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Good Luck, AL Central: Cleveland Is Ready For Another World Series Run

In honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 2, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about what’s ahead. Today, we focus on the American League West with Deadspin editor-in-chief Tim Marchman and FiveThirtyEight baseball columnist Rob Arthur. The transcript below has been edited.

1 Cleveland Indians 92 91 93 94 92.5
2 Detroit Tigers 79 81 83 84 81.6
3 Minnesota Twins 78 74 77 76 76.1
4 Kansas City Royals 71 75 71 75 72.9
5 Chicago White Sox 76 69 71 69 71.1
How forecasters view the AL Central

Based on projected wins or over/under win totals. Data gathered on March 23, 2017.

Sources: Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport, Las Vegas Review-Journal

neil (Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight senior sportswriter): Welcome! Let’s start with the Indians. They finally won this division after a failed bid as the favorite in 2015 and used that as a springboard to come about as close to a world championship as a team can get without winning it.

Now the projections are really high on them again. According to FanGraphs, they’re as big a division favorite (88 percent) as the Cubs! Is that too much? Or are they that far ahead?

rob: The Indians are impressive, but that playoff prediction is as much about the mediocrity of the rest of the AL Central as it is the Indians’ own talent level. Their closest divisional competitor, the Tigers, grade out as barely above average, so by comparison Cleveland is a heavy favorite.

tmarchman: Yeah, I think this has as much to do with the state of the Central as anything else. There are realistic scenarios where the Indians don’t win the division, but they probably involve multiple injuries to key players and another team playing over their head — and even there, Cleveland versus whatever team that is would probably be a push.

rob: The Indians had some injury troubles last year — their starting rotation was depleted by October. With Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar back in the picture for a few more starts each, they should have one of the best overall staffs in all of baseball (again). And while there may be some regression to the mean for a couple of their position players (Tyler Naquin comes to mind), they added Edwin Encarnacion over the offseason, and they could also get some production out of Michael Brantley.

neil: Yeah, despite all those injuries, they were super good at preventing runs last year. And a lot of that was a sick bullpen — but is there a worry that their ’pen might not repeat such a great season? They were second in WPA through a mix of great peripherals and clutch pitching, but bullpens are also notoriously volatile. (Of course, they also get a full season of Andrew Miller.)

rob: Bullpens are absurdly difficult to predict. (OK, all of baseball is difficult to predict, but bullpens are a special challenge.) Nevertheless, I feel comfortable saying that their bullpen will be at least decent. They have the fantastic 1-2 combo of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, both about as consistently excellent as relievers tend to be. And I think Terry Francona showed that he can use his relief staff in a novel, smart way last season.

tmarchman: The Indians also haven’t worked their relievers all that hard over the last couple of years. They were 11th in the AL in IP last year and 14th the year before that. Day to day, this isn’t really the team you might remember from last October, trying to nurse a lead along into the fifth. This is where starting out so far ahead of the division really helps: If you’re opening the season thinking more about getting Miller and Allen enough work than about maximizing their use over six months, that’s pretty nice.

neil: That’s a good luxury to have, and it suggests there’s a good chance Cleveland’s run prevention is still on lock. The lineup, on the other hand, wasn’t a strength last year — it ranked 12th in the AL in OPS+. Is adding Encarnacion and getting Brantley back enough to improve that offense? Or does it matter?

rob: If you go by raw runs scored, they were quite a bit better than that (fifth best in baseball). Some of that difference comes from excellent baserunning, and some is probably sequencing. But that’s all a long-winded preamble to saying it doesn’t much matter. As long as their pitching staff is as good as it projects to be, their offense doesn’t need to be amazing for them to win ballgames. It will likely improve this season, but is doesn’t really need to.

tmarchman: The offense almost has to improve, right? Cleveland catchers hit .185/.244/.320 last year. Their primary left fielder had a 78 OPS+. Juan Uribe got 259 plate appearances and hit like one of the catchers.

rob: Yikes, that catcher line.

tmarchman: I don’t know that I’d mess with the catching situation, given how well the pitchers did, but good God.

rob: I mean, their catchers’ BABIP was .221. The next-lowest group of catchers by BABIP was at .247.

neil: All right, let’s move on to the rest of this division, starting with Detroit. They were the fourth-oldest team in MLB, had only 83 Pythagorean wins last year, yet they didn’t really make any huge changes from last year, aside from dealing away Cameron Maybin. Seems like a lot of indicators are pointing down for the Tigers.

tmarchman: It certainly feels like the kind of team that could just implode.

rob: Yeah, if I had to bet on one team to be significantly worse than its projection, it might be the Tigers. They are old, they are mediocre and if they are going to be competitive in the long term, they need to reorganize their talent somehow. I’m not saying they need to go for a full, three-plus-season rebuild — that would be heartbreaking, with Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander still productive. But they might need to give up on competing for a year or two in order to be serious contenders again before their current core falls apart.

tmarchman: I don’t think there’s really any sophisticated analysis that needs to be brought to bear here. Verlander and Cabrera were 33 last year and Ian Kinsler was 34, all of them played about as well as you could reasonably expect, if not better, and the team was … just OK.

