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5 big questions for each team in AL Central

@williamfleitch
February 7, 2020

We have reached the midpoint of our bi-weekly division previews: Today we look at the American League Central, the third of the six divisions. That’s how close we are to baseball already, everyone. A bi-weekly series that started in the middle of January is already half over. Previously: AL West

We have reached the midpoint of our bi-weekly division previews: Today we look at the American League Central, the third of the six divisions. That’s how close we are to baseball already, everyone. A bi-weekly series that started in the middle of January is already half over.

Previously:

AL West
NL East

So: The American League Central! Our previews will be extended games of 25 Questions, in which we look at five pressing questions for each team heading into the 2020 season. At the end, we will make some actual predictions on the final standings -- predictions that are unassailable and so obviously iron-clad correct that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once we read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.

Let's take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions this season.

Indians

1. So … Lindor?
The central question of the Indians’ 2020 season is obviously focused on Francisco Lindor, who has been the centerpiece of trade rumors for months. Are the Indians going to trade him? When are the Indians going to trade him? Much may depend on the first two months of the season. Do the Indians get off to a slow start? Do the Twins sprint away and hide? You can’t really talk that much about the 2020 Indians until you know what’s going to happen with Lindor. Remember: He’s under club control through 2021, so there is not necessarily a ton of urgency here.

2. Does anyone remember that this team was actually good last year?
What a year for the Washington Nationals, right? Historic! No one will ever forget it. NATITUDE. Well, I’ll bet that no one remembers that the Washington Nationals and the Cleveland Indians won the exact same number of regular-season games last season: 93. Even in a season in which so much went wrong, the Indians still won as many games as the eventual champs. It’s worth keeping in mind as they largely bring back the same team they had last year.

3. Can José Ramírez be second-half José Ramírez all season?
The 2017 and ’18 AL MVP Award candidate and analytics darling somehow hit .218 in the first half of ‘19, with just seven homers. He didn’t seem to be injured. He just seemed to have forgotten how to hit all together. Then in the second half, he was not only his old self, he was better, putting up a .327/.365/.739 line, interrupted by a most poorly timed injury.

4. Is Carrasco ready to be 100% back?
Carlos Carrasco returned to throw 15 innings after missing three months battling leukemia, and he appears to be on track to return to the rotation this year. If he can be himself—and that’s a big ask -- the Indians’ widely-panned decision to trade Corey Kluber (who, lest we forget, was terrible last year in the rare innings he pitched) makes a lot more sense. With Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac (who was excellent last year as well) and a healthy Carrasco, the Indians have one of the more stable rotations in the game, one with significant upside.

5. How committed are they?
The Indians have had a terrific run here over the last few years, winning three division titles and famously coming so close to that World Series title in 2016. But it hasn’t consistently brought the fans to the ballpark, and there is a growing sense that Cleveland may be near missing its chance. Will the front office roll the dice and make one last run?

Royals

1. Where will Whit Merrifield play?
The fun of the AL’s hits and triples leader is that he can play anywhere: Every position but shortstop, catcher and third base last year. (He’ll likely start in center this year.) The Royals are trying to build a culture, and Merrifield very much represents that culture. But they are also trying to build talent, and Merrifield, on a team-friendly contract with a team option through 2023, remains someone every team in baseball could use. Merrifield is 31 years old and will have no more trade value than he does right now. Every year, it seems like, the national baseball media is trying to trade Merrifield, and the Royals never do it. Maybe this is the year.

2. How many homers can Soler hit?
Jorge Soler’s 2019 season has to be the quietest 48 homers hit in baseball history, no? Did you even know that he did that? Soler’s always going to be a heavy strikeout guy, but his walk rate is up, and he’s obviously staying healthy; he played all 162 games last year.

3. Who’s the first prospect to arrive?
When you’re building for the future like the Royals, you’re always keeping an eye on the farm. The Royals have three prospects on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list: No. 10 Bobby Witt Jr., No. 59 Brady Singer and No. 61 Daniel Lynch. Witt is the true jewel, but a few years away. Singer is probably the closest, not by level -- he still hasn’t pitched above Double A -- but by age; he will turn 24 in August. He should have a chance, perhaps by his birthday, to give a glimpse to Royals fans of what they have to look forward to.

