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A nuance-free 2021 AL Central Preview

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An assessment of an underrated division

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Talking heads really like discussing the NL East, and occasionally the NL West and AL East. The other divisions are considered thoroughly mediocre and that may be true in the case of the AL West and NL Central. But the AL Central will be better than people think. The White Sox have made several large improvements—albeit mitigated by Eloy Jimenez’s injury, the Indians can never be counted out and the Royals did about as much spending this winter as they ever have. The Tigers are starting to try and the Twins are about as deep and balanced as it gets. In September, when the Braves lead their division by fifteen games and the Yankees lead theirs by twenty, the Central may end up being the most fun.

Detroit Tigers

In: Jose Urena, Wilson Ramos, Renato Nunez, Robbie Grossman, Nomar Mazara

Out: C.J. Cron, Jordan Zimmerman

The Tigers are taking steps to approaching the end of their painful rebuild, with the most notable piece of evidence being their hiring of A.J. Hinch as manager. Hinch is a cheat, but he also knows how to build a winning culture in a clubhouse, and to extract the maximum performance from his players. The addition of Ramos is huge, as it gives the Tigers a real catcher for the first time since James McCann had his one good season in Detroit (94 OPS+ in 2017). I’m not sure what Ramos did as a Met to warrant being labeled as an issue they had to address by signing… McCann. Ramos posted 2.0 WAR in 2019 and was playable in 2020. McCann is 31, Ramos 33 and with a much longer track record of offensive performance. It will be satisfying for me to see Ramos post a 110 OPS+ while McCann gets overexposed in an everyday role and gets booed out of New York.

The Tigers also added Nomar Mazara, who keeps getting chances but has shown time and time again that he is perhaps the most useless player with perceived upside in the whole league- no strike zone control, no speed, no defense and 20 home run power. Gross. They are much better off with their current three underrated outfielders of Robbie Grossman (good OBP guy and still only 31), JaCoby Jones (Dynamic and has performed in ’19 and ’20 before injuries) and Victor Reyes (Gamer, fast, smart, can hit .300). They then have former top prospect Christin Stewart and .298 career hitter Harold Castro as fourth and fifth outfielders. Having Mazara unnecessarily complicates that perfectly fine depth. (ed. note: Hans, don’t forget about rule-5 pick, former Twin’s prospect, and minor Star Wars character Akil Baddoo)

With that outfield and the semi-breakouts of SS Willi Castro and 1B Jaimer Candelario, the Tigers have the feeling of an underrated offense. Miguel Cabrera is still around and can provide mentorship and the occasional clutch hit, Renato Nunez was a waiver-wire steal who can hit 30 home runs if you can live with him OBP’ing .310 for 500 PA’s. Niko Goodrum is a really good 10th man who can play a lot of positions decently and with a .750 OPS, and Jonathan Schoop is what he is at this point, a 2.0 WAR guy with power and perhaps the strongest arm at 2B in baseball. Spencer Torkelson may be the best bat in the minors and could be ready at some point in 2021.

Pitching is the focus of most casual observers of the Tigers. They have three starting pitcher prospects in the top 25 of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning. Mize and Skubal pitched in 2020 and Manning isn’t far off. Spencer Turnbull was okay for stretches in 2019 and looked great in 2020, and the duo of Jose Urena and Matt Boyd should provide some decent 4.25 ERA type innings. Daniel Norris is still talented and around as a swingman, and the bullpen has talent in Bryan Garcia, Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto and Buck Farmer.

The Tigers don’t have the superstar type talent on the roster to make them real contenders as currently constructed, and if Willi Castro and Candelario don’t back up their great 2020’s, and Jones gets hurt again, this is going to be another rough year. But the young pitching is intriguing, they supplemented the roster with some above league average vets, and Hinch will receive immediate buy in and accountability from this roster. They are no longer giving at-bats to the likes of Grayson Greiner, Brandon Dixon and John Hicks (I hope), so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a .500 team in 2021. Teams like that sometimes just need a little positive variance to find themselves in contention at the deadline, at which point they could bring up Torkelson and trade for a front-line starter to become a real threat in the division. 2022 looks like the better bet, but this team is coming.

