While the defending American League champion Tigers may again be the consensus pick to win the AL Central, two of their biggest challengers will square off on Opening Day when the White Sox host the Royals at 3:10 p.m. CT on Monday at U.S. Cellular Field.
Chicago surprised many last season, posting an 85-77 record while remaining in the hunt for the division crown until the final week before finishing second. As for Kansas City, last season unfolded like many others in recent memory, with Ned Yost's club never in serious playoff contention en route to a 90-loss season.
While the White Sox mostly stood pat this offseason and hope to build off last year's re-emergence, the Royals revamped their rotation in a busy offseason geared toward winning now. The plan is off to a good start in exhibition play at least, with Kansas City setting a franchise record for Spring Training wins.
The offseason shuffle started when the Royals acquired starter Ervin Santana from the Angels on Oct. 31 and re-signed starter Jeremy Guthrie just three weeks later. Then came the bombshell in early December, when Kansas City landed Opening Day starter James Shields and right-hander Wade Davis from the Rays in exchange for a wealth of prospects, including No. 4 overall prospect Wil Myers.
"Shields is a great pitcher. He's a great competitor. He's a huge piece for them," said veteran White Sox reliever Matt Thornton. "The addition of Wade Davis is a big piece for them also. But like I said, it's the game of baseball and you never know. That's why we do what we do. It's going to be fun to play against teams like Detroit and Kansas City, and Cleveland is better and Minnesota is better. It's going to be a fun year."
To understand just how much the AL Central has changed since the Tigers fell short in last year's World Series, look no further than the Royals' pitching staff.
Just last year, Bruce Chen was Kansas City's Opening Day starter, winning 11 games and making a career-high 34 starts. Now, Chen finds himself relegated to a bullpen role, with Santana, Guthrie, Davis and Luis Mendoza slated to follow Shields in the rotation.
"When you run a starting pitcher out there every day and your team feels good about it," Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said, "it elevates [everyone else's] level of play as well. So it's a major difference."
The revamped rotation might not intimidate the White Sox as much as other opponents, though, as they are probably glad to see Chen no longer a part of it. Chen's six wins against the White Sox over the past two seasons (6-2, 3.13 ERA) are the second most by any starter against the South Siders, trailing only Tigers ace Justin Verlander's seven.
"You know, Bruce Chen was the anchor against us the last couple of years," said catcher Tyler Flowers, who stepped into the starting role following A.J. Pierzynski's departure via free agency. "It might be good to kind of change it up and have somebody else out there. I mean, we are not really worried about that. We have quality pitching, too. We'll go round for round with them, and I like our chances."
Round 1 will pit young left-hander Chris Sale opposite Shields, as Sale makes his first career Opening Day start, compared to Shields' fifth. In his first full season as a starter, Sale emerged as the staff ace in 2012, going 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA while making his first All-Star appearance and finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
"My knees are shaking now just thinking about it," Sale said of his Opening Day assignment. "I'm definitely going to have to collect myself, stay focused and take a lot of deep breaths. The last couple of Opening Days, I've been a kid in a candy shop. And now, being part of it, it could be overwhelming, but I'm going to do everything to collect myself and stay on an even plane. You know it's going to be electric, though."
And though the bright lights of Opening Day aren't anything new for Shields, he figures to feel some of those nerves, too, as he takes the mound looking to lead Kansas City into a new era in Royals baseball.
"It's pretty exciting, man. I don't know about you guys, but I'm pretty excited," Shields said. "For me, these guys have had a great attitude this Spring Training, we've had a lot of fun and we've really created a good atmosphere around here. That's one of the things I'm most excited about."
Royals: Expectations aside, Yost focused on staying grounded
Yost knows as well as anyone the expectations are for Kansas City to start winning immediately.
After all, the club traded away its top overall prospect as well as a pair of pitching prospects for established veterans in an attempt to right the ship and avoid a 10th straight losing season.
"If you get too fired up, then the first little rough spot you've got, you lose interest," Yost said. "It can't happen. I like our team. I really like our team. I think we're going to be able to compete."
Yost went through it all firsthand last season, as the Royals posted a 3-14 start, including a 12-game losing streak in April. Kansas City posted winning records in May, June and August, but could never fully recover from the rough start on its way to a 72-90 season.
"My philosophy -- and this is why I try not to get too wound up into everything -- is it's 162 games," Yost said. "You can't get discouraged when you hit a bit of a rough spot. I'm talking manager, coaches, players and fans. It's going to happen. You just have to be able to cover it, work through it and get through it."
White Sox: Reed set to build off strong rookie season
As Opening Day approached last season, one of the biggest question marks facing the club was who would be the closer with former reliever Sale joining the rotation.
After some early season flux at the back end of the bullpen in 2012, Addison Reed ultimately shouldered the responsibility and went on to record a single-season franchise rookie record with 29 saves. The 24-year-old will look to build on that success, though entering the final week of Spring Training, he had yet to pitch in a save situation this spring.
"My mindset is if I go out there in the first inning, I'm taking it as three guys up and I'm trying to get those three guys out in consecutive order," Reed said. "I don't think that I have to throw the ninth inning in a game to get that feel."
• Kansas City took the season series last year, going 12-6. After the White Sox won the season series 10 consecutive years from 2001-10, the Royals have won the head-to-head matchup each of the last two.
• Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar has a .435 career average (10-for-23) against Sale, the highest among all players whom have faced the lefty at least 10 times.
• Shields' 4.76 ERA in 11 career starts against the White Sox is his highest against any AL team.