Midwest figures to make big impact on 2016 MLB season

By: Steve Miller – Staff Writer

At this point in the winter, we are closer to Major League Baseball’s Opening Day than to the final out of the 2015 World Series. Most free agents have found their homes for 2016, and as the dust settles, it’s clear that America’s Midwest boasts the bulk of baseball’s talent.

For the world champion Kansas City Royals to repeat as American League pennant winners for the third consecutive season, they will have to overcome perhaps baseball’s most competitive division. In fact, both the American and National League Central divisions reeled in top talent this offseason from the free agent market, and both will be hot battlegrounds for the 2016 title.

On the AL side, KC’s biggest threat is likely the Detroit Tigers, who have signed two superior free agents. Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann agreed to a five-year contract with Detroit after spending his first seven seasons with the Washington Nationals. If Zimmermann and fellow starters Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez perform near their career averages, Detroit’s rotation will undoubtedly be among the best in the game.

The Tigers also inked outfield slugger Justin Upton to a six-year deal. Upton, who spent 2015 with the San Diego Padres, has hit at least 26 home runs in each of his past three seasons and was one of the top free agent bats this offseason. He’ll protect former Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera in the batting order, creating a lethal one-two punch.

In Chicago, the White Sox patched some infield holes by trading for third baseman Todd Frazier, a former Cincinnati Red, and second baseman Brett Lawrie, formerly of the Oakland A’s. Frazier hit a career-high 35 home runs in 2015 for Cincinnati and was the Home Run Derby champion. Lawrie also recorded career highs in home runs, 16, and games played, 149, last season.

The Cleveland Indians led the division in ERA in 2015 with ace pitcher Corey Kluber winning just nine games along the way. If Kluber returns to anywhere near his 2014 Cy Young form, the staff overall will be even better off. Right-hander Carlos Carrasco showed flashes of brilliance, winning a career-high 14 games in 2015, and together with Kluber, will anchor the rotation this year.

Offensively, the Indians did not make any drastic improvements, so scoring runs may again be a problem for Cleveland, who finished 18th in the league in that category last season.

After narrowly missing out on a postseason berth last year, the Minnesota Twins made their presence felt on the free agent market by signing Korean designated hitter Byung Ho Park. Park was highly-touted in South Korea’s KBO League, hitting 50 home runs in consecutive seasons (2014-2015).

Kansas City took care of a major priority by re-signing outfielder Alex Gordon to a four-year contract this offseason. Gordon has been a cornerstone of the Royals’ recent surge to greatness and is adored in Kansas City. The Royals, however, did lose infielder Ben Zobrist and starting pitcher Johnny Cueto to free agency. Both Zobrist and Cueto were key pieces to the Royals’ 2015 World Series victory.

As long as Miguel Cabrera has been in the Motor City, I have really liked Detroit’s chances, but they’ve yet to win a World Series with their current core. Upton and Zimmermann may just be the keys to push them over the hump and give Detroit a championship, so I’ll pick them to win the division in the way-too-early predictions.

The National League Central will once again be among the best divisions in baseball—it did boast three of the NL’s six postseason teams in 2015. With Cincinnati and the Milwaukee Brewers both in full rebuild mode, this will once again be a three-team race among possibly the best three teams in the league.

The St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs finished one through three respectively in the league in earned run average last season.

The Cardinals blew away the rest of the competition with a 2.94 team ERA during the regular season’s 162 games. St. Louis will benefit from ace Adam Wainwright returning to the rotation for the full season after he missed the majority of 2015 due to an injury to his Achilles tendon.

St. Louis’ major losses, though, were Chicago’s gains. Starting pitcher John Lackey and outfielder Jason Heyward both signed deals with the Cubs, further improving the roster that defeated the Cardinals in the 2015 National League Division Series.

The Cubs weren’t speculated to be postseason-ready until 2016 anyway, so adding Heyward to a lineup that already features some of the game’s most versatile power hitters in Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo makes the team that much more dangerous.

Lackey joins a rotation of 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and left-handed ace Jon Lester, who will certainly rival St. Louis’ for the best staff in the league.

Pittsburgh added to its pitching rotation by signing starter Ryan Vogelsong and trading for Jon Niese. The Pirates took a hit offensively, though, losing first baseman Pedro Alvarez to free agency. Pittsburgh lost the 2015 NL Wild Card Game to the Cubs, but have made the postseason three consecutive seasons. Getting back in 2016 will obviously be a tall task, but the Pirates, led by center fielder Andrew McCutchen, still have the roster to contend.

It’s hard to pick against the Cubs, who won 97 regular season games in 2015 and defeated the Cardinals in the playoffs. Unless a sizeable part of its young roster regresses as the rest of the league gets more scouting opportunities, Chicago has only gotten better. But St. Louis has been the cream of the National League for the past decade, and is notorious for turning prospects into studs overnight.

Baseball’s long, arduous season often makes spring power rankings look foolish, but the central divisions certainly have some captivating storylines going into 2016.