MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

AL Central: What to expect in 2016

AL Central: What to expect in 2016

With just a few days to go before Opening Day, we're going division by division to give you the nitty gritty on what to expect in 2016. Today's edition is the AL Central.

THE OVERVIEW
It's a deep division, which is precisely what we said a year ago, before the Royals had it seemingly locked by the All-Star break. But because of the strides made by the Twins in 2015, the addition of Justin Upton to an already fierce Tigers lineup, the White Sox's efforts to improve their offense with Todd Frazier and others and the Indians' stellar, strikeout-laden starting staff, the Central is no gimme for the defending champs.

WHAT THE STAT PROJECTIONS SAY
Something about the Royals' formula that just doesn't compute for the projections systems, as evidenced by FanGraphs pegging them for 77 wins (a similar forecast a year ago obviously proved faulty). The Indians (86 wins) are once again darlings of the data world, with both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projecting them to win the Central. But here, again, we saw similar projections a season ago. The White Sox and Tigers are both viewed by FanGraphs as .500 squads, with the Twins projected to finish below .500.

THE SLEEPER TEAM
The Indians are the only team in the division with a payroll south of $100 million. They made little to no noise in the offseason, with their best player (Michael Brantley) having shoulder surgery, Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis qualifying as their key additions and their starting center fielder (Abraham Almonte) suspended for 80 games. Still, the projections love them, possibly on the grand assumption that Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar finish 1-2-3 in the Cy Young voting.

ROOKIES TO WATCH
The Twins dominate this category. Byron Buxton retained rookie status by a single at-bat in 2015, and the Twins, in giving him the keys to center field, are counting on him to stay healthy and live up to the hype attached to MLB Pipeline's No. 2 prospectByung Ho Park is Minnesota's Korean slugger who hit 53 homers in the KBO last year. They hope his game translates as well as Jung Ho Kang's did in Pittsburgh last year. And Jose Berrios struck out 175 guys in 166 1/3 innings in the upper Minors last year, so there's expectation that he'll impact the rotation before long.

Others to watch include young Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin, who had a strong spring showing to lock down a spot on the Opening Day roster, White Sox right-hander Carson Fulmer, who could continue the organizational trend of pitchers (Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon) graduating to the bigs shortly after their Draft selection, and oft-injured Royals right-hander Kyle Zimmer. (His brother, outfielder Brad Zimmer, is nearing Major League readiness for the Tribe, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that we'll have two Zimmers in the AL Central this season.)

THE BREAKOUT BUNCH
Nick Castellanos is only 24 but is entering his third full season, and he made some serious offensive and defensive strides as 2015 rolled along. The Tigers think he can make their dynamic lineup all the more devastating. The Indians, meanwhile, have high hopes that the position switch from third base to right field will allow Lonnie Chisenhall, who will open the year on the DL because of a wrist impingement, to reach his ceiling. He put up terrific defensive metrics in a small outfield sample last year. And it's pretty clear that Rodon has the stuff to make the White Sox rotation truly special, based on his 23-start sample in '15.

IT'S A TEAM SPORT, BUT THE SEASON WILL HINGE ON…
Royals: Yordano Ventura. After a wild 2015, is he ready to settle in, stabilize the starting staff and take the pressure off the 'pen?

Twins: Miguel Sano. After 18 homers in 80 games, will he avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? And will he cost the Twins as many runs in right as he produces for them at the plate?

Indians: Brantley. He might not be on the DL for long, but how quickly he can return to All-Star form after surgery on his right shoulder?

White Sox: Frazier. The Sox couldn't buy a run last year. Frazier adds instant credibility to the lineup but there are questions about his second-half fall-off in '15.

Tigers: Justin Verlander. The Jordan Zimmermann signing is nice, but the Tigers won't get any traction if their ace doesn't build off his encouraging second half in an otherwise lost '15.

IN 16 WORDS OR LESS
No Central team mustered a winning record vs. the champs in '15. Maybe start there.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.