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Bob Lutz: Royals’ challengers stepping it up at winter meetings

Right-hander Jeff Samardzija is headed to the Chicago White Sox as a free agent, another key acquisition for a team that hopes to contend in the American League Central next season.
Right-hander Jeff Samardzija is headed to the Chicago White Sox as a free agent, another key acquisition for a team that hopes to contend in the American League Central next season.

The American League Central champions last season, the Detroit Tigers, won only 90 games. The Kansas City Royals made it to the World Series as a wild-card playoff team after winning 89 games during the regular season.

Obviously, AL Central rivals Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox think this division can be had and both teams have gone to work on improving themselves during the ongoing baseball winter meetings in San Diego.

The Indians, who finished five games behind Detroit at 85-77, added slugging outfielder Brandon Moss to augment a lineup that struggled much of 2013. The Indians will plug Moss into the middle of the order with Carlos Santana while expecting a bounce-back season from second baseman Jason Kipnis.

With MVP-caliber left fielder Michael Brantley, catcher Yan Gomes, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and center fielder Michael Bourn – plus an outstanding starting rotation fronted by Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and better-than-average bullpen – Cleveland is in a good spot.

The White Sox have made the biggest splash so far at the winter meetings, first signing former Yankees closer David Robertson to a four-year contract, then trading four prospects to the quickly-disappearing-from-relevance Oakland Athletics for right-handed starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija.

That’s on top of two acquisitions the White Sox made before the meetings – free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche and left-handed reliever Zach Duke.

The White Sox had gaping holes in their starting rotation after left-handers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana; Samardzija goes into the No. 2 spot behind Sale.

And Chicago’s bullpen was non-existent last season. Duke and Robertson give the White Sox a closer (Robertson had 39 saves for the Yankees in 2014) and a lefty reliever who struck out 74 in 58.2 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers last season and who has success against right-handed and left-handed hitters.

The White Sox still have issues, particularly in left field, at catcher and at the back end of the starting rotation, but this is a much better team than it was a few days ago.

Detroit, meanwhile, appears committed to bringing back free-agent ace pitcher Max Scherzer, who turned down a six-year, $144 million offer from Detroit last offseason. Scherzer is one of the hottest commodities going and if the Tigers are to remain the favorites in the Central he’s a badly-needed part, even with left-hander David Price in the mix.

The Royals, meanwhile, are treading water – for now.

It was reported Monday that Kansas City was shopping one of its late-inning relievers, either Greg Holland or Wade Davis, for a bat. Since locking up Luke Hochevar to a two-year deal, the Royals might believe one of their late-inning pitchers is expendable.

But today, it’s being reported that KC general manager Dayton Moore is inclined to hold on to his power bullpen guys, even though their price is shooting up, and that second baseman Omar Infante could be had in a trade.

Infante, though, has three years and more than $20 million remaining on his contract and showed a sharp offensive decline last season. His .632 OPS was his lowest since 2005 with Detroit.

Clearly, the Royals have to add offense and a starting pitcher to plug in for veteran right-hander James Shields, a free agent who is probably too rich for Kansas City’s blood.

The Royals chose not to re-sign designated-hitter Billy Butler, who went to Oakland for three years and $30 million. Two of Kansas City’s potential targets, LaRoche and outfielder Torii Hunter (Minnesota), signed with other teams.

Moore has a tricky job when it comes to dealing with Kansas City’s strong bullpen because bullpens are the most difficult-to-predict entity of a team from year to year. Who knows whether Holland, Davis and Kelvin Herrera can be as dominant in 2015 as they were in 2014. And what does adding Hochevar to the mix do?

Would Moore consider moving Davis back into the starting rotation? The right-hander has struggled as a starter with Tampa Bay and Kansas City, but perhaps that would change. He certainly carries a bunch of confidence from his dominant 2014 season and the Royals could plug Hochevar or Herrera into his eighth-inning spot.

Then again, why tinker with success? Adding Hochevar to HDH could give the Royals an even more dominant bullpen in 2015. And that bullpen was the major reason for Kansas City’s success.

As of this moment – and things can change quickly – the Royals have lost Butler, are likely to lose Shields, and haven’t added suitable replacements.

Given what Cleveland and Chicago are doing within the AL Central, and knowing that the Tigers aren’t going away, makes things quite interesting.

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