A Quick Look At The American League Central

Wednesday, March 31 2021 @ 06:36 AM EDT

Contributed by: Eephus

Of all the divisions in the American League, this one had the best winning percentage?

Indeed! The 2020 AL Central was a tight three way race with one game separating that trio at the top. Two of those teams appear poised to duke it out once again for the division crown, while the third... well we'll get into that one. Away we go!

Minnesota Twins (2020: 36-24, 1st, lost WCS)

Q: Will this team finally... finally... be able to win a playoff series?

Answer: Maybe if they don't play the Yankees (though in 2020 it was the Astros this time that knocked them out).

It's remarkable how the Twins' playoff misfortunes over the past two decades have come nearly exclusively at the hands of the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees eliminated Minnesota in 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, the 2017 Wild Card game and 2019. The Twins' overall record in those matchups is 2-16... and it's not like it was the same players on each side during this entire stretch.

The 2021 Twins will be hoping to finally overcome that misery and seem at least well positioned to challenge for the postseason again. They've got the 2020 AL Cy Young runner up Kenta Maeda, elite centerfielder Byron Buxton who, while still with only one full healthy season in his MLB career, has really made an offensive leap the past couple years. Josh Donaldson is around to do Josh Donaldson things (who else could get tossed after hitting a home run) as is the ageless Nelson Cruz to add some thunder to the lineup.

One potential weakness could be the rotation depth beyond Maeda and young righty Jose Berrios. J.A. Happ is a solid addition in that regard, Randy Dobnak was reliable in 2020 (and wears funky glasses! And drives an Uber! *Insert underpaid minor leaguers joke here), then between Matt Shoemaker and Michael Pineda maybe you can almost graft a full season of innings between those two.

They're an odd team with many solid regulars but lacking a true superstar: Cruz is a DH... Donaldson is 35 and now more of a fringe all-star than MVP candidate... Maeda is clearly very good but actually 2020 good? It could be Buxton but he needs to stay in the lineup. I like the high floor of this team but I'm not as convinced of the ceiling, though that elevation should be enough to dominate this weakened division.

Chicago White Sox (2020: 35-25, T-2nd, lost WCS)

Q: Will they be all right after the Eloy Jimenez injury?

Answer: Before the news of Jimenez's injury was known, I had a much different question: why on Earth would you want a 76 year old Tony La Russa to manage your team? In 2021? And why would you want him to manage this team? By the sounds of it, once they fired Rick Renteria they weren't seriously pursuing any other candidates... um... okay? I guess when you can hire a Hall of Fame manager (who is also the owner's buddy) who coached your team 35 years ago, you can't say no. Well if the Blue Jays are disappointed with Charlie Montoyo, maybe we should see what Bobby Cox is up to. He's only 79!

Anyway in regards to Jimenez, it's a big blow no doubt (he's out until September sounds like), but the White Sox should be okay. They've still got star shortstop Tim Anderson (La Russa will love his awesome bat flips I'm sure), the reigning MVP Jose Abreu, one of MLBs best catchers in Yasmani Grandal, and a couple of super talented young players who still haven't quite unlocked their full potential (Yoan Moncada and outfielder Luis Robert). Even if Abreu isn't quite MVP caliber again, this should still be an above average offense.

On the pitching side, the 2020 team got a vintage season out of the bearded wonder himself: Dallas Keuchel. After his Cy Young award season in 2015, Keuchel had slipped off a bit into merely a useful middle rotation arm, though he wasn't allowing hits or home runs at noticeably increased rates. 2020 Keuchel allowed an OPS of .556 to opposing hitters, which when compared with the .764 and .704 marks he surrendered the previous two seasons, is quite noticeable. He'll figure to assume the ace role of this staff, followed by big offseason trade addition Lance Lynn, a pitcher who throughout his career continues to get great results despite not being excellent at any one particular thing. Well, aside from not allowing runs it seems! Young Lucas Giolito rounds out a pretty dangerous top three, and with Adam Eaton now back on the team (and likely to see a much bigger role with the Jimenez injury) it sure looks like that trade worked out well for Chicago (and the Nationals...flags fly forever).

