The post-Scherzer AL Central roundtable

I always dreamed that a post like this would be written about Justin Verlander, after he had been sent off to slaughter a distant alien race on behalf of all humanity, but the wrath of God Detroit starting pitcher has left the division, and it’s that homer-prone fastball-slider guy with platoon issues from a few years back. Max Scherzer has signed with Washington for all the money in the world. Detroit still boasts David Price, Anibal Sanchez, and a possibly resilient Verlander, but have now lost two of their three-most productive arms from last season with Rick Porcello already off to Boston.

The AL Central title was something White Sox fans could talk themselves into previously, now it’s something they can talk themselves into expecting, which...surely won’t manifest itself in any negative ways.

Ethan: So losing Max Scherzer is a really big deal for the Tigers. They kind of hedged their bets by getting Price at the deadline last year, but there’s a lot of question marks in that rotation behind him. Verlander was garbage last year, Sanchez is frequently injured, and Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene. That is, in my view, enough to put the White Sox ahead of the Tigers in terms of rotation strength. Overall, Detroit’s offense keeps them as favorites in the division, but I think this is a significant blow to their team.

Matt: I think the Tigers have been moving forward with their 2015 planning under the assumption that they’d be without Scherzer, hence those Green and Simon additions, but any time you lose your best pitcher, things aren’t as pretty as they once were.

James: You know the Scherzer negotiations are going dicey last year, why do you make the Fister deal? Why do you ever make the Fister deal?

Ethan: I still don’t understand the Fister deal whatsoever. They got next to nothing for a borderline-ace with multiple years of control for arb money. It was a real headscratcher at the time, and looks even worse as the back-end of the rotation looks incredibly shaky. If the Tigers have Fister right now, they might be prohibitive favorites for the Central, instead, they have near replacement level dudes in the back two spots of the rotation.

James: Well, they eventually turned Robbie Ray to Shane Greene he really holding down a rotation spot? I know strikeouts are currency, but there’s not much in his history to suggest last year is real. The Tigers seem to have a lot more guys the Sox would usually be talking themselves into in January than the slate of big names they typically offer.

Ethan: That’s a good point. The Tigers roster is actually kind of similar to the White Sox in construction, in that they have stars, but massive holes and no depth. I mean, when Sanchez hits his yearly DL stint, who pitches for them? Lobstein? They traded Smyly to the Rays and their best pitching prospect in Jake Thompson to the Rangers. What if Verlander is done? What if V-Mart craters, where is the production in that lineup going to come from? Obviously these are big ifs but there’s some huge risk they’re playing with for this year.

James: J.D. Martinez is coming off a far and away career year. Jose Iglesias’ bat has never had a full year to really suck. Alex Avila is increasingly beaten down. Center field could really be nightmarish. There’s something to find wrong with almost everyone, where previously you couldn’t do that. I don’t think everything falls apart this year, but they’re counting on things to break right a lot more than the last four years of murdering everyone in their sleep.

It would be a mistake to assess the ALC purely on how vulnerable the Tigers are. There’s a Royals team around that...did some things last year, and a Cleveland Indians team that has a dominant rotation if the last two months of the season can be trusted.

Matt: The division as a whole is as competitive as it’s been since, what, 2006? I question how much of the magic the Royals will be able to recapture, and the Twins are messy messy messy. The Indians are in a similar position as the White Sox and it’s really just a question of how many of those potential Tigers problems come to fruition. If those things don’t happen, if things break right for the Tigers, they’re still not automatically winning anything. They’ve still taken steps backward.

James: The Royals have made me susceptible to awful columnist logic: The Royals...can never count them out! I didn’t understand their success last year and now I don’t know what to trust. I hate their rotation after Ventura, they need a lot to come around just to have a competent core of a lineup. But maybe they’ll just win 80 games with a 2-1 score.

Ethan: If I had to pick the division right now, I’d put the Royals in fourth place. They had a lot break for them last year and lost their best pitcher and one of their better hitters. Their acquisitions don’t exactly move the needle either.

The Indians are the team that worries me a lot more. Kluber is coming off a Cy Young, and Carrasco looked like a borderline ace going down the stretch. If they hold their gains their rotation could be among the best in the AL. Offensively, they have some really good pieces (even if Brantley regresses) and could be a sneaky good team, especially if Lindor puts together a season that some expect out of him.

James: I think their offense might be a little underwhelming--like, average--if Brantley isn’t an MVP candidate again. Is Lindor expected to start the year with the club?

