AL Central 2014: Asdrubal Cabrera, Phil Hughes most likely to improve

Jason Miller

A couple players who will be playing for new teams in 2014 join a list of three veterans who should be among the most improved players in the AL Central this season.

The Tigers have dominated the AL Central for a few years now, and heading into 2014, they are the favorites to win the division once again. The Indians were highly improved in 2013, winning 92 games and finishing just a game back of the Tigers, while the Royals also had one of their best seasons in recent memory, just missing out on the playoffs after going 86-76. Kansas City added Omar Infante this offseason, and with continued growth expected from its young roster, could challenge Detroit for divisional supremacy.

Despite struggling in recent seasons, the White Sox and Twins also have a more optimistic outlook than they did last year. Minnesota made a number of free-agent signings and can also look forward to some top prospects who will be reaching the majors in the near future. The White Sox added a few pieces via trade and also signed Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract. All this has given the AL Central a slightly different look than in years past, as Detroit's supremacy has grown a little less certain. With the arrival of the new season growing closer by the day, here is a look at one player from each team who should improve in 2014:

White Sox

Adam Eaton - While he wasn't with the White Sox for his struggles, they're still counting on a bounce-back campaign from their new acquisition. Eaton missed a large stretch of time thanks to a UCL sprain in his left elbow, and returned with underwhelming productivity, slashing .252/.314/.360 in 250 at-bats for Arizona. It was a disappointing turnout after Eaton was excellent in a small sample in 2012. Long labeled a fourth outfielder, Eaton impressed at every step in the minors, improving his routes in centerfield and never slowing down at the plate. It's not certain he'll return to the middle of the diamond in Chicago given Alejandro De Aza's presence, but he'll be relied on for top of the order production nonetheless. At 5-foot-9, Eaton doesn't pack a big punch, but he can still lace plenty of doubles, and a strong approach at the plate enables him to get on base well. He's very much the same player he was when many people named him as a rookie of the year candidate prior to 2013, and if he can return to that form, the White Sox will be happy with their acquisition.

Indians

Asdrubal Cabrera - Cabrera's production took a nose dive in 2013 after the Indians shortstop batted over .270 for four straight seasons. The 28-year-old hit .242/.299/.402 with 14 home runs and 64 RBI in what was the worst full season of his seven-year career. He got off to a slow start and was even worse in the second half, batting just .228/.279/.380 after the All-Star break. Cabrera's poor campaign was an odd one for someone who had been so consistent previously, and there was no reported injury to blame for the shortstop's struggles, either. But the Venezuelan native still is just 28, and considering his past performances he should improve on the .299 on-base percentage he posted in 2013. He'll never be a superstar or top the 25 home runs he hit back in 2011, but Cabrera is an above-average shortstop, someone who will get his fair share of extra-base hits and provide decent offensive production.

Tigers

Alex Avila - Avila suffered through a couple of nagging injuries last season, including a concussion that shelved him for nearly three weeks in August. The Tigers catcher batted .227/.317/.376 with 11 home runs over 379 plate appearances in what was one of his worst seasons at the major league level. When healthy, though, Avila has proven himself to be a solid performer. He hit .295/.389/.506 back in 2011, and although he won't match that output again, the left-handed slugger should improve on his 2013 totals. If Avila is healthy this season, he will likely show himself to be an above-average catcher once again. At 27, he still remains young, and considering Detroit's only other option at the position is the unproven Bryan Holaday, Avila shouldn't have any problems earning the bulk of playing time at catcher for the Tigers. His struggles against left-handers are an issue, but Avila is a solid player who will have a better season in 2014 than he did last year.

Royals

Mike Moustakas. Many pundits have been expecting Moustakas to break out for a couple of years since his MLB debut back in 2011. But the Royals third baseman hasn't been able to find any consistency, struggling through 2012 and much of 2013. Moustakas hit .233/.287/.364 last season with just 12 home runs and was even worse against left-handers, batting .196 in 118 plate appearances. Yet Moustakas did show some decent improvements in the second half, hitting .259/.308/.416, and although those numbers aren't great, they do give the 25-year-old something to build on heading into the new season. The Royals have also added Danny Valencia to take some at-bats against lefties away from Moustakas, a move that should help his overall production even if he isn't quite an everyday player. At the age of 25, when most players are entering their prime, Moustakas is ready to find some more consistency and could help the Royals contend for a playoff spot in the process.

Twins

Phil Hughes - Hughes suffered through a bumpy conclusion to his time with the Yankees in 2013, posting a 5.19 ERA and just 121 strikeouts over 145.2 innings pitched. The right-hander saw his production only grow worse throughout his time in the Bronx, but an offseason move to the Twins should help his performance mightily in 2014. Hughes is still only 27, and after flaming out with the Yankees, he likely needed a change of scenery anyhow. More important for Hughes will be the new ballpark he gets to pitch in after giving up 59 home runs over the last two seasons while making half his starts in Yankee Stadium. Target Field is far kinder to pitchers, and Hughes could be in for vast improvement if a few more of his fly balls stay in the yard. The seven-year veteran will never be the ace that scouts envisioned he would become in the minors, but Hughes might just be a solid mid-rotation starter for the Twins this season.

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