GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Those people viewing the American League Central as primarily a two-team race between the Twins and White Sox might want to take a closer look at Cleveland’s starting pitching.
Shane Bieber, the reigning AL Cy Young winner and probably the most dominant pitcher in baseball during the 2020 season, sits atop a deep rotation. But this group is not alone in regard to potential for dominance within the division.
The White Sox have a strong and experienced front three -- something they were missing last year -- along with top young talent at the back of the rotation. Minnesota’s front five appears set with Spring Training underway.
Here’s a look at what we know and what still needs to be figured out in each of the division’s starting rotations.
Bieber, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. There’s no question that these three will be the core of the Tribe’s rotation this year. With Bieber coming off of his AL Cy Young Award in 2020, he’ll without a doubt be the club’s Opening Day starter. Plesac’s outstanding season last year, during which he posted a 2.28 ERA in eight starts, will likely slot him in behind Bieber. And while it’s still early in camp, Civale looked crisp in his first exhibition outing, prompting Indians manager Terry Francona to say, “I think we think this kid’s ceiling is maybe a little higher than people who don’t know him.”
While it’s likely that Triston McKenzie, who made his debut in 2020 after going two years without playing in any competitive setting due to injuries, will be the Indians’ fourth starter, it’s not an absolute guarantee (like the other three) just yet, as he’s still proving what he’s capable of on the rubber. He pitched to a 3.24 ERA in eight games (six starts) last season and said he’s ready to show that he can switch into the next gear this spring. The biggest battle in camp will be for the Tribe’s fifth starting spot. The team has a handful of candidates to win the job, but Cal Quantrill, Logan Allen and Adam Plutko currently stand as the favorites.
-- Mandy Bell
The Royals will likely return four starters for their rotation in Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. Lefty Mike Minor has returned to the Royals on a two-year deal and will fill out the rotation, bringing an innings eater and veteran arm to the rotation for 2021. Keller was slated to be the Opening Day starter in 2020 before COVID-19 delayed his season, but the young ace -- whose goal this year is to be a workhorse and ready to go out of the gate -- will likely get a second chance this year. Singer and Bubic are no longer rookies and have both prepared for the adjustments they’ll need to make in their second year, while Duffy is entering the final year of his five-year contract, looking for the consistency and feel he says he found at the end of last season.
What’s unclear so far is how the Royals will manage their young pitchers’ workloads this year after the 60-game season in 2020. The Royals say they aren’t limiting their pitchers just for the sake of limiting them, but they could rely on built-up arms if a start needs to be skipped in the regular season. That’s where someone like Ervin Santana, who signed a Minor League deal after not pitching in 2020, comes in. The Royals will also rely on Keller, Duffy and Minor to go on a regular schedule if others need a longer rest from time to time. The other unknown is where the Royals’ top prospects -- like lefty Daniel Lynch, who is ranked No. 3 in the organization by MLB Pipeline or right-hander Jackson Kowar, who is ranked No. 4 -- will begin the season. Will they have impressive enough springs to land a spot on the Opening Day roster? Or does it make more sense to ease them into the Minor League season and have them make their debuts later in 2021? The innings management -- and spring performances -- will be a key part of making those decisions for Royals leadership.
-- Anne Rogers
The Tigers’ future hinges on highly-touted starting pitching prospects Casey Mize (ranked No. 2), Tarik Skubal (No. 5) and Matt Manning (No. 3). The team’s current rotation, however, has a more veteran presence. Matthew Boyd went back to Driveline Baseball this offseason to tweak pitches in an effort to rebound from an AL-high seven losses and a 6.71 ERA. Spencer Turnbull is blossoming into a frontline starter after posting a 3.49 FIP in 2020. José Ureña and Julio Teheran, former Opening Day starters in Miami and Atlanta, respectively, signed low-risk contracts looking for career turnarounds. All could be part of what is expected to eventually become a six-man rotation.
Though Mize and Skubal made their Major League debuts last summer and spent the stretch run in the rotation, they’re nowhere near locks to open the season in Detroit. Both are competing for roles, and both will have their innings handled carefully in an attempt to manage injury risk. Manning should make his MLB debut this season, but when he'll do so depends on Detroit’s need as much as Manning’s performance. Michael Fulmer should have a rotation spot for his second season back from Tommy John surgery, but the former AL Rookie of the Year Award winner isn’t assured one coming off a struggling 2020 campaign. Then there’s Daniel Norris, who enters a contract year vying for one more chance as a starter after a very good season in relief last year.
-- Jason Beck
Everything, really. Barring injury, the Twins' top five appears set heading into the regular season behind reigning AL Cy Young Award runner-up Kenta Maeda, two-time Opening Day starter José Berríos, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker. That's about as solid of a top three as the Twins could have hoped for, while Happ finally joined camp on Tuesday after a delayed start due to a positive COVID-19 test upon intake to Spring Training. Shoemaker has strong upside if he can finally maintain his health, which hasn't been easy considering he's made only 18 starts over the past three seasons. Randy Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe all return as depth options with MLB experience.
As always, health is the great unknown. Shoemaker's injury history is well-documented, though he and the Twins are hopeful that what he describes as "freak injuries" -- a torn ACL, a nerve issue in his forearm and a fractured skull among them -- are behind him. Happ has been durable throughout his career, but he'll be 38 on Opening Day, coming off a (slightly) abbreviated spring ramp-up. Depth counts in a 162-game season, and among that group, both Smeltzer and Thorpe are coming off challenging 2020 seasons, while Dobnak's strong campaign tailed off dramatically at the end of the regular season. If top pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran don't show too much rust from losing a season of development, it could go a long way in shoring up the club's starting depth.
-- Do-Hyoung Park
Lucas Giolito will make his second straight Opening Day start, and he gradually has ascended to becoming one of the top starters in the AL. The White Sox also have a "Big 3" at the top of their rotation in terms of veteran presences, which they did not have last season and should stack up against any other top three starters in the division. Dallas Keuchel returns for his second season with the White Sox after posting a 1.99 ERA over 11 starts and 63 1/3 innings in 2020, while Lance Lynn joins the group via an offseason trade that sent Dane Dunning to the Rangers.
According to catcher Yasmani Grandal, Dylan Cease has the raw stuff to become an AL Cy Young Award winner. Cease worked diligently with new pitching coach Ethan Katz during the offseason, employing a core velocity belt used by Giolito to help stabilize his lower half. The hope is those mechanics adjustments will make a difference. The fifth-starter spot should belong to Carlos Rodón at the start of the season, but Reynaldo López also has a chance. Keep an eye on Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet, two extremely talented young hurlers who will be future starters. They will open ’21 out of the bullpen in an attempt to help manage their innings. They both could and should get chances to start, even as openers.
-- Scott Merkin