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AL Central preview 2017: Indians have improved since World Series run

Edwin Encarnacion of the Cleveland Indians poses for

Edwin Encarnacion of the Cleveland Indians poses for a portrait during Indians Photo Day at the Goodyear Sports Complex on Feb. 24, 2017 in Goodyear, Arizona. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Tringali

Cleveland Indians

The Indians nearly stunned the Cubs last October by stretching them to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series, but it would hardly be a surprise if Cleveland gets back to the Fall Classic again — and this time wins it.

The main reason? This team is better. The Indians swapped out Mike Napoli for free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who has averaged 39 homers, 110 RBIs and a .912 OPS since 2012. They’re also expecting the return of Michael Brantley, who finished third in the MVP vote back in 2014 but was limited to 11 games a year ago due to shoulder troubles.

Remember, the Indians lost two of their best starting pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, before their October run, so the rotation again will be complete for Opening Day. One thing to watch: a potential hangover effect on Corey Kluber, who shouldered most of the postseason load and totaled almost 250 innings last season. That can leave a mark.

Also, Jason Kipnis is not expected back until mid-April, at the earliest, because of a nagging shoulder injury. But these are bumps in what should be a road that leads straight to October, thanks in part to a full season from Andrew Miller and the brilliant Terry Francona at the helm.

Detroit Tigers

Kate Upton wasn’t wrong. Justin Verlander did have a Cy Young-worthy 2016 season. But he’ll need another one, and Michael Fulmer will have to avoid a sophomore slump for the Tigers to be a serious playoff contender. Fulmer, who’s forever known as the prospect that got the Mets Yoenis Cespedes, was the ’16 Rookie of the Year, so he won’t be sneaking up on anybody this season. But Detroit should have the usual firepower, too, with Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and the Martinez boys — J.D. and Victor — anchoring the lineup. As for Justin Upton, he hit only .242 last season, not quite $138-million material, but did drill 31 homers.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals were a brash, young powerhouse in the making two trips to the World Series, and winning the second one by beating the Mets in 2015. But the foundation that made that happen already began to show cracks this winter with the trades of Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson — with more possibly to follow if Kansas City isn’t a contender by mid-July. The Royals own remaining Core Four — Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar — will become free agents at the end of this season, so this is very likely the end of an era in KC, a small-market team that can’t re-sign all their favorites. Can that be motivation enough?

Chicago White Sox

For this season, it’s not really a question of how many games the White Sox will win or where they’ll finish. The real intrigue lies in where their top players are headed, and how soon. Jose Quintana, who took over as ace after Chicago dealt Chris Sale in December, is likely to be the first one out the door. But there’s plenty more on that Fire Sale list, with closer David Robertson and third baseman Todd Frazier next up. The White Sox are just killing time until Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito are the headliners on the South Side, along with the bushels of other prospects they’re expecting to rake in eventually.

Minnesota Twins

Seriously, the Twins can’t get any worse than last season, but let’s accentuate the positive by saying they managed to win 59 games. There’s only one way to go from there, right? And the Twins’ future is tied to its young stars like Bryan Buxton, Miguel Sano and — maybe — Brian Dozier, if he isn’t traded to further restock the franchise with more young talent. Joe Mauer’s gradual decline from the 2009 MVP has sped up in recent years, and he hit a career-low .261 in 134 games last season. With two seasons left on his $184-million deal, Mauer will be leaving just as the Twins are ready to be respectable again.


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