Both of the top two free-agent outfielders are officially off the market, and neither Nick Castellanos nor Marcell Ozuna landed in the American League Central. However, the Royals were able to make a decent splash by bringing back Alex Gordon to man left field. Despite the Indians’ need to pick up an impact outfielder, all else has remained quiet in outfield additions across the division.
A trio of Gordon, Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier has much potential for Kansas City’s outfield, but the Twins are also returning a powerful three in Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario. Will the Indians attempt to make a last-minute push by signing Yasiel Puig to help bolster their outfield? Could the Tigers still attempt to make a free-agent signing? Can the White Sox rely on their young players in the grass?
There are plenty of questions surrounding each team’s outfield situation in the AL Central. Let’s take a deeper look at the outfielders around the division:
The best: Twins
At its worst, the young and talented Minnesota outfield should still be a strong asset at the core of a playoff-hopeful team. At its best, it could be among the most productive in the Major Leagues. As has been the case for the last several seasons, the brunt of that distinction lies in one question: Can Buxton stay on the field for a full season?
Before injuries and a season-ending shoulder surgery again limited the Twins' center fielder to 87 games last season, Buxton was among the league leaders in doubles and WAR thanks to much-improved consistency at the plate to go with his outstanding defense. If he can stay healthy and come even close to his .262/.314/.513 line from last season, a 4-WAR season will easily be within reach, and 6-WAR wouldn't be out of the question. He makes both Rosario (32 homers, .800 OPS) and Kepler (36 homers, .855 OPS) better on defense and rounds out the bottom of the Twins' lineup. Regardless, there's little reason to believe that Rosario's consistent power and Kepler's keen eye at the plate (and still developing power stroke) shouldn't carry into 2020, with do-it-all man Marwin Gonzalez ready to step in as a starter if needed, and Top 100 prospects Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach nearly Major League-ready. This should be one of the most well-rounded and highest-floor groups in the division -- if not the league -- and one that could still have a great deal of untapped potential.
The rest (in alphabetical order)
The Tribe’s outfield situation could improve if the club would sign Puig, but as each day goes by, it seems more likely that the team may decide to rely on its internal options to patrol the grass. Right now, the only guarantee is Oscar Mercado will be one of the three starters. Whether he’s in center or left will be determined by what the club wants to do with newly acquired Delino DeShields. Everything else is currently up in the air. The Tribe has a plethora of options – Jake Bauers, DeShields, Mercado, Greg Allen, Jordan Luplow, Franmil Reyes, Daniel Johnson, Bradley Zimmer and eventually Tyler Naquin (ACL) -- to choose from, but none is expected to be the offensive answer the club needs.
The Royals’ outfield dynamics changed dramatically on Jan. 24 when seven-time Gold Glove winner Gordon and the team agreed upon a one-year, $4 million deal for 2020. Gordon will be back patrolling left field, though he probably won’t be asked to play in 150 games as he did last season – the Royals also will have outfielders Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling, both of whom are out of options and who need to be evaluated as potential future pieces. Phillips and Starling will see playing time. The signing of free-agent third baseman Maikel Franco in December also changed matters -- that made former third-baseman-of-the-future Dozier a right fielder, and pushed super utility man Merrifield to center field. The trifecta of Gordon-Merrifield-Dozier gives the Royals plenty of defense in the outfield in cavernous Kauffman Stadium, without limiting their offense.
JaCoby Jones returns to man center field at Comerica Park after missing most of the second half last season with a back strain and a fractured left wrist. The corners are in flux, depending on whether general manager Al Avila signs a free agent as planned. Christin Stewart had a rough first full Major League season, especially on defense, but should at least get the bulk of a platoon in left. Former Rule 5 Draft pick Victor Reyes was one of the few bright spots the Tigers had offensively last year, batting .304 with a .767 OPS, and could mix and match all over the outfield. Travis Demeritte will have to try to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster after struggling in right field down the stretch. Detroit ranked 12th or worse among the 15 AL teams for production at all three outfield spots last year.
In Eloy Jiménez (23 years old), Luis Robert (22) and Nomar Mazara (24), the White Sox have an abundance of youthful talent running across their outfield. Robert agreed to a six-year, $50 million deal early in January, meaning he will be part of the Opening Day roster in center field after producing one of the better Minor League seasons in recent memory. Across stops at Advanced Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte, Robert hit .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 36 stolen bases, 31 doubles, 11 triples and 108 runs scored. There should be a big league adjustment in store for Robert at the outset, but he has the raw ability to become a force.
Jiménez understands that big league adjustment, with opposing hurlers attacking the left fielder as if he was a seasoned veteran with a proven track record from the outset in 2019. But Jiménez made adjustments and hit 31 home runs as a rookie. Staying healthy and improving his defense, something Jiménez vowed to work hard to do at SoxFest this past weekend, will be integral for his second season. Mazara has four years of proven results with the Rangers, although he has been better against right-handers than southpaws. But manager Rick Renteria believes there is untapped potential to be found with Mazara.