AL Central Preview

In a division that has recently been dominated by Cleveland, watch out for a new champion

By: Jesse

The 2018 American League Central Division was one of the worst divisions in baseball history. Cleveland won the crown (their 3rd straight) by 13 games while winning only 91 themselves, and they were the only team to finish above .500. Two teams – the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals – finished with 100+ losses, and Detroit lost 98.

However, 2019 looks like it is shaping up to be a little different. On paper, Cleveland is still the favorite, and it seems most people are predicting the Indians to win a 4th straight division title, but every other team got better this offseason, and we may just be surprised at season’s end who sits atop the division.

Without further ado, let’s get into Midwest Sports Pulse’s second baseball preview.

Minnesota Twins

Projected record: 88-74

Byron Buxton on Opening Day 2018 – photo by Andy Witchger

For what it’s worth, the Minnesota Twins could just as easily struggle through the season and finish under .500, making this pick look, well, stupid.

That said, there’s been a lot of hype around the Twins this offseason, and while much of their roster remains unproven, they just might have enough pure talent to sneak past Cleveland and win their first AL Central crown since 2010.

Offensively, the Twins lost Brian Dozier in the middle of 2018 when they traded him to the Dodgers. Dozier went on to sign with the Nationals this offseason. While his numbers dwindled last year, Dozier hit 42 and 34 home runs in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and those are numbers that are not easily replaceable.

Another piece that’s missing in Minnesota for the first time in 15 years is Joe Mauer. Mauer retired at the end of the 2018 season with a career .306 average. He was a six-time All-Star and won the Most Valuable Player award in 2009. While the production may not have been quite as high in 2018, a 15-year vet like Mauer is hard to replace in the lineup and in the clubhouse.

To counter those two, the Twins signed second baseman Jonathan Schoop to a one-year deal worth $7.5 million. Schoop was an All-Star in 2017 with Baltimore, but comes off a year in which he hit .233. Obviously, Minnesota is hoping he’ll be able to revive himself to his 2017 numbers (.293, 32 home runs, 105 RBI).

Another big signing for the Twins this offseason was designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Over the past five seasons (the four most recent with Seattle and 2014 in Baltimore), Cruz has hit 203 home runs, which tops baseball during that span. Cruz, 38, hasn’t seemed to let his age slow him down, and if he stays healthy, he’s likely to have another season around that 35-40 home runs mark.

The Twins have a lot of young, talented guys on their roster, including Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, and Miguel Sano. If those five can stay healthy, be productive at the plate, and play solid defense all season, the Twins will have a shot at winning 90+ games.

The pitching staff leaves a little to be desired, but they return their top three starters from last year in Jose Berrios (12-11, 3.84 ERA), Kyle Gibson (10-13, 3.62 ERA), and Jake Odorizzi (7-10, 4.49 ERA). The pitching staff also includes Michael Pineda, who signed in December of 2017 but missed all of last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery and a torn meniscus in his right knee. While the Twins have not set a date for Pineda’s return, he started pitching live batting practice this week, and is hoping to be back sooner rather than later.

All in all, if the Twins can stay healthy and keep their growing pains to a minimum, they just might surprise the Indians and keep Cleveland out of the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Cleveland Indians

Projected record: 85-77

Francisco Lindor puts a ball into play against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – photo by Erik Drost

In essentially the same thing I said about the Twins above, the Indians could very easily prove me wrong, skate through the 2019 season, and win the AL Central for a 4th straight year. They have the talent to do just that, and by season’s end, their win total could easily be in the mid-90s.

The problem is, Cleveland lost a lot of offense from 2018 to now, and they didn’t do much to replace it this offseason. With Michael Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion both off to the American League West, those two alone combined for 49 home runs and 183 RBI last year. When you factor in that Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes both left as well, those numbers jump up to 88 home runs and 314 RBI. That’s a lot of production to lose in one offseason.

To be fair, Cleveland did acquire Jake Bauers from Tampa Bay in the offseason. Bauers, 23, was one of the Rays top prospects, and came to Cleveland in a three-team trade that also included Carlos Santana coming from Seattle. Santana (not to be confused with the musician) was traded twice in the offseason just 10 days apart. He hit 24 home runs and drove in 86 runs with Philadelphia last season.

The Cleveland pitching staff is still one of the best in baseball, boasting Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. They lost Josh Tomlin to Milwaukee in free agency, but managed to add Tyler Clippard to the bullpen. Brad Hand returns as the likely closer, having saved 32 of 39 chances in his time with both the Padres and Indians in 2018.

Cleveland’s pitching is what will most likely get them back to the promised land (if they are able to stay healthy) and if the offense outperforms its projections. It helps having an MVP-caliber player like Francisco Lindor in your lineup, but he’s also likely to miss the beginning of the season while dealing with a moderate strain of his right calf. His likely return is mid-April, given that everything goes well.

Don’t sleep on the Indians in 2019, but don’t be surprised if they underperform and miss the playoffs either.

Chicago White Sox

Projected record: 80-82

Yeah, probably not.

I mean, come on.

How else would this piece start out?

As of yesterday (February 20th), Bob Nightengale of the USA Today has reported that the White Sox are “out” on the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. It seems increasingly likely that Harper will be in Philadelphia next season, but it was fun for White Sox fans to get their hopes up about Harper, and Manny Machado, who just signed with the Padres for $300 million.

But…if somehow the Sox got back in on Harper and signed him, they immediately become AL Central favorites. Harper would boost them to the top without any doubt.

As it stands now, Chicago is one piece away from really competing. I think by next season, they’ll have that one piece, whether it comes from free agency next year or the farm system.

The core of the White Sox is much like the Twins – young, talented, and ready to prove themselves. Yoan Moncada is one of those young talents, but he desperately needs to cut back on strikeouts this year, having K’d a whopping 217 times in 2018.

