Today, we continue our off-season preview series with a look at the AL Central. After a historically abysmal year for the division, the off-season brings some potential excitement for the teams looking to bounce back in 2019. A partial rebuild is in store for the likely division winners in Cleveland, while more comprehensive rebuilding efforts continue for the White Sox, Tigers, and Royals. The Twins look to put the pieces together to replicate their 2017 playoff berth with a new skipper at the helm.
Chicago White Sox
By Conor Stemme
2018 Record: 62-100 (4th in AL Central)
2018 Payroll: $71,839,808 (29th in MLB)
As predicted, the White Sox struggled last season with a lackluster staff and position players most baseball fans have never heard of. This is, however, not unlike most of the AL Central with the Tigers and Royals in similar situations. With that being said, there is some hope for White Sox fans as Michael Kopech looked great in his first few starts with the White Sox. His season was cut short by an unfortunate Tommy John surgery, but he showed what he can do and hopefully, he can come back healthy. The rest of the pitching staff was lacking, to say the least; the team’s ERA was 5th worst in baseball. The hitters were not much better as they were in the bottom third in BA, OPS, Runs, and most other offensive categories. The White Sox season went as expected but with their top-3 farm system, they should be able to make an impact soon.
The White Sox are getting ready to compete in a few years. Like a few other teams, the White Sox are focusing on the minor leagues right now with the likes of Eloy Jimenez, Nick Madrigal, Dylan Cease and many more. They also did a bullpen fire sale trading Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, and Xavier Cedeno, but did not get anything of note in return. One surprising thing is that Jose Abreu is still on the team as many people thought he was going to be traded either last offseason or before the trade deadline. Although the White Sox probably will not compete this year as some prospects are still a year or two away they have the chance to sign some major free agents this offseason.
To compete this year the White Sox would need everything but a first baseman. The good thing is the fans are not expecting them to compete so they have no pressure to sign major free agents. The White Sox do need to prioritize younger players and not on long-term deals that eat up money like the James Shields contract or the $1,000,000 the White Sox are still paying to Jake Peavy. Their starting pitching is currently non-existent as their projected starters are Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Covey, and probably Carson Fulmer. This is a major hole in their team which they may look to sign a veteran or two to teach players like Giolito and Lopez. The White Sox could also surprise everyone this year. They only have $14,000,000 under salary right now with another six players in arbitration negotiations, leaving a lot of free cap room to sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado if Rick Hahn and the team wants to.
Although the White Sox probably will not compete this year, they still need to sign some veterans to be clubhouse leaders and help develop the younger players. So, the suggested moves are to sign some older starters to one or two-year deals to give time for Kopech to come back, Cease and Dunning to develop, and Giolito and Lopez to improve. They should target players like Clay Buchholz, Tyson Ross, Wade Miley, Garrett Richards, etc. The other area where the White Sox really need help is third base as I do not want Yolmer Sanchez playing daily. They could go after Manny Machado on a massive contract to be their third baseman of now and the future. I can see them offering a contract, but I do not think Manny will take it as he probably wants to compete now. The only problem is the 3B options are either pricey or awful. The White Sox should improve at starting pitcher and third base and make their names known this offseason even if it is just offering Machado and Harper contracts just to be in the race.
By Daniel Korach
2018 Record: 91-71 (1st in AL Central, lost ALDS)
2018 Payroll: $142,804,703 (15th in MLB)
The Indians are caught between a rock and a hard place. A team full of talent in baseball’s (nearly history’s) worst division that just doesn’t have enough across the diamond to make it happen in the playoffs. Jose Ramirez’s emergence as a perennial MVP candidate has been fun to watch. In 2018, Ramirez was a stalwart in nearly every statistical arena, posting high marks in all facets of the game. From an 8.0 fWAR to a 12.0 BsR, Ramirez did it all. His neighbor Francisco Lindor was no slouch either, smashing 38 home runs at 7.6 WAR and 21.0 on Fangraphs’ DEF fielding measure. With encouraging BABIPs for both, regression appears unlikely. A healthy season from free-agent-to-be Michael Brantley was encouraging, but a combination of a severe talent drop-off and inconsistent performances from the likes of Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis, and a makeshift outfield kept them from competing with baseball’s best.
