A 2022 Quick Look at the American League Central
Thursday, April 07 2022 @ 07:36 PM EDT
Contributed by: Eephus
Insert "the Blue Jays win 133 games in this division" joke.
First off, thank you for sticking around! Unfortunately, you're sticking around for the AL Central... a division that featured only one winning team! Well, my wild prognosis is that won't happen this year. Before I chomp into which team(s) that could be, we'll start as always with the division winner and work our way down. A division winner, by the way, that may have just committed high level robbery on the best team in baseball. Lets chomp away...
Chicago White Sox (93-69, 1st, lost ALDS)
Q: How, among many possibilities, will Reese McGuire single-handedly lead this team to a pennant and World Series title?
A: I don't know but I'm sure he'll help Chicago pull-- hey, let go! Who are you guys? Where are you throwing me? *smash* *crash*
Sorry about that. That question writer was an imposter only interested in lame, painfully outdated jokes. We've put him to far worse work... the recent Oscars. Man, harsh.
The real question with the White Sox is how healthy their hitters can be, or even any of their key players. Young budding outfield star Eloy Jimenez appeared in only 55 games (missing the entire first two thirds of the season), Luis Robert missed three months in the middle of the year (and was still exceptional when able to play) while Yasmani Grandal is a 33 year old catcher who rakes when healthy, but also missed most of July and August. In all honesty, Reese can probably help this team assuming his single great (non expanded roster) month in 2021 wasn't an extreme one time fluke (a .876 OPS in 17 June games, his next best month was August's .652).
One bizarre but intriguing aspect about the White Sox's direction for 2022 has been their obsession towards adding even more high-leverage relief arms. Alongside closer Liam Hendriks and Aaron Bummer, these Sox have brought in Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly. At first this seemed semi-excessive, but with Garrett Crochet now finished for the season, the Kimbrel-Pollock swap and flamethrowing Michael Kopech moving into a rotation role... Chicago's relief depth was certain to be tested without these moves. Meanwhile, despite Carlos Rodon leaving for the Giants, the White Sox still figure to have a strong rotation led by Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Kopech and potentially Reynaldo Lopez. Some recent bad news has dimmed that quality pitching outlook, with Lance Lynn (coming off another excellent year of 11-6, 2.69 work) requiring knee surgery that'll cost him at least the first month of the season. The Lynn injury opens the possibility for Dallas Keuchel to rebound from a rough year, or for minor league signing Johnny Cueto (love me some of that Cueto shimmy) to get some innings to prove if he's got anything left.
It's possible the pitching takes a step back (their team ERA of 3.73 was 2nd in the American League) but healthier seasons from Jimenez, Robert and Grandal could counter-balance that with an improved offense. You've also got some intriguing young hitters in Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets, plus a star shortstop in Tim Anderson. I wouldn't pick this team to win any other division in baseball (goodness no) but this division? They're clearly a notch ahead of anybody else here.
The Clevelands (2021: 80-82, 2nd)
Q: If they don't trade Jose Ramirez, do he along with their young star pitchers give them a chance?
A: They extended Ramirez. Regardless, at first I would've said this was an easy "no", but looking closer... maybe? This division is real bland.
Those young pitchers are pretty formidable. Shane Bieber already has a Cy Young, Aaron Civale continues to establish himself as a good MLB starting pitcher, while Zach Plesac and Cal Quantrill appear set to continue their "early 2000s Blue Jays bullpen family reunion thing". Now they just need Kelvim Escobar's kid or something. You've also got Triston McKenzie, the youngest of the quintet at 23 and potentially equally dangerous if he can cut down on the free passes (4.4/9 innings). Of the five he was the most difficult to hit, allowing just 84 of them in 120 innings.
Strangely, the Clevelands pitching was not particularly good in 2021. You can probably point at the 170.1 combined innings given to Sam Hentges (1-4, 6.68), J.C. Mejia (1-7, 8.25) and Logan Allen (2-7, 6.26) as the primary culprit. Beyond that big top 5, there isn't a lot of quality waiting in the beyond (you can say the same about the hitters as well, beyond Ramirez and Franmil Reyes). This team could be a serious Bieber injury and or Plesac/Civale ineffectiveness away from losing 90+ games, even with Jose Ramirez. Call it 'Angels Syndrome', Mike Trout knows it well.
