You can't pick on the AL Central any more. For years, it was the Detroit Tigers and everyone else. Now the Kansas City Royals are World Series champions, but they're far from a lock to win what could be a five-team race. My 10 most intriguing players in the division for 2016:
There's a new power-hitting Miguel in the AL Central, and he's something to watch: After blasting 18 home runs in 80 games as a rookie, many of the jaw-dropping variety, Sano established himself as a potential 40-homer guy. He's not the pure hitter Miguel Cabrera is, but he did draw 53 walks in 335 plate appearances (although he struck out 119 times). In some ways, he's similar to Mike Trout ( see the heat map below), as he prefers the ball down in the zone, with a natural upper-cut in his swing. Unlike Trout, however, he was a dead-pull hitter as a rookie, with only one home run to the opposite field.
What makes Sano even more intriguing for 2016 is the Twins' insistence on trying him in the outfield. Sano came up as a third baseman, although he missed 2014 after Tommy John surgery, and only started nine games there for the Twins (playing errorless defense). But with Trevor Plouffe at third and the signing of Korean first baseman/DH Byung Ho Park, Sano is slated for right field.
2. Justin Upton, LF, Detroit Tigers
OK, he's not the perfect player, but Upton is durable, consistent, good for 25 to 30 home runs, doesn't hurt you on defense and he's still just 28. I don't think he's going to suddenly break out and have a monster season, but he does move to a better hitter's park after spending the past three years in Atlanta and San Diego, so there is the possibility he hits .300 like he did when he was 21 and blasts 30-plus homers.
3. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Kansas City Royals
Cain had to be on the short list of most surprising players in 2015. Sure, he'd had a nice season in 2014, hitting .301, and we saw his terrific defense in the postseason. But he also hit just five home runs. He added power to his game in 2015 (16 homers), while hitting .300 again and also cutting his strikeout rate. It added up to a well-deserved third-place finish in the MVP voting. The Royals don't have a powerhouse offense -- despite what we saw in the postseason -- so they will need Cain to replicate those offensive numbers.
4. Justin Verlander, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Instead of having surgery or trying to get healthy, Verlander is spending this offseason golfing and watching "Making a Murderer." He showed signs of the old Verlander down the stretch, posting a 2.12 ERA over his final 11 starts. The key to the 2016 Tigers might not be the signings of Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, so much as bounce-back years from Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.
Carrasco was mentioned in trade rumors all offseason, but the Indians have wisely held on to him. He went 14-12 with a 3.63 ERA, and when he's on, he's as unhittable as any pitcher in the game -- such as the one-hit, 15-strikeout performance against the Royals in September or the one-hitter against the Angels in August. But he's prone to inconsistency and mental lapses, making six starts of fewer than five innings. He also has to get better with runners on base -- he had that 3.63 ERA, but a 2.84 FIP. If he can align those numbers and eliminate those bad outings, he's a good sleeper Cy Young candidate.
6. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians
Chris Sale is awesome and coming off an insane season with 274 strikeouts in just 208.2 innings, and I expect him to have a better ERA than 3.41 -- in fact, Sale made five more starts than 2014 but allowed 40 more runs -- but Rodon's improvement will be key to the White Sox's playoff chances. He fanned 139 in 139.1 innings as a rookie with a 3.75 ERA. But he also walked 71. To get to the next level he has to cut down on the walks. Keep an eye on those Tigers-White Sox matchup as well: The Tigers will have eight right-handed hitters in their regular lineup while the Sox roll out three southpaws to headline their rotation.
8. Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals
If you just focus on ERA, his 2015 looks like a setback from his excellent rookie season, but the periphal numbers are all similar. Like Verlander, his numbers took an uptick down the stretch, with 81 strikeouts in 68 innings and a 2.38 ERA over his final 11 starts. The Royals' rotation has a chance to be deeper and better than either of the past two years with potential options like Ian Kennedy, Kris Medlen and Chris Young, but Ventura is still they guy they hope leads the way.
9. Byung Ho Park, DH/1B, Minnesota Twins
He hit .343 with 53 home runs in Korea, but he also struck out 161 times in 622 plate appearances. I have no idea what to expect. He could be a zero or he could be a middle-of-the-order threat in what could be a really good lineup in Minnesota.
10. Todd Frazier, 3B, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox had the worst production in the majors last year at second base and third base, so GM Rick Hahn acquired Brett Lawrie and Frazier, without purging from the big league roster. It's not that those two are huge stars, but they're big upgrades because of how bad those positions were for the White Sox. Frazier is especially intriguing because he had a monster first half with the Reds, capped off by his win in the Home Run Derby, before collapsing in the second half. He still finished with a .255/.309/.498 line and 35 home runs. Yes, Cincy is a great home run park, but so is the Cell. Frazier should be good for about 30 home runs, and if he can boost that OBP a little, he will provide a big lift to the AL's worst offense in 2015.