With a young, talented roster the Cleveland Indians may have just begun a new reign of power in the AL Central when they clinched the franchises 8th AL Central title in 2016.
The pattern of champions in the AL Central, dating back to its birth in 1994, can be broken down into different era's where one team would clinch a dynasty over the division. Indians fans fondly remember 1995-2001 when the Tribe won five of six AL central titles. That was followed by the Minnesota Twins ripping off four titles in a 5-year stretch dating from 2002 to 2006. Recently, the Detroit Tigers won four straight AL Central titles from 2011-2014. Could the Indians be entering into their own stretch run of dominance? The Indians have all the ingredients of a team built to contend for years to come. However, the AL Central still has a handful of quality teams, and some of them could pose a real threat to the Tribes quest for a dynasty. This article will examine which of the White Sox, Tigers, Royals, or Twins pose the biggest threat to the Cleveland Indians in 2017.
Heading into the 2017 season it has been the consensus that the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins will not be real threats to contend because they are both teams going through transition by trying to get younger. The Twins are an intriguing team because they are just one full season removed from an 83 win campaign in 2015. They got off to a horrible start in 2016, and stumbled to a 103 loss season. Their 2017 season will be dictated on whether some of their talented young position players such as Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, and Miguel Sano can take the next step in their development. In addition to that, they will need someone to step-up in the rotation and give them quality innings.
The Chicago White Sox have shaken things up on the south side this offseason by trading away all-stars Adam Eaton and Chris Sale. The White Sox did receive a nice ransom for the two netting prospects Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, and Reynaldo Lopez. All four are currently ranked within the Top 50 of both Baseball America and MLB.com top 100 prospect list for 2017. These four may pay dividends down the road for the White Sox, but probably won’t be ready to contend in 2017. The White Sox could look to trade Jose Quintana at the trade deadline, and further continue their youth movement. Because of the Twins and White Sox heavy dependence on young players still early in their development, it can be concluded that they will not be a threat to contend for the division title in 2017.
The last team to defeat the Indians and clinch a division title was the Kansas City Royals back in their World Series Championship year of 2015. The Royals still return much of that same line-up that is only one year removed from the top of baseball. The success of the Royals 2017 season hinges on whether they can race out to a fast start. Lineup stalwarts Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer are all set to be free agents at the end of this season. As a small market team, who won’t be able to afford resigning all these players, it is paramount they start fast or it could be a fire sale in Kansas City before the trade deadline. They traded closer Wade Davis to the Cubs, but will still feature a quality bullpen although not as dominant as past seasons.
The key to Kansas City contending will be if the starting rotation can hold up over the course of the season, and if they can consistently give them quality starts. With their pedigree, don’t count the Royals out especially if they come out of the gates strong.
The last team remaining is the team who I believe poses the biggest threat to the Cleveland Indians pursuit of the AL Central crown in 2017 and that is the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers have a roster filled with savvy veterans, and they realize their window of opportunity to compete may be closing. The Tigers line-up is still very potent containing sluggers Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, JD Martinez, and Miguel Cabrera. That lineup alone will allow them to win their fair share of games by simply out-slugging the competition.
The starting rotation has been rejuvenated by 2016 AL Rookie of the year Michael Fulmer, and Justin Verlander started pitching back to form after a couple down seasons. Jordan Zimmerman bouncing back from an injury riddled 2016 will be key for their success. The bullpen has always seemed to be the downfall for the Tigers in recent years, and they will enter into 2017 hoping to end the late inning woes. The back end will be anchored by closer Francisco Rodriguez, and flame throwing set-up man Bruce Rondon.
When the Tigers won their four straight division titles they often made it a habit to beat up on the Indians on their path to the throne. The Tribe was finally able to break through in 2016 by going 14-4 against the Tigers in route to their division title. It will be crucial the Indians have success against the Tigers again this season because it looks like they could be in it till the very end.
In the end, it looks like the Tribe could face some serious threats from the Tigers or Royals to win the division, but the biggest threat for them this season could be themselves. The two biggest keys for the Tribe will be how they bounce back from a grueling 2016 season, and if they can stay healthy over the course of the campaign. As long as they can accomplish these goals, it could be the start of a new dynasty in the AL Central.