Ethan: I’d expect Lindor starts in the minors but replaces Jose Ramirez at some point before June.

James: What’s their plan for Nick Swisher? Have him renditioned?

Ethan: Between Bourn and Swisher, that’s a lot of bad money without obvious replacements in the system. It’s quite possible that those roster spots (and the money allocated to those spots) costs them a playoff spot. They’re also really reliant on Brandon Moss to be what he was in the first half of 2014 and not the second half.  

I think the AL Central is close enough among the top three teams (three because honestly, I expect less than 77 wins for the Royals in 2015), there is small enough separation that the division will be won by the team that succumbs least to its flaws.

James: Of which the Sox have plenty. No back half of a rotation and shakiness at second, third, catcher and the mystery of Avisail. At this point I am no more worried about the Sox bullpen than any other team’s.

Ethan: Yep, certainly. I’d really love to see one more piece but I’m not sure where it’d come from. If the Nats are gonna trade a starter, I’d have to think long and hard about giving up Anderson plus for him, and Strasburg might cost something like Rodon, Anderson, and Avi. In general, I don’t really see what upgrades would be available, which is troubling.

The nice thing about having a solid system is if come July the Sox are still in contention, there could be some nice pieces available.

James: I think this proposal gives a starting OF job back to Dayan Viciedo, so I say ‘to hell with you.’

Ethan: I didn’t say they should do it! Though Sale/Strasburg/Shark/Quintana would be fun. Really fun. It’d never happen in a million years. But a guy can dream.

James: It’d be fun to see their different reactions to a routine fly ball kicking off the warning track and bouncing over the fence for a ground rule double.

Nick: I actually like the Indians a lot for next year. I agree that the offense might be a problem, but not only do they have the potential Kluber-Carrasco thing, but just last spring James and I were drinking the Danny Salazar Kool Aid and there’s reason to believe he could still be good, and Trevor Bauer also has a pretty high ceiling.

James: I’m starting to feel like the impact of Scherzer’s departure is as symbolic as it is anything. The Tigers are in transition, their margin for error is declining so that ownership can make the slightest preparation for the cliff coming in the next few years. Obviously they haven’t done that entirely coherently, but recognizing limits to how many 30+ guys they can pay super market value to is...something.

Or, it was always a Price-for-Scherzer cost swap they had in mind.

Nick: I hadn’t realized just how crazy good Price had been last year.

There are also evaluation considerations that we may not necessarily understand - maybe, like you said, they can only keep Price or Scherzer and have decided for various reasons that they think Price is going to be better moving forward so he’s where they want to throw their pizza money. Still, they’re putting a lot of their eggs in the Verlander/Anibal basket and that has a chance to pay off or blow up in their face.

James: Eggs were kinda already in those baskets. At least for now. Not moving those two deals this offseason.

The more I think about it--man do we love to pick apart the Tigers--I don’t like the Porcello trade for them.

Nick: Oh I agree. I always thought Porcello was kind of the only explanation for them going for Iglesias as well. Weird that they kept running him out there in front of historically terrible defenses only to ship him off once he started to excel. I think Cespedes is really fun, but pretty fungible. This notion is harder to reconcile with the new reality that arms are easier to find than bats.

Also - Nick Castellanos may be the worst defensive 3B in a long time.

James: I’m taking it from the future angle. Porcello was one of the few guys around with conceivable upside, or multiple prime years ahead of him. Cespedes is a known commodity. He fills that hole for them for this year, but does he do it better than Rasmus would? Significantly? Enough to lose Porcello? Blegh.

I guess it’s good for our readers to see us nitpick the hell out of a team other than their favorite one.

Nick: I’ve been on a bit of a negative kick with the White Sox now that the acquisition train has slowed down. It’s unfair, because even if they just win like 80-84 games that will be way more fun / watchable than they’ve been for a while, but to me I still see some areas that are obvious to upgrade and I don’t understand coming this far only to stop.

Perhaps the plan is to see how things go for the first few months and evaluate just how good your chances are before you invest any more.

Part of the problem as well is that you have four flawed teams at the top of the division where you can see the path to dominating the division if everything goes right, and you can see how each of these teams will fail.

James: Maybe I’d be more confident with Kenny running this team from here on out. We’ve never seen Hahn buying at the deadline. How ferocious will he be? With Kenny we could be sure if the team was over .500 that he would make a trade for a starter in exchange for his cufflinks.

Actually, I take that back. The Sox have actual prospects right now. Kenny could do some real damage.