Jose Abreu figures to be the veteran presence for the White Sox this season. The 32-year-old hit 22 home runs last season, which is actually his lowest total since joining the White Sox in 2014. The Sox also added the aforementioned Yonder Alonso from Cleveland this offseason, who hit 23 home runs for the Indians last year.

Tim Anderson probably benefits the most from Manny Machado signing with the Padres, as he figured to lose most (or all) of his playing time in Chicago. Another name to watch is Leury Garcia, who will serve as the utility guy for the White Sox.

The addition of Jon Jay will help the White Sox initially, as he figures to be the starter in left field. But the real question will be how long Jay holds on to that spot, with super prospect Eloy Jimenez waiting in the wings. (For the record, I’m still bummed the Cubs included him in the Quintana trade.)

Jimenez is in a similar position as Kris Bryant was in 2015: if he doesn’t start the season with Chicago, the White Sox will have an extra year of control over his contract. He’s unlikely to be on the Opening Day roster, but it would be shocking if he isn’t with the team by the end of April. Between Double-A and Triple-A stints last year, Jimenez hit .337 and smashed 22 home runs with 75 runs batted in. He very much figures to be the superstar of the future for Chicago.

Carlos Rodon and Ivan Nova are the veterans of the pitching staff, but the rest of the hurlers are fairly young. Again, like Jimenez, the White Sox farm system is loaded with top-notch talent, and it won’t be long until we see the likes of Dylan Cease (also part of the Quintana trade) and Michael Kopech in the rotation.

The White Sox could surprise everyone and win the Central this year, but they’re more suited to compete starting in 2020 and running for quite a few years after that.

Kansas City Royals

Projected record: 64-98

Photo by Keith Allison

If you look at Kansas City’s roster, you’ll find a few familiar names from a team that won the 2015 World Series (people seem to forget that). Alex Gordon is still there, perennial All-Star Salvador Perez is still behind the plate, and Danny Duffy still controls one of the top spots in the rotation.

And…that’s about it.

The Royals have followed the path of a lot of recent champions, going all in for a period of 2-3 years, winning a title, and pretty much immediately falling apart. Since 2015, they’ve traded away or lost to free agency most of that World Series core. Unfortunately for Kansas City, their farm system still needs improvement.

A year ago, some considered them to have the worst farm system in baseball. For 2019, Bleacher Report gives them the #24 spot, with three Top 100 prospects in the system. Two of those top three – Khalil Lee and MJ Melendez – are still a few years away from making “the Show” as every day players. Arguably their top prospect, Brady Singer, was just drafted 18th overall in the 2018 MLB Draft, so he’s still a ways away from making an impact in the rotation as well.

The Royals signed speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton to a one-year deal this offseason. Hamilton, a career .245 hitter, is best known for his ability to steal bases, having stolen between 56 and 59 bases each year from 2014 to 2017. Last season, Hamilton managed to swipe 34 bases in his last year with the Reds.

Former Cub Jorge Soler could add some power to the lineup, if he’s able to stay healthy. Soler struggled at the plate in 2017 before rebounding in 2018, though he still split some time between Kansas City and Omaha.

The pitching staff could use some improvement, with Duffy and Ian Kennedy heading up the rotation. The Royals do return all five starters from last season, but none of them finished the year with an ERA under 4.26. Brad Keller started 20 games and appeared in another 21 out of the bullpen, and he was arguably the Royals best pitcher, going 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA.

The best offseason additions for the Royals were both pitchers. Kansas City re-signed Kyle Zimmer in January, and Zimmer is looking to come back from multiple injuries and make an impact. The other signing was closer Brad Boxberger, who joined the Royals at the beginning of February. Boxberger had 32 saves last season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but had his career high in 2015 with Tampa Bay, when he saved 41 games.

The Royals are still a few years away from competing for a playoff spot again, but they could lose fewer than 100 games this year, so…progress!

Detroit Tigers

Projected record: 61-101

Miguel Cabrera during a game in April 2018. Photo by Keith Allison

It’s hard to think things could get worse for a team that lost 98 games last season, but the Detroit Tigers may just be in that position. This is another team with a lot of young talent, but it’s mostly unproven, and Detroit didn’t do much to offset that issue this offseason, even with the recent signing of Josh Harrison.

Miguel Cabrera will still be the most well-known name in the Tigers lineup, and he’s coming off of an injury-shortened season. Cabrera ruptured his left biceps tendon swinging last year and had surgery, so it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be at the plate. A career .316 hitter with 465 home runs isn’t anything to slouch at, but time will tell.

Other offensive bright spots may include Harrison, Nick Castellanos, new signee Jordy Mercer, and potentially Jeimer Candelario. Castellanos hit .298 with the Tigers last year, but hitting was one of the major struggles for Detroit last season. With a young roster, they’re likely to see the same struggles, but getting some of those guys the every day experience will be invaluable for the future. Watch for the likes of Grayson Greiner, JaCoby Jones, and Mikie Mahtook to make an impact in the years to come.

The pitching staff for Detroit has potential to be better than last season. Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, and Matt Boyd return, while the Tigers signed Tyson Ross and Matt Moore this offseason. None of Detroit’s starters finished with more wins than losses last year, and Ross had the best ERA of any of the likely starters this year, though it was still 4.15.

The future is bright in Detroit, with two top 50 prospects that may arrive sooner rather than later. Last year’s number one overall pick, right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, has an outside shot to see the Majors before the season’s end, though he’s a safer bet to be called up in 2020. Matt Manning, another right-handed pitcher, won’t be far behind.

But until that point, and until the Tigers develop their offense a little more, expect more heartache at Comerica Park this year.

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