Most WAR: Jones

Wins: 79

Hanser Alberto- great name, underrated pickup

Kansas City Royals

In: Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, Hanser Alberto, Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor

Out: Maikel Franco, Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy

The Royals are generally talked about as closer to contention than the Tigers, and I have to say I don’t quite see it. None of their additions look like sure things- Santana, Minor and Benintendi may be cooked, and Taylor has always been just a good fourth outfielder. Alberto was their best signing; he has great contact skills, decent defense and a high energy personality that makes those around him better, but he might not even get many at-bats with the Royals insisting on Nicky Lopez getting playing time.

The lineup isn’t terrible, with Sal Perez having a great 2020 at the plate, and surrounded by 2019 home run champ Soler, Hunter Dozier and his 125 OPS+ from 2019, the dynamic but mercurial Adalberto Mondesi, hit machine Whit Merrifield, and whatever they get from Benintendi and Santana. The two first basemen named Ryan both have great power, and McBroom seemed to tap into some of his last year, slugging .506.

On the pitching side, they lack the star power to really be a force in that department. But Danny Duffy, Mike Minor, Brad Keller and Jakob Junis have all shown the ability to be slightly better than average pitchers, and top prospect Brady Singer held his own in 2020 over twelve starts. They have potential help coming in number three and number four prospects Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, who both may arrive in 2021. The bottom line is that Singer will have to realize most of his entire potential and the other four will need to post average or better seasons without anyone getting hurt for this staff to be playoff caliber. Not impossible, and the bullpen has the resurgent Greg Holland and rising star Josh Staumont at the back end.

If their veteran signings pan out, Mondesi gets back on track and the starting staff pitches a little above its ability, I could see a .500 or better season. Perhaps number 29 MLB.com prospect SS Bobby Witt Jr. comes up mid-season and provides a spark but this looks more like a 2023 ETA as far as real contention. The locked up Dozier to a four year deal, but the next contending Royals team will likely be without Soler, Minor, Santana and Duffy. The band aids purchased through free agency could offer a glimmer of hope for 2021, but it won’t be truly a reflection of the talent on the active roster, and trading away the future for a top pitcher at the deadline when they are playing .510 ball would likely set the franchise back.

Then again, the Royals ability to develop prospects has not been great so maybe the way forward is to trade potential for controllable stars. I mean, it looks like they hit on Dozier, but that has only been true in one full season, and Mondesi has been a head-scratcher along with Cheslor Cuthbert, Bubba Starling, Ryan O’Hearn, and Kyle Zimmer. At least Zimmer pitched well in 23 innings out of the bullpen in 2020. In the end, I don’t trust the Royals to make sound decisions, or Mike Matheny, and their 2015 championship was negative reinforcement for a franchise that still doesn’t really get it.

Most WAR: Perez

Wins: 76

Cleveland Indians

In: Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario, Blake Parker, Eddie Rosario

Out: Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Brad Hand, Delino DeShields, Tyler Naquin, Domingo Santana

By contrast, the Indians are a well-run outfit that generally plays above the talent on its roster and gets the most out of its prospects. This year will be challenging, however, with less pitching and much less Francisco Lindor. They have the unanimous Cy Young winner in Shane Bieber, along with Zach Plesac coming off a great 2020 (besides being found out to be a douche who flouts COVID protocols and then lies about it to a team leader who happens to be a Leukemia survivor). But Aaron Civale has shown just flashes, and having him as the team’s number three starter seems like asking a bit much. He led the league in hits allowed in 2020 as teams seemed to figure out his cute little two-seamer. The fourth starter looks like Triston Mackenzie, who looked pretty good in six starts. It will probably be a combination of Adam Plutko and Cal Quantrill for the fifth starter, and as much as I respect the Indians pitching development machine, I don’t see pitching as a big strength for them this year. If Plesac pitches like he did in his eight great starts of 2020, that will make a huge difference, but you can’t expect another 1.63 ERA from Bieber over a full season, and at some point the losses of Kluber, Bauer, Clevinger and Carrasco have to be felt.

Which is too bad, because a lot has to go right for the team to be above average offensively. Jose Ramirez remains a star, but a streaky one, and outside of him and perhaps a good revenge season from Eddie Rosario, there isn’t a lot here, and there isn’t a lot of help coming from the minors, either. Number two team prospect Nolan Jones could arrive, but would his promotion be an act of desperation, or a sign he is truly ready? There is a lot of swing and miss in his game but would his bat be better than that of Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, Jake Bauers, Josh Naylor, Daniel Johnson, Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario or someone else the Indians figure to give 400 PA’s to? Hard to say.