Tim Anderson, Francellis Montas and Tyler Danish for Ryan Howard and Chase Utley

“We’re competing for championships,” said Williams of the 43-39 White Sox.

Nick: Williams simultaneously aimed high and didn’t. He would trade everything for some over-the-hill meh dude.

James: Buying at the deadline, with no prospects to speak of, maybe not even any actual minor league teams. That’s Kenny-time.

But yeah, would be interesting to see Hahn as a deadline buyer. WILL. Will be interesting. Meant to say “will.”

Nick: The one time he had a real prospect - who didn’t really work out - Jeremy Reed was considered the #2 prospect in all of baseball by a number of outlets, and he traded him for Freddy Garcia. Granted, Garcia owned and that was a solid return, but it’s not like he brought in a superstar.

Anyway, this is getting a bit off track. They could still be aiming for 2016.

James: But, but, but Samardzija! Also, LaRoche, who is actually very old and probably served in Granada.

Nick: Watch the Twins win the division next year.

Matt - and others - have persuaded me that perhaps I have been holding Noesi and Danks to too high a standard. If so, then the real issues are catcher, third base, second base, and potentially right field?

Matt: Now seems like as good a time as any to wonder aloud what might actually happen with Micah Johnson or anybody that actually fills that 2B spot to start the season. There’s little to go on, so it’s understandable that not many have taken any sort of guess other than “there’s nobody at second base.” Unless you count the Red Eye.

Nick: Bonifacio is ideally just going to be backup at a bunch of places, right?

Ethan: I’d hope Bonifacio was brought in with hopes of him being a super-sub rather than a starter at second. He cannot be relied on for 500 PAs, his value is being able to spell starters in need and, plus top tier speed.

That said, the infield looks ugly at this point, aside from 1B and Alexei. What are the odds Abreu has more WAR than the rest of the infield combined (save LaRoche)? 50/50?

Nick: WAR despises all first basemen and says they are all hemorrhaging runs on defense, therefore Alexei will out-WAR him.

Ethan: Even knowing that, Alexei would have to put up obscene defensive stats to catch Abreu. Abreu had 5.3 fWAR last year, better than Alexei’s career high.

I’m mad at myself for bringing up WAR though because I hate talking about it despite understanding the theoretical value of such a tool.

Nick: WAR represents good ideas - positional value, defense matters, parks matter, etc. I just think its executed and used really badly very frequently.

Ethan: I totally agree. I should probably write an article about my problems with it rather than quipping about it in a roundtable though.

Nick: Is there any universe where the Twins compete? It would have to involve Meyer and May hitting their 90th percentile immediately, right?

Ethan:  Honestly I think it’d take way more than that. Unless Mauer returns to superstar form they’re really awful. They cannot pitch and their offense has many candidates for major regression.

Nick: Wow - I just saw that they had someone post an OPS+ above 100 at every position last year. I don’t know that Danny Santana and Eduardo Escobar keep hitting next year, and same with guys like Vargas, but Dozier is pretty cool. Yeah. Lots of regression candidates here like you said, Ethan.

Hm. Arcia and Mauer could improve, though.

We’re talking about the Twins. This could be where I check out for the night.

Ethan: yeah, imagining the Twins a potential non-awful takes some major leaps of faith, and thus there’s probably not much analysis there to be done. I have no reason to believe Arcia is not at best what he was last year, or that a team that had multiple career years out of their offense can compete when dealing with regression and a presumably awful pitching staff. People will point to Hughes’s xFIP but I think that’s largely due to him always being in the strike zone. People like that are bound to get pounded on BABIP.

The Twins are not contenders without some absurd magic. The Royals had some of that last year (with an undoubtedly better team), and it made them a Wild Card team with a World Series appearance. Right now, I think there are three contenders in the AL Central who do not require extreme luck: the White Sox, Indians, and Tigers.

Nick: I think xFIP is useless because I don’t buy the assumption that pitchers have no control over how many home runs they surrender. The Twins do have a lot of cheap, solid options of on offense.

Ethan: I agree with your last comment: when we’re talking about how the Twins can contend we’ve gone too far. They’ve got a bunch of guys who were very solid players with career years. Those guys may continue to be very solid, but their roster is simply not nearly enough. Not yet, at least.

James: Double-E is winning MVP, so the Twins got that going for them.

Speaking of article ideas, my Bonifacio idea is to use him, or use him to free up Carlos Sanchez, to reduce Alexei’s games played total to the 130’s this season.


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