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AL Central's Top Storylines to Watch in 2015

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera

Spring training is underway, and the 2015 Major League Baseball is less than a month way. With the first pitch of 2015 fast approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the key storylines for the upcoming season. The AL Central produced last year’s World Series’ runner-up in the Royals, and another playoff team in the Tigers. Kansas City lost starting pitcher James Shields to the Padres and has to recapture the magic from the postseason. Detroit is the favorite to win this division, but manager Brad Ausmus needs healthy years from Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.

New Look White Sox, New Central Favorites?

The Chicago White Sox front office made it crystal clear this past winter that the combined 188 loses of the past two seasons weren’t happening again. President of baseball operations Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn broke out the check book and have completely remolded this Sox team into what should be an instant division contender.

This winter the Sox made numerous big moves to shore up all aspects of the team. Budding ace and former Cub, Jeff Samardzija, was traded from Oakland for prospects to give the White Sox another top of the rotation arm to complement Chris Sale. Samardzija is now 30 and is slated to be a free agent after the season, so there is quite a lot to be gained for the pitcher who grew up in Northwest Indiana not far from the South Side of Chicago. Samardzija’s addition also brings a much-needed right arm to a rotation that features three lefties including 200-inning hurler Jose Quintana and veteran John Danks.

The White Sox traded for lefty reliever Dan Jennings, who posted a sparking 1.34 ERA in 47 appearances for the Marlins last summer, giving up just six earned runs in 40.1 innings of work. The Sox kept adding to their 'pen with the addition of former starter turned reliever Zach Duke. Duke, now on his sixth team in 10 seasons, is looking to continue his resurgence coming out of the ‘pen, as he struck out 74 batters and surrendered just three home runs in 58.2 innings of work for the Brewers in 2014. However, the big bullpen signing was former Yankee closer David Robertson, who inked a four-year, $46 million contract in December. The 2015 Sox bullpen will be a much-improved group compared to the 2014 crowd that ranked 28th in ERA (4.38), 25th in saves (36), third in runs surrendered (251) and first in walks (236).

The South Siders’ offense wasn't much to brag about in 2014 either, outside of Jose Abreu, of course. That issue was addressed with several swoops of the pen this offseason. Williams and Hahn were able to sign lefty first basemen Adam LaRoche and the 26 home runs and 92 RBIs he contributed with Washington last season. LaRoche will likely see most of his time as the full-time DH batting behind incumbent first baseman Abreu. Perhaps the best winter signing was that of left fielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t without his warts from the Biogenesis case, but on the field he has the potential to be one of the game’s best switch-hitters with a knack for getting on base. The Sox also signed journeyman Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal. Bonafacio will be seen all over the Sox lineup and in the field, as he is capable of playing almost every position except pitcher or catcher.

All of the big moves this offseason have put the Sox in fantastic position to overthrow Detroit as division champs. If outfielders Adam Eaton and Avail Garcia can remain healthy and produce as they were projected to in 2014, the White Sox could once again be the toast of the Windy City.

Motor City Uncertainty

The past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have owned the AL Central, but are still looking for the elusive World Series title that seems to become more evasive with the passing of time. Last year’s team that won 90 games and a division title was a disappointment after getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS. For the first time in years, the Tigers have more questions than answers as spring training heats up.

The key to the Tigers' lineup will always be Miguel Cabrera. Miggy’s 2014 was impressive especially for being hampered by throbbing pain in his ankle, noticeably inhibiting his footwork and running ability. Cabrera was still able to hit .313/.371/.524 with 51 doubles, 25 homers, and 109 RBIs in 2014, even with the constant discomfort in his lower leg. Cabrera had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs and fix a fracture in his right ankle. Currently, Miggy is not 100 percent but is recovering quickly as he is taking batting practice and preparing to run on flat ground according to the Detroit Free Press.