Basically, Ramirez, Rosario and Franmil Reyes all have to be healthy and have their best seasons for this offense to be passable. The bullpen may suffer for putting James Karinchak into the closer’s role and relying heavily on Emmanuel Clase and Nick Wittgren in the seventh and eighth innings, and as stated, this isn’t the starting staff from 2017-2020. I would imagine a quick rebound for the Indians 2022 given their excellence in player development, but this year I don’t see enough talent to compete with the Twins and White Sox.

Most WAR: Ramirez

Wins: 78

A lot riding on this Michael Rapaport look-alike (Andrew Vaughn)
Getty Images

Chicago White Sox

In: Lance Lynn, Liam Hendricks, Adam Eaton

Out: Nomar Mazara, Alex Colome, James McCann, Dane Dunning, Steve Cishek

It’s hard to bet against the White Sox. Their offense gelled in 2020 and Lucas Giolito teamed with Dallas Keuchel to give the Sox a dominant top of the rotation. They lost their closer, but replaced him with Liam Hendricks, the best reliever of 2019-2020. They added Lance Lynn, who had been a strikeout machine/workhorse his two years in Texas, and replaced the awful Nomar Mazara with dependable Adam Eaton. They also get Michael Kopech back, and can, for the first time since 2018, see what they have in the flame throwing right hander.

The offense is stacked, with the dynamic and irrepressible Tim Anderson, the uber-talented Yoan Moncada, offensive monster Eloy Jimenez, rock-solid Jose Abreu, the so talented they gave him a huge contract before he played an inning Luis Robert, top five offensive catcher Yasmani Grandal, and hit machine rookie Nick Madrigal. Andrew Vaughn, their sure-thing offensively first round pick, will allegedly try to play left field. The team will score runs even if a couple of their guys have below average years, and Eaton will get on base for all that power.

The issue is depth. Their lineup runs eight or nine deep if you include Vaughn, who may not be ready from the jump. Outside of the starters, you have the formidable combo of Leury Garcia, Danny Mendick and Adam Engel. No offense to them, but they do not compare to Luis Arraez, Mitch Garver and Brent Rooker/Kyle Garlick.

The same can be said of the pitching where, once you get past the dominance of Giolito, Keuchel and Lynn you arrive at Dylan Cease, who is certainly talented but hasn’t put it together for any sustained period. Then there is Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez, both with talent but coming off a series of extremely disappointing years. Kopech may be ready right away, but he is certainly not a guarantee coming off surgery and two fully lost years. Hendricks has been great the past few years, but they invested a lot in him and he has turned into a pumpkin before, most notably after his strong 2015 season with Toronto he became a league average reliever for three years before his resurgence in 2019 with Oakland. Relievers are volatile, even the best ones, and a one year deal for the more consistent Colome over the four year deal Hendricks got seems like a better bet.

Regression may come for a couple others, such as Lynn, who went from good to great upon arriving in Texas but is now 34 and losing even a tick off his fastball may turn him into a lower tier pitcher overnight. Keuchel is an extreme low velocity pitcher, and gave up more hits than innings pitched in both 2018 and 2019. Unfamiliarity may have played a part in his 2020 success and he will be 33 in 2021. Abreu is a masher, but he will be 34 and one can’t reasonably expect a .987 OPS from him again over a full season. There also is no longer a highly effective caddy for Grandal, with James McCann and his .896 OPS leaving for New York. Is Zach Collins ready for 200-250 PA’s? He might be, as a former first round pick who hit .282/.403/.548 in the minors in 2019 but he hasn’t hit big league pitching well to this point and Grandal isn’t getting any younger, either.

And what do we make of Tony La Russa coming back at age 75 to manage a young and up-and-coming team with World Series aspirations? He has won everywhere he has been… except for his stay in Arizona where his front office made a series of high profile blunders, most notably the Shelby Miller trade. The Sox have a number of ultra-talented young Latin players and you have to question whether La Russa is the right fit, especially coming off a successful season with a beloved Latino manager in Rick Renteria. La Russa is a winner, but if the team doesn’t get off to a good start, this could be a disaster.

Moncada will be better, though, and Giolito is dominant, so talent-wise this team should compete with the Twins all season.

