AL Central Preview: Can Miguel Cabrera, Tigers Maintain Stranglehold?

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The American League Central has belonged to the Detroit Tigers in recent years.

The Tigers are seeking their fifth straight division title, though Detroit’s lack of World Series success makes that feat feel rather underwhelming. They certainly could find themselves battling near the top again, but it won’t be without some stiff competition.

The Chicago White Sox had a busy offseason, the Kansas City Royals are the defending AL champions, the Cleveland Indians are well-managed and the Minnesota Twins have a loaded farm system.

Let’s dive into the AL Central.

Kansas City Royals
Strengths: The Royals discovered a recipe for success last season en route to a World Series berth. It involved speed, pitching and defense.

Kansas City again could excel in all three phases. The Royals? bullpen is lights out, their offense puts the ball in play and their glove work is nifty.

Weaknesses: Losing James Shields atop the rotation stings. A lot.

Shields struggled in the playoffs, but it?s going to be difficult to replace the 445 2/3 regular-season innings he compiled between 2013 and 2014, not to mention his veteran leadership.

Projected finish: 85-77, first place

Detroit Tigers
Strengths: The middle of the Tigers? order is loaded, provided everyone?s healthy. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes, in particular, could wreak havoc on opposing pitchers.

The Tigers? rotation also could be a strength despite losing Max Scherzer if David Price thrives in a contract year, Justin Verlander returns to form and Anibal Sanchez stays healthy.

Weaknesses: Age and health could doom Detroit.

Cabrera and Martinez are coming off injuries, Verlander lost velocity and stunk last season, and veteran closer Joe Nathan did little to fix the Tigers? longstanding bullpen woes.

The Tigers? roster still includes star players, but will they perform at star levels? And if they do, how long will it last?

Projected finish: 84-78, second place

Chicago White Sox
Strengths: Chris Sale is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Jose Quintana is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. Add new toy Jeff Samardzija into the mix, and you have one of the most formidable pitching trios in baseball.

The White Sox also added to their offense by signing Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche.

Chicago’s bullpen should improve with David Robertson handling the ninth-inning duties.

Weaknesses: Don?t expect Gold Glove caliber defense from the South Siders.

The White Sox also can?t afford to lose any of the three aforementioned starting pitchers, as the club is rather thin on rotational depth.

Projected finish: 79-83, third place

Cleveland Indians
Strengths: The Indians? rotation includes hurlers with upside, including 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. The pitching staff was excellent down the stretch last season, and that success could carry over into 2015, even if Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House aren?t exactly household names.

The bullpen, anchored by closer Cody Allen, also remains strong, which is extremely important given manager Terry Francona?s propensity for mixing and matching.

Weaknesses: The Indians? defense, particularly in the outfield, was a train wreck. We probably should assume better because it can?t get much worse, but the oft-forgotten facet of baseball still looms large.

Projected finish: 78-84, fourth place

Minnesota Twins
Strengths: The Twins? offense could be an above-average group if all goes right.

Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia and Danny Santana are young with upside. Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier are nice players. Joe Mauer isn?t the same guy, but he isn?t dead. And Torii Hunter still got the job done last season at age 39.

The Twins also have six prospects among MLB.com?s top 37 entering 2015. Byron Buxton, considered a top-two prospect almost universally, is a future superstar.

Weaknesses: Phil Hughes is coming off a career year and Ervin Santana could be a meaningful addition, but the rest of the rotation is filled with uncertainty.

The Twins don?t have the horses to blow anyone away. That?s an issue given that Minnesota?s defense is subpar.

Projected finish: 71-91, fifth place

Overall thoughts
The AL Central is both underwhelming and fascinating.

While all five teams have strengths, they also have weaknesses that could kill their respective seasons rather easily. The margin for error is slim.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see four teams hang on by a thread throughout 2015, culminating with a tight race between 80-something-win squads.

The Tigers typically rule the AL Central in the regular season, but they no longer strike the fear of God in opponents. Detroit appears to be trending in the wrong direction, which could open the door for a new division champ.

Thumbnail photo via Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports Images

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