Last year, the AL Central crown was taken by the Indians without any other team remotely threatening for the division. With the Indians refusal to add this offseason, and the Twins making some interesting progress, the division could be interesting at the top. That being said, neither team is actually that interesting and there’s a good chance the second wild card team might actually be better than the winner of the AL Central. Below the Twins, the situation is dire, however one of these teams might not be as bad as you think.
1.) Cleveland Indians
Key additions: Carlos Santana, Jake Bauers, Kevin Plawecki
Key losses: Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Yan Gomes, Cody Allen, Brandon Guyer, Lonnie Chisenhall, Yandy Diaz, Josh Tomlin
So, there’s quite a bit to address here. Other than Donaldson, many of the key losses have been important pieces at the major league level for years. It’s a shocking loss of depth, and an absolute disappointment for fans. Carlos Santana is a decent player still and should be a productive cog, however this far from fixes the offense outside of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Depending on what you think of him, Jake Bauers can rank anywhere from fine to decent. Kevin Plawecki also feels like an easy downgrade to Yan Gomes, but hey! At least the organization saved money. That they didn’t end up spending.
Of course, the pitiful offense is counterbalanced by an excellent pitching staff, in my opinion the best in baseball. There’s not really a huge quality in drop-off between Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber who will get a full look this year. Making the playoffs with this rotation alone already gives them a fighting chance. However, the bullpen looks just ok, ranking fourteenth in the league on FanGraphs’ projection charts. Brad Hand is projected for 1.4 fWAR. The bullpen as a whole is projected for 2.7 fWAR.
The Indians win the division if…
The Twins basically stay at their current level and the Indians stay healthy enough. I’m still not sure how I feel about the Cleveland roster as a whole, but I do know there aren’t really any scenarios in which I’d prefer the Twins’ roster as it stands. The star talent in Cleveland will continue to shine, and as long as they stay healthy should have a relatively easy path to the division. The Twins’ best player, Jose Berrios, is comparable to the Indians’ Mike Clevinger. Their fourth starter. Nobody on the Twins’ position player side can even come close to Lindor or Ramirez. I believe the immense value provided by the top of the roster will be able to cover up most depth related issues.
2.) Minnesota Twins
Key additions: Rocco Baldelli (manager), Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Martin Perez, Blake Parker, Ronald Torreyes
Key losses: Joe Mauer, Robbie Grossman, Alan Busenitz
The Twins finished a disappointing 78-84 last year after a Cinderella-season in 2017. Part of the reason this was so disappointing is the Twins were a fairly active team in the 2017-2018 offseason, adding a medley of cheap talent. They were universally lauded, as even in the worst case scenario it was highly unlikely to hurt the team. Then, of course, many of the free agents underperformed substantially. Jorge Polanco missed the first-half of the season with a PED suspension. Byron Buxton was injured or incredibly ineffective for the whole year. Brian Dozier supposedly played through an injury for the whole year, leading to a subsequent trade to the Dodgers where he continued to be putrid. Miguel Sano was demoted to Single-A to work on his mechanics and get his body in shape. Jason Castro was out for almost the whole year. Ryan Pressly became one of the best relievers in baseball upon being traded to the Astros. It was a nightmare season.
The Twins are the fifteenth best team currently projected by FanGraphs (fWAR), meaning they are literally league average. The roster has a bevy of interesting options, including Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Mitch Garver, Jake Cave, Willians Astudillo, and Trevor May to name a few. I do think these are quality players and expect some of them to establish themselves as important pieces moving forward. That being said, even if this happens, I don’t know if the offseason additions will be enough. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano need to perform big time for the Twins to have any shot at the division. With a new coaching staff, and a complete overhaul of player development this offseason, it could prove to be beneficial to the frustrating young talents.
The Twins win the division if…
Buxton and Sano have huge years, lower-end everyday guys take some big steps forward, and the Indians run into health issues. They might be an interesting wild card contender, but as of now they’re fringe at best. A lack of serious 4-5 WAR players is killing this team year in and year out, but it’s not surprising they’re passing on being aggressive when the whole state is passive aggressive.
3.) Kansas City Royals
Key additions: Billy Hamilton, Terrance Gore, Chris Owings, Jake Diekman, Brad Boxberger
Key losses: Alcides Escobar, Nate Karns
Kansas City did what everyone expected them do last year, which frankly was not very good. Whit Merrifield established himself as a very good player, Jakob Junis and Brad Keller have shown signs of being decent rotation pieces, Jorge Soler was decent when healthy, and Adalberto Mondesi is one of the most intriguing stories to follow throughout the course of this season.
This is a team that might actually be better than people think. With Billy Hamilton, Whit Merrifield, Terrance Gore, and Adalberto Mondesi on the same field, this team is going to be a nightmare on the bases. Of course, for this to happen you need to be on-base and with this group sans Merrifield, it seems to be a daunting challenge. These guys are fun, but Hunter Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn, Brett Phillips and Jorge Soler also have interesting upside that might be tapped into with ample playing time. If Merrifield continues to be a 3-4 WAR player moving forward, and Mondesi can end up anywhere from 3-5 WAR, they have a fairly lethal middle infield.
