Cleveland Indians Now Biggest Threat to Detroit Tigers in AL Central

The Detroit Tigers entered the offseason as huge favorites in the American League Central. Back-to-back division titles and a trip to the World Series make the choice easy when we’re talking about the worst division in baseball, but that is not to say that all of the other teams have folded up camp.

The Minnesota Twins aren’t going to be much of a threat after trading away Denard Span and Ben Revere this offseason for prospects. They won’t be any sort of competition in the Central Division – even with Joe Mauer in his (sort of) prime they’re playing for 2015 and beyond – but everyone else should have a chance to be at least .500.

The Chicago White Sox nearly stole the division a year ago, but they let A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis walk in favor of Tyler Flowers and Jeff Keppinger (not upgrades). Unlike Minnesota, the White Sox still have enough pieces to frame together a competitive team depending on how loosely you want to define competitive. They’re probably not going to again be competing for the division title, but they’ll be able to win some games, be no embarrassment to themselves or the division, and possibly finish above .500.

The Kansas City Royals made some waves with their blockbuster trade that yielded them James Shields and Wade Davis in return for superprospect Wil Myers (et al.). The Royals were heralded by some as immediate contenders and a threat to the Tigers in the division. I think those types of statements were overblown – one good (or even great) pitcher doesn’t make a bad team a division winner – but they’re certain to be better than they were last year. They might have been – and possibly still could be – the second best team in the division, but it appears that there’s they’ve been surpassed as Detroit’s biggest threat to an AL Central three-peat.

Aug 28, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn (24) during batting practice before a game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians slow played the offseason somewhat. They weren’t seen as a contender entering the offseason after winning only 68 games a season ago, but they’ve made a series of moves that puts them into the conversation with the other two fringy-competitive teams in the division. A quick overview of their offseason looks something like: trading Shin-Soo Choo for a package including Trevor Bauer, signing Nick Swisher, signing Mark Reynolds, signing Daisuke Matsuzaka (minor league deal), and, just the other day, signing Michael Bourn.

These deals don’t add up to make Cleveland an immediate threat to win the AL pennant or anything, but they’ll be significantly better now and they’ve probably become the best non-Detroit team in the central division.

Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA projections the other day, and with them their projected standings (based on the statistical player projections). Here’s what they say about the AL Central (with Bourn added to Cleveland’s roster):

Team

W

L

RS

RA

Detroit Tigers

92

70

836

719

Cleveland Indians

80

82

727

738

Chicago White Sox

77

85

713

757

Kansas City Royals

76

86

712

768

Minnesota Twins

66

96

706

864

You can see Cleveland there in second place. They’re listed a good bit behind Detroit – and still only basically .500 – but solidly in second above Chicago and Kansas City (not that there’s much separation between these three teams).

And it’s not only Baseball Prospectus that’s projecting Cleveland to be the second best team in the division. The “Still Slightly Early and Somewhat Useless 2013 Projected MLB Standings” over at the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog have been updated (based on the CAIRO projection system), and they too see Cleveland in second place.

Team

W

L

RS

RA

Tigers

87

75

800

735

Indians

81

81

746

735

Royals

80

82

723

734

White Sox

77

85

730

783

Twins

66

96

694

837

Detroit is favored slightly less here, but the Indians, Royals, and White Sox are all seeing pretty much the same projection (with Cleveland ever so slightly on top).

The division, while still not very good overall, looks to be much improved over a year ago when three of the five teams failed to win even 73 games. I wouldn’t consider anyone to be a BIG threat to Detroit’s chances, but they’re not going to be able to sleepwalk through the season and still hope to win the division in the end. Last year they only had to fend off the White Sox to reach the playoffs, but this year they’ll be battling Chicago, Kansas City, and (perhaps especially) Cleveland in order to win the division for the third straight season.

Topics: Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers

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  • Matt Pelc

    I don’t see Chicago as a legitimate threat. But then again, I picked them for a distant fifth place last year and they greatly surprised me. I picked Kansas City to give the Tigers the biggest threat last year, but that never materialized. I think of the Royals as the Rays of 2006-2007. They were putting together a nice core of players and many picked them to make noise in those years, but it was 2008 when they finally arrived on the map.

    I don’t know what to think of Cleveland. They have had a flurry of movement over the past month. Its almost like the owner got his tax refund or something and started a shopping spree. They subtracted Tiger killer, Choo, and added some good pieces, Bourn, and some head scratchers, Giambi.

    The Indians had a great first half in 2011, and a solid first six weeks last season until the wheels fell off both years. Maybe the new roster and Francona will give them staying power. I still doubt it though. Their pitching is still highly questionable.

    • chrisHannum

      The Royals are a team that could turn out to be just tremendous (but probably won’t) based on how certain guys perform. But, if anybody winds up beating the Tigers out it will be because the Tigers fell apart and not because they were better than expected.

  • John Verburg

    I don’t know. Their lineup looks pretty good, and that outfield defense should be good. However, the pitching is still suspect. If I was Cleveland, I move Asdrubal Cabrera for a pitcher. They have Aviles that they can plus in at SS.

  • chrisHannum

    I’m not sure how big of an improvement this will be: one of the things that I liked most about the Indians offseason pre-Bourn was the decision to gamble on Drew Stubbs. Now they decided to, instead, gamble on Michael Bourn. Stubbs is all upside, Bourn is all downside – there just isn’t any way that his skill set produces seasons better than he has produced over the last few. Cheap teams are supposed to gamble on upside risk, because past performance is what you wind up paying for.

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