For the first time in years, the American League Central looks like a potential three-team race heading into 2020. While the Twins look like a team firmly in the window of contention as they try to defend their division title, the Indians are trying to keep their window cracked open, while the White Sox are vying to open theirs sooner than expected.
All three have a case to contend, but all three have holes to fill in order to get there. The Royals and Tigers have clear needs, too, as they try to retool and fill spots until their farm system produces in-house help. Here’s a look at each team’s greatest need heading into next week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego:
Indians: Second or third baseman
The Indians did not exercise second baseman Jason Kipnis' option for the 2020 season, so they need to find a replacement. José Ramírez is a top candidate to make the move across the diamond, but if he leaves third, they need to explore other options to take over the hot corner. Free agency or a trade seems most likely to fill this need.
However, the team has gotten a glimpse of Yu Chang, who could fill either role if necessary, and the Indians have not been shy in expressing how impressed they’ve been with utility man Mike Freeman. Eventually, Nolan Jones, the club’s top prospect per MLB Pipeline, could take over the everyday third-base job.
Royals: Relief pitching
The Royals need to bolster their bullpen, which was the second worst (5.07 ERA) in the AL in 2019. The back end of the bullpen is its strength with closer Ian Kennedy (30 saves) and setup men Scott Barlow and Tim Hill. But the Royals desperately need more bullpen depth and talent to bridge games to that back end.
The Royals have a new owner in John Sherman, and there is no indication yet how much he will spend in this continued rebuilding process, so look for general manager Dayton Moore to search for bargains in free agency like he did last season, when he found Jake Diekman and Homer Bailey.
No need to be specific here. The Tigers had little production at so many spots, which is how they ended up as the Majors’ lowest-scoring team by a 33-run margin. In a sense, that’s good, because it allows general manager Al Avila to cast a wide net in his search for run production on a budget.
The most logical fit is at first base and designated hitter, one of which will be open with Miguel Cabrera at the other spot on a given day. But Detroit could also use a boost in the outfield corners, where Nicholas Castellanos’ trade left a void that has yet to be filled, and middle infield, where neither Jordy Mercer nor Josh Harrison provided enough offense this past season. Don’t be surprised if Avila waits out the market to see which free agents are still available as Spring Training nears, a different tactic from Detroit’s quick approach last offseason.
Twins: Starting pitching
The primary gauge of the Twins' success this offseason will be how effectively they reload their starting rotation via the free-agent and trade markets. Jake Odorizzi accepted a qualifying offer to return to the Twins on a one-year, $17.8 million deal for 2020, but the losses of Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda and Martín Pérez to free agency necessitate the addition of at least one and preferably two starters to complement Odorizzi and José Berríos. Recall that the Twins' proven starting depth was so thin in 2019 that they needed to start rookie Randy Dobnak at Yankee Stadium during the American League Division Series -- in the 10th appearance of his Major League career.
With most of the team still on the young, controllable side, the Twins have payroll flexibility to make an impact addition on the free-agent market, while they also have prospect depth in their Minor League organization to pursue a trade if necessary. MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal wrote Tuesday morning for The Athletic that the Twins are still among the teams in pursuit of Zack Wheeler for a deal that is expected to span five years. Even if the Twins hesitate to meet the extravagant price tags for Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, the time is now to add important upside and depth to the starting rotation.
White Sox: Starting pitching
The White Sox are in need of upgrades in right field and designated hitter, although they may fill designated hitter from within with Zack Collins, James McCann, Yasmani Grandal and Jose Abreu rotating at the spot. But starting pitching is their most important target.
They have three starters basically set in Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Reynaldo López, and they also have Michael Kopech returning following recovery from Tommy John surgery in September 2018, but the White Sox will be cautious with his return and his innings total. A team interested in contending in ’20 needs a veteran to put near the top of this young group, which explains its interest in Wheeler and others. They need to add two starters and at least one more arm to the bullpen.