Pitching wise the team isn’t great but it’s not the worst. As I mentioned before, Jakob Junis and Brad Keller look like they could be solid #4 guys. While not world-burning by any means, having two young league average starters is nothing to scoff at. Danny Duffy represents an interesting bounceback opportunity and he’s in a great position to do it with the dimensions of Kauffman Stadium. I didn’t know Ian Kennedy was still playing, but he is. The fifth spot will likely go to Ben Lively or Eric Skoglund. It’s anyone’s guess as to who these two players are.
The bullpen represents really one interesting option in Jake Diekman. Of course, you may also feel positively about Brad Boxberger or Wily Peralta, but only if you’re their immediate family or close friends.
The Royals win the division if…
During a Twins vs. Indians game, a nuclear bomb hits what I hope is Cleveland. While nothing about the city’s appearance would seem far off from what it looks like now, both teams would have players killed on impact or days later from radiation poisoning. This would give the Royals a clear path to winning the division.
4.) Chicago White Sox
Key additions: Alex Colome, Jon Jay, Yonder Alonso, Ivan Nova, Kelvin Herrera, James McCann, Brandon Guyer, Ervin Santana, Randall Delgado, Preston Tucker, Ryan Goins
Key losses: James Shields, Omar Narvaez, Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, Kevan Smith, Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Santiago, Miguel Gonzalez
The White Sox are in a really difficult spot. Losing out on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado likely sets the rebuild back substantially. Players were either injured, plateaued, or got worse throughout the system last year. This will be a bleak year once again, but maybe not as unwatchable as last year. Eloy Jimenez is going to come up and mash, Jose Abreu will likely return to his normal career numbers, and a bevy of small but potentially impactful free agent signings were made. Adam Engel is fun in center, Daniel Palka is a statcast darling, Tim Anderson was fun to watch last year, and of course Yoan Moncada has all the potential in the world.
Pitching is rough on the south-side this year. Lucas Giolito could take a meaningful step, but it still looks unlikely. Ivan Nova is a solid starter moving out of a nightmare NL Central. I profiled Carlos Rodon a few weeks ago and he represents someone with immense upside. Reynaldo Lopez is another young arm with gobs of potential. However, at some point things stop becoming a fluke and start becoming reality. The reality is the White Sox are very poor at player development, and probably rank in the bottom rung of the league in terms of analytics. I don’t see a lot of upside here in the rotation.
That being said, the bullpen is quietly a strength of the team. Alex Colome, Kelvin Herrera, Nate Jones, and Jace Fry are a decent quartet, however I would be shocked if they remained on the team by the end of the year.
The White Sox win the division if…
After the disastrous nuclear explosion in Cleveland, the Kansas City Royals decide to take a year long sabbatical to “find themselves” in Europe. The journey is long and arduous, filled with uncomfortable questions Jakob Junis never wanted to answer about himself. Billy Hamilton returned early to the United States, citing too much walking as the reason. As he was now the only player, the team renamed itself “The Kansas City Royal”.
5. Detroit Tigers
Key additions: Josh Harrison, Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, Jordy Mercer
Key losses: Jose Iglesias, Francisco Liriano, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Victor Martinez, Alex Wilson
I’m not sure people understand the dire state that the team is currently in, more specifically at the major league level. There is some interesting talent that should see substantial time this year including Christin Stewart, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro, and possibly Jake Rogers. The upside for most of these guys isn’t great, but I do like Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers to be better-than-average players someday. Niko Goodrum is a pretty good utility player, and Jeimer Candelario has some decent upside here as well. Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos should be solid offensive performers, though Cabrera has arguably the worst contract in the majors right now and Castellanos’ trade value is fairly limited.
The rotation actually isn’t terrible. Jordan Zimmerman is what he is at this point, but there is still serious upside/bounceback potential with Michael Fulmer and Matthew Boyd has one of the most valuable sliders in the game. Tyson Ross is another guy with a great slider, and a mix that relies heavily on sliders might not be the worst for either pitcher. Neither the team nor players have much to lose in this situation. However, the Tigers have been slow to move with Michael Fulmer’s pitch mix so far in his career and I don’t see this changing. Matt Moore’s pitching can best be described as crimes against humanity, and this is Daniel Norris’ last shot at starting if he breaks into the rotation. The stuff might play better in the bullpen, but it looks like his chances of starting are evaporating quickly. There are two names in the bullpen. Joe Jimenez is a really interesting live arm who seemed to suffer from some bad luck last year, but make no mistake, he is a talented arm. Shane Greene might have a slight return to form, but at this moment should be considered an upside play at best.
The Tigers win the division if…
Looking at the 2019 schedule, the Twins are the last series against the Tigers. But with the Twins being wiped out due to nuclear warfare, the second to last series of the season is…against the White Sox. With only two other teams remaining in the division, the Tigers and White Sox go to Game 162 to decide the division. Both teams are 61-101, while the Kansas City Royal finished a lowly 47-115 led by a surprise 47 WAR season from Kansas City superstar infielder/outfielder/pitcher/catcher Billy Hamilton.
The game is 5-1 heading into the sixth inning. Michael Fulmer gave up one run on eight hits in five innings, striking out three. Castellanos and Stewart both homered, and Niko Goodrum plated Daz Cameron. The game ended in an uneventful 6-2, however we shouldn’t let this be taken away from Detroit’s accomplishments.