The bullpen should be a lot of fun too. Liam Hendriks is on board to finish games, but his supporting cast is even more fearsome. Evan Marshall and Aaron Bummer were both very good in limited 2020 innings (Bummer was also great in 2019), Codi Heuer was almost unhittable (.143 bavg against in 23.2 IP) and Matt Foster likewise so, while big time starting prospects Garrett Crochet and Michael Kopech will begin the year in the big league bullpen. Crochet, taken 11th overall in 2020, seems to have skipped the minors completely for now. For Kopech (acquired for Chris Sale way back when) this will be the first time he's pitched since 2018 after Tommy John surgery and then opting out of the 2020 season. They were already the best bullpen in baseball before adding Hendriks and graduating Crochet and Kopech. An embarrassment of riches to be sure.

Cleveland Clevelanders (2020: 35-25, T-2nd, lost WCS)

Q: After another fire sale, can manager Terry Francona somehow keep this team competitive?

Answer: Hard no.

They've given away too much major league talent. You just can't lose so many good players and expect to be just as good replacing them with spare parts (just ask the 2020/21 Toronto Raptors). Reigning Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac will give them a chance on those nights they pitch, and if Cal Quantrill and/or Triston McKenzie can step up and provide reliable starts behind them... well maybe they have a shot at .500 and then who knows. But aside from Jose Ramirez, I have no idea how this team is going to score enough runs to be a playoff threat. They were 13th in the AL in runs scored to begin with and that was before they ditched their star shortstop.

This is a "Is Help Is On The Way?" team and it certainly is, with multiple prospects on Top 100 lists (including McKenzie, #58 according to Fangraphs). There's a foundation for future hope, and many of the players acquired in the Lindor/Clevenger trades are close enough to the majors that Cleveland's turnabout to competitiveness could potentially be fast. It won't be this season though. They are a good team for Canuck prospect following at least (Josh Naylor, his catcher brother Bo in the minors and Quantrill). Plus, Anthony Gose is trying to make it back as a pitcher throwing 100mph? They're more interesting than the Rockies or Rangers at least.

Kansas City Royals (2020: 26-34, 4th)

Q: Is giving 80 million bucks to a 30 year old catcher with a career OBP of .300 a good idea?

Answer: I can't imagine so. Sal Perez had a very nice year with the bat in 2020, but throughout his career has been an extremely league average hitter by OPS+. He also missed the entire 2019 season because of Tommy John surgery. Perez is a nice player, sure, but this extension seems like a case of the Royals competing against themselves here.

The Royals won't be good in 2021, but I doubt they'll be completely terrible either. They have a decent enough lineup (Hunter Dozier, Perez, Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield), plus the possibility of outfielder Andrew Benintendi unlocking something the Red Sox could not, and some okay-ish pitching... much like the Twins this is a team lacking a true superstar, just with a much, much lower floor. It's extremely tough to see them as anything other than an also-ran even in this weak division (2020 winning percentage be damned!)

But step right up! It's the "Is Help On The Way?" game! Today's contestant... the 2021 Kansas City Royals! Bob, em what they've won!

Well that's right, Eephus. This years prize is Bobby Witt Jr.! A shortstop who hasn't played above Rookie ball, but was the second overall pick in the 2019 Draft and a consensus Top 20 prospect in all of baseball! Witt Jr. is still only 20 years old and like countless others wasn't able to play professional baseball in 2020, so who knows how this prize will turn out??? The Royals sure hope it will be a real Showcase Showdown Final Question Daily Double that's for sure! Back you, Eephus!

