As Rick Hahn pointed out, the most important thing to take away from the various AL Central projections is that it's probably going to be a tight race. Sure, if you take two teams with "true" 81-win talent, give one good luck and the other bad they may wind up very far apart. But right now we don't know where that luck is going to fall, and most projection systems seem to think that the Indians, Tigers, White Sox, and Royals are pretty close in terms of present talent. Over the course of 162 games, injuries will likely play a huge role in differentiating between these four teams. While there are certain things teams can do to mitigate against injury - Herm Schneider is considered one of the best in the business at doing just that - the best thing a front office can do is prepare as many Plan Bs as possible in the form of depth. So which organization is in the best shape in terms of backup plans should Plan A go awry?
We have already seen attrition start to hit in the division, with the news that Victor Martinez may miss anywhere from 4-12 weeks as a result of a torn medial meniscus. Injuries aren't the only way a player can make himself unavailable, as the possibility of a criminal prosecution for Danny Salazar was floated as a possibility (and then snuffed) earlier this past week. If a team can find replacements - either through trade, waiver wire, or best of all internally - then they will have a huge edge over what could be a close division race.
The White Sox have one big bullet in the chamber in terms of depth in the form of Carlos Rodon. There's a chance that if Danks or Noesi can't cut it, if one of the other starters gets injured, or frankly if Rodon is just awesome, he will push his way into the rotation and be a fourth front-line starter behind the trio of Sale-Samardzija-Quintana. This is the ideal backup plan - a stud prospect who is close to the majors. Otherwise, the options are a little less clear. This time last year Erik Johnson would have been seen as quality depth, ditto Matt Davidson, but disastrous 2014 seasons means that any return to form - although possible - cannot be expected. Frank Montas could probably pitch out of the bullpen right away and be serviceable, but ideally you don't want to mess with his development time as his ceiling is very high. There's a chance Tyler Danish could be called upon in an emergency as well.
In terms of the infield, Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez will compete for the starting second base job - whoever loses will likely return to Triple-A and be on the short list of guys to call up as reinforcements. Tim Anderson will probably start the year at Double-A and frankly I would be upset to see him in the majors in 2015; the tools are all there, but I have yet to see any outlet disagree with the assertion that he is still crazy raw defensively and in his approach at the plate. Tyler Saladino is probably ready to step in to fill in a bench role without embarrassing himself/killing the team right away.
Although the outfield looks as strong as it has in years, all three of the starters have missed significant time to injury in the past couple of seasons. J.B. Shuck and Bonifacio are decent fallbacks, but could also be very weak if forced to start for extended periods of time. There's no obvious solution to the outfield sitting in the minors should injury strike there. The White Sox' top outfield prospect according to FutureSox is Courtney Hawkins, who probably needs more time at High A. After that you're talking about guys who are just nowhere close (Micker Adolfo, Carlos May) or just bad (Jared Mitchell, Trayce Thompson). If J.B. Shuck plays like he did in 2013 it could save them from having a random outfield spot become The Worst In The Majors.
Catcher looks fine if you approach it from the perspective of, "Most catchers are terrible" and the White Sox have a high volume approach here - Flowers, Soto, Nieto, and Brantly are four guys you could throw at the problem and possibly have something stick.
It looks like the White Sox actually have some options here - more than I would have thought off the top of my head when I went to write this piece. Unfortunately, outside of Rodon, Micah Johnson and maaaaaybe Montas or Danish, it looks like most of the depth is maxed out at "filler bench dude." Which isn't too bad - if the White Sox had All Stars sitting on their bench I wouldn't be worried about their ability to take on the 2015 Royals. And, given some of what other teams have, this may surprisingly be an area of advantage over their division rivals.
I entered this exercise assuming the Indians would have the best fallback plans of the four AL Central contenders. To familiarize myself, I consulted John Sickels' Top 20 for Cleveland - Sickels is wonderful and miraculously, free. Obviously, Francisco Lindor is the prize of their system, and it looks like Cleveland has a ton of options for infield depth. A lot of depth is already at the major league level - Mike Aviles and Zach Walters provide credible options should anything happen to say, Kipnis or Chisenhall. But then you have the aforementioned Lindor who is ready defensively right now, and has a lot of potential with the bat - behind him is a guy like Erik Gonzalez whose bat would almost certainly be overmatched, but he could at least cover short in a pinch. Jesus Aguilar and Tyler Nyquin look like the backup 1B and 4th OF respectively should they be needed.