4. How will Mike Matheny fare in his second managing go-around?
Much has been made of how Matheny spent the time after the Cardinals dismissed him working on getting a Master’s degree in management and studying analytics -- tackling his two big, obvious struggles in St. Louis. But he also had issues dealing with young players there, which would seem one of the major job descriptions in Kansas City. Matheny says he’s a different manager now. The Royals will find out quickly if that is true.

5. How many games does Patrick Mahomes throw out the first pitch?
I don’t mean to be glib, but you’ll forgive Kansas City sports fans from maybe not quite being ready to start talking about baseball and the Royals just yet. The Chiefs just electrified that city in the same way the Royals did back in 2015 and, if you’ll remember, it took a few months for the place just to calm down. The Royals will need all the good vibes they can get this year. Maybe a different Chiefs player honored before each game until training camp starts?

Tigers

1. What will we get from Miggy?
Miguel Cabrera had his healthiest season since 2016 (his last All-Star season) last year, playing 136 games and making 549 plate appearances. He was respectable, one supposes, but obviously a pale shade of what he was in his prime. In particular, his power is mostly gone; he had only 12 homers in a year that set home run records. The Tigers sort of have no choice to keep sending him out there, considering he’s signed through 2023.

2. Is this rotation … decent?
The Tigers resisted trading Matthew Boyd last year, and with Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull, he helped lead a perfectly respectable rotation. (Albeit one with four double-digit losers.) Jordan Zimmermann, on the other hand, was a nightmare (6.91 ERA), but he’ll be back for the final season of his contract. If he can even approach average, this rotation has some positives. The bad part? Only Norris is under the age of 27. For a team that’s as far away from contention as the Tigers are, what’s the use of having this many decent mid-career arms?

3. When does Mize arrive?
The Tigers have more talent in the upper levels of the minors than the Royals do, and we should start seeing it this year. Casey Mize was shut down in August, but not because of injury; they just wanted to limit his innings for this year, and the year after. He’ll be in Detroit at some point this year, and it will almost certainly be the highlight of the season for Tigers fans. And fellow right-hander Matt Manning is right behind him. Both are ranked among the top 10 right-handed pitching prospects in baseball. There’s hope on the horizon.

4. Will they score any runs?
If just out of self-respect, the Tigers brought in C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop this offseason, and they instantly became the team’s best two hitters. That is still a way off from saying they are necessarily all that good.

5. Was that the bottom?
The Tigers lost 114 games last season. That is only five fewer than they lost in 2003, a team that is still talked about as one of the worst teams of all time. (That team had three pitchers with more than 17 losses.) The Tigers have talent coming, and you can see some hope, at least on the mound, on the horizon. But the offense is probably going to be worse, and their most reliable pitchers, in both the rotation and the bullpen, may end up traded sooner rather than later. The key moment of the Tigers season may be their first overall pick in the Draft. One can be forgiven for wanting to fast-forward to that, and then continue fast-forwarding when it’s over.

Twins

1. Can they possibly be that homer happy again?
The Twins hit more homers as a team than any in baseball history last year, 307, beating the 2019 New York Yankees by … one. (That homer Jason Castro hit in the fifth inning of the season’s final game, off Jorge López, turned out to be a big one.) The Twins had 11 players hit double-digit homers; eight hit 22 or more and five hit 31 or more. And now they have added Josh Donaldson to the mix. Whether the ball still has as much, uh, pep in it as it did last year, the Twins will live and die by the long ball. Will that still work with everyone a year older?

2. Can Cruz really keep doing this?
Nelson Cruz may seem ageless, but hey, everybody thinks they’re ageless; I’m still certain I look 28, though, it turns out, I do not. Cruz will hit the big 4-0 in July -- he’s currently the fourth-oldest player in baseball -- and yet he is coming off the actual best year of his career: His slash line of .311/.392/.639 was a career high in all three categories. Still, he did miss 40 games, and while we’d all like to think he’s going to go on forever, he won’t.