Kinsler might actually be the most interesting player on the team, in some ways. He’s been better than Cabrera over the last three years by WAR (though that’s buoyed by some really favorable defensive ratings), at an age when you really wouldn’t have expected a ton — considering Kinsler in his prime was a decent-hitting but not overwhelming second baseman. He’s starting to creep up on Hall of Fame-type numbers.

neil: Dare I say it, Kinsler has been one of the most underrated players of his generation.

rob: Detroit could have three past-their-prime Hall of Famers in Kinsler, Cabrera and Verlander. Watching that triumvirate navigate their twilight years might be the most compelling thing about the Tigers right now.

But their bullpen is, as ever, a question mark (if not an outright weakness). In the unlikely event they make the playoffs, the relief corps will haunt them (as it has, over and over and over). And they can’t do much to fix it, without a strong farm system or many tradeable assets.

neil: Right, that was something I wanted to ask about — doesn’t it seem like they’re in a precarious place on the success cycle? They have the stars, but the rest of the roster isn’t very good. They have the third-highest projected payroll in MLB this year, and the sixth-worst farm system, according to Baseball America. They’re kind of a team caught in between contending and rebuilding.

tmarchman: I think that’s understating it, they seem like a nuclear wasteland waiting to happen.

neil: OK, so from a franchise trending downward to one I think is headed up, let’s shift to the Minnesota Twins. They have a new, SABR-savvy management with GM Thad Levine. Is this the start of a new era for a franchise that had resisted outwardly embracing analytics under former GM Terry Ryan?

tmarchman: I guess I’m waiting to see with the Twins. Not only did the Twins resist analytics for a long time, they famously resisted the idea of trying to hit for power for a long time, which you may or may not think has long-lasting residual effects.

Without going back and checking what I said last year, I’m pretty sure it was some version of what I’ll say here: Their direction seems pretty contingent on whether center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano break out. It’s hardly like they’re running out of time, but it’s a little hard to peg what the team is without knowing what they have in those two. Buxton — for anyone who wants to read anything into it — did hit nine home runs in September and now says a light went on. Certainly possible, though I suppose we’ll see.

rob: I agree with Tim, but I will also say that getting rid of Ryan was a huge step for the Twins’ long-term contention. I don’t know that they will be competitive any time soon, but they will no longer have to contend with an organizational philosophy that effectively hamstrings them. They are finally free to pursue pitchers who strike people out, and to better integrate sabermetrics into their decision making process.

tmarchman: There’s something incredibly impressive about the nice run they had. When you’re not only resistant to analytics but actively don’t want hitters hitting the ball too hard or pitchers striking people out — and still do well — well, it’s an achievement!

But that they were still dining out on it all this time later means it was probably time for a change.

rob: Agreed. As we enter a new era where every team seems to have or at least be building a functional analytics department, I’m kind of sad to see the last few front offices who resisted leave. It was nice to have a whole different way to build a team that could coexist and compete with what we think of as the state of the art.

neil: Either way, the prognostications above call for about a 15- to 20-win improvement on last year’s terrible 59-103 record. Granted, they won 83 games in 2015 and also undershot Pythagoras by seven wins last year, so they were probably a true 66-win team that got unlucky.

But do we think third place is a realistic mark of progress in 2017? (Also note that Minny has the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, which is another source of long-term optimism no matter what happens this season.)

tmarchman: I could see them finishing anywhere from second to last place, but whatever it is, I don’t think the finish itself tells much as a measure of progress. If I told you right now that they’ll finish .500 on the back of pretty strong seasons from pitchers Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes, I doubt you’d say that necessarily means much long term. You’d want to know how the prospects did — and, for that matter, you might want to know why those two were still on the team after the trade deadline.

neil: OK, now let’s talk about the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals. After an 81-81 season in 2016, is the party over for K.C.? Last year, they looked at times like they’d contend for another World Series, flame out completely and everything in between.

rob: The Royals are so frustrating. I was all ready last season to buy into the idea that they had discovered some secret advantage (in regards to defense, or injuries, or chemistry or something), and then they landed somewhere between mediocre (by W-L) and bad (by Pythagorean record).

