By any objective analysis, the Detroit Tigers lived up to their preseason billing as one of the best teams in baseball last season.
And you won't find many -- if any -- objective analyses that don't list them among the best teams in baseball again this year.
That said, it was hard not to notice -- even while acknowledging that the Tigers played the final month with Miguel Cabrera hobbling and the division all but locked up -- that the Tigers edged the Indians by just a single game in the final standings last year. It's equally difficult to dismiss the confidence of a Royals club that had the American League's best record in the second half. And there is little doubt that the offseason efforts of the White Sox and Twins have, at the very least, improved the earnestness of their competitiveness from night to night.
Couple all of that with what has undoubtedly been a difficult spring for a reconfigured Tigers squad, which has lost starting shortstop Jose Iglesias for at least four months, primary left fielder Andy Dirks for at least two months and arguably top setup man Bruce Rondon for the season -- not to mention No. 3 starter Anibal Sanchez enduring some recent shoulder soreness -- and a conclusion can be reached:
The AL Central no longer lends itself to assumptions.
Frankly, this has been the easiest division to forecast the past two years. The Tigers, in payroll and personnel and persona, were cast as men among boys after winning the division by 15 games in 2011 and then adding Prince Fielder to their lineup. In a game replete with predictions that look laughable by year's end, they didn't dominate the division in '12 and '13, but they were that rare breed that satisfied the soothsayers. Their only disappointments came in the crapshoot that is postseason play, where they've sandwiched two AL Championship Series appearances around a World Series sweep at the hands of the Giants.
But with Fielder gone in a trade to Texas and those aforementioned injuries posing an early challenge to rookie manager Brad Ausmus, the Tigers are now a very different team. Truth be told, they might be a better team, especially in terms of run-prevention, but we won't know until we see how things unfold.
What we do know is that an Indians team that reached the Wild Card round last year has a completely different personality than it did before Terry Francona arrived, and 2014 has long been cited as the year when the young Royals, who eclipsed the .500 mark last season, plan to rise up the ranks. Maybe the moves the White Sox made to augment their offense and the Twins' big spending to restore their rotation to respectability won't fundamentally alter the division, but they do deepen it.
While the Tigers are probably still the favorites in the Central, no objective or rational mind could cite that as quite the slam-dunk it seemed a year and two years ago.
What follows is a team-by-team analysis of each AL Central club, in order of last year's finish:
Strengths: Fresh off back-to-back Most Valuable Player Awards, Cabrera is presumably healthier after sports hernia surgery, and Justin Verlander, reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and Sanchez front a rotation that could be one of the best in the game. As long as the Tigers have that core, they have a chance to go deep into the season, particularly now that they've answered the closer question mark with the signing of Joe Nathan and have improved their defense.
Weaknesses: What was once a deep, power-packed lineup now lacks balance and leans heavily right-handed with Fielder and Jhonny Peralta absent. The loss of Iglesias to shin fractures means the defensive gains in the infield won't be quite as great as projected. Meanwhile, the bullpen needs a bridge to Nathan, and the loss of Rondon complicates that search.
Spot to watch: The left side of the infield was once a source of offensive strength. Now, it's a source of questions. Rookie Nick Castellanos could be the next great Tigers hitter, but nobody knows what to expect, particularly on the defensive end, given that he only recently returned to playing third base. Couple that with the shortstop situation and the Tigers' mad scramble to patch the hole -- they've added Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez in recent days -- and there's no telling what to expect at that position.
Sign of trouble: Given the expected regression in run production, the Tigers will lean on their starting pitching more than ever. If the rotation shows cracks, there's not much the Tigers can do to work past them.
They'll be rolling if ...: Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and other veteran supporting hitters do their part to balance the lineup. Jackson tore up the Grapefruit League, showing signs of rejuvenation with Ian Kinsler stabilizing the top of the order. Avila looks healthier than he has in three years, so last year's strong second half might not have been an aberration.
Strengths: The clubhouse culture Francona helped instill was a nice storyline, but the Indians' real strengths are their versatility and Francona's shrewdness in handling the daily lineups and getting the most out of his bench. The addition of right fielder David Murphy fits that framework, as does the experiment of employing Carlos Santana at third. If Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera perform closer to their career norms than they did last year, an offense that tied for fourth in the AL in runs scored could improve.
Weaknesses: Beyond Justin Masterson, there isn't anything resembling a bankable commodity in the rotation, if only because Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar have just 96 career Major League starts between them. Replacing the innings and impact left behind by the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir is essential, and an inordinate amount of pressure will be heaped on the shoulders of the 24-year-old Salazar after his brief but electric break-in last year. The jury is still out on whether Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, the latter of whom was sent to Triple-A, can be counted on as worthwhile depth pieces.
Spot to watch: Santana's third-base trial has been encouraging enough that the Indians don't feel he'll be a total train wreck at the hot corner, and the Indians like him there as a means of retaining flexibility at designated hitter. One-time top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, who still has plenty to prove on both sides of the ball, will have to fight for playing time at third.
Sign of trouble: If the hamstring problems that plagued Bourn late last season (prompting surgery) and again late in spring camp remain an issue, the Indians will have a problem atop their lineup and a big question in left field because Michael Brantley will need to shift to center.