The pitching situation in Cleveland is fascinating to me. The minor league cupboard looks bare in terms of major league ready guys - Austin Adams is apparently someone who could come in as a reliever pretty much whenever he's needed, but otherwise you're looking at lower level/much more raw guys. The thing is, they have so much depth at the major league level it might not matter. RotoWorld's depth chart runs eight deep for them at starting pitcher - Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, House, Gavin Floyd, Cody Anderson, and Shaun Marcum. Obviously there's a ton of volatility there in terms of both health and effectiveness, and some of those arms are much more desirable than others, but any of Carrasco, Salazar, or Bauer could make the leap and join Kluber as a true front-end starter. The bullpen also looks extremely deep.
Cleveland looks like it has a lot of nice contingency plans available. While it's clunkier, having depth in the low minors has value for the 2015 squad in the form of trade chips, but that's much harder to project. You're better served just looking at something like Keith Law's organizational rankings and extrapolating out as to ability to make trades in-season, or waiting to see what needs/trade targets emerge as the year goes on.
The Tigers, on the other hand, had arguably the worst farm system heading into this offseason and that was before they traded away a number of guys from their Baseball America Top 10 - including their No. 1 guy. This is what happens when you have an extended push for a title and trade any prospects you have of any value whatsoever for major league pieces. That's not a criticism of Detroit - it made a ton of sense given their contention cycle, but now there's nothing left down here.
Steven Moya has a high ceiling, at 6'6'' and 230 pounds, blasting 35 homers with 16 steals in AA as a 23-year old. The problem is he still struck out 161 times against only 23 walks - it's unclear whether he will ever be able to make contact to be playable in the majors, let alone in 2015. Other than that there are some back-end filler starting pitchers like Buck Farmer and Kyle Lobstein (I cannot get over that name)...and that's it.
Dombrowski has been masterful in terms of dumping prospects at the peak of their value and packaging together lotto tickets to get helpful major league pieces, but even though, say, Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin weren't worth Miguel Cabrera, at least they were highly regarded at the time. Their best bet for depth seems leveraging salary relief in tandem with low-level prospects as needed.
The Royals' farm system was lauded for years and some will consider last year to be the year it finally bore fruit. Interestingly, a lot of the key pieces of the Royals last year were acquired by trades or free agency, not developed internally - James Shields, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jason Vargas, etc. - were all brought in from the outside. Still, they were able to cheaply fill a number of roster spots from their own system.
The Royals have graduated or traded much of the guys who would normally be expected to pitch in this year. Christian Colon is ready to be a utility infielder (and could probably replicate what Omar Infante did last year), and Brandon Finnegan looks amazing - whether he will be a starter or reliever remains to be seen. In terms of impact bats though, I just don't see anymore in the system, let alone ready to help next year.
Raul Mondesi and Kyle Zimmer are really high upside prospects, but the former is 18 and struggled mightily in the Carolina League last year, whereas Zimmer's 2014 was defined by two shoulder injuries. Lane Adams looks like the only position player who has a chance to make an impact at the major league level before September. The Royals absolutely have some low-level chips to make a trade at midseason, but they will likely have to pay a talent premium as they seem to be maxed out on cash.
I am so conditioned to think the White Sox have a bad farm system after all of these years that I was surprised to come out of this thinking that they may have an edge here on their division rivals. Rodon and Lindor seem to be the prospects with the highest potential to have an impact this year, and both at positions of need for their respective squads.
The White Sox system after Rodon seems to be split between guys with low ceilings and high floors close to the majors (very helpful as stopgaps / bench solutions) and then blue chip arms that are farther away. I do feel as though pitchers are more likely to make a leap of multiple levels and handle than position players would, so that means guys like Montas and Danish are absolutely in play for this season.
In the coming war of attrition, the Royals and Tigers look to have fewer reinforcements than the White Sox and Indians will.
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