AL Central Preview: Can Detroit Tigers Continue Division Dominance?

Justin VerlanderThe Detroit Tigers have controlled the American League Central for three consecutive seasons but come up short in October.

The Tigers will go for their fourth consecutive AL Central title in 2014, and they’ll do so under new manager Brad Ausmus, who replaced the now-retired Jim Leyland over the offseason. Ausmus’ squad looks a bit different than the one Leyland led to the ALCS in 2013, but will it produce different results?

The AL Central sent two representatives — the Tigers and Cleveland Indians — to the Major League Baseball playoffs last season. Let’s assess the division’s chances of doing the same in 2014.

Detroit Tigers

Strengths: The Tigers have the most talent in the AL Central.

Any team with a 1-2 punch of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer is going to be dangerous. Trading Doug Fister was a questionable move, but Detroit’s rotation still will be one of the best in baseball.

Prince Fielder is gone, but he can’t hit in the playoffs anyway. The offense will be fine, and Detroit’s infield defense should improve by virtue of Miguel Cabrera moving across the diamond to first base — although losing shortstop Jose Iglesias to injury stings.

Weaknesses: The Tigers addressed a huge need by signing Joe Nathan to be their closer. Detroit should pray its starters go eight innings most nights, though.

The bridge to Nathan looks shaky in the Motor City, especially with Joaquin Benoit going to San Diego and Bruce Rondon undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Projected finish: 95-67, first place

Kansas City Royals

Strengths: The Royals have plenty of untapped potential in their starting lineup, and a few under-the-radar signings could help Kansas City make a playoff push.

Signing Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante doesn’t exactly send fans rushing to the ticket window, but both veterans should help the Royals’ offense. Mike Moustakas — the No. 2 overall pick in 2007 — will need to take the next step.

The Royals’ bullpen, anchored by closer Greg Holland, is awesome.

Weaknesses: James Shields looked like a legitimate No. 1 starter last season. But will the inevitable average performances of Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie really be enough to challenge the Tigers?

Projected finish: 87-75, second place

Cleveland Indians

Strengths: The Indians’ offense was surprisingly good last season, and most of the starting lineup is back for 2014. Carlos Santana could be in line for even bigger numbers now that he’s not dealing with the rigors of catching.

Weaknesses: There’s some good, young talent in the rotation, but it’s mostly unproven. Dealing with the unavoidable questions surrounding Justin Masterson’s future won’t help either.

The bullpen, while improved by way of replacing former closer Chris Perez with John Axford, also raises a red flag.

Projected finish: 79-83, third place

Chicago White Sox

Strengths: The White Sox have a very intriguing starting lineup. It’s difficult to pinpoint what type of production the Sox will receive from several players, including Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia, but the potential is there for Chicago to feature a good offense in 2014.

Chris Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and the White Sox’s bullpen should improve with Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario joining the mix.

Weaknesses: Sale can’t pitch every five days. The White Sox’s rotation might stink.

Projected finish: 73-89, fourth place

Minnesota Twins

Strengths: The Twins have a good farm system headlined by baseball’s No. 1 prospect, Byron Buxton. If nothing else, Minnesota could start making noise in a couple of years.

As for right now, the bullpen is pretty solid, and the additions of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes should help Minnesota’s porous rotation to some extent.

Weaknesses: The starting rotation — even if Nolasco and Hughes pitch up to their maximum potential — just isn’t very good.

The offense lacks that certain zest, too. It probably will until Buxton and Miguel Sano find their way to Target Field.

Projected finish: 62-100, fifth place

Overall thoughts

The Tigers shouldn’t have a problem cruising to their fourth consecutive division title. The bigger question is if the AL Central again can produce two playoffs teams, and it’s hard to imagine that happening with the talent in the AL East and AL West.

Editor’s note: NESN.com will preview each MLB division leading up to Opening Day. Below are the scheduled run dates for each preview.

Wednesday, March 26: AL East, NL East
Thursday, March 27: AL Central, NL Central
Friday, March 28: AL West, NL West

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