I knew hiring that guy would pay off. Aside from Witt Jr., they've also got lefty pitcher Asa Lacy (4th overall in 2020) and Daniel Lynch, another first round lefty who was really on the verge of unlocking something when boom! No 2020 minor league season. Those three won't be helping the 2021 (or probably 2022) Royals, but KC does have a few random former Blue Jays farmhands who could: Ryan McBroom and Edward Olivares! Olivares was traded for Yangervis Solarte I believe (that sure worked out... oops) and I remember McBroom hitting a home run for the Jays in a spring training game four years ago. And you know what? I've now completely run out of things to say about the 2021 Royals. I'm outta here!

Detroit Tigers (2020: 23-35, 5th)

Q: What is this team? And what do they do?

Answer: I'm guessing they're waiting for the big prospects to arrive, or this 60 year old version of Miguel Cabrera to finally be off their books. They've got some well regarded prospect dudes! Okay yeah, we're jumping very quickly into the "Is Help On The Way?" segment because this is not a good or interesting team whatsoever otherwise.

Here are some names: Spencer Torkelson, Matt Manning, Dave Hibursh, Riley Greene, Leandro Perez, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, James Plinko. They're all names, that's for sure... but I only made up three of them! The rest are top 100 prospects in MLB. I'll only talk about a couple, since it's more fun if even I don't know all the ones which are actually real.

A real person: Casey Mize! You probably knew that, he was a first overall pick in 2018 and much hyped prospect. The results thus far in the majors (and 2021 spring straining) have been, well shaky. He was a college guy and thus expected to move quickly, thus the seven start cameo last season. He's been very hittable, unfortunately for the Tigers, and especially prone to the big fly. Mize surrendered 7 in 28.1 MLB innings last year, and now 4 in 14 innings in spring training. I mean, if the Tigers are open to a Mize-Roark swap I wouldn't say no.

In all seriousness though, he almost definitely needs some time in the minors to discover what gets professional hitters out consistently, to find that consistency within himself and roll with that. It's hard to shake those expectations of being a #1 pick, for both organization and player, and while he may end up being another Bryan Bullington regardless... hey, what's the big rush anyway? The Tigers ain't goin' nowhere in 2021 (as much as my Windsor born softball coach might like trying to convince my team otherwise).

Okay one more dude, because this ain't a Tigers blog and there's only so much I can say about late career Miguel Cabrera. I'm going with Tarik Skubal, only because I saw him pitch twice in the spring, had never heard of him before, was impressed and then learned he was a top 30 prospect who even pitched in the majors last year. That's all I got. Actually I like Skubal's chances of being a useful MLB pitcher in 2021 and even 2022 more than I do Mize's, a conclusion I'm basing completely on the same logic I used to make people up when listing the Tigers best prospects. All right lets get out of here.

Crystal ball time. I'll briefly explain afterwards, only because my choice irks me for a very specific reason.

CWS 94-68
MIN 90-72
KC 76-86
CLE 73-89
DET 69-93

On paper, the White Sox are the best team in the division, and I like their chances of coming out on top. They're an interesting team, with stars up the middle and a hard throwing bullpen... so what's not to like? Well, personally I'm just sick of La Russa. I cheered against the 2006 and 2011 Cardinals (the latter of which would/should have been his swan song). Why is he back? Maybe he's a generational baseball manager who is just really good at bringing out the untapped potential of teams, and even if so greatsurefinewhatever. Thing is, if the White Sox make the playoffs, that La Russa narrative on postseason broadcasts will never begin or end because it's just always been! Feel like I've spent my literal entire life (LaRussa's A's beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS when I was 2) disliking his teams and hey this White Sox squad looks super fun. Way to ruin it for me.

Sigh, I just think the White Sox have more advantages than the overall above-averageness of the Twins. But it should be close. The other three teams don't matter: the Royals are stuck in Middle Land (circa Blue Jays 1998-2009), the Clevelands are trying to be bad on purpose and the Tigers need to see something truly exciting before getting any hopes up.
We are almost near the end of this baseball odyssey... our beloved destination the next exit off the highway. We just zipped past that familiar gas station, as we roll up into the driveway of the division we know most intimately. What's that? Sorry, I'm being told I need to use more analogies. Tune in next time for that!