Sizing up the Yankees' American League competition: AL Central

shave - Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees' off-season improvements should give them a bump up from their final record in 2013, but their American League rivals are unlikely to make a possible road to the pennant easy for the Bronx Bombers.

The Yankees were far from the only team to make significant changes to their roster during the 2013-13 off-season. Other American League teams are revamped and reloaded for another run at the AL pennant, and while Pinstripe Alley will later go through more in-depth team previews of the Yankees' AL East division rivals, it's helpful to see a quick summary of sorts about what the 10 other teams around the league did as well. After all, taking care of divisional opponents can only take a team so far; indeed, every time the Yankees have been eliminated from the playoffs since 2005, it occurred at the hands of an AL Central or AL West team. Taking down these teams will be obviously be essential to the Yankees' playoff aspirations in 2014. The Central division will be previewed today, and the West will be previewed tomorrow.

AL Central

Detroit Tigers

2013 record: 93-69, 1st place
2014 PECOTA projected record: 88-74, 1st place
Key additions: 2B Ian Kinsler, RP Joe Nathan, OF Rajai Davis, RP Joba Chamberlain, INF Steve Lombardozzi
Key departures: 1B Prince Fielder, SP Doug Fister, 2B Omar Infante, SS Jhonny Peralta, RP Joaquin Benoit

It would be so much easier to love this team as American League favorites if not for one thing--I have no freaking idea why they traded away Doug Fister. He had done nothing but excel for Detroit since they acquired him from the Mariners in 2011, pitching to a 3.29 ERA, 1.8 BB/9, and 10.4 fWAR in 70 games for the Tigers during three straight division-winning seasons. It had to be for financial reasons, even though he will only make about $7 million from the Nationals this year. Their payroll was $148.7 million in 2013 and even after shedding the anchor-like Fielder contact, they have a new franchise-record of $157.5 million committed to 2014. Acquiring the reliable and smooth-fielding Kinsler in exchange for Fielder was a smart move from GM Dave Dombrowski that seemingly came out of nowhere but made a ton of sense. The Tigers thus replaced Infante with a better player and afforded themselves the opportunity to move destroyer-of-pitchers Miguel Cabrera across the diamond to first base, where he should stay closer to full strength at a less active part of the field.

Even though Nathan's 39 years old, he's had an impressive comeback from surgery a couple years ago and might be the best closer in the American League. The offense is still gaudy with Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Austin Jackson, and Torii Hunter. The speedy Davis is a smart bench addition, and top prospect Nick Castellanos has an excellent opportunity in front of him at third base. Shortstop prospect Eugenio Suarez could get a shot if rookie manager Brad Ausmus turns to him with Jose Iglesias likely needing an extended DL stint. Without Fister though, the rotation falls from "easily best in baseball" to just "strong in front" with Justin Verlander, 2013 AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez, and Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer leading the way. This club should be the easy favorites to win their fourth straight division title, and the Yankees have always had problems with the Tigers over the past few seasons. But man, I still don't understand the Fister trade.

Cleveland Indians

2013 record: 92-70, 2nd place, Wild Card
2014 PECOTA projected record: 78-84, 2nd place (tie)
Key additions: RF David Murphy, RP John Axford, RP Josh Outman, SP Aaron Harang, SP Shaun Marcum
Key departures: SP Ubaldo Jimenez, SP Scott Kazmir, OF Drew Stubbs, RP Joe Smith, RP Matt Albers

Cleveland had a rough off-season. They arguably lost their ace in Ubaldo, saw their comeback project Kazmir depart for Oakland, and cut ties with several key bullpen arms, though Chris Perez and his sub-replacement level closing efforts were worth ditching. The "key additions" section is depressing when the biggest improvement is a 32-year-old outfielder who had a 73 wRC+ in Texas last season. They do have nice homegrown bats anyway in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn, and Michael Brantley, who was extended in the off-season. It would not be surprising at all to see some of those guys on the All-Star team at mid-season. Add in last off-season's big acquisitions, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, and Cleveland has an offense to be reckoned with, even if Bourn misses Opening Day.

Terry Francona's pitching staff is led by the steady Justin Masterson, and behind him are Corey Kluber, who had a near-three WAR season in 24 starts, and decent starters Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. Maybe one day, prospect Trevor Bauer will figure himself out, but until he proves his doubters wrong, they will linger. With Ubaldo, the Indians' pitching staff was roughly league-average. Without him, they could very well give the offense a challenge to score runs every night. Although it's a toss-up for who's better between the Indians and Royals, who could both stay in contention for the Wild Card, it's doubtful that any of these teams are better than the Tigers.