On the pitching side, the Indians rotation was downright nasty. Spin-rate extraordinaire Trevor Bauer put the fruits of his labor on display while Corey Kluber was his usual, top-tier self. Extremely productive years from a “bottom” 3 of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Carrasco were a huge boost as well, with the rotation as a whole posting a 22.2 fWAR. An injury-riddled and overall horrific season from a once-formidable bullpen was a challenge all year long. The future for the Indians is mired in mediocrity: a generally weak prospect core will bank on successful seasons from Triston McKenzie, Yandy Diaz, and an AFL repeat for Yu Chang. Free agency looks to be tough for Cleveland. With much of the bullpen, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen most prominently, up for free agency, along with Michael Brantley’s likely departure, the Indians are stuck. Already committed to ~$92 million in 2019 salary, with a projected $32.5 million in arbitration deals, the mid-market Indians are caught in what seems to be a pre-rebuild holding pattern.
A partial rebuild is without a doubt the direction the Indians should take. With a young core of Ramirez, Lindor, and Bauer (Bieber and Clevinger can be lumped here, too) in place, a full teardown is unnecessary. Free agency might see them add a bullpen arm or two as this is certainly still their division to lose, but with the White Sox and Twins close to prominence and the Tigers with promising foundational pieces, that window is quickly closing. If they choose to delay a rebuild, look for them to add a low-cost 3rd base or utility option, as well as an outfielder to solidify a rocky outfield situation.
If the Indians choose to rebuild, I would look for them to trade some of their more expensive pieces, namely Edwin Encarnacion and Jason Kipnis, either during the offseason or as deadline deals. A Kluber and/or Carrasco deal for the right price would also make tons of sense and return hauls that would vastly accelerate a rebuild; the Rockies or Phillies are dark horse destinations with the prospect and financial means to acquire and lock either of them down. Making those moves would allow for more playing time to go to the aforementioned Yu Chang and Yandy Diaz, letting the team determine their viability going forward. Getting that money off the books would help them to secure Ramirez and Lindor in the long term as well. Because they will still win this division, I wouldn’t put it past them to sign a Jake Diekman/Zach Duke/Tony Sipp type arm to hopefully mitigate the impending losses of Miller, Allen, and others. If they aren’t able to make the deals above, expect the Indians to attempt to compete and be players for Brett Gardener, Nick Markakis, or even Andrew McCutchen. A reunion with Asdrubal Cabrera doesn’t appear out of the question either, for the right price. This is a talented team led by a top 3 manager in the game, a conflict that will undoubtedly force the Indians to make tough decisions this offseason.
By Zane Harding
2018 Record: 64-98 (3rd in AL Central)
2018 Payroll: $130,959,889 (17th in MLB)
In the first full year of their rebuild, the Detroit Tigers won the same amount of games as they did in their ill-fated 2017 campaign, posting 64 wins for the second straight year. They did not tank hard enough, however, as they went from the first overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft to the fifth overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. They likely would have had more luck piling up losses in a more competitive division, but alas, the Tigers finished in third place in a historically bad American League Central division, ahead of the 62-100 Chicago White Sox (with whom they went 12-7) and the 58-104 Kansas City Royals. Entering the offseason, the Tigers have three pressing needs: to replace shortstop Jose Iglesias with a cheap stop-gap free agent, to decide whether they deal Nicholas Castellanos or sign him long-term, and to cross their fingers and hope for good health in the farm system.
In 2017, the Tigers made multiple low-price free agent signings in an attempt to acquire prospects at the trade deadline. They signed Mike Fiers to a 2-year, $16 million deal, and ultimately dealt him to the Oakland Athletics for right-handed pitching prospects Logan Shore and Nolan Blackwood. They also signed Leonys Martin to a one-year deal and flipped him to the rival Cleveland Indians for shortstop prospect Willi Castro, who currently sits #10 in the Tigers farm per MLB Pipeline’s rankings. They were unable to deal Francisco Liriano, however, who finished the year with a disappointing 5.11 FIP and a 0.3 fWAR.