They'll be rolling if ...: Salazar's secondary stuff proves it can play in the bigs and Kluber and McAllister make good on the promise they've shown in spurts.
Kansas City Royals
Strengths: The Royals have the finer points of the game down pat. They have three reigning Gold Glove winners in Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer, and, most important, they don't have a single defensive weakness -- that's part of what allowed them to have a better-than-expected starting staff last season. Their bullpen, anchored by underrated closer Greg Holland, is loaded with high-velocity arms and is arguably one of the best in the game. Speaking of speed, the Royals have it on the basepaths, too, as they led the Majors with 153 steals. The Royals could be a scary club if the lineup, which now features Nori Aoki and Omar Infante at the top and Gordon in a run-production spot, reaches its prescribed level.
Weaknesses: The lineup hasn't reached its prescribed level yet -- not even in the second-half surge last season, when the runs-per-game output improved only incrementally from 3.97 to 4.04. The Royals were 64-13 in games in which they scored four or more runs. They'll need more of those games, especially given the loss of Ervin Santana from a rotation that could see some regression.
Spot to watch: The rotation comes with two big questions: Can Yordano Ventura and his 100-mph fastball make a seamless transition to the bigs right from the start? And can free-agent import Jason Vargas plug the gap left behind by Santana, whose 3.24 ERA over 211 innings was instrumental in Kansas City's ascent over the .500 hump?
Sign of trouble: If Mike Moustakas, after a scorching camp, falters again, and/or Hosmer can't carry over his strong second half from 2013, it will be difficult for the Royals to put up playoff-caliber run production.
They'll be rolling if ...: Aoki and Infante come as advertised in terms of creating scoring opportunities and Gordon takes a liking to his new role as a run producer.
Strengths: Some of Joe Mauer's offensive value was tied to his position behind the plate, but that only matters if he's healthy enough to stay on the field. The move to first base will allow Mauer to be more durable and possibly more productive overall, considering that he was limited to 113 games last year. The starting staff, which posted a 5.26 ERA last year, has nowhere to go but up, and the addition of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, as well as Mike Pelfrey being another year removed from Tommy John, should point it in the right direction. The Glen Perkins-led bullpen is stout, and, most important, so is a farm system that, even with Miguel Sano on the shelf, still boasts the likes of Byron Buxton, Alex Meyer and Kohl Stewart.
Weaknesses: We said the rotation was headed in the right direction. We didn't say it was elite, by any stretch of the imagination. And neither, in fact, is an offense that ranked near the bottom of the AL in average (12th), on-base percentage (11th), slugging percentage (11th) and runs per game (13th) and made no significant outside acquisitions.
Spot to watch: The Twins are hoping for a big rebound from Aaron Hicks after his rookie year yielded an adjusted OPS a ghastly 35 percentage points below the league average. And whether or not Hicks sticks, all eyes will be on Buxton as the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball begins the season in Double-A with the possibility of being called up in September, if not sooner.
Sign of trouble: If Nolasco gets hurt and can't give the Twins the prescribed 200 innings and/or Hughes' escape from the Bronx bandbox that is Yankee Stadium does not yield the intended results, well, what then? The Twins can't afford for their rotation to go backward -- or even sideward.
They'll be rolling if ...: Josh Willingham, after enduring knee issues in 2013, returns to his 2012 form and pairs with a more durable Mauer and a developing Oswaldo Arcia to give the Twins a solid middle-of-the-order attack.
Chicago White Sox
Strengths: As bad as 2013 was, it's easy to forget that in 2012, the White Sox were right in the thick of the Central race until the tail end of the season. The presence of Chris Sale, who might be the best left-handed starter in the game not named Clayton Kershaw, obviously provides a good foundation in the bid to get back to that level. The offense, which scored just 598 runs last year, should see improvement with the additions, dating back to last July, of Avisail Garcia, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton. Even with Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn around, this will be a team largely guided by youth. And with youth comes upside.
Weaknesses: With youth also comes unpredictability, and we've yet to see if the reformed lineup translates into the ability to more consistently get on base (among AL clubs, the Sox ranked 14th in on-base percentage and last in walks). Beyond Sale and Jose Quintana, too little is known about a thin rotation that also features 24-year-old Erik Johnson, the oft-injured John Danks and Felipe Paulino. And the bullpen has to find a reliable closer after the trade of Addison Reed to Arizona.
Spot to watch: On the heels of what Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig did in their initial break-ins, the eyes naturally veer toward Abreu as he assimilates to the big league stage. The White Sox caution that his development will be a marathon, not a sprint, but the pure right-handed power he showed in camp is a source of intrigue.
Sign of trouble: Much is being asked of Eaton as he adjusts to a new club and new league, and his Major League experience to date is a small and somewhat underwhelming sample. If he starts slow, so too will the Sox.
They'll be rolling if: Garcia and Abreu prove to be the real deal. Suddenly, the Sox would have one of the most potent middle orders in the league, from a power perspective.
Maybe the Tigers' star power dictates the division and they run away with it. But one can certainly envision a scenario in which the AL Central resembles the NL Central of a season ago and a legitimate three-team race emerges between Detroit, Cleveland and Kansas City.
Challengers: Indians, Royals
Darkhorse: White Sox
Never say never: Twins