playoff drought endures (since the memorable '85 "Show Me State" World Series vs. the Cards), K.C. did break through with its first winning season in a decade in 2013, hanging in the wild card race until late September while finishing a very respectable 86-76. So, do the Royals back up this season, or contend? We suspect the latter, especially if a big bat emerges from within after no Royal hit more than 20 homers a year ago. Most likely to erupt is 3B Mike Moustakas, who regressed in 2013 after seeming on the verge of a breakout in 2012, and showing more confidence at the plate in March at Surprise after a productive winter playing ball in Venezuela. Meanwhile, a couple of shrewd trade additions, ex-Brewer CF Norichika Aoki (a capable leadoff hitter) and ex-Oriole 3B-DH Danny Valencia (who can mash lefties), plus FA ex-Tiger 2B Omar Infante (though nursing a sore elbow at the end of spring training), give skipper Ned Yost some improved lineup options. The talk of the Cactus league, however, was 22-year-old flamethrower Yordano Ventura, who hits triple digits on the speed gun and so impressed that he broke camp as the likely number two starter in the rotation behind James Shields, while Greg Holland emerged as one of the AL's most effective closers last season, at one stretch converting 31 save chances in a row. Lots to like in K.C. this summer besides the burnt ends at Arthur Bryant's BBQ, and the entertaining commentary of Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler on Royals TV...it's an "over" for us at the Big K.

Apparently the oddsmakers were none too impressed by the Cleveland Indians (80½) and their return to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2007, projecting a drop of almost 12 wins from a 92-70 breakthrough for then-new manager Terry Franciona. While some in the media might lament the recent inability to ink staff ace Justin Masterson to a long-term deal, the Tribe probably can't afford the price tag Masterson will command. And before Masterson walks after this season, we suspect team prexy Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti will be better served getting a combo of serviceable vets and/or solid prospects at the trade deadline (Cleveland could use another couple of young arms anyway) after getting 20 or so quality starts from Masterson into July. The staff already took a hit in the offseason when Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir left in free agency, and a return to playoff contention will be difficult unless sorts such as Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco prove they belong in the rotation. Ex-Brewer John Axford also replaces Chris Perez as the closer. But adding glue guys such as 1B Nick Swisher and vet DH Jason Giambi did wonders for the team in the clubhouse a year ago, and the wear-and-tear on Carlos Santana (to be used at 3B and DH) will lessen now that the promising Yan Gomes has taken over full-time catching duties. True, the Tribe could indeed regress, but Francona is as adept and mixing and matching his lineup as well as any manager, and Cleveland likely stays above .500 if the staff doesn't implode. It's an "over" for us at Progressive Field.

The bar is still being set rather low for the Minnesota Twins (69½), whose years as a serious contender seem longer ago than they were for the hometown NFL Vikings. Local hero Joe Mauer is about the only recognizable face left from the playoff years, and it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where it has gone pear-shaped for the Twins, especially last season. Pitching, or lack thereof, has been the culprit, as last year's unsightly 5.26 ERA (the worst in the majors) suggested that skipper Ron Gardenhire did well to avoid 100 losses in 2013. But an upgrade to mere serviceable from the staff could trigger a modest ascent, and to that end GM Terry Ryan added a couple of potentially-useful pieces in the offseason--Ricky Nolasco (double-digit win totals in five of last six seasons) and Phil Hughes (two years removed from a 16-win campaign with the Yankees, and now far, far away from New York)--to affordable deals and as anchors for the rotation until some of the young arms at the lower levels mature. There are still lots of questions with the staff, including bridges in the bullpen to closer Glen Perkins (effective when he gets the chance), but adding Nolasco and Hughes at least seems a move in the right direction. Of equal importance could be the short-term rental of C Kurt Suzuki on a one-year deal, which will allow Gardenhire to experiment with Mauer at 1B in hopes of reigniting Joe's potential HOF career that has stalled recently due to wear-and-tear associated with catching duties. A bounce-back season from LF Josh Willingham, who posted career numbers in 2012 before an injury-plagued 2013, will also be crucial. The youth movement should also gain steam sometime this season with touted sorts such as CF Bryan Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano possibly arriving in the summer. We suspect the Twins have bottomed out the past few seasons, and climbing back above 70 wins is not asking too much, so we look "over" at Target Field.

Solid starting pitching can cover a multitude of sins, an old baseball axiom that the Detroit Tigers (89½) hope holds true again this season. But we have plenty of questions elsewhere on the roster beyond the long-term consequences of inking Miguel Cabrera (now at 1B after Prince Fielder's trade to Texas) to a staggering mega-deal, which at some point in the next decade might come back to haunt the Tigers. There were other issues exiting Lakeland, including the shin injury that likely has projected starting SS Jose Iglesias on the DL to start the season, as well as bridges to new closer Joe Nathan, with key set-up reliever Bruce Rondon on ice for the season after Tommy John surgery and the erratic ex-Yankee Joba Chamberlain now counted upon to pitch in the eighth inning. Even the lights-out starting rotation has a few questions, with Max Scherzer thus far resisting offers to re-up in his contract year and Justin Verlander, who has lost a bit of zip on his fastball, not quite as dominant in 2013 as in past seasons. Moreover, this will be Brad Ausmus' first stab at MLB managerial duties as the former catcher replaces the shrewd Jim Leyland, whose presence in the dugout neatly coincided with the Tigers' ascent since 2006. Slight upgrades from the White Sox and Twins, and the emergence of the Royals, also suggest the Central is a bit tougher neighborhood than in recent years. A trip to Comerica Park is worth it just to get a couple of coneys from Leo's behind home plate, or for a post-game drink at nearby Hockeytown or Chris Chelios' Chili Bar adjacent to the stadium, but we're still thinking "under" in Motown.

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