Most WAR: Moncada

Wins: 91

Minnesota Twins

In: J.A. Happ, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Colome, Matt Shoemaker, Hansel Robles

Out: Trevor May, Eddie Rosario, Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Matt Wisler

The Twins are probably a little better than last year, but the White Sox could certainly knock them off their perch given the random variance you see in a typical season. The Twins are a safer bet than most, however, given their lineup and pitching depth. The Twins sixth outfielder is probably top 100 prospect Trevor Larnach, and for the White Sox its Blake Rutherford, whoever that is. The Twins fifth infielder is perennial batting champ candidate Luis Arraez, and for the Sox that would be Danny Mendick. Miguel Sano was pretty bad in 2020, but now the Twins can replace him with Rooker or Arraez if need be. Nelson Cruz is 41, but can be replaced by Rooker or sliver slugger Mitch Garver if he goes down. Josh Donaldson has serious calf issues, and if those flare up, Arraez is our full-time third baseman. Top twenty prospect Kirilloff and Larnach are both major league ready, or will be at some point in 2021.

Losing Royce Lewis hurts as he could have made an impact as an injury replacement, but this team has no glaring weaknesses. Kepler is a four WAR player, Simmons can give you three WAR just from his defense and Buxton is similar but with a late twenties power surge that might result in a peak Carlos Gomez (with the Brewers) year if he can just stay healthy for 500 PA’s. Hopefully he, at most, sprains his ankle in July, and comes back in September, hitting a groove in time for the playoffs. I have a feeling Eddie Rosario will be missed initially, but the presence of Kirilloff, Rooker and Larnach along with Rosarios’ money saved being spent on pitching help will make his absence more than palatable. He will absolutely do well in Cleveland, but the Twins are playing the long game and hoping that their young outfielders, along with pitchers Jhoan Duran, Jordan Balazovic and Matt Canterino are factors in 2022.

I like the bullpen upgrades, besides the confusing decision not to give Tyler Clippard 2.25M and losing him to the Diamondbacks. But Hansel Robles is a big arm, and Alex Colome has an elite cutter with his performance improving as his career goes on. With Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers and any improvement against lefties from Jorge Alcala, this could be another solid unit.

Starting pitching is going to be similar to 2020, when it was a top five unit in the game. Maeda should be a little worse, and Berrios a little better. We’ll see more of Pineda who has only been effective for the Twins, and hopefully Happ gives us 180 innings of 4.50 ERA ball. Whether the fifth starter is primarily Shoemaker, Dobnak, Smeltzer or even Duran, the team will be fine.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the issue is going to be the playoffs. This iteration of a contending Twins team is great in the regular season but not the playoffs for a couple reasons: One is that they don’t seem to play Dougie Mientkiewicz baseball anymore. Two is they are cursed from either trading Mientkiewicz or releasing David Ortiz. Three is they are afraid to walk elite hitters and be chastised by Jack Morris. And four is that they don’t hit good pitching, similar to the Oakland teams of the past twenty years- Everyone in the lineup is above average, but not enough of them are the elite, put-fear-into-star-pitchers kind of mashers that excel in the playoffs. My hope is that Kirilloff and a healthy Donaldson join Cruz in being that type of hitter for a playoff series. Kepler, Garver and Buxton are strictly mistake hitters, Polanco is a guess hitter (who turns into a grinder with two strikes), and Sano is a roll of the dice, which won’t get you far against Gerrit Cole. If any of those five are struggling going into the playoffs, they need to be benched. Arraez and Simmons are pesky at-bats- important to have in a playoff series, but the Twins also need to get lucky with injuries like the Yankees have been the past two years.*

*I know that sounds weird since it has been well-publicized that the Yankees have been snake-bit with injuries in 2019 and 2020. Not when it counted. When it counted, the Yankees got all their stars back. They were missing starters James Paxton and Luis Severino in ’20, but were completely healthy going into the 2019 playoffs.

The Twins had no Buxton in 2019, a broken Kepler (his at-bats in the 2019 ALDS were brutal), a broken Polanco, a suspended Pineda resulting in Dobnak for game two and a very limited Arraez, who hit well but made two enormously impactful misplays in the field. In 2020, the Twins were without Buxton and Donaldson and Polanco was a shell of himself; cruel beyond measure considering how well Maeda and Berrios pitched in their starts.

Projection systems and Christopher Russo (oddly) agree that the Twins should win the division, and they appear to have contingency plans for under-performance at any position. They lack, assuming Buxton doesn’t turn into prime Rickey Henderson overnight, the sort of crackling unstoppable talent needed to break a curse. My suggestion is to ask the Cubs about Javy Baez.