Kansas City Royals

2013 record: 86-76, 3rd place
2014 PECOTA projected record: 78-84, 2nd place (tie)
Key additions: 2B Omar Infante, SP Jason Vargas, OF Norichika Aoki, INF Danny Valencia
Key departures: SP Ervin Santana, OF David Lough, RP Will Smith

General manager Dayton Moore's impetus was to win now in 2013 by trading Wil Myers and other prospects for Rays starters James Shields and Wade Davis. The results? Eh. Even though he compared K.C.'s first voyage over .500 in 10 years to "winning the World Series," a playoff season would have been nice to compensate for the loss of the arbitration-controlled Rookie of the Year. Shields was excellent, but Davis was a bomb. The Royals were dealt another tough blow in the off-season when, after a long wait, Santana signed with the Braves. In anticipation of replacing Santana, the Royals signed... Jason Vargas? To a four-year deal? The 31-year-old whose career ERA away from Safeco Field (his home for four seasons) is 4.91? A bold move, to say the least.

A better move was bringing Infante aboard at second base. He's not a flashy player, but the Royals haven't had any kind of legitimate second baseman since Mark Grudzielanek or maybe even '80s franchise icon Frank White. Moore should also get credit for acquiring the underrated Aoki from the Brewers for a man in black mere bullpen arm. Expecting Vargas to replace Santana's production from last year will be a bit much, but these complementary pieces combined with solid seasons from their core offensive players (catcher Salvador Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer,  outfielder Alex Gordon, and DH Billy Butler) should at least give the Royals an outside shot at a playoff spot in 2014.

Chicago White Sox

2013 record: 63-99, 5th place
2014 PECOTA projected record: 75-87, 4th place
Key additions: 1B Jose Abreu, CF Adam Eaton, 3B Matt Davidson,  RP Ronald Belisario, RP Scott Downs
Key departures: SP Gavin Floyd, RP Addison Reed, SP Hector Santiago, SP Dylan Axelrod

After a surprisingly competitive 2012 campaign, the White Sox took an awful but predictable tumble in 2013. The 99-loss was Chicago's worst in 43 years, and with captain Paul Konerko aging out of a starting role at first base, GM Rick Hahn went for an early splash in the off-season by signing Abreu, the big Cuban import. The 27-year-old has serious power potential, and his bat should help charge an offense that scored fewer runs than anyone else in the AL last year. It will also be interesting to see how third-year skipper (and former Yankee) Robin Ventura divvies up playing time between Abreu, Konerko, and near-full-time DH Adam Dunn.

Hahn also made some shrewd trades, dealing away steady starter Santiago and closer Reed for Eaton and Davidson. Reed's not a huge loss, and Chicago's new free agent relievers should make up for his contributions. Eaton's first year and a half as a major league center fielder have not been great so far, but he has certainly flashed potential at times and Davidson has been a top 100 prospect for three years in a row. Look for young slugger Avisail Garcia, acquired in the Jake Peavy trade last year, to make a noticeable step forward as well. The bright side for Chicago to 2014 is that it's unlikely they get much worse than they were last year. Even with twiggy ace Chris Sale, they're unlikely to be a playoff team, but approaching .500 isn't out of the question.

Minnesota Twins

2013 record: 66-96, 4th place
2014 PECOTA projected record: 72-90, 5th place
Key additions: SP Ricky Nolasco, SP Phil Hughes, C Kurt Suzuki, OF/DH Jason Kubel
Key departures: C/OF Ryan Doumit, SP Liam Hendriks

It's been a rough couple years in the Twin Cities after an AL Central championship season in the first year of Target Field back in 2010. Since then, Minnesota has gone through three 90-loss seasons in a row, but manager Ron Gardenhire remains the second-longest tenured manager in baseball as he begins his 13th season on the job. Gardenhire's predecessor, Tom Kelly, also endured three 90-loss seasons in a row and wasn't fired, so it's a sign that the Twins simply prefer stability, which makes some sense. Hell, even John McGraw couldn't have done much of anything with the Twins' teams over the past few seasons.

In the off-season, the Twins sought to improve their pitching staff, which finished dead last in the AL with its 114 ERA- (4.55 ERA) in 2013. They didn't go for any of the big-name starters on the market, but instead pursued the relatively mediocre Nolasco and a buy-low candidate in Hughes. Going to a pitcher's park like Target Field should help Hughes avoid the dinger bugaboo he had in New York, and it certainly can't hurt Nolasco, either. They also strangely re-signed former Mets Mike Pelfrey to a two-year deal despite him pitching to an ERA over five last year for them. Weird. Perhaps the biggest move was one that fans are just visually seeing now--shifting long-time catcher Joe Mauer to first base in an effort to keep their five-year, $115 million investment healthy. Mauer turns 31 in April, and given his both his concussion and leg fatigue problems behind the plate, it's hard to blame the Twins, especially when they have an interesting catching prospect like Josmil Pinto waiting in the wings. Even acknowledging the pitching improvements though, this offense is too weak to contend, and the loss of slugging third base prospect Miguel Sano to Tommy John Surgery is a shame. Expect another long season for the Twins.

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