I will almost certainly write several more articles on this topic before next season starts. But, with the All Star Game come and gone, the Amateur Draft Deadline in our rearview mirror, and teams having played between 95-100 games this season, it seems as good a time as any to take stock of the White Sox' competition for the near future.
Heading into Sunday's games, the AL Central looked like this:
Let's go through this team-by-team.
I don't think anybody is really surprised that Detroit is on top of the division. They lost some key pieces for this season - Prince Fielder (pre-2014 version, anyway), Doug Fister, Joaquin Benoit, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, and Jose Iglesias. But, they were still returning a top of the rotation of Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez, and Miguel Cabrera to anchor the offense.
The Tigers should have plenty of firepower to hold onto their lead this year, barring something unexpected occurring. Ian Kinsler has performed admirably, and ditching Prince Fielder looks like it was the smart call. Rajai Davis has also had a nice 2014 for minimal investment. Heading into 2015, though, Detroit has shown some cracks in the juggernaut that has feasted off of a weak AL Central for years now.
Now 31-years old, Miguel Cabrera is having his worst season since 2009. I know, I know, his OPS+ is still 144, it's insane, but this would be his lowest slugging percentage since 2008. Subtract .002 points from it, and it would be his worst since 2004. This is coming on the heels of a September and October that saw a groin injury sap almost all of his power. Even more troubling, his physique has never looked like it would age that well, and he has spoken recently about the fact that the injury still flares up with some regularity. I wouldn't be shocked if he bounced right back and posted another MVP season next year, but age-31 and 32 is where the previously-invincible Albert Pujols started declining to "Very Good" and then "Above Average" with some rapidity. Pujols was always more athletic than Miggy to begin with, so it's something that bears watching.
Justin Verlander is another pillar of Detroit that has started to crumble this season. His peripherals and ERA have gotten worse at an exponential rate every single season since his 2011 CYA and MVP year. And frankly, as impressive as he was in 2011 and 2012, those are the only years of his career where he wasn't a mid-3.00 ERA guy or worse.
Both Verlander and Cabrera are signed for $1 billion for the next 3,000 years as they age into their mid-30s, with declining performance. Verlander also had an abdominal injury this offseason.
Guys of this caliber are perfectly capable of snapping off excellent years in their 30s - but all signs point to their best years being behind them.
Meanwhile, Scherzer is determined to test free agency. Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez' deals also run out, and they are both dealing with some combination of age and injury. The farm system has basically nothing in it. Meaning, the supporting cast for an aging Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander could potentially be the merely okay Austin Jackson, the resurgent Rick Porcello, and whatever Nick Castellanos turns out to be. Ian Kinsler has had a strong year too, but I am very interested to see how he looks at age-33 next season as an injury-prone second baseman.
The Tigers still have a ton of talent, and if they get age and injury luck - and depending on what they do with some of the money freed up this offseason with departing free agents - they could once again win the AL Central or more in 2015. But they look to take significant steps backwards for the foreseeable future unless something changes - especially given that the Doug Fister trade is looking precisely as disastrous as it seemed when it happened. Verlander-Sanchez-Porcello just isn't that scary moving forward, if they can't bring back Scherzer.
As of drafting this piece, Cleveland is once again in second place in the AL Central. As trendy as the Royals were in the pre-season - and I'll address them in a moment - I still thought Cleveland had the inside track for the silver medal in the division.
It's been a rather chaotic year for the Indians. Guys like Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, and Zach McAllister have been awful. Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana have underwhelmed the high expectations for them so far, and Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn have been hurt or bad or both. On the flip side, guys like Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, and Corey Kluber have absolutely broken out, while Yan Gomes, Corey Allen, and Bryan Shaw have consolidated their gains or improved to offset those disappointments.
There are areas on this team that could regress in the second half, both positively and negatively, and it will be interesting to see which way it goes. Unlike Detroit, Cleveland has some guys in the minors that could emerge to help in 2015 as well.
For the purposes of this article, most of the key guys for Cleveland should be in or around their primes in 2015, and they may in fact be the White Sox' biggest obstacle in the near future. If the Indians pull the trigger on flipping Asdrubal Cabrera to make room for Francisco Lindor next year, depending on the return, Cleveland could be very dangerous next year.
Kansas City Royals:
Well, it has been approximately eight years of Dayton Moore now, and despite one Top-5 pick after another, and inheriting Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, it's looking like mid-80s wins and no playoff appearances is the best he can do. Turns out when you draft in the Top 5 over and over again and all you have to show for it is a slap-hitting first baseman, you aren't going to have a ton of success.* Especially considering people defend his frequently baffling moves at the major league level with, "Well, he's a draft/scouting guy."
