Opening day is less than two weeks away and GameDaySportsBlog.com has already looked at the X-Factors for most of the teams in the Majors, but now we look at the American League Central and the players that will be key in getting another team to the World Series. The Royals need a veteran to step up to get them back to playing in October. The Twins need last season’s most disappointing rookie to show up, and both the White Sox and the Tigers are looking for their young pitchers to pick up their game. As for the defending American League pennant winners.
Chicago White Sox: Carlos Rodon
Carlos Rodon was pretty bad last season, and so were the White Sox, finishing 6 games under .500. Last year Rodon went just 9-10 with a 4.04 ERA in his first full major league season. So why is such a bad pitcher the X-Factor for this club? Because the White Sox lost last year’s ace when Chris Sale signed with Boston and Rodon’s numbers post-All-Star break were those of a pitcher who has a chance to become the club’s newest #1.
Over 12 starts (73 innings) after the All-Star break last season, Rodon posted a 3.45 ERA, a 9.5 K/9 rate and a 2.7 BB/9 rate. Home runs are a concern for the young left-hander, with 23 total allowed last year, but Rodon allowed zero long balls or one long ball in 10 of his final 12 starts and a hitter-friendly home park should be noted.
And it should also be noted that he upped his strikeout rate a bit (9.2 K/9) compared to his time in the big leagues in 2015 (9.0) while improving his walk rate substantially (2.9 BB/9 compared to 4.6 in 2015).
With Sale gone, James Shields’ performance not equaling his name recognition, and Jose Quintana’s placement on the trading block, Rodon could become the ace of the starting rotation for the White Sox in very short order. And if he takes another step up from where he left off in the latter part of 2016, the future will be bright for the former third overall pick and for the South Side.
Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley
The Indians reached the World Series last year, and they did so with essentially no contribution from their best player, outfielder Michael Brantley. Going into the season Brantley was arguably the best at his position in all of baseball, but multiple surgeries on his right shoulder led to him playing just 11 regular season games. Luckily for the Indians they should have their #3 hitter back in the lineup as Brantley is making solid progress this offseason.
Brantley was Cleveland’s best player in 2014, as he hit .327/.385/.506 with 20 home runs, 97 RBI, 23 stolen bases, 94 runs scored and 45 doubles. His follow-up in 2015 was also quite good, with a .310/.379/.480 slash-line, 15 home runs, 84 RBI, 15 steals and another 45 doubles, and those are numbers the Indians would love to have back in their lineup; especially considering who he would be replacing.
Last season Rajai Davis was the Indians’ starting left fielder and despite his World Series near-heroics for the Tribe he was a below average player for most of the year. Davis batted a mediocre .249 with less than 50 RBI’s and other than his great baserunning (43 SB’s) he was sub-par offensively. Replace that .249 average and 12 home runs with Brantley’s level of production and it is easy to see why Michael Brantley’s health is the real X-Factor for the Cleveland Indians.
Detroit Tigers: Anibal Sanchez
Anibal Sanchez was considered one of the best young pitchers in baseball just a few short years ago, but since then the right-handed starter has been trending the wrong direction, with a 4.99 and a 5.87 ERA over the last two seasons. Last year Sanchez was so bad that he was removed from the starting rotation midway through the season and his last 9 appearances he came out of the bullpen.
So why is he the Tigers’ X-Factor? Because the Detroit club needs him to be. The Tigers went 86-75 last season, finishing 2nd in the AL Central, but if the team expects to do better it will need Sanchez to return to his 2013-2014 form (2.92 ERA, 8.9 K/9, 2.5 BB/9). Last season with Sanchez struggling Detroit finished 20th in team ERA, 13 spots behind the team they hope to dethrone in the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians. If Sanchez pitches well but the Tigers could be on their way to another AL pennant, but if not they may have to watch a Central Division rival make it to the World Series for the 4th year in a row.
Kansas City Royals: Mike Moustakas
“Moose” had an injury-riddled 2016 season, with a fractured left thumb and then a torn right ACL which is one of the reasons that the Royals won 15 less games in 2016 than they did in their World Series Championship year of 2015. With their star third baseman limited to 27 games the Royals were a mediocre team last season, finishing 24th in runs scored last year while one of their star hitters was on the DL.
Although the Royals have all-stars Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain, I would actually make the case Moustakas is the most important player for Kansas City, with unproven Hunter Dozier as his back up. A significant drop-off is virtually assured if Moustakas misses substantial time again. So if he can stay healthy, Moustakas is an obvious huge x-factor for the Royals in 2017.
Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton
Byron Buxton’s status as a top prospect since the day he was drafted in 2012, and initial struggles offensively in the big leagues, makes it easy to forget he is still young, at just 23 years old. And although Buxton struggled to a .225 average last season, a month in Triple-A last season seemed to have helped, as Buxton hit .287 with 9 home runs and 22 RBI after being recalled in September.
What Buxton doesn’t need is help defensively. Buxton is an elite defensive center fielder already, which will buy him some time at the plate to make sure he gets it right offensively.
So while Buxton may be solid defensively, if he truly did find something offensively late last season he can help the Twins improve as a team. And that is something Minnesota desperately needs as they finished last in baseball in 2016 with just 59 wins.