Predicting the AL Central with 10 key questions
Opening Day is on March 30, and as we approach that date, we’re previewing each of the six divisions.
Previews so far:
Today, we complete our project with the American League Central, which feels, once again, a little like a winner-by-default division. You’ve got teams finally starting over under a new regime (Royals, Tigers) and a team coming off a hugely disappointing season (White Sox). Then you have the Twins, who thought they were saying goodbye to their star player before welcoming him back but are still facing questions about whether they actually improved.
Then you have the defending champion Guardians, who were good last year but mostly look the same. The goal is the same, too: Be the best of a group of teams that is not exactly flooring it. There’s a ton of talent in this division, but each of these five clubs could consider itself lucky to not be facing stiffer competition.
So here is a breakdown of the AL Central. Teams are listed in alphabetical order with my standings prediction below.
1) Do they have enough power?
It was fun to watch the Guardians knock singles and motor around the bases most of last season, particularly in the ALDS. Alas, the name of the game these days is power, and the Guardians just didn’t have enough of it. (You can argue that’s precisely the reason they fell just short against the Yankees.)
They added Josh Bell specifically for that reason, but the success of that move depends on which Bell they get: the guy who was killing it for the Nationals, or the guy who struggled with the Padres after the Trade Deadline? A healthy José Ramírez will make a big difference, too, as his injury struggles last year led to a steep decline in the second half. Cleveland also added catcher Mike Zunino to boost the power, but you wonder if the real surge could come from Josh Naylor, who changes this entire lineup if he comes into his own. (And perhaps that applies to his little brother, Bo Naylor, as well.)
2) Will they add if they need to?
The Guardians, right now, look like the best team in the AL Central, well positioned to defend their division title. That’s particularly true when you consider their pitching depth and the run of position players in the Minors ready to introduce themselves over the next couple of years. (George Valera, get excited.) But this is still a tight division, and if it’s close at the Trade Deadline (and it likely will be), the White Sox and especially the Twins will be quite incentivized to do whatever they can to get better. Will the Guardians? Recent history tells us no, that they’ll sit tight even if they have holes to address. They got away with that last year. Will it work again this time?
1) Will Bobby Witt Jr. take a big leap?
It is totally unfair to ask Witt to be a superstar right out of the gate. Baseball is really hard! It’s not like he was bad or anything as a rookie. His 102 OPS+ made him an above-average hitter. His defense wasn’t great, but he clearly has the skills to improve, and he finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year Award voting. We should all have a year like that. But Witt was supposed to be the savior of this franchise, the guy the whole building was constructed around, and so far, we haven’t seen that. Again, a 20-homer, 30-steal season is a terrific start, and if 2022 was his floor, he’s going to be just fine. But the Royals need him to be more than just fine. Is this the year?
2) Just how different will this organization be?
For the first time since before they won the World Series in 2015, the Royals cleaned house this offseason. Former manager Mike Matheny and former general manager Dayton Moore are gone, with Matt Quatraro and J.J. Picollo in their places, respectively. The message is clear: The Royals are pivoting to a more analytical approach. That’s surely a smart move, but it’s not necessarily something we’ve seen much of yet. It will look different this year, but how different? What’s the long-term plan? This will be the first year we get glimpses of it. Royals fans will be grateful for every peek at the future they can get.
1) Last year is over, right?
Yes, it is. Right there, that’s progress. I don’t mean to be glib about that, but you don’t need to remind Tigers fans that everything that could have gone wrong in 2022 did go wrong. Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit’s big-ticket free-agent acquisitions, never got going. Akil Baddoo, Jonathan Schoop and Austin Meadows took huge steps back. Worse, Spencer Torkelson struggled mightily to match his status as a top prospect.
Almost all of Detroit’s starting pitchers got injured. In other words, there is no way that 2023 can possibly be worse than ‘22. Now, that may be relative to expectations, which are far, far lower this year than they were last year. But again, that’s another advantage of ‘23: There’s nowhere to go but up.