On the other side of that, unless you get an Amed Rosario or Josh Naylor breakout... it's difficult to see the offense being much better than it was in 2021 either. This franchise seems fairly stuck at the moment: there's too much exceptional young pitching to blow that up, but not nearly enough MLB level quality behind their seven best players to scare anybody. In a bad division it's the type of team that could surprise once in a while, but the margin for error is real thin... and of course this isn't an organization particularly interested in addressing their flaws through free agency either.
Detroit Tigers (2021: 77-85, 3rd)
Q: Could this be the year the young rebuilding Tigers become sneaky good?
A: I just might think yes, which will make my softball coach (a Windsor native) real proud.
They've made some intriguing additions. Lefty starter Eduardo Rodriguez and middle infielder Javier Baez are the headline ones, but stellar glove-first catcher Tucker Barnhart, reliever Andrew Chafin, pitcher Michael Pineda and outfielder/DH Austin Meadows are also aboard to help raise the talent floor. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario has morphed into a noteworthy bat (which is not something often said about the Detroit Tigers in recent years), leading the American League in doubles for 2021. Meanwhile, walk machine Robbie Grossman and non-walk machine Jonathan Schoop are around as veterans to provide modest veteran production.
Lets be real, though. The real key for Detroit to do damage will be how ready their considerable stable of young players are. Young starters Casey Mize (#1 pick in 2018) and to a lesser extent Tarik Skubal have already arrived, with Mize overcoming a brief but rough 2020 cameo to post an encouraging 150.1 innings of 3.71 ball. 24 year old Matt Manning, the 9th pick in the 2016 draft, is another young arm the Tigers are high on, although his 2021 debut (4-7, 5.80) was a bumpy one. On that note, if 2021 was the year the Tigers promising young starting pitchers arrived, 2022 may be the year the Tigers young hitters arrive. The biggest name would be Spencer Torkelson, first overall pick of the 2020 draft and posed to make his big league debut less than twenty-two months later. Though Torkelson has played some third base in the minors, one assumes the presence of Candelario will keep him mostly playing first or DHing. The other notable super-prospect is centerfielder Riley Greene, yet another top ten draft pick (boy the Tigers were really bad for a while there, eh). Unfortunately, Greene's big league debut will have to wait a couple months as he broke his foot during spring training. This will likely push Akil Baddoo back to centerfield for a while, a position the Rule 5 sensation appeared at fairly often in 2021. Baddoo had never played above high A ball before posting a 113 OPS+ over a 124 game sample in the freaking major leagues... whether he can continue this surprise success will be interesting to watch and key for Detroit's chances.
I do worry about the defense though. Mize hasn't exactly shown an elite ability to miss bats (minors or majors) and there promise to be some adventures behind him. Having both Torkelson and Miguel Cabrera around almost certainly means Schoop is back to playing second, which seems a novel concept for a fella listed at 6'1, 247. New addition Austin Meadows isn't a strong outfielder either, but then Robbie Grossman... for all his skills... has consistently graded out as a completely atrocious fielder. Keep in mind you might have both of these guys out there at the same time in the spacious Comerica Park outfield. At least they have a very good 1-B backstop (Barnhart) and an absolute defensive wizard in Javy Baez at shortstop.
This will be a very interesting Tigers team to watch, which is not something that's been said all that recently. The rotation as it currently stands (Mize, Skubal, E. Rodriguez, Michael Pineda and Manning) seems decent at worst and there are some experienced backup plans in Wily Peralta and Tyler Alexander should one of the youngsters falter (the loss of Spencer Turnbull for the season will hurt a bit, though). I can picture this as a .500 team if things go somewhat ordinarily, but if the young guys like Manning, Torkelson or Greene when he returns can offer something extra on top of that... well it'll be very interesting indeed.
Hey also, Drew Hutchison.
Kansas City Royals (74-88, 4th)
Q: Will mega-prospect Bobby Witt Jr. make this team somewhat exciting to watch?
A: That's a tall, tall order for a rookie, even for someone as obviously talented as Witt Jr. . We're talking about the 2022 Kansas City Royals here. This is a team likely to bat Andrew Benintendi in its top 4. Often.