The other half of the Tigers' one-two punch also is coming off surgery this winter. Victor Martinez underwent surgery on Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The switch-hitting DH was an MVP candidate in 2014, and certainly had an argument for winning after posting a slash line of .339/.409/.565 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 33 doubles, and a league-leading .974 OPS. After his stellar campaign, Martinez inked a four-year deal to stay in Detroit. Questions certainly have to be arising within the Tigers' front office about his long-term health, he is 36 after all, and knees don't heal as quickly for players in their mid-30s like they do for players in the early 20s.

After Torii Hunter signed with the Twins, the Tigers sent Rick Porcello to Boston for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Detroit is hoping Cespedes’ raw power can blossom with All-Star bats Cabrera and Martinez to protect him in the lineup.

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The biggest concern, the starting rotation, is a new issue for the Tigers. Lefty ace David Price was acquired last July and will be the go-to guy for Detroit in 2015. The fall off last season for former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was scary. The fastball that regularly topped 98 mph was noticeably slower, as his ERA ballooned to 4.54, two full runs higher than his 2011 MVP season, as he gave up a league-leading 104 earned runs.

Verlander isn’t the only uncertainty in the Tigers’ rotation, as veteran Anibal Sanchez looks to rebound from his injury-plagued 2014 after a career year in '13. New to the rotation is righty Shane Greene, who pitched admirably in his rookie campaign for the Yankees with a 3.78 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. To complicate matters, the 2015 Tigers essentially have the same bullpen from '14 that imploded down the stretch and had a whopping 4.29 ERA.

If the Tigers want to keep a chokehold on the AL Central for a fifth consecutive season, their core group of veterans are going to have to produce like never before in order to keep pace with the more youthful teams in the division.

Do The Royals Have Enough Magic For a Second Straight World Series Run?

The Kansas City Royals were the biggest story of the 2014 baseball calendar, and for all the right reasons. Their unexpected run to the World Series was built on great defense, stealing bases, and lights-out pitching. This season will be much of the same for the Royals, as almost everyone is back from their 2014 run.

James Shields is now in San Diego and Norichika Aoki is now ironically a San Francisco Giant. With the departure of Shields, the Royals turned to free agent signee Edinson Volquez to round out the rotation. Volquez is looking to continue the career renaissance that began last season in Pittsburgh. With the addition of Volquez, the Royals' brass is looking for second-year flamethrower Yordano “Ace” Ventura to morph into the team’s actual ace this summer. Ventura’s fastball regularly reaches triple digits and could be the train that he rides all the way into the Cy Young conversation at season’s end.

For as solid as the Royals' rotation was in 2014, it was their bullpen that took them deep into October. The trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was untouchable in 2014 with a record of 65-4 after the 6th inning. With youngster Brandon Finnegan mixed in along with vets Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, the Royals' bullpen looks to be the best in the game again in 2015.

Ned Yost’s World Series lineup card remains largely intact. Plug in Alex Rios in right field for the departed Aoki and Kendrys Morales for former DH and current Oakland A, Billy Butler, and that is it.

If the Royals hope to repeat their 2014 success this summer, they are going to need more from their lineup cornerstones Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Both “Moose” and Hosmer can flash the leather and had fantastic postseasons in 2014, but it is time for both to produce on a more regular and large-scale basis.

This Royals team that was 14th in runs scored (651) and last in home runs (95) in 2014 will need as much offensive firepower it can muster to keep up with the likes of the White Sox and Tigers. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain are two of the best gloves there are in any outfield, but they too will have to step up offensively in 2015. Cain had a coming out party last summer in which he had a slash line of .301/.339/.412 with 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases, and will be counted upon to be the table-setter for much of this Royals offense.

Another player devleoping into a star before our eyes is catcher Salvador Perez. Perez is just 24 but already turning into one of the top catchers in baseball both at the plate and behind it.

With young fire-ballers in the rotation and bullpen, and experienced youth that is still growing in the field and at the plate, the Royals look to be more than just a feel-good story from a year ago. The boys from Kansas City have what it takes to make another run in October by following the same blueprint from a season ago.

- by Jake Rose