2) How does the Miguel Cabrera farewell tour go?
Expecting Miggy to have the sendoff that Albert Pujols enjoyed is unreasonable; though, to be fair, it was also unreasonable to expect Pujols to do what he did. Cabrera, who will turn 40 on April 18, had the worst year of his career last year, hitting for neither average nor power. But there’s not much reason to not give him every opportunity to play this year, since it’s not as if there are a ton of other hitters pushing their way into the lineup. You’d love to see Miggy have a moment or two in his last go-around in Detroit. He’ll be the story at Comerica Park all year. He is a legend, after all.
1) Hey, Carlos, how’s that leg?
Are you going to be staring at Carlos Correa’s left leg every time you watch him play for the next six years? I have to admit, I might be doing that. The physical that roiled the Hot Stove and led to Correa almost becoming a Giant and then almost Met until finally, a Twin again, also prompts questions that will take the next six years (or more) to answer.
But in the short term -- however long that “short term” is -- Correa is, improbably, still a Twin. That makes him not a quick rental the Twins feel lucky to have for a season; it makes him a superstar to build around. That also means that the Twins have the impetus to compete for a division title every year. You don’t waste a star of Correa’s caliber, in his prime, by rebuilding or retooling. The Twins have to be in it to win it for the next six years. Having Correa at the center of everything is a terrific way to give them a great shot, as long as that leg holds up.
2) Is Pablo López enough?
You can make strong arguments, particularly when you dig into the advanced metrics, that trading fan-favorite Luis Arraez for López was a smart move, given Arraez was going to run into some positional issues. Could the Twins have afforded to keep Arraez as their full-time first baseman/DH? Instead, they arguably flipped him at the peak of his value. But that requires López to be the ace the Twins clearly expect him to be. López is notoriously a fast starter, albeit one who tends to slow down as the year goes along. They are counting on him to lead this rotation, something he never had to do in Miami. Is he ready for that?
1) How’s the vibe, post-La Russa?
It is not fair to blame Tony La Russa for everything that went wrong with the White Sox last year. It’s not like the occasional eccentric intentional walk somehow cost this team 20 games in the standings. The issues went far beyond him. But there was also no question that The La Russa Debate took up almost all of the oxygen on the South Side for the last two years, to the point that it’s difficult to blame the White Sox (and, really, La Russa) for wanting a fresh start.
So in steps Pedro Grifol. The first-time manager and former Royals bench coach brings a new voice -- one that, at least theoretically, should be more connected to both today’s players and his own front office. But no manager stays all that popular for all that long. Grifol has a low bar for immediate improvement, but there’s enough talent on this roster that he’ll be expected to get this team back to competing for a division title this year.
2) Will everyone ever be healthy at the same time?
Three years ago, it really felt like the White Sox were going to rule this division for the next half-decade. Luis Robert Jr., Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson and Yoán Moncada were all electric stars in their early-to-mid-20s, seemingly a Murderer’s Row for the new decade. And that was just the hitters.
It has not turned out that way, though. All four of those players have struggled with injuries, underperformance or both, and the team has just never been able to get everything aligned the way it was supposed to. The good news is that they are all still in their 20s, albeit just barely, since Anderson hits 30 in June. And so far this spring, they’re healthy. You’d have to think just blind luck would eventually conspire to keep all four guys healthy and productive for a whole season at some point. If this is that year -- and it absolutely could be -- the White Sox have a talent base the rest of the division can’t match.
Chicago White Sox: 90-72
Cleveland Guardians: 88-74
Minnesota Twins: 86-76
Kansas City Royals: 67-95
Detroit Tigers: 65-97
This is the fourth consecutive year I’ve picked the White Sox to win the division and, to be fair, they did actually do it once (in 2021). I’m still a believer, with a new manager and better health. In the end, I don’t trust the Guardians to make the big move they probably need to take advantage of this division. As usual, though, you could pick any of those top three teams. Your guess is as good as anyone's.