The Tigers were also able to make a couple of pick-ups that may reap future benefits in Rule 5 pick Victor Reyes and utility player Niko Goodrum, who was acquired from Minnesota. Goodrum, 2018’s Tigers rookie of the year, finished with a 1.1 fWAR and 16 home runs in 131 games and outplayed the defensive rating of his WAR with his flexibility throughout 2018 (his 103 wRC+ mark better demonstrates how valuable he was for the Tigers). Victor Reyes struggled immensely, posting a -1 fWAR in 100 games, but he had to be kept on the major league roster due to his Rule 5 status and will only be 24 entering the 2019 campaign.
Sure, the Tigers have spots they should fill as they wait for prospects to win starting jobs in Detroit. The organization has no natural shortstop to replace Jose Iglesias, the team has no clear right fielder if they decided to trade Nicholas Castellanos, and Niko Goodrum still does not quite feel like an everyday second baseman. But if the Tigers really wanted to speed up their rebuild, they should put more money into short-term free agents who they could flip to contenders at the deadline. They should also continue to deal for low-risk, high-upside young players.
Don’t trade Nicholas Castellanos.
In the past three years, Castellanos has amassed 7 fWAR. This is not an incredible number, but it is very solid. Furthermore, Castellanos has made $9,586,000 in the past three years. If fWAR is valued to around $10 million per win in recent years, then Castellanos has given the Tigers around $60,414,000 in surplus value in this timespan. The Tigers recently let go of an incredible hitter who is not a great fielder in the form of World Series champion and near-Triple Crown winner J.D. Martinez, who signed a 5-year, $125 million deal this past offseason. Castellanos is an inferior hitter and fielder than Martinez, but let’s hypothetically say he signs the same contract. If he continues to amass the 2.3 fWAR per year he has averaged over the past three years for the length of a five-year contract, he will put up 11.7 fWAR. As the hypothetical stands, the Tigers would lose surplus value. That said, Castellanos posted a 3 fWAR season in 2018 despite an abysmal -20.7 defensive runs going toward his WAR (a designated hitter is weighed as worth -17.5 runs in WAR). Castellanos should continue to thrive as a hitter, and although he may not be able to become the Tigers’ full-time DH in the coming seasons — Miguel Cabrera is under contract through 2023 — he can at least split time at DH, reducing the negative hit of his defense. (And who knows? Maybe he’ll eventually return to his near-league-average fielding in 2016.) Anyways, Nicholas Castellanos is a stellar baseball player, and any contract around the $100 million or slightly below it would be a great value for the Tigers moving forward, especially compared to potentially netting a non-top-100 prospect.
Give that man a long-term deal.
Kansas City Royals
By Felipe Zwanzger
2018 Record: 58-104 (5th in AL Central)
2018 Payroll: $129,944,821 (19th in MLB)
Three years removed from their second World-Series title, the Royals “retooling,” as their GM, Dayton Moore, likes to call it, is in full effect. Fans understand this and have been quite receptive to the idea—winning a World Series can give fans blind faith in management. While it is unlikely that franchise cornerstones Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez get moved, the right package may be enticing enough for the Royals to ship either off and continue to bolster an improving minor league farm system.
Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield are the closest things the Royals have to a superstar. Ryan O’Hearn, a late bloomer (he did not debut until age 25), opened some eyes in 2018. Adalberto Mondesi and Jorge Soler showed promise last year in brief major league stints. The double-play combo of the aforementioned Mondesi and Merrifield give the Royals one of the premier up-the-middle duos in the league on both sides of the ball.
Make no mistake, the Royals rotation could use some improvement, but it is one of the few strengths this team has. Brad Keller burst onto the scene in 2018 and will enter 2019 as one of the best pitchers, if not the best pitcher, in the rotation, and Danny Duffy should join him near the top of the rotation to make up a formidable one-two punch. Ian Kennedy is entering the fourth year of his five-year, $70 million dollar deal, which, up to this point, has been a fair deal for both sides. Rounding out the rotation is Jake Junis, who has been a solid innings-eater over the past two seasons. Jorge Lopez is a true x-factor in this pitching staff, and it remains to be seen whether the Royals believe in him as a starter or will place him in the bullpen, where his stuff plays far better.