3. Is there enough rotation depth?
Muscling into the big Mookie Betts trade and grabbing Kenta Maeda will be a smart, surgical move (if the deal goes through). He’s a perfect No. 3 starter for a team that actually had a few question marks in that regard. After Maeda, José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi, the Twins signed Homer Bailey, who was better last year than he’d been since 2013 but is still in fact Homer Bailey. Michael Pineda has to finish up his PED suspension, and Rich Hill had offseason elbow surgery; neither is anything resembling a sure thing. Those lack of starter innings the first month or two of the season tend to add up.

4. How much Buxton will they get?
The absurdity of the 2019 Twins’ record with and without Byron Buxton really can’t be repeated enough:

With Buxton: 62-26
Without Buxton: 39-35

That’s basically the Twins as the 1998 Yankees with Buxton, and as the 2019 Mets without him. He started swinging a bat a couple of weeks ago after labrum surgery in September, and he has a chance to be ready for Spring Training. He has played more than 92 games only once in his career. Making 2020 the second time he’s done so would help matters out considerably.

5. Does any of this matter come October?
It is cruel to even mention this out loud once again, but, alas, this is my job as a professional sports journalist: The Twins have lost a staggering 16 consecutive postseason games, 13 of them to the Yankees. The Twins look to be rather heavy favorites in the AL Central this year. But that won’t mean anything if they fall 0-3 to the Yankees in the ALDS once more. At the very least: Can they maybe play the AL West winner instead?

White Sox

1. Are you not entertained?
No team in baseball had as active an offseason as the White Sox did. After missing out on Manny Machado last offseason, the White Sox added like crazy this offseason, from Dallas Keuchel to Edwin Encarnación to Yasmani Grandal to Nomar Mazara to Gio González. The White Sox already had an exciting young core to build around. They just spent the past few months building around. Not all of these moves will work out. But they show a franchise recognizing that they have reached a moment when they should pounce. So they are pouncing.

2. Is Robert ready?
Had the White Sox not signed Luis Robert to an extension this offseason, it is unlikely that he would have started the season on the roster. But he probably going to now, and he very well might be in center field on Opening Day. The No. 3 overall prospect as ranked by MLB Pipeline is an intoxicating power-speed prospect who might someday be a 30-30 -- or even 40-40 -- player in the big leagues. But he’s unlikely to be that now. The White Sox were willing to wait out Yoán Moncada’s growing pains when he came up because they weren’t really contending. Now, they’re in this to win this. How patient will they be with Robert?

3. Can Cease follow the Giolito path?
Lucas Giolito might be one of the best pitchers in baseball right now, but two years ago he led the Majors in earned runs and the AL in walks; he had a 6.13 ERA in 32 starts. Dylan Cease, a similarly lauded prospect, wasn’t quite that bad in 2019, but he was close. The raw talent is obviously there, and the White Sox are easing him into the No. 5 spot in the rotation. But if this rotation is going to grow and become a legitimate team stretch, it might need Cease to make a step forward like Giolito did.

4. Does Eloy have it in him to make the superstar leap?
There are times when you watch Eloy Jiménez in which you are surprised he does not hit a home run every time he steps to the plate. His power is absurd. But right now, that power is very much limited by a heavy-even-for-2019 strikeout rate and a walk phobia that he needs to shake. Jimenez has the raw talent to be the best hitter on this team for the next decade; but he has plenty of progress to make.

5. Can they be a year early?
The general consensus is that this division will be the White Sox’s to own over the next few years, with the Twins getting older, the Indians surrounded by uncertainty and the Royals and Tigers still a long way away. But the offseason moves clearly show that the front office would like to make that leap right now. Catching the Twins, who finished 28 1/2 games ahead of them last season, might be asking too much. But this would be a great year to run down the Indians and maybe even challenge for an AL Wild Card spot.

Predicted Standings (subject to roster changes):

Twins: 100-62
Indians: 86-76
White Sox: 85-77
Royals: 65-97
Tigers: 58-104

In two weeks: The National League West.