*Also - did you see that the Royals gave Bubba Starling the 2nd highest signing bonus of all time? $7.5 million! He's currently OPS-ing .627 in High A ball. Add in Luke Hochevar, Christian Colon, and Mike Moustakas and hoo boy.
Having cashed in Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers - pictured above - for two years of James Shields, those two years are almost up. Regardless of what happens in 2014, the Royals for 2015 will almost certainly lose their staff ace. They have some good young position players still - Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Sal Perez are great guys to have around. Eric Hosmer may turn out to be above average. The defense should be strong. It's just hard to see where the runs are going to come from. Third base is still a void, Omar Infante is unreliable and getting older, and Billy Butler's talent has vanished a la Space Jam.** There aren't a ton of impact bats floating around their system either. Coming into this year, Baseball America had three position players on their Top 10 prospects - Raul Mondesi, Jorge Bonifacio, and Hunter Dozier. Mondesi may be great but he's an 18-year old in A+ ball who is struggling mightily with the bat. Hunter Dozier has an .860 fielding percentage at 3B and doesn't look like he has enough of a bat to carry 1B or DH. Jorge Bonifacio looks like a cool prospect, but he's 21 and scuffling a bit at AA. Shouldn't be a factor in 2015.
**It will be interesting to see what the Royals do with him. His $12.5 million team option looks like it probably won't get picked up, if I had to guess, meaning he may just become a free agent this offseason.
If the Royals are going to compete in 2015, it will be on the strength of run prevention, as Yordano Ventura is promising, Danny Duffy has the look of a solid mid-rotation guy, and Jason Vargas can probably continue to be a plus given his park and the defense behind him. Kyle Zimmer is talented enough to make an impact in 2015 as well.
If the stars align perfectly, Kansas City could be great in 2015, but you could say that about just about anyone, and I just don't see them scoring enough runs consistently to be considered a true contender.
I will never understand why Dayton Moore decided 2013 and 2014 would be the better years to compete for the Royals than 2015 and beyond, given the Tigers, but I'm really glad he did.
The Twins have a few guys at the top of their system that look incredible - Byron Buxton is arguably the best prospect there is, and Miguel Sano has crazy good power. The only real problem there has been health, as Buxton missed several months already this year with a wrist injury. He should still hit his way to AA this season, and could even force his way onto the major league roster by next season. Miguel Sano is going to miss the entire year with Tommy John surgery.
On the pitching side, Alex Meyer is the jewel of the system, pried from Washington in exchange for Denard Span. Meyer has a very high ceiling, although some say he may still be destined for the bullpen. Trevor May could be ready to help out as well, as 2014 has been a great year for him across the board, but Kohl Stewart is still years away.
Which leaves the rather intractable problem of the organization still unaddressed - who is going to give them ~1,000 innings in the starting rotation that are good enough for the team to compete?
The Phil Hughes Experiment has worked out beautifully, as his K:BB ratio sits just above 9 (!!) at the moment. The team's bad defense has helped drag his ERA below league average anyway, but sure - Hughes is a piece that doesn't need upgrading. The other free agent pitchers they've signed have been appalling. Ricky Nolasco is in year one of a four-year deal and pitched to an ERA of 5.90 before getting hurt. Mike Pelfrey was bafflingly given a two-year deal, and it's playing out pretty much the way one would expect: 21 runs allowed in 23 innings of work and almost twice as many walks as strikeouts before a trip to the DL. Kevin Correia is surviving, but his contract is up after this season and he is really more of a 5th starter than anything else. Kyle Gibson's peripherals are pretty underwhelming.
So for 2015, the Twins' rotation is a #2 who has almost no track record of success, Kyle Gibson, and maybe Ricky Nolasco bouncing back. Have fun fixing that, May & Meyer.
The Twins have a lot to be optimistic about for 2016 and beyond, but I don't quite see them cobbling their run prevention together fast enough to make any noise next year. I will point out that I am chagrined to think of how bad Francisco Liriano was for the 2012 White Sox when I see Eduardo Escobar has turned to be a major league shortstop. Between Escobar, Dozier, and Plouffe, the Twins may have a cheap set of competence or better for most of their infield.
The Twins could also still ship out Kurt Suzuki and Josh Willingham at the trade deadline - pending free agents to whom it makes no sense to make a qualifying offer. Whatever they bring back could change this calculus.
There's still 60-something games to be played this year, a trade deadline, a waiver deadline, and an entire offseason between this moment and the 2015 season. With the information we have right now, though, I think Cleveland and Detroit should continue to be the White Sox' main competition for the division title next year. Minnesota's impact prospects are too far away, and Kansas City just doesn't seem competent enough to put it all together at once.
It's up to the White Sox to do everything they can to jump ahead of the waning Tigers and the protean Indians if they want to get back to the playoffs next year.
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