The Royals were bad in 2018 and while 2019 figures to be more of the same, a 5.04 bullpen ERA paired with a starting rotation that failed to work deep into games can be addressed to improve the team for 2019. Addressing the bullpen is the obvious necessity for the Royals, and the free agent market is stacked with cost-effective options to chose from. Daniel Hudson and Fernando Salas should both be available at relatively low prices—signing one would give the bullpen the stability it needs. Bringing back Jon Jay on a one-year deal to spell Phillips and Soler here and there would be beneficial in keeping the latter two healthy and on the field for a whole season. A reunion with Nathan Karns, who battled numerous injuries after spending 2017 with the Royals, would also make sense.
Furthermore, bringing Mike Moustakas back to Kansas City may make sense for both sides. The Royals would benefit from having him play third base while giving fans a reason to come to the ballpark in what figures to be another difficult season. A three-year deal for around $50 million dollars may be enough to lure Moustakas back and also keep the team’s payroll under $90 million. The Royals have interesting pieces from within to compete in 2019, and, with the exception of Moustakas, should probably do their best to avoid spending big this offseason.
This team won’t make the playoffs, but with low-cost short-term additions to their bullpen and a few veteran signings, the team should be able to avoid the 100-loss threshold in 2019 in a weak AL Central.
By Max Brill
2018 Record: 78-84 (2nd in AL Central)
2018 Payroll: $115,509,520 (21st in MLB)
One year removed from their unexpected playoff berth, the Minnesota Twins finished 2018 at a disappointing 78-84 and closed out the season by relieving Paul Molitor of his managerial duties. Molitor likely would have been canned sooner if not for the Twins’ improbable 85-77 record in 2017. Regardless, he is now gone and first-time skipper Rocco Baldelli is now at the helm.
Baldelli has an interesting task ahead of him; the Twins are chock-full of talent but not all of that talent has produced on-field results just yet. Byron Buxton is fresh off a disappointing 2018 after slashing .300/.347/.546 with 11 homers and 13 steals in the second half of 2017. Miguel Sano spent nearly a month in the minor leagues and finished 2018 with his worst numbers ever. Standout second baseman Brian Dozier played a portion of the year injured and had his worst statistical season in half a decade. Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi, two of the Twins’ big offseason acquisitions, both posted below-average seasons on the mound.
Simply put, the Twins were not very good in 2018. Just about everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.
That is not to say that 2018 was entirely a failure for the Twins. Sure, they didn’t meet expectations, but there were some bright spots: Eddie Rosario continued to quietly be one of the better hitters in baseball, slashing .288/.323/.479 with 24 HR. Mitch Garver, a 27-year-old rookie backstop, hit .268/.335/.414 while handling the catching duties for a majority of the season. Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson combined for almost 400 innings of sub-4.00 ERA baseball. There were bright spots and there are some interesting players waiting in the wings.
And, of course, Joe Mauer played his last game as a Twin. The Minnesota native finished his career with 2123 hits and a .306 BA and though he had to move to first base full-time after concussion problems, demonstrated that he never lost his ability to hit.
A bat. Perhaps more than one, for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, if Buxton, Sano, and Max Kepler can remember how to hit this will be a solid team, but if they don’t then this is going to be a long season.
They should also go after some relief help—a 4.45 team ERA from the bullpen isn’t going to cut it.
Quite honestly, I don’t see this team competing for a playoff spot in 2019, especially given that some of the team’s most high-impact prospects (read: Alex Kirilloff, Brusdar Graterol, and Royce Lewis) will not be firing on all cylinders until 2020 at the earliest. It may be in the best interest of the club to simply limp through the 2019 season and try to deal some of the veterans at the deadline, but Thad Levine and Baldelli probably want to win now.
Like I said before, I don’t know that I would go out and make a splash in free agency if I was running the Twins. The good news for Twins fans is that I’m not running the club. I expect them to chase some of the marquee free agent relievers like Craig Kimbrel, Jeurys Familia, and David Robertson. I think the Twins will also heavily pursue DJ LeMahieu as their replacement for Brian Dozier—LeMahieu can hit and fills a positional need so he makes perfect sense for the club. I think there’s an outside shot that the Twins can ink a high-impact bat like Nelson Cruz or Josh Donaldson, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Twins will be an interesting team to watch in free agency but the success of the team in 2019 is going to hinge on whether the players already on their roster can recapture the magic that helped the team to the playoffs in 2017.