At least in the fun department, the 2021 squad had Salvador Perez going nuts for 48(!) home runs. His previous career high was 27. I think I recall a certain season previewer, uh... Oophus was his name... arguing that the then 4 year/82 million dollar contract KC gave to Perez was an unwise gamble. What an idiot! Well, in my... er, that guy's defense... who saw Perez playing 161 games in a season? (121 at catcher, 40 at DH).
Despite the similar W-L records by these young teams, the Royals seem a couple years behind where the Tigers are. Kansas City might be better positioned as far as quantity of arms and defense go, but even if Witt Jr. is a stud immediately it's incredibly difficult to see how this Royals team is going to score remotely enough runs to compete. They finished 13th in the AL in runs scored and that was with Sal Perez's monster year (he alone drove in 17.6 percent of their runs. That's more than a sixth! One guy!). The Royals in 2022 might not be the complete dregs of the American League, but few other teams have such a low upside either.
Minnesota Twins (73-89, 5th)
Q: Ummm... what the heck are these guys doing?
A: Beats the heck out of me.
Coming off two straight division titles, the 2021 Twins got off to an abysmal 14-28 start and were never able to recover. So they traded some of their best players in-season, Nelson Cruz and Jose Berrios in particular. Makes sense, kinda, although Berrios wasn't an impending free agent like Cruz was. Then in the offseason they trade away two more of their best 2021 hitters, Josh Donaldson and Mitch Garver, for what essentially ends up being Gio Urshela, Gary Sanchez and a short RH pitching prospect. Weird on the surface, but seemingly the kind of move a rebuilding team would make to get younger and save some cash.
Naturally... the Twins go out and sign superstar Carlos Correa, trade for Sonny Gray, and are handing out guaranteed money on lottery tickets like Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer to desperately fill out their wafer-thin rotation. Gee... I bet this staff would look better if they hadn't traded away their ace last year...
Who knows what on Earth the intention of the Twins is in all of this. Maybe it doesn't work and they get a ransom for Gray and Correa at the deadline? But if they're actually trying to compete and win... I don't get it. Essentially, they've swapped Donaldson for Correa, Berrios for Gray and Garver for Sanchez. One of those is an obvious upgrade but the other two? I mean, maybe getting Sanchez out from behind the plate and especially out of New York might unlock something... but otherwise this feels like Minnesota swapped their rooks for knights.
I suppose there's a route back to respectability, maybe even fringe playoff contention. Jorge Polanco and Correa make a very dynamic middle infield, bats like Max Kepler and Miguel Sano can bounce back from quasi-down years... scoring runs may very well not be a problem in Minnesota. Preventing them? This was a team with a 4.83 ERA, 14th in the American League... and now their three actual good and most used pitchers are gone (Berrios traded, Michael Pineda left for Detroit and Kenta Maeda had Tommy John in September). Is a Sonny Gray return to the AL, or a flyer on high upside but inconsistent Chris Paddack, or a roll of the dice on found money in Bundy and Archer enough to overcome that? Obviously we don't know yet, but I'm gonna skip ahead of the line and say 'no'.
Predictions time! It's a tricky one at the top, and tricky at the bottom. Here goes:
CWS -- 90-72
DET -- 88-74
MIN -- 77-85
CLE -- 76-86
KC -- 71-91
I really think all these injuries the White Sox seem unable to avoid are going to keep them and Detroit fairly close throughout the season. Obviously I'm banking on the Tigers getting a breakout or two (I'm guessing Torkelson announces his authority to pitchers with hostile disregard and Skubal takes a big leap). One key factor I neglected to mention with the Twins, which is a yearly question with them, is how much Byron Buxton are they going to get. A full season of Buxton? Suddenly you've got a potential top 5 player in the American League and another superstar up the middle with Correa. Unfortunately, Buxton's games played totals over the past three non-shortened seasons (28, 87 and 61) are difficult to get past. Meanwhile Cleveland and Kansas City barely interest me at all (the Guardians young pitching and Witt Jr. being the only things curious to follow).
Unfortunately, a fever knocked me out for a few days and I won't have time to write one of these at length for the American League East before the Blue Jays start on Friday. I might whip up something extremely quick if I can get it out by Friday morning, but we'll see. Either way, we all know what that particular division is about.