There are two problems for Kansas City, in my opinion: One is that, even with a secret advantage that adds 5-10 wins to their final performance, the Royals aren’t likely to be anything better than average. And the second is that sabermetric advantages tend to be ephemeral, as other teams rapidly catch up to whatever magic they developed. Because K.C. is a small-market team, it will have to keep coming up with new and fresh edges in order to keep its head above .500.

tmarchman: I’m with Rob here. If you were being optimistic you could just set last year’s record as their baseline, and say, “Hey, fewer injuries, Alex Gordon plays like Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer has a nice contract year … that all adds up, they should be in it.” But I just don’t see where they have all that many good players.

neil: It also seems like all the things that made up “Royals Devil Magic” were still good — but a little bit less great than before, and there wasn’t much else to make up for it. They were still one of the best fielding teams, but not as dominant as in 2015. Ditto the bullpen, their contact rate and even their speed score and weighted runs from steals.

tmarchman: To take FanGraphs’ projections, they have four players projected to be above average, and none projected to be worth more than 2.9 WAR. There are certainly things those projections don’t capture, but that’s an awful lot to make up for.

rob: Their best player last season was Jarrod Dyson at 3.1 WAR, most of it defensive. And he’s gone now. In 2015, when everything was clicking and going well, a lot of their players drastically outperformed their projections. And maybe that can happen again, but it’s hard to pin your hopes every year on the projections simultaneously getting five players wrong.

I am intrigued by the addition of Jorge Soler, though. I always thought he was a couple of tweaks away from being a great player with the Cubs, and if I had to pick one person on the team to blow past their projection (only 0.6 WAR), it would be him.

neil: Finally, we have Tim’s favorite team — the Chicago White Sox. And at last, they appear to be rebuilding in earnest, after hovering in that mid-70s no man’s land for wins over the past few seasons.

The Sox made some big trades for prospects this offseason: They swapped ace Chris Sale for infielder Yoan Moncada (Baseball America’s No. 2-ranked prospect) and starter Michael Kopech. They also dealt outfielder Adam Eaton — seems like they sold high there — for two more pitching prospects. This appears to be a good rebuild, no?

tmarchman: I’m cranky about it. I don’t think much of the prospects they got, and I think that a Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher on a reasonable contract (Sale) and an All-Star outfielder on a ridiculous one (Eaton) are players you want to keep around, if they’re young.

On the other hand … after talking about all these teams that are just kind of stuck in the mud, yes, it’s a relief to get to one that has a clear, obvious direction.

rob: I, too, am a little skeptical of the rebuild, not just as an evaluator but as a Chicago-based fan (nothing beat going to see a Chris Sale start for cheap). Like Tim, I’m a little lower on the prospects they got back than the consensus seems to be. I’ve seen Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski fleece many a team in similar trades, and if I were the White Sox, I’d be wary. But as far as the general direction of the team, it had to happen, there was no other way, and now there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon that they could one day be great.

neil: At the very least, they’re fifth in Baseball America’s farm-system rankings now, which is the highest they’ve been in a long time.

rob: And this coming year of horrible baseball will likely improve that system’s position as they start to get high draft picks coming in.

tmarchman: I think one big problem here goes to something that analytically inclined types can’t always predict well, which is player development. The White Sox can definitely develop pitchers, but they just aren’t good at doing anything with hitters like Moncada. Are you really better off going for talent over polish if you have no real record of turning that talent into production?

rob: Right, they have a terrible record for developing position players. So it’s fair to wonder if they’ll be able to turn these guys into viable major leaguers.

neil: Given the rebuild, is there anything to really watch out for on the field this year? Do those 71 wins by the projectors seem about right? Or is it yet another AL Central case where the record is kinda irrelevant?

tmarchman: The record’s not relevant, but I think performance is. The question isn’t just, say, whether 2013 first-rounder Tim Anderson will develop a better grasp of the strike zone and lock down shortstop long term, but whether new manager Rick Renteria is the right guy to bring the kids along.

rob: I think one player to watch closely will be starter Jose Quintana. In addition to the fact that he is woefully underappreciated and fun, he might get traded midseason so that the Sox can add a few more good players to the farm. Watch the contenders to see if any of them have major rotation holes and good prospects to give up.

tmarchman: Overall, this really, really feels like a return to the good ol’ days in the Central — a bunch of teams that are horror shows in various ways, and the Indians taking the summer to figure out if they’ll need to trade for, say, a left-handed pinch-hitter who’s good against screwballs to get a tactical advantage in the playoffs.

Now that I said that, the Royals are going to scamper to the division, of course.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Rob Arthur is a former baseball columnist for FiveThirtyEight. He also wrote about crime.

Tim Marchman is the editor-in-chief of Deadspin.